2012 JASNA Essay Contest First Place Winner Graduate Division
Christina A. Denny
St. John’s University
Queens, NY

Why “Willoughby”? Resisting the Familiar in Sense and Sensibility

In Sense and Sensibility, when Marianne Dashwood spies her one-time suitor, Mr. Willoughby, at a fashionable party in London, she reproaches his mystifying formality of manner, exclaiming, “Good God! Willoughby, what is the meaning of this?” (130). Why does she call him “Willoughby”? Modern-day readers with an ear for etiquette might wonder this throughout the novel. In dropping the formal “Mr.” while addressing and speaking of Willoughby, a move she makes soon after they become acquainted, Marianne signals a precipitous intimacy with him that we might hear little future in, even before her memorable London party outburst hastens the revelation that Willoughby had long since decided to marry another.

As comedies of manner, Jane Austen’s novels center on conversation-heavy courtship plots. The names her characters call each other generally follow expected etiquette, yet when they change, resist change, or violate polite norms, we can hear Austen offering concise conversational clues to character and action. As one might expect, characters’ formality or informality of address reflects intimacy level (acquaintances, family relations, secret lovers?) and signals when relationships shift (i.e. from friendship to engagement). Far from simply marking characters’ relationship status, however, in each of her novels Austen also leverages naming etiquette to reveal untoward sexual aggression or passion, and resistance to others’ social manipulation. What’s in a name? A suddenly missing “Mr.” or a dropped “Miss,” as we hear in “Willoughby” and “Marianne,” can say a great deal.

Dropping formalities precipitously, becoming too intimate too quickly, is always an ominous move for Austen’s variously vulnerable young women, especially when a new male acquaintance is in possession of the sexually dangerous attributes of fine looks, good breeding, and engaging manners. Marianne’s relationship with the winning Mr. Willoughby moves fast from the start, a progress charted in the couple’s speech as well as their actions. During Willoughby’s first social call to Barton Cottage, the two are immediately delighted with each other and soon converse “with the familiarity of a long-established acquaintance” (36). A mere three chapters after they meet, Marianne joyfully informs her sister that “Willoughby” has offered her a mare. Deaf to Elinor’s protests of the imprudence of accepting such a gift from such a new acquaintance, Marianne finally allows the mare’s impracticality given their small household income. Willoughby tells her, “But, Marianne, the horse is still yours,” and vows to keep it for her. Elinor overhears his remark, and registers a good deal of meaning in it: in Willoughby’s manner and his informality of using of Marianne’s “christian name alone”—rather than calling her “Miss Marianne” or “Miss Dashwood,” according to expected etiquette—Elinor “instantly saw an intimacy so decided, a meaning so direct, as marked a perfect agreement between them. From that moment she doubted not of their being engaged to each other” (45). While Marianne’s numerous references to “Willoughby” had already announced a smitten heart, Willoughby’s familiar “Marianne” seems to send a clear social signal (to Elinor, Marianne, and the reader) that they will wed. The other Dashwood women begin to drop the “Mr.” too, with effusive Mrs. Dashwood addressing him as “my dear Willoughby” (58). The irony, as we learn in time, is that the nature of the relationship is not explicitly agreed upon or perfectly understood, not even by Marianne. Thus, if Marianne intones a misguidedly expectant female desire in “Willoughby,” we can also hear it seductively encouraged by Willoughby’s own unusual familiarity of address.

Against the ambiguous intimacy reflected in Marianne and Willoughby’s speech, Austen also shows characters attempting to manipulate others through more clear-cut uses of naming etiquette. The Dashwood sisters call Edward Ferrars, their half-brother’s brother-in-law whom they know well and like, by his first name because they are family, but Lucy Steele, a supposed stranger, must speak of him as “Mr. Ferrars.” Once Lucy shrewdly informs Elinor of her clandestine engagement, however, she conversationally marks her man in each subsequent female tête-à-tête as “Edward” and “poor Edward.” Elinor is not fooled by Lucy’s stated motive to become confidantes, that of relieving the pressure of keeping her four-year engagement mum and finding out more about her formidable future mother-in-law. Elinor, we learn, astutely notes Lucy’s jealousy and resolves not to appear riled by the maneuvering of her artful romantic rival: “(W)hile she was firmly resolved to act by her as every principle of honour and honesty directed, to combat her own affection for Edward and to see him as little as possible; she could not deny herself the comfort of endeavouring to convince Lucy that her heart was unwounded” (105). Thus while Elinor has been successfully warned off “poor Edward,” she refuses to give Lucy any additional emotional satisfaction in the victory. In fact, Elinor further resists Lucy’s cloying confidential aggressions about her relationship with “Edward” by continuing to refer to him as “Mr. Ferrars,” signaling not only a refusal of greater conversational intimacy with Lucy but also, perhaps, tacitly revealing her doubts about the actual emotional closeness of the couple.

If dropped formalities in Austen novels can reveal romantic passion and invite another character to intimacy, they can also impose on others where closeness is not mutually desired. For polite young heroines, such as Elinor or complicated, “creep-mouse” Fanny Price of Mansfield Park, verbal formality becomes one of the few socially acceptable venues of resistance. Once Henry Crawford decides he wishes to marry Fanny, for example, he leaves off the “Miss Price” and begins referring to her as “Fanny” and “my Fanny;” expectant sister-in-law Mary displays similar possessive verbal presumptiveness. In a rare display of agency, even if it is simply exercising the power to say “no,” Fanny pointedly rebuffs each of these “Fannys” with a firm “Mr. Crawford” and “Miss Crawford.” But Fanny, and the reader, cannot be completely insensitive to the allure of fond familiarity with which this charming pair address her, founded as it is in sincere affection. When Fanny physically draws back after Henry calls her “dearest, sweetest Fanny” one evening, he seductively begs her pardon, even as he refuses to reinstate the formality she clearly desires: “Perhaps I have as yet no right; but by what other name can I call you? … No, it is ‘Fanny’ that I think of all day, and dream of all night. You have given the name such reality of sweetness, that nothing else can now be descriptive of you” (Mansfield Park 270). “Fanny” is not simply a name here or a lapse of proper manners but intoxicating audible code for desire, attachment, over-confidence—and lack of deference. Wealthy, handsome, willing to wed her, Henry seems (and believes himself to be) so right for impoverished and underappreciated Fanny Price, but Austen wants us to note in his familiar “Fanny” a lack of true esteem, and hear in the rejoining “Mr. Crawford” Fanny’s surprisingly steely insistence on it.

The various senses of the words “familiar” and “familiarity” have changed only slightly since Austen’s time. Among the meanings of the adjective “familiar” listed in the Oxford English Dictionary, the now-rare association with the familial, “of or pertaining to one’s household,” was current through the mid-nineteenth century (“familiar”). The noun “familiarity” could mean “the state of being very friendly or intimate,” but it could also signify “undue intimacy” and a negatively tinged “absence of ceremony, free or unrestrained intercourse” as exemplified by the proverb “familiarity breeds contempt” and a line from Anne Radcliffe’s 1797 gothic novel The Italian (which could as easily describe Marianne’s situation): “To allow him an unusual degree of familiarity in conversation” (“familiarity”). Austen’s fiction is variously inflected with each of these senses of the familiar, particularly regarding discourse, showing great attention to how characters speak and what relative informality of speech and manner can mean. Of the eight instances of forms of the word “familiar” in Sense and Sensibility, for example, three (all “familiarity”) concern the intimacy between Willoughby and Marianne, and two more (“familiarity” and “familiarly”) describe the inappropriate manners of the ill-bred Miss Anne Steele toward Elinor when they first converse, and later when Miss Steele relates information obtained by eavesdropping. “Familiarly” also describes the manner with which Elinor sees Robert Ferrars speak to her brother at a party, an adverb easily explained when Robert turns out to be a family connection, but also subsequently complicated by Elinor’s negative impression of Robert as an affected “coxcomb” with an unwelcome “easy civility” in his speech toward her (Sense and Sensibility 187).

The tonalities of familiarity and formality, manipulation and resistance, that Austen leverages in some of her characters’ naming practices is an extension of her complex employment of conversation which, according to Bharat Tandon, is not so much a technique as a “constitutive atmosphere of her work” (3). Austen’s language is not “morally objective,” Tandon writes, but subtly charged to coax her readers into sophisticated social listening and judging (3, xiii). If Henry Crawford’s persistent informality in addressing Fanny takes advantage of her lowly status in the Bertram household, Willoughby’s conversational familiarity with Marianne, together with the gift mare and his private rape of a lock of her hair, potentially marks her as mistress material. Marianne’s “Willoughby” pushes polite boundaries in its expression of intimacy and female desire, and it also anticipates a familiarity—of the familial sort—that her beloved has not clearly agreed to and ultimately will not give.

Marianne’s expectation of wedding her “Willoughby,” intimated by her sending him letters upon arriving in London, and memorably vocalized in her exclamation when they finally meet again at a party (“Good God! Willoughby, what is the meaning of this?”), encounters a fatal resistance in the subsequent letter he writes to inform her of his upcoming marriage to Miss Grey and to return her mementos. The imagined wedding bells turn to a death knell for their relationship when we see the letter’s cruelly formal address, “My Dear Madam,” a distancing literally dictated by Willoughby’s wealthy fiancée (136). Paradoxically, it is in this decisively distancing letter that we learn Willoughby’s given name, John, suitably piled under the weight of three stiff closing lines:

“I am, dear Madam,
“Your most obedient
“humble servant,

The intimacy of finally knowing Willoughby’s first name is more than cancelled for the reader by the letter’s stilted, formal tone. When Colonel Brandon later reveals Willoughby to be a practiced seducer, it is a confirmation of the verbal seduction and then disillusionment we have already experienced through hearing “Marianne,” and then “My Dear Madam.” And yet—perhaps because, in Marianne’s later silent hastening toward felicity, we never hear her develop a conversational intimacy with “Colonel Brandon”—it is hard not to resist in some small way that new couple’s growing familiarity and feel, like Elinor, some small pang for “Willoughby” (257).

Works Cited:

Austen, Jane. Mansfield Park. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. Print.

—. Sense and Sensibility. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. Print.

“familiar, adj. and n.”. OED Online. September 2011. Oxford University Press. 7 December 2011.

“familiarity, n.”. OED Online. September 2011. Oxford University Press. 13 December 2011.

Tandon, Bharat. Jane Austen and the Morality of Conversation. London: Anthem Press, 2003. Print.