What Would Jane Austen Have Twittered?

After the recent Web 2.0 Expo NY–a sprawling, week-long conference and exhibition–I ducked into the Morgan Library to catch “A Woman’s Wit: Jane Austen’s Life and Legacy.” A one-room show about an 18th century novelist seemed like the perfect antidote to a week of tech talk in the Death Star Javits Center.

As I’d hoped, the Morgan focuses on a handful of objects from Austen’s life, and the commentary is thoughtful. I was surprised, though, to find myself thinking that had Twitter been around in Austen’s time (1775-1817), she would likely have been a fan.

Austen wrote more than 3,000 letters, many to her sister Cassandra. They corresponded constantly, starting new letters to each other the minute they finished the last one and sharing the minutia of their lives. From reading Austen’s novels, I’d always assumed that people in her era spent a long time waiting for the mail. But the show mentions that during Austen’s life, mail in London and environs was delivered six times a day. Sometimes, a letter sent in the morning was delivered the same evening. Which makes snail mail sound a lot more like email or twitttering.

The speed of mail at the time and the content of the Austen sisters’ letters suggest that the desires to communicate instantly and to let other people know what you ate for breakfast aren’t modern phenomenon. Of course, Twitter lets you share your soy milk-to-cereal ratio with strangers and thus adds a layer of publishing to our updates. But people today often assume that email, Twitter and other relatively instant communication media have created a slew of brand new communication behaviors. The Jane Austen show at the Morgan suggests just the opposite: our human patterns are surprisingly consistent, and technology evolves to meet us.

Incidentally, the show doesn’t say when multi-daily snail mail faded, and I wonder if it passed out of fashion with the rise of the telegraph in the mid-1800s. Anyone know?

tags: ,
  • It’s only in the last few years that twice-daily deliveries were stopped in the UK. This book has the somewhat complex rules behind multi-day delivery early in the 18th century:

    It looks like the US had them until 1950 as well:

    The other part of Austen’s world I find fascinating is that novels were considered a trashy art-form, much like blogs or comics today, not something for serious adults. It helps me keep the establishment’s criticism of ‘new media’ in perspective.

  • Bill

    Great post and thanks to you and any editors who said it should be featured. The sort of comment that brightens the day and opens views to other parts of our lives.

  • BirgitJevnaker

    Great post! Made me wonder: Would people be able to find and reread the tweets of today’s Jane Austens after another two hundred years?

  • So glad you wrote about this. When you told me this story as we walked around MOMA, I was hoping I’d see it as a blog post!

  • Scott

    You might also like a biography of Ada Lovelace, the daughter of Lord Byron. It’s called “Ada, the Enchantress of Numbers”, by Betty Toole. It’s a selection of her letters mostly between her and Charles Babbage. Ada basically wrote short letters like you mention many times a day. She lived 1815-1852. She is considered by many to be the first computer programmer and this book describes the first computer. http://www.well.com/~adatoole/

  • Thanks for posting this! I’d actually imagined Jane Austen as a blogger (even wrote a book with that theme), but she would’ve been a master Tweeter! I understand that there’s a new book coming out next year by Francois Gossieaux which aims to prove what you stated – that Web 2.0 is really about Human 2.0 and it’s just a different medium for us to express ourselves the way we always did.

  • The quick pace of postal delivery also helps explain the rise of the epistolary novel. “Sense and Sensibility” was begun as an epistolary novel, “Lady Susan” is an epistolary novel, and letters are critical to plot and character development in the regular prose novels too: Darcy’s explanatory letter to Elizabeth, Wentworth’s love letter to Anne, Marianne’s letters to Willoughby, Jane’s clandestine correspondence with Frank Churchill.

    Epistolary novels are mostly out of fashion today, which makes the rare successes all the more noteworthy: “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society,” completed by the clever and witty Annie Barrows.

    That novel is set in the years just after WWII, and so we might still ask if there’s room in the world for a modern epistolary novel set in modern times? And what would that look like? I’m intrigued by the possibility of a tweeted novel. It can’t not have been done, right? Anyone know of one?

  • This sure triggered a thought. I think I would actually like to set up a website of my famous classic writer and set up a fictional blog. Nothing could be a greater tribute, I guess!

  • Great comments, everyone.

    Thanks for the GAO link, @Pete. My dad noted in email that parts of Newark, NJ had twice-daily snail mail into the 1970s, and downtown Newark have delivery four times a day.

    @Susannah, people have worked on novels in 140-character chunks (I believe Miguel Helft of the NYT had one going for a while). But I don’t know of a tweeted novel that’s epistolary–though I agree such a thing must exist or be on the way.

  • Meryl

    Rick Moody is posting Twitter novel @ElectricLit. http://twitter.com/ElectricLit

  • great post! also reminding me i have to get this as a huge jane austen fan.

  • For what it’s worth, @marionjensen organized a group earlier this year and reenacted the Battle of Gettysburg via Twitter (http://www.twhistory.com/?page_id=8). This was the first Twitter reenactment of which I am aware. In October a High School Cold War History class in Missouri researched and tweeted the Cuban Missile Crisis. They created 15 Twitter accounts to represent several of the major players in the crisis (http://www.twhistory.com/). I have written a How-To for others who are interested in doing their own historical reenactments with Twitter: http://tomcaswell.com/2009/09/25/416/.

  • This is a great post. I definitely think people miss the point when they bemoan Twitter as a hotbed of narcissists posting about their breakfasts. For me social media reflects all human life, it doesn’t change it.

  • bowerbird

    susannah said:
    > we might still ask if there’s room in the world for
    > a modern epistolary novel set in modern times?
    > And what would that look like?

    did you google for it?

    > http://www.nytimes.com/2004/04/15/technology/call-me-e-mail.html
    > http://www.greatamericannovel.com
    > http://tracearchive.ntu.ac.uk:80/print_article/index.cfm?article=77


  • Love the comments here, everyone.

    @Frank: “social media reflects all human life, it doesn’t change it.” Well put!

    @bowerbird: It looks like the links you’ve included are for novels based around email and other digital media. I believe Susannah was asking about Twitter-specific novels that are, moreover, in epistolary form (i.e., back-and-forth exchanges, like a series of letters).

  • bowerbird

    well, of course the things i pointed to are not twitter-specific,
    because they were done before twitter was even introduced…

    does the phrase “modern times” preclude the pre-twitter era?


  • bowerbird

    oh yeah, and the two projects
    i linked to are most definitely
    novels that are in epistolary form
    (i.e., back-and-forth exchanges,
    like a series of letters)…


  • Rick Innis

    A colleague once noted that his grandmother remembered being able to send a dinner invitation in the morning post and receive an answer in the afternoon delivery. This was in London, in the 1920s, and I believe this wasn’t unusual at the time.

    When I lived in Edinburgh in the 1908s we still had two deliveries a day.

  • Lennert Dorman


    You should have written: ‘Letters send before 10 AM would be delivered at noon’

    “A letter dropped in the twopenney post before 10 a.m. would be sent out for delivery on the noon “walk.” If answered promptly, the reply might be received by the seven o’clock evening delivery.

  • Mel

    @Rick Innis – How extraordinary that people would actually respond promptly to invitations… via post! These days you might send a dinner invitation and never receive a response at all.

    Facebook’s “Maybe” option is the most pernicious enabler of this kind of rudeness. It implies that someone doesn’t find the event important enough to commit to attending.

  • Raquel

    3000 letters?
    Wondering… how many twitts she could have written?

  • Patrick Elliott-Brennan

    Oh Crap!

    I was just saying this to my wife about a month ago.

    She’s a big Jane Austen fan (okay, yes, I was converted too) and I was just mentioning to her how twitter, e-mail etc have given us the ability we used to have when mail was delivered several times a day and (the wealthy) could afford to pay people to deliver notes to those who lived reasonably close by.

    THEN I’m on the ‘net this evening and see a link to your post on Boingboing!

    I should’ve written this down sooner :))

    Nice post though :)) Of course I agree with you :)

  • Sarah Milstein

    @Patrick: Another persistent human trait–the desire to have published an idea sooner! :)