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Preserving Jane Austen’s Letters in Modern Adaptations of Pride and Prejudice

Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice employs spoken and written dialogue effective at advancing her plot and building character arcs. Austen’s characters have distinct voices, as shown through Elizabeth Bennet’s wit, Mrs. Bennet’s outbursts, and Mr. Darcy’s shyness, for example. Live theatre relies heavily on dialogue as adept as Austen’s. If one were to adapt Austen’s story from a novel to a theatrical performance, as many have done before, keeping Austen’s dialogue, spoken or written, is essential to preserving the integrity of her work. In Pride and Prejudice, letter writing, specifically, is one of the most crucial forms of communication. Author Bridget Kies states in her article “Literary Culture Inside and Outside Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice” that “Throughout Pride and Prejudice, the characters judge each other based on their literary tastes and their efficacy at writing” (31). When adapting this novel for the stage, one may be tempted to change or eliminate the letter writing aspect of the story; however, doing so would alter the essence of characters’ relationships and their individual plots.

Letter writing plays a pivotal role in Austen’s works, regardless of whether her story is an epistolary novel. Characters craft their messages for a specific person and those letters are more direct than a typical conversation. Letters provide distance and privacy for the readers’ emotions and reactions. Pride and Prejudice centers mostly on Elizabeth’s point of view, but through other characters’ letters, the reader gets a glimpse into their perspectives. Characters reveal much about themselves based on how they write and their unique voices. Kies states:

While Elizabeth is doing needlework, she overhears Miss Bingley bestowing effusive praise on Darcy for his letter-writing skills . . . Darcy’s proficiency is later echoed in the letter of confession he gives to Elizabeth. Before reading its content, she observes how he has written . . . As this letter causes an abrupt and favorable change in Elizabeth’s feelings toward Darcy, it is telling that she notices how he has written as much as what he has written. Here Austen asks the reader to pay careful attention to both form and content; Darcy’s “close hand” demonstrates his attention to detail as well as the amount of verbiage he felt necessary to pour forth in order to win Elizabeth’s affection. (30)

Letters do not give the writer instant gratification like a conversation would. While the reader is given the advantage of time to process the information the writer conveyed, the writer is left waiting for the reader’s own thought out response. Furthermore, written letters are also preserved, whereas conversation disappears. Elizabeth receives letters, but the reader never sees her written responses. Instead, the reader learns about her character through her reactions to others’ letters. The three most important letters sent to Elizabeth, or her family, are Mr. Collins’ letter to the Bennet family before his arrival, Mr. Darcy’s letter to Elizabeth after his first proposal, and her sister Jane’s letter when Lydia runs away with Mr. Wickham. These letters must not only be included in a stage adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, but they must be presented in the same manner they are in the novel in order to authentically represent Austen’s characters.

Mr. Collins’ letter to the Bennet family introduces his character before arriving at their home. Since the Bennets have not met Mr. Collins in person, they do not have the advantage of being able to accurately interpret his voice through his writing, or at least Mr. Bennet does not. Mr. Collins has the advantage of his letter’s ambiguity, which allows him to create a façade that fools Mr. Bennet. Mr. Bennet interprets Mr. Collins’ letter as something of a joke, not understanding Mr. Collins’ condescending tone and his attitude toward marrying one of the Bennet daughters as a favor to their family. After reading the letter, Mr. Bennet states “He seems to be a most conscientious and polite young man, upon my word; and I doubt not will prove a valuable acquaintance, especially if Lady Catherine should be so indulgent as to let him come to us again” (Austen 43). The Bennet family’s, and the readers’, impression of Mr. Collins as an annoying character is quickly converted to a contemptible character as he peruses the Bennet daughters, picking the most attractive one to marry, and eventually spiting the Bennet family by marrying Charlotte Lucas.

In other stage adaptations of Pride and Prejudice, such as Eileen and J.C. Squire’s production in the 1920s, Mr. Bennet does not read aloud Mr. Collins’ letter, but Mr. Collins conveys the information when he arrives (Wright 428). Helen Jerome’s adaptation from the 1930s also eliminates Mr. Bennet’s reading Mr. Collins’ letter aloud, but rather Mr. Bennet summarizes its contents (Wright 431). In both of these adaptations, the essence of Mr. Collins’ conceited and detestable nature is not portrayed as effectively as in Austen’s novel. To authentically represent Mr. Collins’ character in a stage adaptation, he must appear obnoxious through his writing before his arrival and then further degrade his reputation in person. The audience needs to see why Elizabeth would refuse his proposal even though it would be quite advantageous to her family, as Mr. Collins will inherit Mr. Bennet’s estate. His personality must appear unappealing and undesirable. Oftentimes letters reveal more about characters’ personalities than their interactions in person.

Mr. Darcy’s letter, sent to Elizabeth after his first proposal, reveals more to her about his character than any of their previous meetings. His proposal is filled with insults, and Elizabeth understandably declines. Mr. Darcy’s response, “And this is all the reply which I am to have the honour of expecting!” does not help Elizabeth’s impression of him (Austen 126). She already has a negative opinion of Mr. Darcy considering he refused to dance with her the night they met, Mr. Wickham criticized his character, and Elizabeth believes that he ruined Jane’s chance with Mr. Bingley. Elizabeth’s anger toward Mr. Darcy reaches a peak during his proposal and she states, “I have every reason to think ill of you . . . You could not have made me the offer of your hand in any possible way that would have tempted me to accept it” (126-127). Rather than argue with Elizabeth and defend himself in that moment, Mr. Darcy walks away from their altercation and composes a letter for her instead. He explains his past with Mr. Wickham and why he meddled in Mr. Bingley’s and Jane’s relationship. In the article “Pride and Prejudice: The Limits of Society” author James Sherry states:

[W]e can now see the importance of Darcy's letter and the interval of time between its arrival and his reappearance in the novel. It is not that we give up our earlier notion of the contrast between reserve and sociability, but that our attitude towards both is radically redefined. Through Darcy's letter, we are forced to "re-see" the entire first half of the novel, to recognize not only the errors of judgment which can proceed from a prejudice for sociable people, but the limitations of sociability itself, the danger of living so much in the public eye that familiarity turns to contempt. (619)

Mr. Darcy is intelligent enough to know that if he were to attempt to explain himself to Elizabeth during his proposal she would be less likely to believe him or take him seriously. He knows this letter must be written so Elizabeth can read it on her own, with privacy, and react how she wishes.

In a stage adaptation, one may be tempted to change this letter into direct dialogue between Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth to add more dramatic conflict. But, doing so would alter their characters’ paths to an eventual engagement. Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth must move past their respective pride and prejudice before they can be together. In “Pride and Prejudice: Thought, Character, Argument and Plot,” author Richard McKeon writes, “The effect of Darcy's letter on Elizabeth had been to remove all her former prejudices gradually” (515). Elizabeth could not remove her prejudice toward Mr. Darcy until she had time to calm down and process this new information, which she would have been unable to do during his proposal. Mr. Darcy’s explanations must be presented to Elizabeth through a letter because it gives her more control over the situation and room for introspection. An authentic stage adaptation of this story must include Mr. Darcy’s letter exactly as Austen presents it to Elizabeth and the reader. Elizabeth needs the time and privacy, which his letter affords her, to reevaluate her opinions of other characters and previous events. Direct dialogue between the two of them does not give her this option. Mr. Darcy, like many of Austen’s characters, makes deliberate decisions regarding how he chooses to deliver significant information.

Sometimes, characters cannot choose how they wish to convey information. Jane sends Elizabeth urgent letters to inform her of Lydia’s impending elopement while Elizabeth is visiting Derbyshire, and Mr. Darcy’s mansion Pemberley, with their aunt and uncle. One letter blatantly states, “something has occurred of a most unexpected and serious nature” (Austen 177). Jane’s letter proves Elizabeth was right to warn their father against allowing Lydia to go to Brighton. Lydia’s elopement further highlights Mr. Bennet’s failures as a father, which also accentuates Elizabeth’s intelligence. Since Elizabeth is not at home, Jane has no choice but to write a letter describing the drama surrounding the Bennet household. The information contained in Jane’s letter exemplifies the battle Austen’s characters face between their public and private selves. This scandal between Lydia and Mr. Wickham not only reflects poorly upon their characters, but on the entire Bennet family. Thus, Jane needs to ensure that this information will be confidential and only seen by Elizabeth’s eyes. This information in particular must be conveyed through a letter to avoid significantly altering Austen’s plot.

When adapting this scene for the stage, Jane’s letter must be presented as it is in the novel to remain true to Austen’s work. The audience must still discover the information about Lydia and Mr. Wickham when Elizabeth does, and she must discover the information while visiting Pemberley. If Jane and Elizabeth were in the same place and she could tell Elizabeth in person, there would be no reason for Elizabeth to tell Mr. Darcy. After reading Jane’s letter, Elizabeth goes to inform her aunt and uncle, but runs into Mr. Darcy on the way and explains what has happened. If there is no reason for Elizabeth to tell Mr. Darcy about Lydia and Mr. Wickham, then Mr. Darcy would not have taken the initiative to help them. Elizabeth needs to process this information partially on her own and then with Mr. Darcy. Their seemingly coincidental meeting must occur after she reads Jane’s letter; however, in a work of fiction nothing happens by pure coincidence. Austen planned their encounter, which acts as a catalyst to resolve Elizabeth’s and Mr. Darcy’s conflicts. Jane’s letter must be presented to Elizabeth in the exact way Austen wrote it in the novel to ensure the integrity of Austen’s plot; without her letter, Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy do not end up together.

In a stage adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, still designed to be accessible to modern audiences, Austen’s dialogue must be preserved, including the communication that takes place through letters. While a creative team may want to eliminate or alter these letters to be straight dialogue between characters, that would not maintain the integrity of Austen’s novel. In his article “Jane Austen Adapted,” Wright outlines A. A. Milne’s guidelines for adapting Jane Austen’s novels for the stage: "In the case of those passages which are a household word to the faithful, he should either use the exact dialogue or omit the passage altogether. He should be very reluctant to 'improve,' however dramatically necessary this may seem” (433). The information presented in these letters must be included to remain authentic to the plot, but that information must also be presented in the form of letters to effectively portray Austen’s characters. The stage adaptation of Pride and Prejudice should have the recipient of the letter read the letter aloud or the writer should speak it as a soliloquy, or a combination of the two. Therefore, the characters and the audience would still receive the information simultaneously, as they do while reading Austen’s novel. While theatre relies heavily on dialogue, it also requires action. Since these characters are alone when they read their letters, there is no one for the actors to react to. These actors must read the letters and react accordingly to communicate to the audience the gravity of this new information they have received. These letters indicate a shift in the plot, and in character development, which the actors must demonstrate through reading their letters. Hearing these characters read their words aloud, words that were intended only to live on the page, would add another dynamic to the characters’ development that would be unique to a stage production of this story.

A major concern with adapting any story written centuries ago is making it accessible to contemporary audiences. While modern audiences may feel disconnected from Austen’s letters, as it is unlike how they speak and write, the underlying social conventions are familiar. Many things have changed in the last two hundred years, but human nature has not. Modern society still has standards and rules its members are expected to uphold, much as Austen’s characters must. Today people not only have more acquaintances, but with advancements in technology people can stay connected in ways Austen’s characters could not. While there were conventions people followed in Regency England when composing a letter, there are understood rules to follow when posting on social media and when responding to another person’s post. Kies states,

Leading a virtuous literary life in the internet age is, therefore, not so different as in Austen’s time. Though Austen’s characters do not have to sign an agreement prior to engaging in written conversation with each other, they are certainly beholden to particular standards. The defiance or ignorance of those standards results in, at best, embarrassment and, at worst, a kind of shunning—which is precisely what happens when one violates the rules of an online community. (31)

In the 21st century, people use social media to share news about their lives or to learn about news from practically anywhere in the world. People also use the Internet to create a deceptive façade, much like Mr. Collins does in his letter. People use social media to explain themselves and dispel rumors, much like Mr. Darcy’s letter. In addition, people also share the latest shocking news or scandal online, much like Jane does in her letter. The public versus privacy aspect of Austen’s novels has certainly changed in the past two hundred years, but people’s reasons for writing and communicating have not.

Many people’s first encounter with Pride and Prejudice is through some sort of adaptation, rather than the novel itself. To give theatregoers an authentic exposure to Austen’s most popular work, her letters must be preserved. Fortunately, dialogue is at the crux of this novel and the art of theatre. Austen’s novel cannot survive without her skillfully crafted dialogue, either spoken directly between characters or their correspondences through letters. Austen knew what she was doing when she wrote Pride and Prejudice and if she wanted her characters to interact with each other directly, she would have written the novel that way. If her dialogue has thrived on the page for approximately two hundred years, then channeling it into a stage adaptation will bring a new life to Jane Austen’s work, propelling it into the future two hundred years and beyond.

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