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Rectifying an Ignorance of the World: The Critique of Social Silence in Austen’s Sense and Sensibility

As Mrs. Jennings insists to Elinor that she will not speak another word to Marianne about the now infamous Willoughby, she says, with a hearty lack of self-awareness, “What good does talking ever do you know?” (143). While we might laugh at the irony of her question, it is not as rhetorical as the character means it to be. In fact, I would argue that this is the very question at the heart of Sense and Sensibility: what kind of talking “does good” and when is silence the best course of action? The social world of the novel exists in constant tension between spreading rumors based on non-verbal evidence and maintaining a strict social silence about taboo topics. As a result, the two heroines of the novel, sisters Marianne and Elinor, have trouble reading rightly the men to whom they give their hearts. This inability to form accurate judgments may not be entirely their fault, but rather the fault of their social circle which revels in gossip about some issues but will not speak at all about others. The great irony of the work is that no one has a problem spreading the news of Marianne’s “engagement” to Willoughby, while at the same time no one is willing to directly ask her about it. Even more problematic, Colonel Brandon is not willing to reveal Willoughby’s despicable actions even though it might save Marianne from a miserable marriage at best and a fate like that of Eliza at worst. A likeness between engagements and marriages implicitly bound people to silence should unflattering information become available about one of the parties involved in an engagement. However, even if the social customs of the day exonerate Colonel Brandon, a larger question remains: Does Austen ultimately condone these social customs? I suggest that Austen lays a critique of such social silence before the reader, one that she includes subtly in Sense and Sensibility and more directly in her later, more mature work, Persuasion. Austen’s work is ever calling for re-reading in order to come to greater understanding, an activity that we often undertake along with her characters as they re-read their own experiences. The astonishing similarity between the rationales of Mrs. Smith and Colonel Brandon calls us to reread Sense and Sensibility with the boldness of Anne Elliot who openly questions Mrs. Smith’s drastic change of opinion about Mr. Elliot. In such a bold investigation, we should see Colonel Brandon’s actions in a new light, and come to a new understanding of how problematic this social silence can be for women seeking marriage.

While it is true that Mrs. Smith’s initial silence about Mr. Elliot’s character and her positive encouragement to Anne to marry him both come from a selfish, though pitiable, motive, she appeals explicitly to this identification between engagements and marriages: after Anne confronts her about her abrupt change of opinion, Mrs. Smith says, “My dear…there was nothing else to be done…I could no more speak the truth of him, than if he had been your husband” (149). Considering Anne’s marriage to Mr. Elliot a foregone conclusion, she adheres to the propriety of social silence and keeps Mr. Elliot’s lack of justice and compassion to herself. Mrs. Smith says, “My heart bled for you, as I talked of happiness. And yet he is sensible, he is agreeable, and with such a woman as you, it was not absolutely hopeless” (149). In turning to Sense and Sensibility, we find almost the same words from the mouth of Colonel Brandon: “to suffer you all to be deceived; to see your sister – but what could I do? I had no hope of interfering with success; and sometimes I thought that your sister’s influence might yet reclaim him” (153). The resemblance is striking. Again, we have a confession of heartbreak, and again we have a justification based on the possibility for rehabilitation. Although the motives of Mrs. Smith and Colonel Brandon differ, they both appeal to this respect for the integrity of the engagement above all else. As readers we more easily see Mrs. Smith’s silence as problematic since, in part, it was motivated by her selfish desire for Anne to convince Mr. Elliot (more easily if he were her husband) to help her reclaim some of her late husband’s property, thereby raising her out of poverty. However, the scene prompts the question, could any motivations for her silence have justified it? Anne “shudder[s] at the idea of the misery which must have followed” had she been persuaded to marry Mr. Elliot (149). The fact that Austen allows her character, Anne, to call out Mrs. Smith for her social silence should draw our attention to it and inspire us to return to Sense and Sensibility, for there we have a similar instance of silence, still obligated by social custom but motivated by, perhaps, more just intentions.

In returning to Sense and Sensibility, we see that rumor and silence are constantly in tension and that breakdowns of direct communication foster problems from the start. Marianne, in fact, is the first person to make an assumption about someone’s engagement without verbal confirmation. She assumes, based on her own observations, that Elinor is engaged to Edward after his time with them at Norland. “Are you really not engaged to him?” she exclaims when she finds she is mistaken, and our narrator relates that she was “astonished to find out how much the imagination of her mother and herself had outstripped the truth” (16). At first the reader may think that this type of assumption comes from the extreme sensibility that she and her mother share, yet once the object of observation becomes the relationship between Marianne and Willoughby, it becomes apparent that nearly everyone in their social circle is perfectly willing to make the same kinds of imaginative assumptions. Rumors fly freely about Marianne and Willoughby’s engagement; there is, ironically, no social silence that stops Mrs. Palmer, Mrs. Jennings, Mrs. Dashwood, and even Sir John from sharing what they consider to be certain knowledge of the engagement though it has no basis in any explicit communication from either Marianne or Willoughby. Even the sensible Elinor makes assumptions about the couple based on their actions, waffling back and forth about her conviction throughout the first half of the novel as each new piece of observed evidence arises. After overhearing Marianne and Willoughby discuss the horse he gifted to her, during which he uses her “Christian name alone,” Elinor “doubted not of their being engaged to one another”; however, after Willoughby’s unexpected departure from the county, Elinor’s doubt returns (44). She says to her mother, “I want no proof of their affection, but of their engagement I do” (59). Elinor seems to be the only person who can separate affection from engagement.

Despite an abundance of talk in the form of hints and rumors, no one dares to break the deeper silence about the engagement by simply asking Marianne to confirm or deny it. Even Elinor, her own sister, and Mrs. Dashwood, her own mother, dare not ask. Her mother insists that some engagements might even require secrecy if the “marriage must be at a very uncertain distance,” and so she resolves to respect Marianne’s silence on the subject with her own (61). Incidentally, Austen seems to critique this kind of secrecy even of real engagements as well, for it is the very thing that entangles Edward and Elinor in a web of disappointment and misunderstanding. Even when they are in London and Marianne can be seen attempting to correspond with Willoughby, Elinor still refrains from asking outright, concerned about insulting and alienating her sister: “I long to inquire; but how will my interference be borne!” (121). Without the ability to ask directly about the engagement without impropriety, it is no wonder that people must resort to a kind of inductive logic, constructing an argument for or against any couple’s engagement by assembling a string of evidence, such things as using a Christian name, roaming the countryside together in a curricle, walking the grounds of homes that might be theirs in the future, and, of course, above all else, corresponding by private letter.

We have now seen how one kind of silence (and an opposing kind of talk) surrounds a presumed engagement, and it is because of this kind of silence and talk that Elinor makes a critical decision that in turn results in Colonel Brandon’s initial silence about Willoughby’s character. When Colonel Brandon finally asks Elinor for confirmation of what has been “universally talked of,” Elinor debates with herself briefly before responding (126). Elinor’s voice colors the narration at this point at the end of Volume II Chapter 6:

The real state of things between Willoughby and her sister was so little known to herself, that in endeavouring to explain it, she might be as liable to say too much as too little. Yet as she was convinced that Marianne’s affection for Willoughby could leave no hope of Colonel Brandon’s success, whatever the event of that affection might be, and at the same time wished to shield her conduct from censure, she thought it most prudent and kind, after some consideration, to say more than she really knew or believed. (127)

In a kind effort to save Colonel Brandon from false hope and inevitable heartbreak, Elinor says more than she really knows or believes, and in doing so, places her sister’s engagement beyond the realm of judgment for Colonel Brandon. He leaves immediately after this communication, saying as he goes, “to your sister I wish all imaginable happiness; to Willoughby that he may endeavour to deserve her” a parting wish that, upon re-reading, seems a poor substitute for the real protection he could have offered (127).

When the engagement has finally, and publicly, collapsed, Colonel Brandon returns to deliver his information to Elinor. He tells an appalling story of Willoughby abandoning his relative Eliza, pregnant and with “no creditable home, no help, no friends, ignorant of his address,” information which Colonel Brandon has had for many weeks (153). He admits, as I have already quoted above, that he was in agony at seeing her so deceived, yet hoped for his rehabilitation. He then adds, “but now, after such dishonourable usage, who can tell what were his designs on her?” (153). Only after realizing that there was no positive engagement between them does Colonel Brandon consider in retrospect that Willoughby’s relationship with Marianne could have run the same course as his relationship with Eliza. Since Willoughby was capable of such despicable behavior without a formal engagement, it is difficult to believe that such a formal engagement would prevent him from abandoning Marianne if his whims so directed him. Even if we allow that under the pressure of a formal engagement Willoughby would have stayed with Marianne, would that marriage have been good for her? To be married to a man who has so dishonored another woman, a man who has allowed his selfishness and passion to dictate his actions to the ruin of another, would certainly mean difficulty and unhappiness for Marianne. In hindsight, everyone in the novel seems to agree that such a marriage would have been a miserable one. In fact, Elinor thinks so even before Colonel Brandon’s revelation, merely after reading Willoughby’s insufferable letter to Marianne:

She dared not trust herself to speak, lest she might wound Marianne still deeper by treating their disengagement, not as a loss to her of any possible good but as an escape from the worst and most irremediable of all evils, a connection, for life, with an unprincipled man, as a deliverance the most real, a blessing the most important. (134)

Even at this point, Elinor suspects that they had been truly engaged and that the letter represented a “disengagement”; thus, she believes that ending a formal engagement to Willoughby is better than marrying him, even without the knowledge of his abandonment of Eliza. How much more then must the break from him be considered a blessing once Colonel Brandon’s information is known? Even Marianne, once Elinor has finally related the whole story to her after she has recovered from her illness, agrees that she “could never have been happy with him, after knowing, as sooner or later [she] must have known, all this” (257).

While Marianne might be considered lucky to have avoided such a miserable marriage, Austen highlights a possible, perhaps even common, path that many women who are not so lucky as Marianne might find themselves following. Many readers have argued that the fault lies with Marianne. If she had played by society’s rules and not let her excessive sensibility lead her into such a publicly affectionate relationship without any formal tie, then the rumors that kept Colonel Brandon silent may not have started. However, if they did have a formal engagement, as everyone thought they did, surely that should not condemn her to a marriage to a man without virtue. Everyone in Marianne’s social circle, except Elinor and her mother, was operating under the impression that their engagement was settled, and it is what they did or did not do with that knowledge that may be criticized as much as Marianne’s lack of restraint.

Let us return to Mrs. Jennings’s question about talk. What good can it do? At several important points in the novel, characters are accused of lacking some knowledge of the world. When Marianne learns of Edward’s engagement to Lucy, she cannot believe that he ever had real affection for her, and the narrator tells us that “Elinor left her to be convinced that it was so, by that which only could convince her, a better knowledge of mankind” (199). Elinor is rebuked by her brother John when she cannot believe that Mrs. Ferrars should have any concern for what Edward does with his life now that she has formally cast him off: “Ah! Elinor” said John, “your reasoning is very good, but it is founded on ignorance of human nature” (217). Austen repeats this rebuke a third time, when Edward accuses himself of ignorance of the world, insisting that this ignorance led to his regrettable engagement to Lucy (266). In fact, the novel dramatizes Elinor’s and Marianne’s trouble recognizing the true character of the men in their lives in three separate misidentifications of the men themselves. Twice, Marianne sees or hears a man approaching, first on horseback across the valley and second in the entryway of Mrs. Jennings’ house in London, and insists that the man is Willoughby. In both cases her verbal cries of “it is he; it is indeed” are matched in excitement by her eager rush toward the figure (64). However, in both cases, she is wrong: the first man is really Edward Ferrars, the second, Colonel Brandon. Elinor, too, mistakes an approaching figure at the very end of the novel: certain that Colonel Brandon has arrived to give her more news of Edward’s marriage, Elinor is shocked to see Edward himself enter their parlor (263). Our heroines’ inability to recognize these men in the flesh mirrors their inability to fully discern their characters. But how can these young people, especially these women, learn to rightly read mankind if society maintains a strict silence about people particularly when the most important decisions of marriage and family are to be made?

In Sense and Sensibility, Austen provides a subtle critique of a society that refuses to speak openly about people when it matters most out of a misguided sense of propriety yet delights in gossip of nearly every other kind. This particular social silence ensures that for the most part, women are kept in the kind of ignorance of the world that both Marianne and Elinor are accused of. By the end of the novel, both of them, along with their mother, realize they must have a much higher standard for recommendation with Colonel Brandon than they had with Willoughby. However, this realization, this step out of ignorance, could have come at a much lower cost had honesty been the guiding principle for social conversation.

Works Cited
  • Austen, Jane. Persuasion: Norton Critical Editions. 2013.
  • _____. Sense and Sensibility, Oxford World’s Classics, 2017.
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