The epistolary novel was once a prevalent literacy technique, particularly in the 18th century, but is now neglected by most authors. It is a novel in which the plot is identified, furthered and resolved entirely by means of letters sent between characters. Epistolary novels transpired at a time when the popularity of literacy was mounting. They satisfied the reader’s requirement for stories that represented mundane incidents and provided ethical guidance in a rapidly shifting society. Jane Austen’s ‘Pride and Prejudice’ is an adaptation of the epistolary novel, and frequently uses letters sent between characters to identify, further and resolve the plot. A great advantage of this epistolary style of writing is that it presents an intimate scrutiny of a character’s thoughts without the intervention of authorial comments and direction. Thus the reader is able to form his/her own opinion of characters and events.
Not only does the use of letters offer a diverse structure for a novel (as oppose to dialogue or direct narrative) but it is also a practical means of furthering the plot, allowing the reader to make connections between characters and events:
‘Through letters, whatever of good or bad was to be told would be communicated’.
Letters provide the drama of anticipation as they are always followed by action, and thus frequently form narrative crisis points or indicate a new direction in the plot of a novel. Elizabeth is informed of Lydia’s elopement with Whickam by a letter from her sister, Jane. This bad news acts as a turning point in the story, linking Darcy more intimately to the Bennets’ affairs and moving the story from London back to Longbourn, which offers diversity in the plot and helps to maintain the reader’s interest.
In Jane Austen’s day the chief method of correspondence between people was through letters. A person was distinguished by their ability to write letters appropriately and by the promptness of their reply. Mr Darcy writes well because he is of high breeding – while he writes to his niece Miss Bingley makes:
‘perpetual commendations … either on his hand-writing, or on the evenness of his lines, or on the length of his letter’.
Mr Bennet on the other hand, who is anti-social and impolite, is:
‘on all common occasions, a most negligent and dilatory correspondent’.
Through his poor correspondence Mr Bennet betrays his lower class.
In ‘Pride and Prejudice’ there are two independent audiences to the letters – the reader and the characters of the novel. Therefore the letters must be written to cater for both – they must plainly inform both parties of endeavours and be characteristic of their fictional author. Thus another purpose of letters in ‘Pride and Prejudice’ is the revelation of the disposition of certain characters, which is done directly through the topic and content of their letters, and the manner in which they are written. Mr Collins’ first letter to the Bennets perfectly conveys the man’s pompous nature. He arrogantly uses the image of an ‘offered olive branch’ to describe his proposal of friendship to the Bennet’s, automatically assuming that his friendship is something that the Bennet’s will prize.
There is much that can be determined from the analysis of a character’s letters. To begin with I will look at Jane’s letters. Early in the novel she writes to Elizabeth, informing her that she is unwell from travelling in the rain, and that subsequently she had to stay at Netherfield overnight. This letter reveals the close relationship that is shared between the two sisters – that Jane should have sent the letter to Elizabeth rather than her mother or father. Jane later writes to Elizabeth telling her about her stay in London with the Gardiners.
Jane Austen successfully condenses the visit into a few concise letters (as oppose to a lengthy account) providing the reader with an intelligible picture of events, and ensuring that the main thrust of the novel is focused on the relationship that is developing between Elizabeth and Darcy. Jane’s letters from London are very emblematic of her benevolent, naï¿½ve character. She explains that although she wrote to Miss Bingley telling her of her arrival in London, she has neither seen nor heard from her ‘friend’.
However she assumes that her letter has been lost, never considering that Miss Bingley’s absence is due to her discourteous disposition. Obviously Miss Bingley feels that Jane’s lower social status makes her an inadequate companion, showing the importance of social class in Jane Austen’s world. This is the reason that the Bingley sisters are keen to remove Mr Bingley from Netherfield, fearing that he will fall in love with and marry someone of lower class, therefore tainting his well-respected name. Elizabeth and Darcy face a similar predicament because Elizabeth has a much lower social class. Miss Bingley’s open criticism of Elizabeth in front of Darcy obviously stems from her confidence that no relationship could be forged between the pair due to Darcy’s significantly higher status:
‘her face is too thin; her complexion has no brilliancy; and her features are not at all handsome’.
This also shows the importance of immaterial things such as physical beauty in society in Jane Austen’s time. Miss Bingley assumes that her and Darcy’s similar social status is common ground from which they can build a relationship. Lady Catherine de Bourgh displays a similar snobbish attitude when she hears of Elizabeth’s supposed engagement to her nephew:
‘the shades of Pemberly will be thus polluted’.
Jane’s later letters to Elizabeth inform both Elizabeth and the reader of Lydia’s elopement with Mr Wickham – Lydia leaves impetuously, without informing her family, presumably to be married to Wickham. In Jane Austen’s time the elopement of a young lady was cause for immense shame to the whole family, as is later indicated by Mr Collins in his letter:
‘the death of your daughter would have been a blessing in comparison of this’.
Therefore not only does Jane’s letter reveal the plot, it also gives the reader an insight into the selfish and thoughtless nature of Lydia. Elizabeth believes that such shame brought to her family’s name will simply emphasize their poor breeding and repel Darcy, particularly since he dislikes Wickham so greatly. The regret that Elizabeth feels when she fears that Darcy will think poorly of her leads her to realize that she loves him. Hence Jane’s letters also act as a pivotal point in the plot.
Another important character in ‘Pride and Prejudice’ is Mr Collins, who is closely linked to the Bennets throughout the story. All of his letters successfully convey his pompous, self-righteous temperament. Mr Collins’ first letter to Mr Bennet serves two purposes – firstly it introduces Mr Collins and thus, secondly, it anticipates the part that he is to play in the plot. It also subtly introduces the idea of entailment into Pride and Prejudice. It is immediately apparent that Mr Collins does not believe in marrying for love. He assumes that one of the Bennet sisters will be glad to wed him because, as a member of the church, he can offer financial and social stability. At that time, this is in fact all that most women would hope to achieve through marriage – few were lucky enough to marry for love. Thus Mrs Bennet’s distress at hearing of Elizabeth’s refusal of his marriage can be accounted for:
‘she is a very headstrong foolish girl, and does not know her own interest’.
Mr Collins is furtive in his style of writing because, although he does not directly say it, he indicates that his marriage to one of the sisters will ensure that the Longbourn estate stays in the Bennet family after Mr Bennet’s death:
‘the circumstance of my being next in the entail of Longbourn estate will be kindly overlooked on your side’.
He is evidently aware of his advantageous position regarding the entailment of Longbourn estate.
Mr Collins writes rather dramatically and it could be said that some of the language he uses is somewhat inappropriate for a letter to family. In my opinion Mr Collin’s attempts to use vocabulary that he deems sophisticated and imposing in order to impress upon people his supposed higher social class. He uses condescending phrases such as ‘not lead you to reject the offered olive branch’ and ‘I flatter myself that my present overtures of good-will are highly commendable’. In my opinion by using such vocabulary Mr Collins in fact stresses his lower class compared to the likes of Darcy, instead achieving a conceited, dislikeable manner.
From the pretentious style of his letter one can form an opinion of Mr Collins even before he is introduced properly to the plot. One of Mr Collins’ earlier snobbish mistakes in his letter is to rudely refer to the Bennet’s as people ‘with whom it had always pleased [his father] to be at variance’. He then proceeds to refer continually to Lady Catherine de Bourgh, whose association he clearly sees as a means of boosting his own status – he is a social climber. He says that he has been ‘so fortunate as to be distinguished by the patronage’ of Lady Catherine, and then proceeds to tactlessly mention his position as a clergyman, which he considers to be highly respectful.
Mr Collins’ second letter is intended to console Mr Bennet on the ‘loss’ of his daughter. This letter is particularly obstinate, perhaps due to Elizabeth Bennet’s rejection of his marriage proposal. In the first sentence he rudely says that he felt obliged to write to Mr Bennet due to ‘[Mr Collins’] situation in life’. He then goes on the accuse Mr and Mrs Bennet of wrongly indulging Lydia, although he consoles that she must have a naturally flawed nature to do something so terrible. This is not the forgiving, compassionate attitude that a member of clergy should have. Next we learn that Mr Collins has related this private family affair to Lady Catherine, who agrees (presumably after discussing the matter) with Mr Collins’ conclusion that Lydia’s actions will bring shame to the rest of the family. He seems blind to the incivility of Lady Catherine who brusquely asks:
‘[who] will connect themselves with such a family’?
Mr Collins himself ought to be offended by this statement since he is a member of the Bennet family. However he seems to overlook this, as he is so in awe of Lady Catherine. Later, in his third letter, Mr Collins warns Elizabeth not to agree to Darcy’s marriage proposal immediately (which he says she ‘will be inclined to take immediate advantage of’ as he assumes that Elizabeth will be desperate to obtain Mr Darcy’s wealth to benefit her less wealthy family) because Lady Catherine is unhappy about it. Mr Collins writes that Lady Catherine considers the match ‘disgraceful’, although he does not seem to think this rude of her. He is clearly so impressed by the high social status of Lady Catherine that he chooses to ignore her insolence – either this or he deems it acceptable for someone of her status. In all Mr Collins’ letters are a perfect example of his arrogance, pride and prejudice.
Perhaps the most prominent letter in ‘Pride and Prejudice’ is Darcy’s letter to Elizabeth. This letter serves many purposes, conveying Darcy’s well-bred character, furthering the plot and allowing for close examination of his thoughts and feelings at the time. It also acts as a pivotal point in the story as it causes Elizabeth’s feelings towards Darcy to change. Uncharacteristic of Darcy’s excellent letter-writing skills, this letter is not particularly concise or precise. Instead it is more abrupt and disjointed, indicating that Darcy is stung by Elizabeth’s rejection of his proposal. Despite this he remains polite, beginning his letter:
‘be not alarmed madam’.
Darcy’s personality is very evident in the letter, not only in its content but also in the methodical way in which he approaches it. He firstly apologises for the necessity of the letter, acknowledging that his somewhat proud character requires it to ‘be written and read’. Darcy also apologises in advance for any hurt inflicted upon her by the letter, showing his concern and love for Elizabeth. He then immediately proceeds to address the two accusations Elizabeth made of him (these are his sole reason for writing the letter). Darcy is unsettled and desperate to justify his actions to Elizabeth, and so he writes rather hurriedly. This is evident in the short sentences that Darcy uses and the many hyphens that he includes in the text, which act as a method of inserting after-thoughts, showing that he is thinking rapidly:
‘ – But there were other causes of repugnance; – causes which…’
Having warranted his removal of Bingley from Netherfield (he saw no reciprocated signs of affection for Bingley from Jane and so wanted to spare his friend the humiliation of rejection) Darcy moves onto the more sensitive topic of the Bennets’ poor connections and the family members themselves. Darcy admits that they were somewhat responsible for his removal of Bingley from Netherfield, claiming that the whole family are in ‘total want of propriety’ (he follows this statement with profuse apology to Elizabeth). This is likely to be painful to Elizabeth as, although she usually acts indifferently when accused of having poor connections, she acknowledges that members of her family (particularly her mother and younger sister Lydia) show a lack of proper breeding:
‘Oh! That my dear mother had more command over herself; she can have no idea of the pain she gives me’
However Elizabeth remains fiercely loyal to her family. Darcy reveals his strong love for Elizabeth here, as he is willing to overlook such ’causes of repugnance’ amongst her family in order to marry Elizabeth, despite the ‘damage’ that this could do to his reputation.
Jane Austen uses Darcy’s letter as a convenient means of elucidating the past relationship between Darcy and Wickham which, aside from proving necessary to the development of the plot, is beneficial to the reader. Darcy relates all of his previous experiences with Wickham, considering it necessary for Elizabeth to know all of the details in order to judge each individual fairly. The fact that Darcy is willing to relate so much of his personal history to Elizabeth to achieve this shows his overwhelming (and flattering) trust in her – he is confident that she will not relate his story to others and thus ruin his reputation. Darcy concludes his letter by telling Elizabeth that his story can by verified by his cousin, Colonel Fitzwilliam, with whom he knows she is on good terms. He writes (jealously):
‘If your abhorrence of me should make my assertions valueless, you cannot be prevented by the same cause from confiding in my cousin’.
Overall, Darcy’s letter reveals an unseen, more vulnerable side to its author. This is in fact more representative of Darcy’s true nature – prejudice and gossip have simply obscured people’s views of him and falsely labelled him ‘above his company, and above being pleased’.
In Elizabeth’s letters to Mrs Gardiner Jane Austen reveals more of the plot, allowing the reader further insight into the story. The letters are also important in that they reveal the close relationship between Elizabeth and her aunt. In my opinion Mrs Gardiner fulfils the role of Elizabeth’s mother that is left absent by the ludicrous Mrs Bennet. In one of her letters, Elizabeth speaks of Mr Wickham’s newfound interest in Miss King as a result of her recently acquired wealth. This gives us an insight into the greedy, insincere disposition of Wickham, and reinforces Elizabeth’s dislike of him.
The Gardiners’ letters play an important role in ‘Pride and Prejudice’ as they often contain invitations for members of the Bennet family to visit London, thus moving the story to new locations and hence advancing the plot and keeping the reader interested. Mrs Gardiner’s letter towards the end of the novel explains the details of Darcy’s presence at Lydia’s marriage, which boosts Elizabeth’s opinion of him. The fact that Mrs Gardiner relates the information to her niece so willingly shows that, despite being sensible and amiable, Mrs Gardiner is also somewhat of a gossip. Mr Darcy exhibits surprise upon learning this, saying:
‘I did not think Mrs Gardiner was so little to be trusted’.
Mr Gardiner’s letters provide information about the elopement of Lydia and Wickham, following the pair on their travels, and thus furthering the plot. His letters are well structured and composed (as oppose to those of his brother-in-law, Mr Bennet) which is a sure sign of his intellect in comparison to the rest of the Bennet family. Elizabeth is blatantly relieved at her aunt and uncles’ higher class. In reference to Darcy’s opinion of them it is written:
‘It was consoling that [Darcy] should know she had some relations for whom there was no need to blush.’
In conclusion, Jane Austen’s ‘Pride and Prejudice’ is an ingenious novel. Austen successfully incorporates an appropriate balance of humour and gravity into the story, whilst estimably tackling the some of the main social issues of her time, such as marriage, money and social status (all of which were frequently influenced by pride and prejudice). In her letters Austen tries to show the reader that what seem to be insignificant ordeals of daily life are in fact the things that mould an individual, and often connote the dissimilarity of pain, grief and comfort that allows a person to view their life with perspective.