I have always thought that the original manuscript of Sense and Sensibility – an epistolary novel called Elinor and Marianne – would be a significant literary “get”. It would have been of particular interest to us in converting the epistolary novella Lady Susan to a narrative novel, Lady Vernon and Her Daughter but beyond that, it would have given readers another view of a transitional work, one that bridged Austen’s juvenilia and her mature work. Did Elinor and Marianne have the same raciness as Lady Susan? Was it as 18th century in its execution? How radically different was it in style, as well as form, from Sense and Sensibility?
In a letter dated January, 1801, many years after Austen wrote Lady Susan, she wrote to her sister, “I have now attained the true art of letter-writing, which we are always told is to express on paper exactly what one would say to the same person by word of mouth.” Letters, in Austen’s opinion, were conversation; like conversation, these letters deliver information, explanations, news. Moreover, the letters in Austen’s novels always bear the distinct conversational style of the writer. Lydia Bennet’s “Let us talk and laugh all the way home…Have you seen any pleasant men? Have you had any flirting?” conveys the same high spirited tone as her written, “You will laugh when you know where I am gone and I cannot help laughing myself.” Lucy Steele’s parting shot in her farewell letter to Edward, “Please to destroy my scrawls, but the ring with my hair you are very welcome to keep”, delivers the same sort of saccharine jab as her remark to Elinor: “Your regard for me, next to Edward’s love, is the greatest comfort I have.” Mary Musgrove whines in her letters – “I am always out of the way when anything desirable is going on” – and she whines in her conversation: “So you and I are to be left to shift by ourselves with this poor sick child – this is always my luck.” And when Mrs. Bennet anxiously anticipates being left a widow, Mr. Bennet’s dry, “Let us flatter ourselves that I may be the survivor”, is not unlike his pithy written advice to Mr. Collins, to “…stand by the nephew [Mr. Darcy]; he has more to give.”
Another conversational quality of the letters in Austen’s novels is that, while personal, they are seldom secretive. Letters are routinely shared: Elizabeth reveals much of Darcy’s letter to Jane; the Westons disclose the contents of Frank Churchill’s letter to Emma; Catherine Morland allows Tilney to read her unhappy letter from James. What is disclosed in the letters inevitably becomes more widely known. There is, in fact, only one letter in Austen’s major novels that conveys secret feelings which the writer would not want shared with the world at large. In Persuasion, Mr. Elliot’s letter to Mr. Smith has been preserved by Smith’s widow. “Give me joy,” writes Elliot, “I have got rid of Sir Walter and Miss [Elizabeth Elliot]…he is worse than last year…I wish I had any name but Elliot, I am sick of it.” Still, it does not vary from his prior conversational style, as we know from Mrs. Smith that “I have often heard him declare that if baronetcies were saleable, anybody should have his for fifty pounds, arms and motto, name and livery included.” Even Mary Crawford, who brazenly imagines the upshot of Tom Bertram’s demise; i.e., that his wealth and consequence could fall into no better hands than that of his younger brother, writes that she would say the same to anyone “..with a fearless face and bold voice.”
Austen’s gift for creating a distinct conversational style, and extending it to a character’s letters is all the more impressive when you view it in contrast to what passes for correspondence today. A typical “how r u 2day” text could come from any number of senders, without distinction, identity, style or, emoticon notwithstanding, personality.