First email, then texting, Facebook messaging, and now Instagram—platforms for written communication in the twenty-first century are constantly expanding. Parents are often baffled that their children prefer “impersonal” communication forms like texting instead of the telephone. They worry this will compromise younger generations’ ability to interact with each other properly. What our parents and grandparents are failing to see, however, is that these new modes of communication are, in some sense, rather old-fashioned. Our century is more akin to the nineteenth century, when writing was the primary form of communication. Although our modern means are arguably less charming than a handwritten note, they serve similar functions, which implies we may have more to learn from Jane Austen than we might assume.
Throughout Jane Austen’s novels, characters express themselves through letter writing in dramatic and plot-changing moments. In Pride & Prejudice, Mr. Darcy writes a letter to Elizabeth Bennet to address the offenses laid against him—and to save face because he said some pretty awful things to her. In Emma, Robert Martin proposes to Harriet Smith through a letter and she refuses him through another letter. In Persuasion, Captain Wentworth hurriedly writes his declaration of love to Anne Eliot while they are a few feet apart in a room full of friends, then nonchalantly slips her the note on his way out the door.
Today, Mr. Darcy would probably email or Facebook message Lizzie; Harriet would shoot Robert Martin a break-up text; and Wentworth would maybe use the new Galaxy Note8 to say “I love you” to Anne as they sit in the same room. Our mothers and grandmothers will decry all of this as poor etiquette, insisting all of these interactions should happen face-to-face, or at least over the phone! Yet Jane Austen’s novels prove there is a time and place for writing, as long as it is artfully done.
The key issue at hand in both nineteenth-century letters and twenty-first-century messages is not the situations in which messages are sent, but the overall quality of the writing. In contrast to the pressures of in-person interactions, writing theoretically allows a person to craft thoughtful messages and convey precisely what one means. Through their letters, Mr. Darcy, Captain Wentworth, and Robert Martin are all able to express themselves logically and emotionally without the anxiety of interruption, or just the plain terror of saying really important things to someone’s face. No one thinks any less of them for doing so. Writing is not a cowardly act; on the contrary, a good letter requires great skill to craft.
Jane Austen understood the younger generations’ preference for writing; but she teaches today’s texting and tweeting teenagers to give others the thoughtful response they deserve. Today, the ease of composition often compromises form and content. We can respond too hastily, indulge in thoughtless diatribes, or worse. We can respond too lazily, making people wait days—or forever—for a response. Ghosting, not writing, is the true act of cowardice today. Although Jane Austen’s characters could “ghost” far more easily, and blame it on the mail, they instead rise to the occasion, responding appropriately to the situation. As a writing culture, we need to constantly vet ourselves with Harriet Smith’s question to Emma: “Is it a good letter? Or is it too—short?”
Regardless of its quality, written communication does not directly influence the nature of our social interactions. Recall poor Harriet’s awkward first interaction with Robert Martin after refusing him! Yet, Harriet Smith was well-socialized enough to know that she must respond to Robert Martin, both in writing and in person, whether it was awkward or not. Jane Austen shows us that good social skills are just as important as good writing skills, which is where today’s parents and grandparents prove invaluable. While their phone skills may be obsolete, their social skills are not. When parents and grandparents blame written communication for their children’s poor social skills, they are often using texting as a convenient scapegoat for their own failures of parenting—such as teaching basic manners and courtesies to their children. Jane Austen proves messaging and socializing are not incompatible, but both require a proper model. So stop mourning the death of telephone calls and teach kids how to talk to people; just leave the writing lesson to Jane Austen.