There is one thing I love about Jane Austen most and that is her sense of humor. It is more astute and refined in her novels, but in her letters to Cassandra and her juvenilia it isn’t as subdued. Austen had some very strong opinions and observations about the world and the people around her. In her early works, Jane has a hilarious take on the novel form and the way women especially are portrayed in novels. The novel was in its infancy when Jane Austen was reading them and dabbling with her own writing.Most novels Jane read were in epistolary form, so in her earliest writings there is a certain amount of letters between the characters.
I think the epistolary form is a challenging form. Today with our emails, text messages, Snapchats, Facetime, Skype, and instant messenger it is difficult to imagine why epistolary form is challenging. We are fortunate enough to not have talk to the person in the next room without having to walk all ten steps or yell at the top of our lungs. Letters are a different matter. They had to be written out by hand with pens you had to constantly refill with ink. I can hardly imagine how long and frustrating writing would’ve been back then. I am also left-handed so I probably would have had to constantly wait for the ink to dry word-by-word so I wouldn’t smear my words into one another and waste both ink and paper (which were expensive).
I am glad that for the most part Jane decided to only use the epistolary form in only small sections of her novels, mostly when the characters are at a distance from one another. The first problem with the form is that the characters must all be at some distance from one another in order to write letters to each other. It is absolutely ridiculous if the two characters are in close proximity to each other for them to be writing letters to each other (equally is ridiculous as people texting each other from across a room). It would be seen as a complete waste of paper and time. The problem of time is illustrated in a novel like Richardson’s Pamela. It is hard to imagine that any of the action of the novel actually took place unless she was writing the letters while the action of the story is taking place. Thinking of it this way, it makes the novel more interesting, because you imagine Pamela dictating events while they happen. Otherwise, it seems impossible that the poor women ever slept and wasn’t completely destitute due to her exuberant, emphatic, and drawn-out letters.
For this blog I am focusing on three of Austen’s earlier works: Three Sisters: A Novel and “Love and Freindship” [sic].
Three Sisters was particularly interesting and curious. It isn’t long enough to be a novel or even a novella, but she’s young and I give her credit for making the attempt. The story is about three sisters, like the title suggests. Mary, Georgiana, and Sophy Stanhope are not sisters like Jane and Cassandra. Mary has been asked by a man of decent fortune and an unfortunate personality to be his wife. He also advised Mary’s mother that if Mary were to turn him down that he’d ask her sisters. Being the eldest, she is mortified that if she doesn’t take Mr. Watts’ hand in marriage, that one of her younger sisters would be married before her. If you remember from Pride and Prejudice that this isn’t always a favorable thing, especially for older sisters.
Here is an excerpt from the sister Georgiana Stanhope. I am under the assumption that Georgiana is the youngest of the three sisters. In the passage it establishes that Georgiana is intelligent and cunning:
Our neighbor Mr Watts has made proposals to Mary: Proposals which she knew not how to receive, for tho’ she has a particular Dislike to him (in which she is not singular) yet she would willingly marry him sooner than risk his offering to Sophy or me which in case of a refusal from herself, he told her he should do, for you must know the poor Girl considers our marrying before her as one of the greatest misfortunes that can possibly befall her, & to prevent it would willingly ensure herself everlasting Misery by a Marriage with Mr Watts (62)
Georgiana, with Sophy’s help, concocts a plan to make sure that her sister Mary accepts Mr. Watts’ hand in marriage so the other two sisters don’t have the misfortune of having to accept a man who Georgiana describes:
“I never would marry Mr Watts were Beggary the only alternative. So deficient in ever respect! Hideous in his person and without on good Quality to make amends for it. His fortune to be sure is good. Yet not so very large! Three thousand a year? It is but six times as much as my Mother’s income. It will not tempt me (62).”
Austen is breaking away from the epistolary form, but using it at the same time. Some of the letters are entirely composed of dialogue. It would be sufficient if the letters all passed between Mary Stanhope and her friend Fanny. It seems the Miss Georgiana Stanhope takes on more of the narrative voice present in Austen’s work.
Austen is doing something of significance in these letters. Mary’s letters are a recap of events or entirely composed of dialogue. Alternatively, Georgiana’s letters are a mix of dialogue, commentary, and her own cunning plans to make sure Sophy and herself are not stuck with the terrible Mr. Watts. Mary’s letter introducing the situation with Mr. Watts sets up the story, but it is Georgiana’s letters that establish the plot and lead to the climax and the denouement. By manipulating the style of the letters and establishing the voices for the sisters she establishes the complexity or lack thereof in the sisters’ characters. Mary is silly and has very few thoughts of her own, which is why she just summarizes events and recites dialogue in her letters. Sophy isn’t one of the authors of the letters and as Georgiana describes her: “Sophy did not like the idea of telling a lie& deceiving her Sister; she prevented the first & saved half her conscience by equivocation.” This establishes that Sophy is a quiet type of girl, who is neither silly nor is she as intelligent as her other sisters.
“Love and Freindship” [sic] is a different type of story. It is still in epistolary form containing fifteen letters. Isabel is begging her friend Laura, now fifty-five, to recite the “regular detail of the Misfortunes and Adventures of your Life.” Thirteen letters contain the narrative of Laura’s misfortunes, which include: fainting spells, fits of madness, widowhood, robbery, betrayal, and resignation. Austen’s gift for satire is evident in this story.
My Father started- “What noise is that,” (said he.) “It sounds like a loud rapping at the door” – (replied my Mother). “it does indeed.” (cried I.) “I am of your opinion; (said my Father) it certainly does appear to proceed from some uncommon thinking it must be somebody who knocks of admittance.”
“That is another point” (replied he;) “We must not pretend to determine on what motive the person may knock – tho’ that someone does rap at the door, I am partly convinced.”
Here, a 2(n)d tremendous rap interrupted my Father in his speech, and somewhat alarmed my Mother and me…
A third more violent Rap than ever again assaulted our ears. “I am certain there is somebody knocking at the Door.” (said my mother). “I think there must,” (replied my Father) “I fancy the servants are returned;” (said I) “I think I hear Mary going to the Door.” “I am glad of it” (cried my father) “for I long to know who it is.”
I am sorry if the humor of this scene is lost on you, but you have three people making a fuss over three knocks on the door. If they do have servants, like the passage suggests, it isn’t proper that they answer the door themselves. However, the language Austen employs here present impending violence and the fact that Laura and her family are completely ridiculous. Austen is obviously making a parody of the stories of her time. The moral of this story is delivered by Laura’s friend Sophia:
My beloved Laura” (said she to me a few Hours before she died) “take warning from my unhappy End and avoid the imprudent conduct which had occasioned it… Beware of fainting-fits… Though at the time they may be refreshing and agreable [sic] yet beleive me they will in the end, if too often repeated and at improper seasons, prove destructive to your Constitution… My fate will teach you this… I die a Martyr to my greif for the loss of Augustus… One fatal swoon has cost me my Life… Beware of swoons Dear Laura… A frenzy fit is not one quarter so pernicious; it is an exercise to the Body and if not too violent, is I dare say conducive to Health in its consequence – Run mad as often as you chuse; but do not faint -” (93)
In her letters, Jane observes and comments on how ridiculous people within her social circles can be, but in her writing she highlights those aspects of character within the people she knows and of the characters she reads. She would have been reading these stories to her family or they would’ve preformed by her family. Jane’s dialogue style in Three Sisters: A Novel” is easier on the eyes and brain, compared to the dialogue style employed in “Love and Freindship”, but it shows that Jane is playing with form, style, narrative, and dialogue to create a new and more modern style which we see in her novels.