Deborah Yaffe

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Take a letter, Ms. Austen

By Deborah Yaffe, Apr 20 2015 01:00PM

I write letters. Admittedly, I wrote more of them before the advent of email, but I still try to send my oldest friends handwritten birthday cards once a year. I answer photocopied Christmas letters with personalized messages. Over long years of nagging, I drilled into my children the art of the thank-you note.


So I was delighted to stumble across a blog called The Lost Art of Letter Writing – Revived!, whose author, Pam Foster, writes, “I am a letter lover and enjoy all things postal.”


Among Foster’s efforts is the still-evolving “Jane Austen Letter-Writing Society,” which is apparently going to be a non-electronic social network for women who share a love of such old-fashioned delights as “waxed seals, fountain pens, inks, pressed flowers and home-made stationery.”


Austen is an appropriate patron for a letter-writing society. She wrote many letters herself – only 160 survive, but that number certainly represents a small fraction of her lifetime output – and scholars believe that both Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice started out as epistolary novels. Although only the novella Lady Susan remains in epistolary form, letters crucially advance the plot in all Austen’s novels.


Think of Willoughby cruelly brushing off Marianne, or Isabella Thorpe trying unsuccessfully to wheedle her way back into Catherine Morland’s favor. Recall Mary Crawford eagerly anticipating Tom Bertram’s death in an unintentionally revealing dispatch to Fanny Price, or Jane Fairfax insisting on her solo walk to the post office to pick up Frank Churchill’s love letters.


And that's before mentioning the biggies: Darcy’s letter of explanation to Elizabeth after his unsuccessful first proposal ("Be not alarmed, madam”) and, of course, The Letter itself: Captain Wentworth’s declaration of unaltered love for Anne Elliot (“You pierce my soul”).


Frankly, if we could all count on letters like that, nobody would ever use email.


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