A strong pen, even strokes, letters of an impressive length . . . Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice offers a surprisingly seductive scene about penmanship that’s worth a look, particularly today on the occasion of National Handwriting Day. Focusing on courtship in a world ruled by manners, Austen couldn’t touch the subject of sex. Yet she managed to offer an occasional erotic moment, even if couched in a seemingly innocent conversation about handwriting.
The romance is all one-sided in this P&P excerpt, which has the characters whiling away an afternoon in the drawing room of the Bingleys’ manor house. Mr. Darcy settles in to write a letter to his sister, but he can’t escape the attention of his ardent admirer, Miss Bingley. Though her advances are mostly met with silence, she praises the length of Mr. Darcy’s letter, the speed of his hand, and the evenness of his strokes. She also volunteers to adjust his pen, an offer he quickly refuses, saying he can fix it himself.
Ultimately, flattery gets Miss Bingley nowhere—in this scene and in the course of the novel. Elizabeth Bennet, who keeps her eyes on her needlework throughout most of the exchange, is the one he ends up asking to dance that day, and the one he asks to marry at the end of the novel.
By extension, how much should we read into the admission Miss Bingley’s brother makes about his own handwriting? Charles Bingley, Darcy’s likable friend and romantic foil, says his own writing suffers from the problem of premature expression.
The day passed much as the day before had done. . . . Mr. Darcy was writing, and Miss Bingley, seated near him, was watching the progress of his letter, and repeatedly calling off his attention by messages to his sister. . . . Elizabeth took up some needlework, and was sufficiently amused in attending to what passed between Darcy and his companion. The perpetual commendations of the lady either on his handwriting, or on the evenness of his lines, or on the length of his letter, with the perfect unconcern with which her praises were received, formed a curious dialogue. . . .
“How delighted Miss Darcy will be to receive such a letter!”
He made no answer.
“You write uncommonly fast.”
“You are mistaken. I write rather slowly.”
“How many letters you must have occasion to write in the course of a year! Letters of business, too! How odious I should think them!”
“It is fortunate, then, that they fall to my lot instead of to yours.”
“Pray tell your sister that I long to see her.”
“I have already told her so once, by your desire.”
“I am afraid you do not like your pen. Let me mend it for you. I mend pens remarkably well.”
“Thank you—but I always mend my own.”
“How can you contrive to write so even?”
He was silent. . . .
“But do you always write such charming long letters to her, Mr. Darcy?”
“They are generally long; but whether always charming, it is not for me to determine.”
“It is a rule with me, that a person who can write a long letter with ease cannot write ill.”
“That will not do for a compliment to Darcy, Caroline,” cried her brother, “because he does not write with ease. He studies too much for words of four syllables. Do not you, Darcy?”
“My style of writing is very different from yours.”
“Oh,” cried Miss Bingley, “Charles writes in the most careless way imaginable. He leaves out half his words, and blots the rest.”
“My ideas flow so rapidly that I have not time to express them; by which means my letters sometimes convey no ideas at all to my correspondents.”
. . . .
[Elizabeth said,] “Mr. Darcy had much better finish his letter.”
Mr. Darcy took her advice, and did finish his letter.