Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

Letters and Their Role in Revealing Class and Personal Identity in Pride and Prejudice

Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

Letters and Their Role in Revealing Class and Personal Identity in Pride and Prejudice

Article excerpt

The true art of letter writing is not simply a communicative technique. It is also a complex experience of feeling and insights, through which individual perception and human relationships are defined. (167)

Lloyd W. Brown Bits of Ivory: Narrative Techniques in Jane Austen's Fiction

IN 1741 SAMUEL RICHARDSON, the author of Pamela and Clarissa, published a letter-writing manual entitled Familiar Letters on Important Occasions. In his Preface, he expresses his hope that the letters "will answer several good ends, as they may not only direct the forms requisite to be observed on the most important occasions; but, what is more to the purpose, by the rules and instructions contained in them, contribute to mend the heart, and improve the understanding' (xxvii, Richardson's emphasis). To achieve his purpose of mending the heart and improving the understanding, Richardson distinguishes his 173 letters by such titles as "General Rules for agreeable Conversation in a young Man. From a Father to a Son"; and "To a Country Correspondent, modestly requesting a Balance of Accounts between them." A string of letters has the following titles: "A modest Lover, desiring an Aunt's Favour to her Niece"; followed by "The Aunt's Answer, supposing the Gentleman deserves Encouragement"; and then "The Answer, supposing the Gentleman is not approved." These titles started me thinking about possible titles for the letters in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. Mr. Collins's first letter to Mr. Bennet could be titled "How to be pompous and condescending to your estranged relatives, even as you seek reconciliation." Lydia's letters to Kitty, when Lydia is with the regiment in Brighton, could be entitled, "Younger sister to older one, detailing exploits with soldiers, with directions for secrecy." And finally, Darcy's letter to Elizabeth could be titled "Spurned Lover to a young woman, explaining that he is indeed a gentleman."

While Pride and Prejudice is not an epistolary novel, Austen includes many letters in this work, illustrating the influence of the epistolary tradition of the eighteenth century. Austen originally wrote Sense and Sensibility in the epistolary genre, so she was well aware of the effects of using letters in fiction. The letters in Pride and Prejudice provide the characters with multiple voices; readers see and hear the actions and the dialogue via the filter of the narrator while the characters' letters provide insights into their thoughts and emotions. In addition to the third person narrator, the readers are privy to the voices of the multiple letter writers, including Mr. Collins, Jane, Lydia, Mr. Gardiner, Mrs. Gardiner, and Mr. Darcy. What Austen does with letters anticipates the theory of Mikhail Bakhtin, the Russian literary critic who wrote over a hundred years after the publication of Pride and Prejudice. In "Discourse in the Novel," Bakhtin explores the idea of novels containing multiple voices to illustrate techniques authors use in creating a style for their fiction; letters add to the rich variety of voices in a novel, reflecting different elements of society, and which can be understood by members of that society (261-63). Through the multiple voices presented by the letters in Pride and Prejudice, the characters infer elements of the letter-writer's identity and mark class distinctions; in some cases, the recipient of a letter learns, upon reflection, something about him or herself. For this paper, I would like to focus on the revelation of class and individual identity through letters in conjunction with the social constructions of letter writing etiquette.

Letter-writing guides proliferated in the eighteenth century driven by increases in the number of epistolary novels and collections of letters published, advancements in education, and improvements in the postal service; the latter two trends continued in the nineteenth century. While Austen makes no mention of letter-writing manuals in Pride and Prejudice, mainly because the guides were intended for students and lower class audiences, the narrator and the characters frequently remark on the style and tone of letters in addition to their contents, indicating their awareness of letter-writing etiquette. …

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