The Power of a Well-Written Letter

I know I promised to write about my experiences at the JASNA AGM in Minneapolis, and I will! But it the meantime, here’s my most recent post at Austen Authors, reproduced here in its entirety:


“Let us never underestimate the power of a well-written letter.”

Okay, so this line isn’t strictly a Jane Austen quote… but it certainly could have been. She must have subscribed to this policy (as I do) because she often allowed her characters to explain themselves and express their innermost feelings in letter form. Case in point: the 8-pager Mr. Darcy wrote to Elizabeth after his failed proposal in the middle of Pride and Prejudice:

darcy-hands-elizabeth-the-letterBe not alarmed, Madam, on receiving this letter, by the apprehension of its containing any repetition of those sentiments, or renewal of those offers, which were last night so disgusting to you. I write without any intention of paining you, or humbling myself, by dwelling on wishes, which, for the happiness of both cannot be too soon forgotten… You must pardon the freedom with which I demand your attention; your feelings, I know, will bestow it unwillingly, but I demand it of your justice…

The letter, over which Elizabeth obsessed for days, represented the turning point in their relationship. Elizabeth’s eyes were opened and she began to see Darcy and his behavior in a new light because of it. And Austen included several other letters in the novel – at least three from Mr. Collins, Lydia’s note about her elopement, and the one to Elizabeth from Mrs. Gardiner (excerpted below) immediately spring to mind.

Will you be very angry with me, my dear Lizzy, if I take this opportunity of saying how much I like him. His behaviour to us has, in every respect, been as pleasing as when we were in Derbyshire… He wants nothing but a little more liveliness, and that, if he marry prudently, his wife may teach him. I thought him very sly; he hardly ever mentioned your name. But slyness seems the fashion. Pray forgive me, if I have been very presuming, or at least do not punish me so far as to exclude me from P. I shall never be quite happy till I have been all round the park. A low phaeton with a nice little pair of ponies would be the very thing…

Perhaps the inclusion of so many letters in Austen’s books is a holdover from the epistle prose that had been popular before the advent of the true novel. In one of her lesser-known works, Lady Susan, Austen used this format herself, telling the story entirely through letters exchanged by a handful of interrelated people. And did you know that the earliest drafts of Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility were also written in this style?

The line at the top of the page is actually taken from the movie The Jane Austen Book Club and is said in reference to arguably the most compelling letter composed by one of her characters: the culminating note left by Captain Wentworth for Anne Elliot near the end of Persuasion. Although they had fallen in love when they first met, Anne had been forcefully “persuaded” by her family to reject the captain’s proposal. Now, years later, they have a second chance. The letter seals the deal:

Captain Wentworth…You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope. Tell me not that I am too late, that such precious feelings are gone for ever. I offer myself to you again with a heart even more your own than when you almost broke it eight years and a half ago. Dare not say that man forgets sooner than woman, that his love has an earlier death. I have loved none but you. Unjust I may have been; weak and resentful I have been, but never inconstant…

Did I hear a collective sigh, ladies? Was there ever a more poignant plea for the ultimate consummation of long-thwarted love? I think not. (I’m excited that I get to use a variation of this letter in the novel I’m currently working on: The Persuasion of Miss Jane Austen. It’s a Persuasion tie-in, starring Jane Austen herself!)

Letter writing is a lost art, I’m afraid. But people used to take a lot of care and pride in it. Jane Austen certainly did so in her personal correspondence, making sure that what she wrote entertained as well as informed the recipient. For instance, she once wrote an entire letter backwards (every word spelled back to front, instead of front to back), just to amuse her niece Cassy. Cassandra Austen ultimately destroyed a large portion of Jane’s letters. But many were preserved and give us more insight to her movements, her thoughts, and her sharp wit. Be sure to read them if you haven’t already.

In person and in real time, I rarely think of just the right retort or response to someone. But in a letter, I can take as much time as I need to be sure I say exactly what I want, exactly the way I want to say it – a big advantage over a phone call, casual email, or instant message! I especially enjoyed writing the many letters in my novels, trying to make each one a little work of art, as Jane Austen did. I made sure to allow Mr. Darcy plenty of time likewise, so that he could carefully compose the following letter to Lady Catherine in The Darcys of Pemberley (as it says in the last chapter of Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth at length persuaded him to seek a reconciliation):

Darcys-of-Pemberley_KINDLEAllow me to offer my congratulations on the engagement of your daughter Anne… Much as you are looking forward to this addition to your family circle, Mrs. Darcy and I find that we are expecting an addition to ours by a different means. This blessing causes me to reflect on the importance of maintaining (and restoring when necessary) peace and unity within my extended family. I regret the disagreement that has broken that bond in our case.

Although I will make no apologies for a marriage in which I have been supremely happy, I am sorry that the accomplishment of it occasioned you pain. My hope is that the success of the match now made for your daughter will produce a degree of felicity eclipsing any pleasure lost by a disappointed former plan.

Though I am amenable to conciliation, what passed between us – especially uncharitable words spoken and written against my wife – cannot be easily forgotten. However, if after the passage of time you have experienced an alteration in your position to the extent that you now find yourself able to make some reparation, I am willing to hear whatever you have to say on the subject. The matter is entirely in your own hands, Madam…

What do you think? Will this letter budge the old buzzard? As Darcy asks Elizabeth, is it too harsh or too yielding? Has your own life been significantly impacted by some special piece of correspondence you have either sent or received?

About Shannon Winslow

author of historical fiction in the tradition of Jane Austen
This entry was posted in Austen Authors, Jane Austen, Jane Austen Quotes, my books, Shannon Winslow, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The Power of a Well-Written Letter

  1. Pingback: Who Knew Henry Tilney Was Such a Passionate Guy? | Shannon Winslow's "Jane Austen Says…"

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