Prudence and Privacy
Updated: May 4, 2022
By Mary Smythe, author of A Faithful Narrative
Towards the end of Pride & Prejudice, Mary Bennet opines that “[a woman’s] reputation is no less brittle than it is beautiful” and, in a world which scrutinizes the behavior of others with an unfriendly eye, she’s not wrong. This opinion, while it was no comfort to her sisters in the midst of Lydia’s infamy, is at the bedrock of why so many of the era played their secrets close to the vest. The concepts of private life and personal property was still a fairly new idea in Regency England; social class obviously established this to a large degree, as did one’s sex.
Jane Austen herself commanded that most of her letters be burned after her death, for fear of what future generations might read from them; even after she was gone, she wanted her reputation and privacy to be maintained. Cassandra, her dutiful and loving sister, as well as other members of her family, followed through on this final wish and so we are left with a mere 160 of them today out of a lifetime of correspondence.
In my newest book, A Faithful Narrative, Elizabeth Bennet’s more ungenerous thoughts are captured within the pages of a journal rather than a series of letters, much to the chagrin of the snooping Mr Darcy. By leaving it out where anyone might find it, Elizabeth forfeits the safety of her secrets and her worst fear is realized—the gentleman she has roundly abused within the confines of her journal reads it. Not only does he read it, but in true Mr Darcy style he also responds to it before discreetly passing it back to her, thus compounding their sins of carelessness.
As embarrassing as having one’s private thoughts revealed to the world is, would such a thing have had greater consequences than a few awkward moments and painful blushes? Mary Bennet, in all her misplaced wisdom, would certainly have scolded both parties for being so wretchedly negligent with their reputations. Not only would Elizabeth’s words against Mr Darcy—and, presumably, others of her acquaintance—cause her much mortification, but the inclusion of Mr Darcy’s letter in the back would have shattered her brittle reputation.
During the Regency era, letters were not regarded as personal property; rather than being only for the eyes of the recipient, the sharing of letters within a household and among friends was expected. And while it seems rather inconsequential in the modern age, at that time, letters were only exchanged between family members and/or those of the same sex, unless one were married and thus above suspicion. For an unmarried, unrelated female to share a correspondence with an unattached male was tantamount to declaring themselves engaged—or else. It would have been considered shocking at the time for not only Mr Darcy to have written the letter, but for Elizabeth to have accepted it; no doubt readers of the time were delighted by the potential scandal of it all.
But why? Correspondence between two eligible parties would have implied a certain intimacy existed between them, and it’s not a great leap from there (in the general consensus of society at the time) to assume that the pair were trading other sorts of liberties, as many betrothed couples did. Should anyone untrustworthy discover “The Letter,” Elizabeth’s chances at making a good marriage would have been greatly diminished and Mr Darcy would have been expected to make another offer of marriage to her as a result. All in the name of protecting the virtue of innocent maidens, regardless of how otherwise chaste their relationship had been.
But I digress on that point. In the same line of clandestine correspondence, however, Mr Darcy was hardly the first of Jane Austen’s characters to breach propriety with letters at the centre of the conflict. A far more injurious example of this can be found in Sense & Sensibility between Marianne and Mr Willoughby.
Early in the book, when discussing whether Marianne and Mr Willoughby are secretly engaged or not, Elinor sets up correspondence between them as the litmus test that the couple intends to marry; if they write to one another, they must be betrothed. There’s no sign of such in the immediate aftermath of Mr Willoughby’s defection, but the speculation of society doesn’t end there. Later, when hope in that quarter is beginning to wane, Colonel Brandon remarks on how “generally known” Marianne’s engagement to Mr Willoughby is, and comments, “I had not supposed any secrecy intended, as they openly correspond, and their marriage is universally talked of.”
So, as one can clearly see in this example, trading letters was assumed to be a sign of impending marriage between two parties. As we know, the relationship between Marianne and Mr Willoughby doesn’t conclude on such a happy note and their indiscretion makes Marianne, in particular, miserable when her lover’s faithlessness comes to light; her shame and mortification is known to all. Had she shown as much caution as Elinor, she might have been spared some measure of public humiliation. Fortunately for her, Colonel Brandon’s feelings were not so changeable.
In the case of Elizabeth and Mr Darcy, they were by far more cautious than Marianne and Mr Willoughby, and so their small indiscretion involving The Letter amounted to nothing which could harm them. To the contrary, Mr Darcy’s gamble paid off quite nicely in reforming Elizabeth’s horrid first impression of him into one more accurate and forgiving. It was the catalyst for enabling our heroine to “know herself” better than before and, ultimately, formed the foundation which led to their happily ever after. Sometimes the reward is very well worth the risk.