Correspondence Between Men and Women in the Regency

Correspondence Between Men and Women in the Regency

Marianne writing to Willoughby, Sense and Sensibility 2008
Marianne writing to Willoughby

Letter writing.  In our current age of phones, computers, and social media, it is quickly becoming a dying art. But for people living in the Regency, it was absolutely necessary.  Apart from speaking in person, or relying upon a verbal relay by a messenger,  it was the only way that people in that time could communicate.   But interestingly enough, there were some unspoken rules when it came to men and women writing to each other!  If a single man wrote to a single woman, or vice versa, many people would assume that they were engaged.  For them to be writing to each other under any other circumstances was considered a bit scandalous. In Sense and Sensibility, several people assume that Marianne is engaged to Willoughby because she is writing to him.  It’s also why in Pride and Prejudice, when Darcy gives Elizabeth a letter after she rejects his proposal, he does so in private. In Persuasion, Wentworth’s letter to Anne telling his feelings for her is essentially a proposal. Also, in Emma, Robert Martin directly proposes to Harriet through a letter. 

So you can see why letters between men and women carried a certain amount of suspicion of there being an understanding between the two parties, and a sense of impropriety if there was not.

A Regency era valentine card
A Regency era valentine card

 

 

One exception to this was Valentine’s Day. On that day, it was acceptable for a man or woman to send letters, cards, or small gifts to the person that they admired. Many who did so kept their identity anonymous, leaving the recipient wondering who their Valentine was, although some used the opportunity to declare their feelings openly. 

This became the premise for my Valentine’s Day story, “Elizabeth’s Secret Admirer.” I wondered, what would happen if Darcy had sent an anonymous valentine to Elizabeth, and also, what would happen if they continued corresponding, but in secret? Scandalous, right? The idea of Elizabeth writing back and forth to a mysterious admirer in secret was too thrilling to pass up! It’s also a bit of a Regency take on the story from “You’ve Got Mail”, which happens to be one of my favorite modern-day stories inspired by Pride and Prejudice. 

Since Valentine’s Day is just around the corner, here is an excerpt from my novella, which you can get for FREE by signing up for my newsletter!

Elizabeth's Secret Admirer, by Amanda Kai

Elizabeth’s Secret Admirer, by Amanda Kai

Chapter 1

 The weather was cold and damp as Elizabeth and her sisters tramped through the sludge on the pathway to Meryton.  Her elder sister Jane was in London visiting the Gardiners, and her bosom friend Charlotte, now married to Mr. Collins, had settled in Hertfordshire, leaving Elizabeth to the company of her three silly younger sisters.  With nothing better to do but accompany them on their daily walk to the village, she set off in hopes of some amusement in the form of her Aunt Phillips’ gossip, or if she were lucky, a glimpse of Mr. George Wickham, a man she had recently met and whose company she found to be very enjoyable on account of his pleasing manners, charming disposition, and handsome appearance.

 A gust of wind blew at the edges of the girls’ coats, eliciting giggles from Lydia and Kitty as they hurried down the slope towards the edge of the village, eager to get out of the wind.  

“Wait for me!” Mary called after them.  Drawing her thick wool cloak around her, she scrambled to catch up, always hating to be left behind, and trying too hard not to be the one left out when she did not want to be.  Elizabeth, however, was content to linger on the path, treading carefully on the slippery blend of snow and mud, lest it betray her treacherously over one misstep. The sound of footsteps behind her caused her to turn.  It was Wickham, coming up the path!

“Miss Elizabeth, good day to you!” he greeted, tipping his cap to her.

“And good day to you also, Mr. Wickham!” Elizabeth returned cheerfully.

“I see you are headed into Meryton.  Might I have the pleasure of accompanying you there?”

“You may, sir.” Elizabeth was more than happy to accept Wickham’s company. As they gradually descended the same slope the younger Bennet girls had rushed down like a herd of rabbits escaping a fox, Elizabeth became distracted by her captivating escort.  Every syllable out of his mouth seemed to drip with sweet honey; it mattered not if he spoke of the gloomy winter weather or the rigorous drills of the militia or made polite inquiries as to the health of all her family.  Everything he spoke was filled with charm, and there was a glimmer in his eyes which sent Elizabeth’s heart hammering.  They walked in such proximity that the edges of their coat sleeves brushed against each other inadvertently. Close enough that she could feel his warm breath upon her face whenever he looked upon her and she forgot to feel the cold of the wicked wind that continued to whip around them, teasing curls from under her bonnet and into her face.  All she wanted to do was prolong this walk with him and enjoy their meaningless conversation.  Elizabeth was mesmerized by Mr. Wickham to such a degree, she forgot to watch her footing.  A shallow, muddy puddle, the watery crust of which had iced over the night before, lay in wait like a trap near the foot of the slope.  Elizabeth’s boot grazed the slippery surface, failing to find traction in the mud that surrounded the icy patch, and she found herself going down before one could say “Jack Robinson”!  

“Woah, steady there!” Wickham cried, swiftly scooping up Elizabeth with one arm before she could suffer any damage worse than embarrassment. “That is one nasty spot of road, Miss Elizabeth.  It is lucky you did not twist your ankle.”

“Indeed,” a blush stole across Elizabeth’s face as Mr. Wickham righted her properly. “I am most fortunate you were here to save me. And you have saved my new petticoat from being spoilt as well.” Laughter erupted from her as she tried to joke away the fact that her dashing suitor had wrapped his own arms around her to spare her from any injury.  

 They reached Meryton without any further mishaps, just in time for Lydia and Kitty to burst out from one of the shops exclaiming to their sister in turn.

 “Oh, Lizzy!” started Lydia.

“Come see!”

“They’ve got lots of trinkets-”

“And gifts and perfumes-”

“And all sorts of paper-”

“And ribbons-”

“And lace-”

“And you must help us to choose some!”

Elizabeth burst into laughter. “For what, my loves?”

“For Valentine’s Day!” they exclaimed in unison.

“We plan to make our own cards and letters,” Lydia explained.

“For our beaux,” Kitty finished.

Lydia saw Wickham standing beside Elizabeth with an amused expression on his face as he watched this whole scene. “Oh, forgive me, Mr. Wickham, I did not notice you standing there. Have you been there the whole time?”

Wickham bowed.  “I have indeed, Miss Lydia.  Tell me, who do you plan on sending these valentines to?  Or is it a secret?”

“Of course, it is a secret!” Lydia exclaimed.  “But, if you solemnly promise not to tell, I shall tell you.  I plan to give mine to your friend Denny, and Kitty wants to send hers to Pratt.”

“On my honor, I shan’t say a word.” Wickham raised his hand in promise. 

Elizabeth grinned.  She knew it would not matter how well Wickham kept the secret; Lydia could not keep one to save her own life.  It would only be a matter of time before everyone in the village knew whom she planned to send her valentine to.  Wickham excused himself to attend to some business in one of the shops, leaving the sisters by themselves to browse the new merchandise that Lydia and Kitty were so eager to show off.  

“Who will you send a valentine to, Lizzy?” Kitty demanded to know.  “Mr. Wickham, perhaps?”

Kitty’s question caught Elizabeth off-guard.  “Truthfully, I had not considered the notion.”

“You ought to send one to Wickham!” Lydia agreed with Kitty’s sentiments.  “He’s so charming!  Besides, I am certain he likes you.  Did he not escort you to Meryton in the wake of our absence?”

“He did, but that is beside the point. At any rate, where has Mary gone off to?”

“Oh, she got bored with all the pretty baubles and papers and left us for the bookstore.  She said she hoped Mrs. Radcliffe’s latest novel would be in, and she wanted to check,” Lydia said, making a face that left her feelings for Mrs. Radcliffe and the bookstore not hard to interpret.

 The sisters finished their shopping.  Under Lydia and Kitty’s persuasion, Elizabeth selected some new paper and ink for herself.  She was not certain yet if she wanted to send a valentine to Mr. Wickham, but she thought it couldn’t hurt to be prepared. After all, Valentine’s Day was tomorrow.

 Dragging Mary away from the bookstore was difficult, but they finally managed to do so.  Then there was the necessity of a visit to Mrs. Phillips’ house, where their aunt detained them for another three-quarter’s hour filling them in on all the latest gossip there was to tell.  Honestly, Elizabeth wondered how so much could occur from one day to the next in a town as small as theirs to accrue enough noteworthy news to impart on a daily visit.  Nevertheless, it was the dinner hour by the time they returned to Longbourn.

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Before retiring to bed that evening, Elizabeth pondered the question of Valentine’s Day, and the idea of sending a valentine to someone. She pulled out her new sheets of paper and inkwell and began chewing on the end of the pen, trying to conjure up the words she ought to say.  “Wickham, Wickham…oh, Mr. Wickham, what to say to you?” she mused out loud in the privacy of her bedroom. She tried to picture him in her mind.  In an instant, an image flashed in her mind, that of another man, one whom she had often tried to forget: Mr. Darcy. He was but a thorn in her side since the day they met, when he publicly offended her by remarking while she was within earshot that she was not handsome enough to dance with him. Ever since then, her dislike of him had only continued to increase the more she saw of his pride, arrogance, and selfish disdain for the feelings of others.  After his initial refusal to dance with her at the Meryton assembly, it seemed almost as if he were trying to make sport of her at every turn, by persuading her to dance on every occasion thereafter.  He had offered to dance with her at a gathering at Lucas Lodge, but she declined, for she was sure he was only doing it to please their host, Sir William Lucas.  Then, when she was staying as a guest at Netherfield, he had the audacity to suggest she might seize the opportunity of dancing a Scottish reel while Miss Bingley performed.  But that too, she laughed off as a mere attempt to mock her as a dancing partner.  Finally, though, she could not escape dancing with him at the ball at Netherfield when he applied to her. For to turn him down in that instance would mean she could not, in polite form, dance any further that night, and she still clung to a shred of hope that Wickham might be present at the ball and did not want to ruin any chance of dancing with him.  Yet the price she paid for the prospect of keeping her dance card open was all in vain; Wickham did not appear, and Elizabeth had only the satisfaction of learning that Mr. Darcy was an excellent dancer, but a very taciturn conversation partner.  Elizabeth’s other grievance against Darcy related to the terrible injustice by which Mr. Darcy had cheated Mr. Wickham out of the clerical living that was meant to be his, forcing him to choose the military as a career over the church. Elizabeth was sure it was on account of the bad blood between the two men that Mr. Wickham felt unwelcome and did not attend the ball. Yet another sin to add to Mr. Darcy’s faults. 

 But Darcy was gone now, Elizabeth reminded herself, back to London, with his friends the Bingleys and the Hursts.  He would not torment her or poor Wickham any longer. It is a wonder she should have thought of him at all, given that he had been gone from Hertfordshire for over two months now.

 She tried to push the thoughts of the infuriating man back out of her mind and attempted again to write a love note to Wickham.  What should she say about him?  What did she know of him?  He was charming, to be sure, and more handsome and agreeable than any man she had ever met.  What else?  Other than the sad history he had told her of his growing up as the boyhood friend of Mr. Darcy, and the way in which he was later scorned and mistreated out of jealousy for the late Mr. Darcy’s preferment of him over his own son, she knew very little about Mr. Wickham. He was in the militia, but that was hardly material for writing valentines. Elizabeth jotted a few lines on some scrap paper.  “To the most handsome and charming man of my acquaintance…will you be my valentine?”  On paper, the words seemed empty and trite.  She crumpled up the scrap, frustrated with her inability to pen a decent love note.  Heaving her tired body upon the bed and burying her face beneath her pillows, she resolved to try again to write with fresh eyes under the light of a new day.

A Regency era valentine card
A Regency era valentine card

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If you enjoyed this excerpt, you can get the full story here for FREE. Get your FREE copy of Elizabeth's Secret Admirer

Happy reading!

Amanda Kai

11 Responses to Correspondence Between Men and Women in the Regency

  1. My friend and I are big letter writers. We met in ’62 and have been writing to each other ever since. I haven’t seen her in years but we still manage to keep in touch. It sort of reminds me of Elizabeth and Charlotte. Thanks for sharing. Blessings, stay safe, and healthy.

  2. I’ve actually lamented the demise of letter-writing. So often, we look to letters to help us understand people from our pasts, or historical figures. But with everything now electronic, so much of that correspondence will be lost. You don’t wrap up a pile of precious emails in a length of ribbon, do you?
    Your story sounds wonderful. I wonder what spurred Mr. Darcy to send Elizabeth a valentine? Can’t wait to read it!

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