letter and portrait

Jane Austen used her letters as selfies!

To Gary Lee and James Adam, at Thirty-Three Percent, for their invaluable help.

In times when a portrait was a luxury, how do we show ourselves across time and distance? As any Jane Austen’s letter proves, it was in fact, really easy.

In Regency times, your handwriting was part of what you were, and Jane Austen certainly took advantage of that fact to present her novel characters through their way of writing, as we do now by using a selfie. In Pride and Prejudice, it was enough to mention that Mr Darcy wrote exceedingly well, or that Mr Bingley’s letters were messy and covered in ink blots, to successfully picture them.

Darcy's letter in Austen's novel
Mr Darcy’s handwriting by Barbara Heller

Can you see me?

A person’s state of mind was also implied through his or her handwriting. In the same novel, Austen uses Jane Bennet’s distorted writing in a letter to her sister, Elizabeth, for her to guess that Jane was distressed and worried, like Jane being in front of her, in the same room.

To compensate for the lack of images of loved ones, letters were treasured and kept in pockets or under one’s pillow for a sense of closeness. Always at hand and easily kept private, letters were essential in Regency’s strict society.

Modern interpretation

And it is not only my perception. In Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, curated by Barbara Heller, she transcribes the characters’ correspondence, written and folded by hand, in the most delightful way. I highly recommend this collection of Regency selfies to add another dimension to these well-loved characters. It certainly did it for me.

Jane Austen's letter and book
Book curated by Barbara Heller

So, next time you write a text on your mobile phone, think of what the person receiving it is missing. It is not true that “an image is worth more than a thousand words”. Try to write a message with pen and paper next time and see what happens. Are you up to the challenge? I hope you are.

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