PERSUASIONS ON-LINE V.32, NO.1 (Winter 2011)

Good, Bad, and Ugly Letters in Sense and Sensibility

Peter Sabor


Peter Sabor (email: is Canada Research Chair in Eighteenth-Century Studies and Director of the Burney Centre at McGill University.  His publications include, as co-author, Pamela in the Marketplace (2005) and, as editor, Juvenilia in the Cambridge Edition of the Works of Jane Austen (2006) and The Court Journals and Letters of Frances Burney, vol. 1, (2011).


imagine a tall, thin, sharp-featured individual receiving and opening a letter, eyes narrowing as the worth of the epistle is assessed.  I am referring, of course, not to Clint Eastwood but to Jane Austen.1  The letter in question is from Cassandra, written in January 1796, shortly after Austen had completed the first draft of Sense and Sensibility under the title of “Elinor and Marianne.”  Cassandra’s letter is lost, like all of her letters to her sister, but Austen’s reply survives, together with six more epistles of 1796.  There are, alas, no extant letters for 1797, the year in which Austen began rewriting “Elinor and Marianne,”2 but there are nine for 1798 and six for 1799:  a total of twenty-two for the last four years of the century, all but one to Cassandra.


In a surprising number of these letters, as well as in her later correspondence, Austen comments on the quality of the missive to which she is responding.  A capital consideration is that of length.  In her reply to Cassandra of 9-10 January, for example, Austen refers to her sister’s “nice long letter,” but clearly wishes it longer still, complaining, “You say nothing of the silk stockings.”  In her second extant letter to Cassandra, of 14-15 January, Austen regrets that one of her own recent communications “was not very long or very witty, & therefore if you never receive it, it does not much signify,” but she is “very much flattered by your commendation of my last Letter.”  On 1 September 1796, Austen praises her correspondent at the outset:  “The letter which I have this moment received from you has diverted me beyond moderation.  I could die of laughter at it, as they used to say at school.  You are indeed the finest comic writer of the present age.”  Cassandra, however, has apparently complained about her sister’s brevity, prompting Austen to write:  “I am sorry that you found such a conciseness in the strains of my first letter.  I must endeavour to make you amends for it, when we meet, by some elaborate details, which I shall shortly begin composing.”  A few days later, on 5 September, Austen writes to Cassandra again, urging her to furnish as substantial a letter as possible:  “I shall be extremely anxious to hear the Event of your Ball, & shall hope to receive so long & minute an account of every particular that I shall be tired of reading it.”


So size matters in Austen’s epistolary world, but why?  One reason is that sending and receiving mail were both expensive activities, not to be undertaken lightly.  Paper was far more costly, relatively speaking, than today:  so much so, that Austen would use every inch of her stationery, and expected her correspondents to do the same.  Leaving swathes of white space in a letter was the kind of conspicuous consumption that Austen found offensive and parodied remorselessly in her novels.  As envelopes had not yet come into use, those indifferent to expense could use a separate sheet of paper for the address, enclosing other sheets on which the text was written.  Austen, however, thriftily used both the inside of the cover sheet and the margins surrounding the address before folding and sealing the letter:  her aim was to provide as much material as possible within the limited space available.  In a letter to Cassandra of 27-28 October 1798, Austen uses foolscap paper watermarked 1794—she had apparently been storing it for four years—and explains why she had taken this unusual step:  “Your letter,” Austen writes, “was a most agreable surprize to me to day, & I have taken a long sheet of paper to shew my Gratitude.”  In the event, this oversized sheet did not suffice; Austen filled both it and a second foolscap sheet, before returning to the top of the first page and writing her concluding remarks upside down.  Ever the perfectionist, however, she criticizes herself for not packing enough words into the first three pages:  “I am quite angry with myself,” she claims, “for not writing closer; why is my alphabet so much more sprawly than Yours?”3


Receiving a letter was also an expensive proposition, since the recipient, not the sender, paid for postage.  Rates varied according to weight and distance travelled:  thus in 1797, a single-sheet letter going less than 15 miles cost 3d, but for 100-150 miles 7d.4  The double-foolscap letter that Jane sent from Steventon to Godmersham in 1798 would have cost Cassandra over a shilling in postage:  naturally, Jane wanted her sister to have her money’s worth.  After receiving a letter from her brother Frank on board ship in the Baltic, Jane began her reply of 25 September 1813 with a discussion of the expense involved:  “I assure you I thought it very well worth its 2s/ 3d.—I am very much obliged to you for filling me so long a sheet a paper, you are a good one to traffic with in that way.”


Length alone, of course, was not enough:  the letter-writer also had to have something of interest to report, and to write in an elegant, entertaining fashion.  Austen begins a letter to Cassandra of 8-9 January 1799 by complimenting her sister on the amusement that her correspondence affords:  “You must read your letters over five times in future before you send them, & then perhaps you may find them as entertaining as I do.—I laughed at several parts of the one which I am now answering.”  Jane’s reply is a long one, of two sheets, but the fourth page, unusually, is not completely used up, leading her to conclude, half in jest but half in earnest, “Do not be angry with me for not filling my Sheet.”



By the time that Austen set to work on Sense and Sensibility, she had, I believe, a clear idea of what constituted a good, a bad, and an ugly letter.  If a good letter was of the kind that Cassandra habitually sent her, a bad one was short, dull, ill-written, and a waste of both the sender’s and the recipient’s money.  An ugly one, in contrast, could be lengthy, but it was likely to be malicious, hurtful, and written with intent to deceive.


Twenty-two letters are mentioned in Sense and Sensibility,5 but only six of these are presented in full:  three by Marianne, one by Willoughby, and two by Lucy Steele.  Both the summarized and the presented letters might originally have formed part of an epistolary novel.  According to Austen’s niece Caroline, Sense and Sensibility was “first written in letters—& so read to her family.”6  Although she acknowledged, when she made her remark in 1869, that “Memory is treacherous,” it is possible that Caroline’s recollection is accurate.  What is certain is that Austen did experiment with epistolary fiction in several of her other writings.  Of the twenty-seven items collected in her three juvenile notebooks, eight are written in letters:  “Amelia Webster” and “The Three Sisters” in “Volume the First”; “Love and Freindship,” “Lesley Castle,” “A Collection of Letters,” “The Female Philosopher,” “A Letter from a Young Lady,” and “A Tour Through Wales” in “Volume the Second.”  It is notable that while both of the two items, “Evelyn” and “Catharine,” in “Volume the Third” are third-person narratives, the great majority of “Volume the Second” is written in letters, suggesting that Austen reserved one of her three notebooks primarily for epistolary fiction.  In pride of place here is “Love and Freindship,” perhaps the finest and surely the funniest of all of Austen’s juvenile compositions.


It was probably in 1794, a year after she finished the last piece in her juvenilia, that Austen wrote her novella “Lady Susan,” which remained unpublished until it finally reached print posthumously in 1871, in the second edition of James Edward Austen-Leigh’s Memoir of Jane Austen.  That Austen made no attempt to publish “Lady Susan” during her lifetime is not surprising:  both because of its brevity, which would have made it unsuitable for separate publication, and because epistolary fiction was becoming increasingly unfashionable by the turn of the century.  Austen could well have written “Elinor and Marianne” in letters in 1795, but by the time she began writing “The Watsons,” probably in 1804, and then finally broke into print with Sense and Sensibility in 1811, the epistolary novel was all but extinct.  As Frank Gees Black remarks in his still standard study of late eighteenth-century epistolary fiction, Austen and her contemporaries deployed a narrative technique that “admitted of a freer shifting in point of view within the limits of narrative method and gave new importance to direct and extended dialogue,” creating “a sense that the old epistolary exchange was cumbersome and artificial” (110).  The artificiality of epistolary fiction, indeed, becomes the subject of Austen’s satire in the concluding chapter of “Lady Susan,” where third-person narration takes over from the epistolary exchanges:  “This Correspondence, by a meeting between some of the Parties & a separation between the others, could not, to the great detriment of the Post office Revenue, be continued longer” (Later Manuscripts 75).


In its final form, moreover, most of the letters in Sense and Sensibility are summarized by the narrator, rather than being presented in the correspondent’s own words.  Consider, for example, the first letter that we encounter in the novel:  the one written by Sir John Middleton to his relative Mrs. Dashwood, offering her and her daughters the rent of Barton Cottage in Devonshire on what Austen calls “very easy terms.”  Austen does not quote from the letter at all, but she describes it in detail.  It was, she remarks,


written in the true spirit of friendly accommodation.  He understood that she was in need of a dwelling, and though the house he now offered her was merely a cottage, he assured her that every thing should be done to it which she might think necessary, if the situation pleased her. . . . He seemed really anxious to accommodate them, and the whole of his letter was written in so friendly a style as could not fail of giving pleasure to his cousin; more especially at a moment when she was suffering under the cold and unfeeling behaviour of her nearer connections.  (26, 27)


When we come to know Sir John a little later in the novel, we can better envisage the friendly style of his letter, which presumably has the same disarmingly gregarious quality as that of his everyday conversation.  Austen also withholds Mrs. Dashwood’s reply from her readers, but she does show her seeking approval from her daughters before dispatching it.  Many other letters in Austen’s novels are scrutinized in this fashion, by their senders, by their recipients, and by others who are consulted before the letter is sent or after it is received.


Another letter initially unseen, although later shown to Austen’s readers, is one from Marianne to Willoughby, written before she realizes that he has broken off their courtship.  In this passage, Elinor tells Marianne that she is writing to their mother, but Marianne, sitting beside her, does not tell her sister to whom her letter is addressed:


Marianne’s was finished in a very few minutes; in length it could be no more than a note:  it was then folded up, sealed and directed with eager rapidity.  Elinor thought she could distinguish a large W. in the direction, and no sooner was it complete than Marianne, ringing the bell, requested the footman who answered it, to get that letter conveyed for her to the two-penny post.  This decided the matter at once.  (183)


Marianne has given her sister two clues to her correspondent’s identity.  The prominent “W.” in the address makes Willoughby the obvious suspect, of course, and the twopenny post is the clinching detail.  Letters sent anywhere in London were charged at a flat fee of twopence, and they were picked up and delivered at the astonishing rate of six times daily, between 8 a.m. and 7 p.m.  Elinor knows that Willoughby is in London; hence Marianne’s “W.” is surely he.7


Further light on Marianne’s letter, as well two more that she writes to Willoughby while he is in London, is provided by his notorious letter to her, the first one in Sense and Sensibility given in full and a strong contender for the prize of the ugliest in any of Austen’s novels:


“My dear Madam,


I have just had the honour of receiving your letter, for which I beg to return my sincere acknowledgements.  I am much concerned to find there was any thing in my behaviour last night that did not meet your approbation; and though I am quite at a loss to discover in what point I could be so unfortunate as to offend you, I entreat your forgiveness of what I can assure you to have been perfectly unintentional. . . . It is with great regret that I obey your commands of returning the letters, with which I have been honoured from you, and the lock of hair, which you so obligingly bestowed on me.

I am, dear Madam,

Your most obedient

humble Servant,

John Willoughby.”  (208-09)


The very stiff opening, “My dear Madam,” is especially rebarbative given Marianne’s youth and her characteristic informality.  The phrase is repeated at the end of the letter, as well as the formulaic “Your most obedient humble Servant,” typically used for business letters and correspondence between strangers.8


It is not until near the end of the novel that we discover, during Willoughby’s long tête à tête with Elinor, that not he but his fiancée Miss Grey was the author of the infamous letter.  He was, he declares, merely the amanuensis, while the “‘original was all her own—her own happy thoughts and gentle diction’” (372).  This does not, however, make the letter any less ugly; if anything, Willoughby’s disavowal of authorship makes his sending the letter seem worse.  And given his track record, is Willoughby’s account to be believed?  Elinor never questions his claim, but Austen has left open the possibility that Willoughby’s blaming Miss Grey for his odious letter is just another of his habitual falsehoods.9


In contrast to the studied coldness of Willoughby’s, or his fiancée’s, letter is the spontaneity of Marianne’s three artless missives to him, which are eventually shown first to Elinor and then to Austen’s readers.  She addresses him simply as “Willoughby,” rather than “my dear Sir,” and she signs herself as “M.D.”  They are merely notes, sent across London for twopence, although Miss Grey, according to Willoughby, was struck by the elegance of both the paper and the handwriting (371).  They cannot be considered as good letters, but they are certainly neither bad nor ugly.


To find a bad letter in Sense and Sensibility is easy enough:  one has only to read either of the two sent by the reprehensible Lucy Steele to Eleanor.  Here are the beginning and the end of Lucy’s first epistle:


“I hope my dear Miss Dashwood will excuse the liberty I take of writing to her; but I know your friendship for me will make you pleased to hear such a good account of myself and my dear Edward, after all the troubles we have went through lately, therefore will make no more apologies, but proceed to say that, thank God! though we have suffered dreadfully, we are both quite well now, and as happy as we must always be in one another’s love.  We have had great trials, and great persecutions, but however, at the same time, gratefully acknowledge many friends, yourself not the least among them, whose great kindness I shall always thankfully remember, as will Edward too, who I have told of it. . . . My paper reminds me to conclude. . . .”  (314-15)


The letter, with its third-person address to “my dear Miss Dashwood” as “her,” begins still more formally than Willoughby’s to Marianne, but then switches bewilderingly to the informal second person with the phrase “your friendship for me.”  A series of grammatical solecisms follows in quick succession:  “myself and my dear Edward,” “we have went through,” “Edward too, who I have told of it,” and several others.  The letter is also disfigured by a plethora of clichéd phrases, such as “excuse the liberty,” “we have suffered dreadfully,” “gratefully acknowledge,” and “great kindness.”  Most objectionable of all is the trite conclusion, “My paper reminds me to conclude”—and this for a letter that in Austen’s hand would fill less than half of one side of paper:  Lucy has presumably written in a needlessly large hand and left the extravagant margins that Austen abhors.  As Edward Copeland notes (490 n.12), Austen had earlier mocked this clichéd formula in the epistolary “Amelia Webster,” where the heroine ends one of her letters with “my Paper reminds me of concluding”—after she has written no more than one sentence.


Lucy’s second letter, addressed to Edward and signed “Lucy Ferrars,” is almost as bad as her first.  Who else in Austen’s novels could compose a sentence quite as false and hypocritical as this:  “‘Sincerely wish you happy in your choice, and it shall not be my fault if we are not always good friends, as our near relationship now makes proper’” (413-14).  Edward, not surprisingly, tells Elinor that he has “‘blushed over the pages of her writing!’” (414).  Lucy’s first letter, however, finds a more sympathetic reader in Mrs. Jennings, to whom it is given by Elinor.  Well-meaning but hopelessly obtuse, she “read it aloud with many comments of satisfaction and praise,” while declaring to Elinor:  “‘It is as pretty a letter as ever I saw, and does Lucy’s head and heart great credit’” (315).10


Where then, in Austen’s first novel, is a good letter to be found?  Where is the counterpart to, for instance, Captain Wentworth’s beautifully poignant missive to Anne Elliot?  No such letter is ever sent or received in Sense and Sensibility, but one is at least imagined by Marianne, in response to the arrival of Mrs. Jennings, bearing a letter and saying, “‘Now, my dear, I bring you something that I am sure will do you good.’”  Not surprisingly, Marianne envisages a letter that could have ranked among the best in Austen, if only it had been written:


Marianne heard enough.  In one moment her imagination placed before her a letter from Willoughby, full of tenderness and contrition, explanatory of all that had passed, satisfactory, convincing; and instantly followed by Willoughby himself, rushing eagerly into the room to inforce, at her feet, by the eloquence of his eyes, the assurances of his letter.  The work of one moment was destroyed by the next.  The hand writing of her mother, never till then unwelcome, was before her. . . . (229)


Had Willoughby actually sent Marianne a missive “full of tenderness and contrition,” substantial and heartfelt, elegant and persuasive, we would have had at least one good letter in Sense and Sensibility.  Instead, Austen reserved such a letter for her second novel, Pride and Prejudice, in which the fortunate Elizabeth Bennet receives from Darcy what is perhaps the finest letter in the Austen canon.  But before demonstrating her fictive skills as a good letter-writer, Austen had shown herself, in Sense and Sensibility, to be a consummate creator of the epistolary bad and the ugly.





1. This paper was first given as part of a Canadian plenary panel at the JASNA AGM in Fort Worth, in which Elaine Bander, Juliet McMaster, and I spoke about Sense and Sensibility in relation to Sergio Leone’s film The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, starring Clint Eastwood.  I am grateful to Elaine, Juliet, and Robert Hume for their helpful suggestions.


2. For the dates of composition of “Elinor and Marianne” and Sense and Sensibility, see Copeland ( xxiii-xxiv) and Gilson (7-8).


3. For a facsimile of the letter, see Modert (F-15-18).  The fourth page, above and below the address, and the upside-down postscript are especially closely written.


4. For the rates, originally set in 1797, see Robinson (154) and Hume.  As Hume notes, rates increased in 1801 and again in 1805.


5. See Harding (465-66).  Three of the other Austen novels have a much higher number of letter mentions:  there are 49 in Mansfield Park, 52 in Pride and Prejudice, and 53 in Emma.  I am not, however, persuaded by Harding’s conjecture (465), that, with its large number of both letter mentions and letters reproduced verbatim, Pride and Prejudice, under the title of “First Impressions,” was originally an epistolary novel.


6. Caroline Austen to James Edward Austen-Leigh, 1 April [1869?] (Austen-Leigh 185).  As Harding notes (464), James Edward chose not to mention this remark, which did not find its way into print until the 1913 life of Austen by William and Richard Arthur Austen-Leigh (80).


7. As Copeland observes (471-72 n.6), in addition to confirming Willoughby’s identity, the twopenny post is also a sign of Austen’s working on Sense and Sensibility in or after 1801, the year in which the rate increased from a penny.


8. Juliet McMaster remarks that “the style, as responding to Marianne’s frank and generous note in which she shows she is unwilling to believe ill of him, is heartless, insulting,” and that “the ending is even worse than the beginning:  ‘It is with great regret that I obey your commands of returning the letters, with which I have been honoured from you, and the lock of hair, which you so obligingly bestowed on me.’ . . . This piece of Marianne’s body stands for the body itself.  To write that she ‘obligingly bestowed’ it is to suggest something like prostitution.  This from a man who writes of ‘honour’!  It is an unforgivable composition.”


9. Elisabeth Lenckos notes that “it is not clear how Miss Grey could have seized Marianne’s letters or forced Willoughby to write his infamous rejection without his collusion.”


10. Ian Jack writes that Mrs. Jennings “is the worst possible judge of a letter and it is not surprising that the true significance of Lucy Steele’s escapes her altogether” (175).



Works Cited


Austen, Jane.  Jane Austen’s Letters.  Ed. Deirdre Le Faye.  3rd ed.  Oxford: Oxford UP, 1995.

_____.  Jane Austen’s Manuscript Letters in Facsimile.  Ed. Jo Modert.  Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1990.

_____.  Later Manuscripts.  Ed. Janet Todd and Linda Bree.  The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Jane Austen.  Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2008.

_____.  Sense and Sensibility.  Ed. Edward Copeland.  The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Jane Austen.  Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2006.

Austen-Leigh, James Edward.  A Memoir of Jane Austen and Other Family Recollections.  Ed. Kathryn Sutherland.  Oxford: Oxford UP, 2002.

Austen-Leigh, William, and Richard Arthur Austen-Leigh.  Jane Austen: Her Life and Letters. A Family Record.  London: Smith, 1913.

Black, Frank Gees.  The Epistolary Novel in the Late Eighteenth Century: A Descriptive and Bibliographical Study.  Eugene: U of Oregon, 1940.

Gilson, David.  A Bibliography of Jane Austen.  Rev. ed.  Winchester: St Paul’s Bibliographies, 1997.

Harding, D. W.  “The Supposed Letter Form of Sense and Sensibility.”  Notes and Queries n.s. 40 (1993): 464-66.

Hume, Robert D. “Money in Jane Austen,” forthcoming.

Jack, Ian.  “The Epistolary Element in Jane Austen.”  English Studies Today: Second Series.  Ed. G.A. Bonnard.  Bern: Francke Verlag, 1961.  173-86.

Lenckos, Elisabeth.  “‘Inventing elegant letters,’ or, why don’t Austen’s lovers write more often?”  Persuasions On-Line 26.1 (Win. 2005).

McMaster, Juliet.  “‘Your sincere Freind, the Author.’”  Persuasions On-Line 27.1 (Win. 2006).

Robinson, Howard.  The British Post Office: A History.  Princeton: Princeton UP, 1948.


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