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Abstract

This paper uses a new historical lens to examine the following question: In what ways do Jane Austen’s male characters adhere to or resist eighteenth century letter writing conventions, and what motivations associated with eighteenth century masculinity influence the content and import of their letters? I juxtapose Austen’s novels and the letters within them with non-literary texts such as conduct books written in epistolary form and eighteenth century letter writing manuals, which contain sample letters that serve as models for correspondence. My paper focuses on the novel Mansfield Park with an emphasis on Edmund Bertram and Henry Crawford’s letters. I argue that, because letters are linked to the performance of masculine duty and rituals of courtship, Edmund and Henry’s letters, or Austen's strategic omission of their letters, demonstrate their undermined masculine status. Edmund’s letter writing reveals that he is simply a conflicted hero, and Henry’s manipulation of and disregard for conventions of letter writing reveals that he is a conniving and ungentlemanly character. Austen seems to suggest that an ideal masculine figure is one who upholds a traditional and upright British masculinity, yet who can also express his feelings. Letters offer the perfect medium through which her male characters can negotiate this. Henry Crawford fails to achieve this ideal because he does not respect the epistolary convention and consequently fails to negotiate his feelings for Fanny. Edmund’s letter to Fanny demonstrates both his ability to write his feelings and his faith in Fanny, which he eventually recognizes as love, and he reclaims his masculine ideal in his union with her.

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