December 9, 1997
RE: NA, Chs 15-16: Letters in Northanger Abbey
It is true these letters are important for the functioning of the plot. They also provide information to Isabella which she reacts to and in her reaction to the second we see even less pleasant aspects of her character than we had seen before. We can also (on a second read) realize the Thorpes are under an illusion the Morlands are much richer than they are. They make Isabella lunge at Captain Tilney.
But we do not see these letters and we do not read them. They are not quoted or closely paraphrased. What is most fascinating in Austen's use of letter is how she tells her story through a letter. So, for example, while Darcy's letter may be said to provide us with important information about his and Wickham's past and a truer interpretation of Bingley's departure from Netherfield park, what the letter also does is tell us an enormous amount about Darcy. It is also not objective. It reflects Darcy's character. Now we are supposed to believe Darcy--as we are supposed to believe Mrs Gardiner whose letter has less psychological interest; she is more a messenger come from behind a curtain to tell all. Darcy's letters is also central, a turning point in the plot and in Elizabeth's education. It is given -- at length.
In other novels by Austen we have letters talked about which we never see (Jane Fairfax's). We must be content to have them read aloud. Jane Fairfax's letters are written in such a way as to present a face to her aunt. Then we have the aunt reading them aloud. In MP Mary Crawford's letters are as much a cover-up and manipulative as they are ways of telling us what happened. It gets quite complicated in MP because we get characters reading the letters (Fanny); in Emma we have characters reading a letter together (Emma and Knightley on Frank Churchill).
When one talks of epistolarity in Austen--telling the story through a narration in a letter--one is talking of a letter whose content is in the book before us somehow or other. There are Mr Collins's and Mr Bennet's one brief missive to Mr Collins at the close of P&P, a stark gem, i.e, "Console Lady Catherine as well as you can. But if I were you, I would stand by the nephew. He has more to give." Good epistolary narration has a sparkle and depth omniscient narration must be worked up to have.
Epistolarity also lends itself to having novels within novels (several stories going on at once since each story is a different perspective on the same material). One sees this in Emma with Jane's story seen from the side, and Harriet's from another. In NA I think we do have something of this when first James's and then Isabella's letter arrive. Another story has been going on which these letters present two opposing views of. They also present two differing personalities. And then we have Catherine's response, and then Henry and Eleanor's discussion of the letter after they have read it.
So we must differentiate letters which are not there and move the plot forward in (this being Austen) complicated ways, and letters which are there and give the book a rich epistolarity or epistolary depths.
I'd say letters are used least and of least interest in Austen's Northanger Abbey. This is not a sign it's early; it is a sign it was meant differently.