I’ve been thinking about epistolary novels (here and here) — why they are so popular in the 18C and how they work, their narrative possibilities. I came across a passage recently in Patricia Meyer Spacks’s book Privacy on Elizabeth Bennet from Austen’s Pride and Prejudice that made me think about it further. She talks about the central plot point where Elizabeth is reading the letter from Darcy explaining his feelings for her.
What’s great about what Austen does here is that she incorporates the epistolary novel into her own work, so that her novel sort of encompasses it and surpasses it. Most of the novel isn’t in the form of letters at all, but at its center Darcy’s letter turns the course of events around completely. This way, Austen can say something about the value of letters while doing her own new thing with the third person narrator and free indirect discourse. This seems so typical of Austen: to take the materials she sees around her, in this case, the epistolary novels of Richardson and Burney and many others, and shape them into brilliant new forms.
It’s a letter that makes Elizabeth realize and recognize her true feelings for Darcy — it’s the letter that seduces her, in a way. And it allows her to “read” Darcy in a way she couldn’t before. With a letter, Darcy can take the time to compose exactly what he wants to say, and Elizabeth can take the time to read it as thoroughly as she wants to. And she has distance from Darcy himself in which to absorb what he’s telling her and to think about it and analyze her response.
And Elizabeth’s reading of the letter is analogous to what readers of the novel do. Here is what Spacks says:
Elizabeth has much at stake in interpreting Darcy’s letter, more by far than anyone coming to terms with a work of fiction. Yet she stands as a model for novel readers. She tells us of the urgency of “private” reading, and of its dangers … Elizabeth’s total immersion in the text and its problems, her effort both to use feeling and to prevent it from overpowering thought, her capacity for imaginative participation and imaginative expansion (she entertains herself by fancying — prophetically — how Lady Catherine might respond to the news of her marriage to Darcy) — the way Elizabeth reads the crucial letter exemplifies the best possibility for interpretation.
So Elizabeth becomes a model for careful, imaginative, sympathetic reading. And she reads not only Darcy’s letter, but other people as well, or, rather, she learns how to read other people, because the whole plot hinges on her initial misreading of Darcy, and his misreading of her. As Elizabeth goes through the novel learning lessons in interpretation, so does the reader — we, on a first reading at least, might get things wrong, might form the wrong impression of the characters and have to revise them. The novel is teaching readers to be careful as they form opinions, and that they should be willing to revise their interpretations.
By writing a novel in the third person, Austen can portray the act of reading itself in a way she couldn’t in an epistolary novel. She can draw on the formal innovations of earlier novelists by including letters in her work, but she can also describe Elizabeth out on a walk in the park reading her letter, so that readers can observe her as she reads and, with a narrator who enters the characters’ minds, get a glimpse of her thoughts. Elizabeth reads the letter twice, changing her interpretation of it the second time around; readers get the pleasure of following the twists and turns of her mind as she makes sense of a text, sorting out the false first impressions and the true insights. In this way, Austen can emphasize the act of reading and its importance more than an epistolary novel could.