Saturday, 26 March 2011

Public Information and Private Secrets in Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility

Many secrets are kept in Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, and many are indiscreetly divulged. Firstly, there are several engagements that take place, and some are secret. Most important is that of Edward and Lucy Steele, which has been kept secret for many years. The involved parties do not seem particularly ashamed of the fact, even though Edward regrets his decision rather quickly. This can be contrasted to the secret engagement between Miss Fairfax and Mr. Churchill in Emma, where Miss Fairfax is tormented with the shame of having entered into an engagement that has to be concealed. Lucy Steele’s lack of shame is one of many indications of her bad character, and of the folly of youth which drove Edward into making such a choice. 

An additional engagement that actually didn’t take place, but which was presumed to have, is that of Marianne and Willoughby. Marianne’s relations were convinced that an engagement had taken place but that there was a need to keep it secret. This need is explained to be in regards to Willoughby’s cousin Mrs. Smith, to whom he had to look for money. It is thus presumed to be the same reason as for Edward’s and Ms. Steele’s concealment, who try to hide their engagement from Edward’s mother. When Elinor tries to persuade her mother to speak to Marianne about the matter, Mrs. Dashwood firmly refuses: “I would not ask such a question for the world. ... I should never deserve her confidence again, after forcing from her a confession of what is meant at present to be unacknowledged to any one” (Austen, 1994, p. 82). Merely speaking of such a subject is thus considered a breach of good manners.

Willoughby’s engagement to Miss Grey, on the contrary, is exclaimed all over London and very much talked off immediately after it occurs. There is no secret there, even though most people seem to realise that there is no affection in the case. Where true love (in some cases) has to be hidden, a marriage for money was to be celebrated. Edward’s mother had no problem speaking of an upcoming engagement between her eldest son and a woman he had barely met, yet his engagement to Lucy Steele was kept under wraps. It seems as though money matters more than feeling when it comes to making issues public.

On an different matter, the indiscretion of Mrs. Jennings in speaking of love and men to and about everyone illustrates to the reader that she is a silly woman, one who brings pain to the Dashwood sisters when they are troubled in love. Yet she is not a bad person for when asked by Elinor not to talk about Willoughby’s marriage in front of Elinor she keeps her word. As such, Mrs. Jennings can be contrasted with Lucy Steele who reveals the fact of her engagement far too easily, and lacks no scruples in speaking of it with Elinor. Presumably this is because she wants to make Elinor jealous, but a secret shouldn’t be divulged however much one wants to make another person jealous.

Furthermore, another character who cannot separate the public and private matters is Lucy Steele’s older sister Anne Steele who more than once shows a great lack of restraint. The matters of love are in general treated very publicly by all characters who lack those gentleman or gentlewoman manners that are valued in so many of Austen’s works. If someone speaks publicly about their love in Sense and Sensibility it can generally be concluded that they are not perfectly respectable. This goes for Willoughby and Marianne as well, who show their emotions far too publicly. Marianne, however, changes after realising how foolishly she has acted, and can thus be contrasted with Willoughby who doesn’t. Not even when Marianne is presumed to be on the brink of death can he act with decorum, but instead declares his undying love for her to Elinor, after having been married to Miss Grey.

The realms of public and private information cause many problems in the novel. Had Elinor only considered herself able to tell Marianne about Edward’s engagement she would have suffered much less, yet she respects the boundaries of a secret in a way that Lucy Steele does not. Further, if Colonel Brandon had made Willoughby’s character known before Marianne fell in love with him, or before she placed herself in such an exposed position in society, he would have spared her much pain. This can be contrasted with Mr. Darcy’s not making Miss Darcy’s elopement plans with Wickham known in the village, which would have spared Lydia, and Elisabeth as well. Colonel Brandon is said to have acted in the best interest of Marianne, hoping that she would be happy and successful in her love for Willoughby, yet it would probably have been better for her to know of his disposition earlier.

Not one character in Sense and Sensibility is unaffected by information that should have stayed private. Even Elinor, who reveals nothing of herself to others, is hurt by other people’s belief that she will marry Edward. She is hurt both by public and by private information – both by what she knows and what others think that they know.

The characters of Elinor and Marianne do not only reflect sense and sensibility, but also private and public. Elinor keeps all information to herself, while Marianne makes more known than what actually is true. Not a word or hint is dropped by Elinor about the matters so dear to her heart, while Marianne acts in such a way as to make even those close to her believe that she is engaged. These two opposites are strongly contrasted against each other, yet neither is considered to be better than the other. Not until they can both compromise on their characters (Marianne by keeping composed and Elinor by confiding in Marianne and her mother) do they become truly happy and achieve their goals. 

Works Cited

Austen, Jane. Sense and Sensibility. London: Penguin Popular Classics. 1994.

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