A novel in the form of letters was particularly popular in the eighteenth century. Some of the most famous novels were written in letter forms. Of them, Richardson’s Pamela and Clarissa Harlowe, Smollet’s Humphy Clinscer and Ronssean’s La Nouvelle Helloise deserve a mention. Even in modern times, novels are written in letters. Of course, the gradual evolution of the novel diminishes the use of letters in writing it. But in the period of Jane Austen, the importance of letters still retained although dialogue and narration took the primary position in it.
Jony Tanner in his introduction to the Penguin edition of Pride and Prejudice opines that like Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice was originally a novel-in-letters. He forms this opinion perhaps by evaluating the importance of letters in the novel, for much of the main information in it is conveyed by letters. In the novel, there are no fewer than forty-four letters including references to a regular and frequent correspondence between Elizabeth and Charlotte Lucas and the communications of Elizabeth and Jane with Mrs. Gardiner.
The letters, without doubt, play a very important role in the advancement of the plot and in introducing characters along with their tendencies and characteristics. The letters mark the turning point in the story. Instead of narration, the letters have more eloquently described the critical moments and the complicated situations. To the benefit of all letters as we know, expose the individual qualities and faults of the writer. The letters written by Mr. Collins convey to the reader what kind of man he is or those of Miss Bingley bring out her competition coldness.
Let us now discuss the importance and role of the letters found in the novel. The first letter in the novel is written by Mr. Collins, a cousin of Mr. Bennet. Mr. Collins had written that although much hostility had existed between his late father and Mr. Bennet. He proposed in the letter to offer an olive branch and trespass his hospitality for a week. In his letter, he did not forget to praise highly his patron, Lady Catherine. This letter exposes his characteristic foolishness. He is found to be Pompous and stupid. Mr. Bennet found in his letter a mixture of servility and self-importance.
The most important and longest letter in the novel is the one that has been written to Elizabeth by Darcy. This letter is the crucial one. Darcy who was continually blamed by Elizabeth for all the wrongs done to her family explains his position. He clarifies his stand on the two charges with regard to Bingley and Wickham. Darcy does not deny his role he has played in the Jane-Bingley affair. But he makes it known to her that he was not convinced of Jane’s love for Bingley. He confesses that he might have been mistaken in acknowledging Jane’s open manners and cheerful look which did not show any particular regard for Bingley. He frankly tells her that he might be accused of duplicity in concealing Jane’s being in the town from Bingley.
With regard to the other charges of having maliciously ruined the career of Mr. Wickham, Darcy totally refutes the accusation and relates in details his story. Darcy’s letter of explanation marks a turn in the novel. From this time the long-standing coldness in their relationship begins to melt. Darcy’s pride has already melted and Elizabeth’s prejudice is on the point of breaking as she starts re-evaluating the characters of both Darcy and Wickham. Now, Darcy rises in her esteem while Wickham goes down. She begins to realize that Darcy has never done anything dishonorable. Ultimately, she feels that she has been, “blind, partial, prejudiced and absurd”. She is ashamed of her own blindness and appreciated the justness of Darcy’s intervention in Jane-Bingley affairs also. Thus, Darcy’s letter does a good service in clearing the misunderstanding and helping Elizabeth see Darcy in the new light.
In chapter forty-eight, there is a letter written by Mr. Collins to Mr. Bennet containing his reaction to the elopement of Lydia with Wickham. This letter too brings out his pompous and stupid character. While everyone in the Bennet is worried and distressed, he advises Bennet to dissociate himself and this family from Lydia. Even he does not conceal his relief that has not married Elizabeth. The letter of Mr. Collins is nothing but a parody of the parable of the prodigal son. The letter of Lydia to Harriet in chapter forty-seven is an expression of her silly character. Her only desire is to sign her name “Lydia Wickham”. She is not in the least concerned with the name and fame of her family.
There are many other letters in the novel. But no letters seems to be redundant and are very integrally connected with the plot. The letters add to the beauty of the novel instead of boring us. These letters are therefore an essential part of the novel.