“Be Not Alarmed, Madam, On Receiving This Letter…”

Penning a Letter by George Goodwin Kilburne
Penning a Letter by George Goodwin Kilburne, 1839-1924.

The reading and writing of letters plays an important role in many of our most beloved nineteenth century novels.  And it is no wonder why.  In an era defined by its social constraints, a well-written letter can achieve what the characters cannot accomplish through ordinary dialogue. After all, how is a hero to explain to the heroine his entire history with the villain of the piece when they are rarely granted a moment alone?  And how in the world could a gentleman ever declare the full depths of his love for a lady whilst in the presence of her chaperone or (even worse) her family?

Love Letters.

Some of the most famous letters in historical romance are, naturally, the love letters.  And, as with so much else in nineteenth century literature, nobody does it better than Jane Austen.

The Love Letter by Thomas Sully
The Love Letter by Thomas Sully, 1834.

In Austen’s Persuasion, Captain Wentworth has been in love with Anne Elliot for over eight years.  After a rejection of his first proposal and a long separation, he returns to her, his love just as strong as when they parted.  Neither of them is certain of the feelings of the other until Captain Wentworth takes a risk and leaves for Anne the following letter:

“I can listen no longer in silence.  I must speak to you by such means as are within my reach.  You pierce my soul.  I am half agony, half hope.  Tell me not that I am too late, that such precious feelings are gone forever.  I offer myself to you again with a heart even more your own than when you almost broke it, eight years and a half ago.  Dare not say that man forgets sooner than woman, that his love has an earlier death.  I have loved none but you.  Unjust I may have been, weak and resentful I have been, but never inconstant.  You alone have brought me to Bath.  For you alone, I think and plan.  Have you not seen this?  Can you fail to have understood my wishes?  I had not waited even these ten days, could I have read your feelings, as I think you must have penetrated mine.  I can hardly write.  I am every instant hearing something which overpowers me.  You sink your voice, but I can distinguish the tones of that voice when they would be lost on others.  Too good, too excellent creature!  You do us justice, indeed.  You do believe that there is true attachment and constancy among men.  Believe it to be most fervent, most undeviating, in F. W.

“I must go, uncertain of my fate; but I shall return hither, or follow your party, as soon as possible.  A word, a look, will be enough to decide whether I enter your father’s house this evening or never.”

I think we can all agree when Anne Elliot’s observes that, “Such a letter was not to be soon recovered from.”

“Dear John” Letters

Letters were not only used as a means of revealing the deeply held feelings that one character was incapable of verbalizing to another.  They could also be a means of severing a relationship.

Lady Folding a Letter by Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun
Lady Folding a Letter by Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, 1783.

The term “Dear John letter” originated in the 1940s and was used to describe a letter from a woman to a serviceman terminating their romantic relationship.  However, it is more than applicable when we look at the following letter that Hero leaves for her husband, Sherry, in Georgette Heyer’s novel Friday’s Child.

Sherry, I have run away, because I will never go to your Mama, and I see now that it would be to no avail, even if I did, for you were right when you said you should not have married me, though I did not know it then, when I was so ignorant and stupid.  It was all my fault, for I always knew that you did not love me, and you have been so patient with me, and so very kind, and I know I have been very troublesome, and quite spoilt your life, besides getting into debt, and obliging you to sell those horses, and not knowing how to contrive so that Mrs. Bradgate should not order such expensive things, like that dreadful bill for candles, and a dozen others.  So please, Sherry, will you divorce me, and forget all about me, and pray do not tease yourself with wondering what has become of me, because I shall do very well, and there is not the least occasion for you to do so.  And also, Sherry, I hope you will not mind that I have taken the drawing-room clock, and my canary, for they were truly mine, like the earrings you gave me on my wedding-day, and Ferdy’s bracelet. – Your loving Kitten.”

Friday's Child by Georgette Heyer, 1944.
Friday’s Child by Georgette Heyer, 1944.

You will note that much like Captain Wentworth’s letter to Anne, Hero’s letter to Sherry is written in her particular voice.  The sentences are long, almost running together, and she jumps from the poignant (“I always knew that you did not love me”) to the budgetary (“that dreadful bill for candles”) and back to the serious matter at hand (“Will you divorce me?”), just as she might if she were talking to him directly.

Sherry, who has spent the novel treating Hero more as a troublesome younger sister than a wife, does not find the letter until the following morning.  Upon reading it, his lip quivers as if he might cry and he is incapable of doing anything more than staring about him at surroundings that “seemed suddenly desolate.”

The letter is a pivotal point in the story.  Not only does it drive home to Sherry his true feelings for his wife, but it also serves as the catalyst for Sherry’s transformation from reckless young buck to responsible married man.

Informational and Revelatory Letters

Some letters are present in a story in order to reveal important information that one of the characters—or even the reader—might not be privy to otherwise.  This information can be anything from everyday gossip provided merely to entertain to revelations about long held secrets.

Mistress and Maid by Johannes Vermeer
Mistress and Maid by Johannes Vermeer, 1667.

One of the most well-known letters of this variety is Mr. Darcy’s letter to Elizabeth Bennet in Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.  In it, he confesses to the part he played in separating Jane Bennet from Mr. Bingley.  He also reveals the details of his past history with the villainous Mr. Wickham.

“You may possibly wonder why all this was not told you last night,” Darcy writes at the close of the letter, “but I was not then master enough of myself to know what could or ought to be revealed.” 

Nor would Elizabeth have been likely to listen to him had he related so much information in person.  Instead, Jane Austen wisely conveys it all to her – and to us – via Darcy’s letter.

Young Woman Reading a Letter by Jean Raoux
Young Woman Reading a Letter by Jean Raoux, 1734.

Informational and revelatory letters do not have to be from one major character to another.  Often, in fact, they are the work of a secondary character or even a character that is mentioned, but never seen.  In these cases, the sole purpose of the letter is the effect it has on the major characters and the storyline.  One such example is a letter received by the orphan Jane Eyre in Charlotte Brontë’s eponymous novel.

Midway through the book, Jane discovers that three years prior a letter had come for her from a long lost uncle.  This letter had been concealed by her mean-spirited aunt, Mrs. Reed.  The letter reads:

“Madam,— Will you have the goodness to send me the address of my niece, Jane Eyre, and to tell me how she is?  It is my intention to write shortly and desire her to come to me at Madeira.  Providence has blessed my endeavors to secure a competency; and as I am unmarried and childless, I wish to adopt her during my life, and bequeath her at my death whatever I may have to leave.— I am, Madam, &c., &c., “John Eyre, Madeira.”

After revealing the existence of the letter to Jane, Mrs. Reed confesses: “For you to be adopted by your uncle, and placed in a state of ease and comfort, was what I could not endure.  I wrote to him; I said I was sorry for his disappointment, but Jane Eyre was dead: she had died of typhus fever at Lowood.”

As you see, a great deal in this case was accomplished via letter and all between a main character, a secondary character, and a character who never even sets foot on the page.  The letter is also important because, much in the manner of the theatrical deus ex machina, it serves to instantly transform the poor, dependent Jane into an independent woman with a comfortable fortune of her own—all without the trouble of introducing a lengthy plotline or a bevy of new characters.

Epistolary Novels

I cannot close this article without mentioning those novels which are composed entirely of a series of letters or journal entries.  At first glance, these “epistolary” novels might seem to be a less personal experience for the reader than those novels in the first or third person.  However, having seen how much a single letter can convey in terms of emotion, information, and character development, it isn’t surprising that epistolary novels are some of the most gripping to read.

Young Girl Reading by Otto Scholderer 1883
Young Girl Reading by Otto Scholderer, 1883.

In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, written in 1818, the tale of Dr, Frankenstein and his monster is conveyed to the reader in letters from Captain Robert Walton to his sister, Margaret Saville.  Upon first meeting Victor Frankenstein during an expedition to the North Pole, the captain writes:

I have resolved every night, when I am not imperatively occupied by my duties, to record, as nearly as possible in his [Dr. Frankenstein’s] own words, what he has related during the day.”

Another epistolary novel is Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which is made up of journal entries, letters, and newspaper cuttings.  In a letter from Mina Murray to her friend Lucy Westenra, Mina writes a few lines that speak volumes about the part that written accounts play in the novel.

“My dearest Lucy,” she begins.  “…[Jonathan] and I sometimes write letters in shorthand, and he is keeping a stenographic journal of his travels abroad.  When I am with you I shall keep a diary in the same way.  I don’t mean one of those two-pages-to-the-week-with-Sunday-squeezed-in-a-corner diaries, but a sort of journal which I can write in whenever I feel inclined.  I do not suppose there will be much of interest to other people; but it is not intended for them.  I may show it to Jonathan someday if there is in it anything worth sharing, but it is really an exercise book.  I shall try to do what I see lady journalists do: interviewing and writing descriptions and trying to remember conversations.  I am told that, with a little practice, one can remember all that goes on or that one hears said during a day.  However, we shall see…”

A Few Final Words…

There are many more ways that a letter can be used to great effect in a historical novel, not the least of which are courtship by correspondence and good old-fashioned blackmail.  Letters are valuable and versatile tools and, as I hope I’ve illustrated in the examples above, in the hands of a skillful author, there is little that a well-conceived letter cannot accomplish.

Mimi Matthews is the USA Today bestselling author of The Matrimonial Advertisement, The Pug Who Bit Napoleon, and A Victorian Lady’s Guide to Fashion and Beauty. She researches and writes on all aspects of nineteenth century history—from animals, art, and etiquette to fashion, beauty, feminism, and law.


Austen, Jane.  Persuasion.  Ed. Patricia Meyer Spacks.  Norton Critical Editions. 2nd ed. New York: Norton, 2012.

Austen, Jane.  Pride and Prejudice.  Ed. Donald Gray.  Norton Critical Editions.  3rd ed.  New York: Norton, 2002.

Brontë, Charlotte.  Jane Eyre.  Ed. Richard Dunn.  Norton Critical Editions.  3rd ed.  New York: Norton, 2000.

Heyer, Georgette.  Friday’s Child.  Chicago: Sourcebooks, 2008

Shelley, Mary.  Frankenstein.  Ed. J. Paul Hunter.  Norton Critical Editions.  2nd ed.  New York: Norton, 2012.

Stoker, Bram.  Dracula.  Nina Auerbach.  Norton Critical Editions.  1st ed.  New York: Norton, 1996.

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Sarah Waldock
Sarah Waldock
6 years ago

The epistolary novel or novels I immediately think of are Jean Webster’s ‘Daddy Long Legs’ and its sequel ‘Dear Enemy’ which are more modern in tone and perhaps more immediate than the style of 200 years ago when letter writing was an art form. Of course the greats break the mould of the formalised letter! As I am considering couching a novella in part as an epistolary piece, the first half, in fact, this is a very valuable post for me, and leaves me much to consider. Thank you! I am sure that your blog has given me enough ideas… Read more »

Mimi Matthews
Mimi Matthews
6 years ago
Reply to  Sarah Waldock

So glad you liked this article, Sarah! And I’m even more glad that you find it useful for your own writing. I have a soft spot for the epistolary novel, so I encourage you to use that format when you write your novella. Letters can convey so many things and, in some ways, give the reader a more intimate connection with the character than even inner thoughts or dialogue – or at least, I think so!

6 years ago
Mimi Matthews
Mimi Matthews
6 years ago
Reply to  bevieann61

Thanks for reblogging my article, Bevieann!

6 years ago

Again, this is a very nice article, Mimi. :) Reading about 19th-century epistulary novels, I just remembered what I learned about “Fanny Hill” from my literary studies teacher. Written about 60 years earlier, it has much contributed to the popularity of novels through the very personal, intimate intriguing reading experience provided by the letters. The 19th-century epistularies continue this tradition very nicely. Thank you for writing about this, often overlooked, quality of literary letters. :)

Mimi Matthews
Mimi Matthews
6 years ago
Reply to  Nessa

Thanks for the comment, Nessa! So glad you liked the article. Epistolary novels are so much fun to read and, for authors, give a lot of room for creativity. I can definitely see how the genre originated from much earlier novels. If you think about it, letters – being one of the major forms of self-expression of that era – were pretty intimate things. What better literary device to tell Fanny Hill’s racy and very personal story?

6 years ago
Reply to  Mimi Matthews

That is so true. In letters, delicate stories like these were also given more creative freedom, enabling writers to put details that might offend the moral reader of the time, into a more inoffensive subtext between the lines. In regular prose, such things would be much harder to formulate these details in a similarly subtle way. At least that is why I like the epistulary style in romantic novels. ;)

Mimi Matthews
Mimi Matthews
6 years ago
Reply to  Nessa


Colin Harker
Colin Harker
6 years ago

What a thorough and intriguing study! Thanks for writing this up!

Mimi Matthews
Mimi Matthews
6 years ago
Reply to  Colin Harker

I’m so glad you enjoyed it, Colin. Thanks for commenting!

6 years ago

Delightful post! Thoughtful and well written, with wonderful illustrations. I’ve been thinking of Sense and Sensibility, originally an epistolary novel, where the mere existence of a letter may tell us that two people are engaged. Elinor and Mrs Dashwood’s doubts about the state of affairs between Marianne and Willoughby might have been dispelled by that means – but, alas! it is gossipy Sir John who carries and picks up their post, so they wouldn’t risk being discovered …That’s why, in Emma, Jane Fairfax braves the rain to deliver and collect her own letters, refusing Mrs Elton’s officious assistance. When the… Read more »

Mimi Matthews
Mimi Matthews
6 years ago
Reply to  monicadescalzi

What a great comment, Monica! It makes me want to reread Sense and Sensibility again. It’s a wonderful example of the important role letters have in historical romance. And yes – I love that Vermeer painting! And I’m so pleased you got the connection to Austen :) The paintings showing the reading and writing of letters are some of my favorite!

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