Letter writing, that old-fashioned art we hardly practice any more, has changed a great deal since Jane Austen’s day. Writing letters back and forth flourished in the days before electronic communications but now it’s in danger of dying out completely. This was brought home to me recently when I had a conversation with my son. This is the same son who moved out of our house last June. He recently discovered that he can no longer hand deliver his rent check to his landlady and told me he was going to have to mail his checks from now on.
Me: So you’re going to need to buy some envelopes and a book of stamps this weekend.
Son: And I put the stamps on those little things you use to hold the letter, right?
Me: Envelope. You mean envelope.
Me: You put a stamp on the envelope and put your check inside it.
Son: What kind of stamp?
Me (slightly shocked): The kind you buy from the post office! And then you have to put your landlady’s address on it.
Son: That goes on the front, right?
Me (deadpan): No, the back.
Son: Oh, that’s the side with the little flap, right?
Me (trying not to laugh): Yes, the flap. That’s the back. Just kidding, you put the address on the front. You put the stamp on the back.
Me: Just wait till you have to put your return address on it. That’s really confusing.
Son: I’m going to need some help figuring this out.
At this point I laughed out loud. This is the kid who taught me to use HDMI cables! But it got better.
Son: Then you put the letter in one of those big containers, right?
Me (blank stare): What?
Son: One of those metal containers they have outside post offices, right?
Me: You mean mailboxes?
Me: You don’t have to go to the post office. You can just put the letter in your own mailbox at home.
Son: Oh, you mean they’ll pick up your mail and take it with them when they come to drop stuff off for you?
Me: Yes. They do both at the same time, at least in most places.
Son : Cool!
Yes, sending letters via the post seems to be dying out! But in Jane Austen’s day upper class people wrote a lot of letters, both for business and for pleasure. A substantial part of any gentleman or gentlewoman’s day was given to correspondence. Jane herself is estimated to have written some three thousand letters over her lifetime (!), and every novel she wrote has the heroine writing and receiving letter. Letters in her day must have been what phone calls, emails or text messages are to us.
Knowing how to write a letter in regency England was a complicated task! To start with, the letter writer had to pick the kind of paper they were going to use. Paper was generally made from cotton and linen mixed together, and each paper producer used their own unique combination of these elements. They all had their own standard sizes, weights, textures, and other qualities. Each paper was so unique, in fact, that paper producers sometimes applied a watermark to their own brand to make it readily identifiable to the buyer.
The letter writer also had to choose a quill pen, the ink they wanted to use, a pen knife (to sharpen the quill as needed), and either sand or blotters to use during their writing (to dry the ink). Quill pens and pen knives came in a dizzying array of choices, from dull and practical to ornate and costly. A writer’s choice of these instruments, like their choice of writing paper, revealed much about their personality, their social status, and even their finances.
The postage charged for a letter depended partly on how many pages were in the letter, so the writing space inside a letter was at a premium. It was not unusual for a letter writer to fill up as much of the paper as possible and then turn the page on its side and write over the previous lines at a right angle.
Envelopes did not yet exist, so once somebody finished writing their letter they folded the left over blank sections of the paper so as to cover up the written portion. Then they wrote the address in that blank portion. Of course, to do this the writer had to make sure there actually was a blank section! There were guides on how to fold a letter in the most practical yet attractive way. Without a doubt writing a letter took some careful planning!
Finally, the letter writer had to choose how to send their missive. Here, too, there were choices. In town, for letters going to recipients in the same part of town, the penny post delivered mail the same day and was pleasingly inexpensive. But letter writers who wanted to send a message to another part of town usually had to hire a messenger to carry it directly. The messenger would be paid by the recipient, not the sender. Outside of town the system was still fairly rapid, taking two or three days in most cases, but the recipient still usually paid to receive the letter. There were times when the recipient simply could not afford to accept it.
In Austen’s day certain government officials could also choose to “frank” the letter, meaning that they would pay the delivery charges up front and the recipient would pay nothing. (You may remember that Edmund uses his father’s status to do this for Fanny in Mansfield Park.) Eventually the government realized that having postage paid up front was the most efficient way to go, and from then on it was customary to buy a stamp to place on the letter to show that the cost of delivery had been paid. But that change did not come about until well after Austen’s death.
Letters are key to many events in Austen’s novels. For example, take the events of Pride and Prejudice. The Bennets find out about Mr. Collins’ impending visit by letter. Caroline Bingley flirts with Mr. Darcy as he writes to his sister and even offers to mend his pen for him. After Darcy’s failed proposal to Elizabeth, he tells her the truth about Bingley and Wickham in a letter. When Elizabeth is visiting Derbyshire she finds out about Lydia’s elopement via a letter from Jane. And Elizabeth receives crucial information about Darcy in a letter from her aunt Gardiner. The list could go on and on!
My son, alas, still does not know how to send a letter. He discovered that he could pay his landlady electronically and the teachable moment was gone. Eventually he will have to learn but it seems unlikely that he will ever sit down, Darcy style, to pour out his heart to the woman he loves using paper and pen.
Here’s a quick trivia challenge for you: can you guess how many times letters are referenced in Austen’s six main novels? Which novel uses the word letter the most? Which one uses it the least? Let me know in your comments below, please!