Alison Searle reflects on letter writing for the summer issue of Meanjin.
According to one influential genealogy of the novel as an art form, it began with letters: epistolary novels that preceded the development of third-person narration so characteristic of the genre in Europe in the nineteenth century. Jane Austen lived on the cusp of this transition and her own writing was instrumental in helping to develop, defend and exemplify the versatility of the novel as an art form. One of her earliest writings, Love and Freindship [sic], consisted of a series of letters between Laura and Marianne that satirically undercut many of the conventions of romantic fiction.
However, it would be an error to view the move from epistolary novel to third-person narration in terms of an evolutionary trajectory – either generic, cultural or artistic – as the letter remains central to the aesthetic, emotional and ethical structure of one of Austen’s greatest novels, Pride and Prejudice. Though not strictly speaking a love letter, the epistle that Mr Darcy gives to Elizabeth Bennett the morning after she rejected his marriage proposal demands her attention: ‘your feelings, I know, will bestow it unwillingly, but I demand it of your justice’. This letter, ‘an envelope containing two sheets of letter paper, written quite through, in a very close hand—The envelope itself was likewise full’, first excites a ‘contrariety of emotion’ in Elizabeth, before triggering shame, depression, and gradually removing ‘all her former prejudices’. Though Darcy acknowleges later ‘it was written in a dreadful bitterness of spirit’, Elizabeth responds: ‘The letter, perhaps, begins in bitterness, but it did not end so. The adieu is charity itself’. Having achieved its ‘necessary’ work, it can be burnt.
Alison Searle is an ARC DECRA postdoctoral fellow at the University of Sydney. Her monograph entitled The Eyes of Your Heart: Literary and Theological Trajectories of Imagining Biblically was published in 2008. She is preparing an edition of James Shirley’s play, The Sisters (1642), for Oxford University Press. She is also general editor (with Johanna Harris) of a complete edition of Richard Baxter’s correspondence (contracted with OUP). Her second book is provisionally entitled Religious Dissent, Performance and the Republic of Letters in Early Modern Britain.