Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

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How is the pattern of gossip broken or changed in Sense and Sensibility?

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Jane Austen offers one group of characters who are more likely to spread gossip and another who tend to refrain from such behavior. They are not, however, mutually exclusive. Austen clearly conveys the temptation to indulge in frivolous and often harmful perpetration of unfounded rumors, as she provides examples of individuals who find such temptation irresistible. The whispered stories of engagements made and broken and of implicit attachments dominate the plot.

Lucy Steele and Edward Farrars have entered into a secret engagement, but Lucy proves incapable of...

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Austen writes in and about an era during which gossip was gold. News, as it was often so innocently coined, was the currency of the time. Those who knew the fortunes and ills of their neighbors, were wealthy, indeed.

Sense and Sensibility provides a commentary on the dangers of wielding this capital with indiscretion and carelessness. However, Austen also offers a sneaky counter-commentary on how gossip, when used with diplomacy and maturity, can help to salve the very wounds inflicted by the community’s less prudent chatterboxes.

In this tale of the Dashwood family's eldest two sisters, Elinor and Marianne, we get to witness, as readers, the ways gossip influences how each experiences the death of their father, eviction from the family home, and the search for love and marriage.

Elinor, herself a model of propriety, takes great care not to generate any gossip of her own so as not to draw negative attention on herself or her family. Yet she consistently suffers from the gossip of those around her.

Her highbrow sister-in-law, Fanny, gossips about the expectations placed on both her brothers, hinting that Elinor would never be a suitable match for Edward, as it was becoming noticeably clear that the two were forming an attachment with one another.

Her hosts at Barton Cottage, Sir John Middleton and Mrs, Jenning use gossip as sport to keep them entertained amid an otherwise dull life in the country. They regularly tease Elinor with gossip about her secret love interest.

Lucy Steele confides her own bit of gossip to Elinor when she divulges her secret engagement to Edward. The revelation puts Elinor in the difficult position of playing confidant to the very woman who destroyed her dreams for happiness. (Lucy, of course, eventually feels the tension of her own web of deceit when she discloses her secret to Fanny, leading to the dissolution of her engagement, and the disinheriting of Edward.)

Marianne, being of unbridled spirit, flouts the very notion of gossip and propriety and the uptight restraint that is required to live above its claws. Yet, she is still wounded by it. Her dalliance with Mr. Willoughby is brought to an abrupt end when gossip of his improprieties reaches his wealthy aunt. She disinherits him, forcing him to choose a wealthy bride, abandoning Marianne to mourn her lost love. The pain of it nearly destroys her.

Both her lack of discretion and decorum while courting Mr. Willoughby and her excessive mourning of the severed relationship generate gossip that reflects unfavorably on the entire Dashwood family.

The newly widowed Mrs. Dashwood is wounded by the gossip that follows the death of a husband that left her poor, evicted from her family home, and with limited dowries and prospects for her three daughters.

Then, of course, there are the men: Mr. Willoughby, Colonel Brandon, and Edward Farrars.

Mr. Willoughby, all charm and nobility at first glance, is actually doing his best to outrun the gossip that past nefarious actions have generated. Eventually the gossip catches up to him, and he is, as previously mentioned, forced to choose a wife for convenience rather than follow his heart into a union with Marianne.

It is the latter two - Colonel Brandon and Edward Farrars - who help to temper the negative effects of so many loose lips. Neither of these men contribute to the gossipy conversations that are perpetually happening in their presence. Both seem more comfortable in the role of silent observer, forming their own opinions from their own observations.

Colonel Brandon, when relaying the news of Mr. Willoughby’s indiscretions, does so only in the strictest confidence of Elinor, whom he believes to be steadfast and trustworthy. His only goal in sharing this salacious news is to spare the Dashwood family, and Marianne, in particular, from public shame. In doing so, he is eventually rewarded with the hand of his beloved Marianne, elevating the Dashwood’s level of status and wealth.

Edward Farrars is completely indifferent to the rumor mill. His actions are all based on his desire to do what is right, even to the detriment of his own happiness. Despite falling in love with Elinor, he remains true to the secret commitment he made to Lucy Steele when they were in school. It is Lucy who, desirous of money and status, eventually rejects him for his financially favored brother, Robert, leaving Edward free to finally pursue his true love, Elinor. The generosity of Colonel Brandon securing a parish for him, offers him the security needed to marry her, following his disinheritance.

Thus, Austen is showing us that while gossip may have a certain cache and currency in the world of Society, it often leaves a trail of shrapnel in its wake harming everyone involved. She also cleverly demonstrates how gossip can be used to good advantage, with noble intention, to help repair the wounds once inflicted by those wagging tongues. Thus, the shifting of the unspoken rules of the gossip game allow conflicts to resolve and wounds to be healed for the Dashwood sisters and those who love them.