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Gossip, Girl: The Power of Rumor in Pride and Prejudice

In chapter 14 of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Collins horrifies his cousin Lydia by reading aloud James Fordyce’s popular conduct manual Sermons to Young Women (1766).  Choosing Mr. Collins as the voice for Fordyce’s Sermons certainly seems to suggest that Austen was not, herself, a devoted disciple of Fordyce’s ideas about young women and may have found them—much like Mr. Collins himself—silly and outdated.  As Marian E. Fowler notes, “Mr. Collins is Fordyce writ large:  the same pompous and pious tone, the same patronizing air when addressing women” (57).  Nevertheless, various critics have pointed to Fordyce’s influence on Austen, with Susan Allen Ford writing that Fordyce’s Sermons had been republished multiple times by the time Pride and Prejudice was published in 1813 and that the conduct manual was cataloged in the family library at Godmersham Park, which Austen was known to visit.  Austen’s familiarity with Fordyce is not a matter of debate, but how much did his writing affect Austen’s own? 

In Sermon 1, “On the Importance of the Female Sex, Especially the Younger Part,” Fordyce indicates he was less than impressed with the quality of education for young women, especially at boarding schools:  “And what do they mostly learn there?  I say mostly; . . . they learn chiefly to dress, to dance, to speak bad French, to prattle much nonsense, to practice I know not how many pert conceited airs, and in consequence of all to conclude themselves Accomplished Women?” (1: 13).  The phrase “accomplished women” will likely stand out to familiar with Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.  One early point of contention between the novel’s hero and heroine, Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet, centers on this term and what makes a woman accomplished.  Elizabeth possesses very few of the qualifiers for Miss Bingley’s so-called accomplished woman—“‘a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages’”—though she does match Darcy’s addendum for a love of reading (39).  Fowler points out that most of these qualities could easily be ascribed to the Bingley sisters, “who have been turned out in the mold of the elegant female” (55).  Yet these qualities in and of themselves do not guarantee the possession of other important characteristics that Elizabeth and her sister Jane possess:  intelligence, self-awareness, kindness, and courtesy.  As Laura Vorachek writes, “Elizabeth’s tendency to speak her mind and her witty, teasing responses to others would not meet with Fordyce’s approval, and, yet, it is exactly her lively, playful manners that attract Darcy” (135).  In modeling the superiority of Elizabeth and Jane to the Bingley sisters and rewarding them with good marriages to the most eligible men in the book, Austen seems to be directly spurning Fordyce’s ideals. 

Notably, Austen’s uses Elizabeth’s and Darcy’s argument about the definition of an accomplished woman near the beginning of their relationship, and Fordyce begins his Sermons with a similar argument.  In his estimation, dancing, dressing, and speaking “bad French” hardly qualify a woman to be accomplished.  His evaluation of how young women spend their time—“prattling much nonsense”—is, however, less remarked upon (1: 13).  Indeed, Fordyce seems quite concerned with this prattling, since variations of the word (“prattle” and “prattling”) are used frequently to describe the way women converse with each other (1: 13, 47, 100, 113, 145).  If Austen’s treatment of the accomplished woman suggests that her characters are, at least in part, a response to Fordyce, it’s interesting to also think of how these characters are a response to Fordyce’s “prattling of nonsense.”  This description might be apt when we consider Lydia’s and Kitty’s fantasizing about soldiers, or Mrs. Bennet’s scheming to marry off her daughters, or Caroline Bingley’s trying to win Mr. Darcy’s attention.  Yet to describe the conversations of characters like Elizabeth, Jane, Charlotte Lucas, or Mrs. Gardiner as “prattling” does a clear disservice to these intelligent, nuanced women. 

Though there are many topics of conversation Fordyce may have considered as prattling, the term must certainly have encompassed gossip.  Gossip, rightly or wrongly, has long been attributed to girls and women and been dismissed as silly, petty, even dangerous.  Yet it is not only the “prattling” characters such as Lydia, Kitty, and Mrs. Bennet who gossip in Pride and Prejudice.  From the opening sentence—“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife” (3)—Austen reminds us of the persuasive power of gossip and how it can become a powerful force wielded by communities of women.  Gossip strongly influences the plot of the novel, from the general dislike of Mr. Darcy after the Meryton Assembly to Lady Catherine’s intervention when she believes Darcy and Elizabeth to be engaged.  In Pride and Prejudice Austen interrogates Fordyce’s ideas on “prattling” by providing a surprisingly nuanced outlook on gossip, showing how it can be both positive and negative in its impact; additionally, the import of gossip on the plot indicates the subtle power of women in Austen’s novel, as they use words to build communities, test relationships, and shape their world.

Austen and gossip 

It may be useful to first define gossip, “a word with a vexed history” (Spacks 19).  Gossip, as we understand it today, is the passing on of information about someone else, usually of a pernicious or salacious nature, and is usually not confirmed or distributed by its subject.  Though not strictly defined as a feminine pastime, gossip is usually ascribed to women, and those who participate become known as gossips.  Erin M. Goss notes that the word gossip evolved over time, becoming “a person, mostly a woman, of light and trifling character, esp. who delights in idle talk; a newsmonger, a tattler” (167).  By this definition, gossip would seem to be a wholly negative practice, and those who participate would likewise be viewed negatively.  Yet some critics have reconsidered the role of gossip in society.  Without the gossip recorded in diaries and letters, much of the world’s history, events, and people, would remain obscured and flattened.  Patricia Meyers Spacks further argues, “Gossip . . . penetrates to the truth of things, reporting not fantasies of human greatness but realities of human pettiness” (25).  Gossip digs past the outer veneer of how people wish to be perceived and shows how people behave when they believe no one is watching.  Gossip was thus an especially powerful tool for women throughout history; often unable to act and speak for themselves, intentionally kept in the dark by men to protect their “innocence,” women often had to rely on the sharing of secrets and hidden revelations to understand the truth behind society’s facade. 

Because gossip has played such an important role in women’s lives, it is perhaps no surprise that Austen wrote extensively about it.  Many of her plot points turn on gossip, from Emma’s speculations about Jane Fairfax and Mr. Dixon to Maria Rushworth’s ruined reputation after her affair with Mr. Crawford, to Elinor Dashwood’s false belief that Edward has married Lucy Steele.  Austen’s inclusion of so much gossip in her novels seems pointed, since she would not have been ignorant of the moralists’ stance on gossip.  As Elaine Bander writes, “Moralists and courtesy books condemned [gossip], with about as much justice as they condemned novel-reading, as a peculiarly female vice, and gentle-women who indulged in it risked losing prestige thereby” (119).  Yet Austen does not always position gossip as a negative practice within her books.  Her own heroines, such as Emma Woodhouse and Catherine Morland, participate in it; and though these two heroines both come to regret the secrets they have divulged, the problem is the characters with whom they trusted the information, not necessarily the gossip itself.  By way of comparison, no remonstrance is placed on Elinor and Marianne for sharing secrets with each other; speculation about one’s neighbors seems to be allowed so long as it is performed with a trusted confidante. 

Austen’s narrators might also be considered incorrigible gossips.  In her article on Austen and Jane West, Goss notes the similarities between a societal gossip and a literary narrator:  “narrators emerge as gossips, transmitters of information about those fictional others who are uninvited (and unenviable) either to confirm or deny the details a narrator provides a reader about them” (167).  Ned Schantz suggests further that a narrator functions as a gossip who is “an impossible well-informed friend” (4).  Austen’s narrators, in particular, slyly convey information about her characters as the most indiscriminate of confidence-keepers.  Gleefully pointing out the flaws and foibles of the fools, villains, heroes, and heroines of the novels, Austen’s narration often undercuts moments that might otherwise veer into territory of the sentimental novel—think, for instance, of the pomposity of Sir Walter counterbalancing the pathos of Anne Elliot’s neglect and loneliness.  If the narrator is the playful gossip informing us about Austen’s world, she is perhaps giving us insight into the way gossip is used within the novel itself:  sometimes harmless, sometimes disastrous, sometimes ill-advised, and sometimes necessary to deeper human understanding. 

Gossip in Pride and Prejudice 

Gossip runs rampant in Pride and Prejudice.  The first line from the omniscient narrator reflects the gossip that has been circulating in Meryton about a newly arrived, single, wealthy marriage prospect for the young ladies in town.  From this point, the gossip in the novel may be broken into distinct categories:  expositional gossip and inciting gossip.  Expositional gossip would refer to moments, like the example cited above, that clue us into the characters, their backgrounds, their flaws, their states of mind, or information about the collective community, but that do not move the plot in any major, direct way.  The discussion of Bingley’s arrival into town foreshadows the direction of the plot, but the gossip surrounding him does not directly impact the characters’ trajectories—although it may be said to indirectly do so, since it is the gossip that compels Mrs. Bennet to pester Mr. Bennet into visiting Mr. Bingley, thereby opening the opportunity for his daughters to be introduced to the eligible bachelor. 

Expositional gossip is perhaps the most common type found throughout the novel, from the narrator’s asides about the characters to the characters’ discussions about one another.  Fordyce would very likely have disapproved of this type of gossip, which may fall into what he categorizes as “noisy, empty trivial chatter of everlasting folly” (1: 100).  He cautions parents to “teach your daughters to distinguish, between good breeding and pertness, between an obliging study to please and an indecent desire to put themselves forward, between a laudable inquisitiveness and an improper curiosity” (1: 99).  The Bennets roundly fail in this regard, as most of the daughters display at least one of these negative characteristics:  Elizabeth could be said to be pert, especially in the company of her so-called betters; Mary’s indecent desire to put herself forward manifests in her overconfidence in her own abilities and her “impatien[ce] for display” (25); Lydia demonstrates improper curiosity on a number of occasions, being too free in asking for favors from Mr. Bingley and her flirtation with Wickham.  We may excuse the Bennet girls for some of their shortcomings, however, since their mother is Mrs. Bennet, from whom Fordyce would have certainly recoiled.  He details his horror of the “impertinence of a female tongue let loose into boundless loquacity” and the “disgust” caused by “such a scene” (1: 100).  Indeed, Mrs. Bennet’s loose tongue causes not only disgust but also damage at the Netherfield Ball when she speculates too freely about Bingley’s feelings for Jane and sabotages their relationship.  In these examples, Fordyce’s remonstrances against gossip seem to be mostly confirmed through the characters’ actions. 

Other examples also seem to favor Fordyce’s indictment against gossip and loose tongues.  We frequently see the Bennet sisters engage in light, mostly harmless expositional gossip as they discuss the soldiers, who danced with whom at the ball, and the deficiencies of Miss King.  Yet it is not only the Bennets who engage in this kind of gossip.  The Bingley sisters gossip about the state of Elizabeth’s petticoats; Mr. Collins gossips about Lady Catherine’s furniture; Lady Catherine gossips about Darcy’s supposed betrothal to her daughter, Anne.  Though these moments add color to the novel and help to fill out the characters who indulge in this idle talk, they have no real negative or positive effect on the plot of the novel. As such, like Fordyce, we might be tempted to dismiss all this talk of “dress, and fashions, and fashionable amusements” (1: 100).  This gossip bears little consequence for good or for bad and may very well be deemed trivial. 

Inciting gossip, however, proves to be more complicated.  Inciting gossip is that gossip exchanged by characters that can shape the events of the plot.  For instance, Lady Catherine hears the gossip that Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth are engaged, motivating her to pay Elizabeth a visit.  Lady Catherine demands that Elizabeth promise never to marry Darcy; Elizabeth refuses; Mr. Collins gossips about it to Mr. Bennet, who teases Lizzy nearly to tears (“It was necessary to laugh, when she would rather have cried” [364]).  This secondhand gossip gives Mr. Darcy the courage to offer a second proposal:  “‘It taught me to hope . . . as I had scarcely ever allowed myself to hope before’” (367).  Though not all gossip is well-intentioned, it does directly propel the plot and characters toward the happy marriage concluding the novel, calling into question whether gossip is truly “a weakness which cannot be justified” as Fordyce suggests (5: 100). 

Not all the inciting gossip in the novel, however, has such a positive outcome.  Wickham’s fabricated story about Mr. Darcy, for example, solidifies Lizzy’s dislike of Darcy and keeps them apart from each other for longer than they might have otherwise been.  Furthermore, Lizzy’s interest in Wickham’s salacious rumors about Mr. Darcy reveals an important character flaw in our heroine.  Though Lizzy “honour[s]” (80) Wickham for his pretense at discretion, she also yearns to hear the gossip—“wish[ing] to hear” what “she could not hope to be told” (77) and deriving “mutual satisfaction” with Wickham (84) in hearing Darcy’s character torn apart.  Lizzy knows she ought to refrain from gossip but demonstrates a lack of discretion and sense by indulging in the salacious rumors, and she illustrates her propensity toward rashly judging people.  She delights in the negative gossip about Darcy because it confirms the suspicions she has already nurtured, and she trusts Wickham because he has “all the best part of beauty, a fine countenance, a good figure, and very pleasing address” (72).  In this case, Lizzy falls prey to Fordyce’s “prattling” condemnation. 

We also see the negative power of inciting gossip in Lydia’s elopement with Wickham and the real threat that the Bennet family faces ruin because of the ensuing gossip.  The threat of this gossip may compel Mr. Darcy to intervene and save the reputation of the woman he loves, but though the outcome may be positive, it would be disingenuous to suggest that it is good.  Austen describes how rapidly the “good news” of Lydia’s marriage spreads, and the reaction of Meryton: 

To be sure it would have been more for the advantage of conversation, had Miss Lydia Bennet come upon the town; or, as the happiest alternative, been secluded from the world, in some distant farm house.  But there was much to be talked of, in marrying her; and the good-natured wishes for her well-doing, which had proceeded before, from all the spiteful old ladies in Meryton, lost but little of their spirit in this change of circumstances, because with such a husband, her misery was considered certain.  (309, emphasis mine) 

The gossip that pervades the pages of the novel oftentimes seems silly or humorous, but here we get a hint of cruelty at its core, as the “spiteful old ladies in Meryton” are disappointed by the averted scandal but thrilled at the prospect of Lydia’s future misery.  Regardless of the outcome, they find “much to be talked of” and prattle away about the details of Lydia’s marriage.  Austen explores the negative power of gossip, the consequences of a lack of discretion, and the power that idle talk can have over lives and reputations. 

Austen counters these examples, however, with a moment in which Elizabeth could (and perhaps should) have shared private confidences to ruin a reputation but decides not to do so.  In another moment of inciting gossip, Elizabeth learns the truth about Mr. Wickham and his bad behavior toward the Darcy family.  Scandalized by her own earlier lack of propriety, Elizabeth deliberates on whether she should reveal the truth about Mr. Wickham once she returns to Meryton and discusses the best course with Jane.  Jane fears “‘exposing him so dreadfully’” and Elizabeth agrees that since Mr. Darcy has not “‘authorized’” her to share this information, it “‘ought not to be attempted,’” further rationalizing: 

“if I endeavour to undeceive people as to the rest of his conduct, who will believe me?  The general prejudice against Mr. Darcy is so violent, that it would be the death of half the good people in Meryton, to attempt to place him in an amiable light.  I am not equal to it.  Wickham will soon be gone; and, therefore, it will not signify to anybody here, what he really is.  Sometime hence it will be all found out, and then we may laugh at their stupidity in not knowing it before.  At present I will say nothing about it.”  (226) 

Elizabeth convinces herself that no good will come from this gossip, and Jane agrees, noting, “‘To have his errors made public might ruin [Wickham] for ever’” (227).  Notably, Lizzy and Jane consider the effect the gossip will have on others—on Georgiana, on Darcy, on “the good people of Meryton,” and on Wickham himself—though Elizabeth must surely also worry how it will reflect on her own character. She wonders aloud, “‘who will believe me?’”  Without proof to back up her claims, her position as a purveyor of this gossip is precarious; her prattling will be powerless.  When Wickham elopes with Lydia, Lizzy regrets her discretion; her sister would not have been vulnerable to Wickham had she made his past known.  With this example, Austen begins to push back at some of the values underpinning Fordyce’s condemnation of gossip. 

Fordyce is, of course, not alone in painting gossip negatively; those who practice gossip, often women, are depicted as being at best silly, at worst morally deficient.  Yet, as Spacks points out, men have traditionally had a vested interest in preventing women from sharing secrets with one another, through “denial and contempt, contempt conveyed in the dismissive verbs, denial in the refusal to grant significance” (20).  Men, and writers of conduct manuals such as Fordyce, relied upon the shaming of women into silence to protect their own interests, likely understanding that such shaming isolated women and kept them compliant and submissive.  We see this history in the dilemma that Elizabeth suffers in her worry about sharing the truth of Wickham’s past:  she is quiet partly to protect Georgiana’s reputation, partly to protect her own.  Although she has knowledge of a predator in her community, she is implicitly shamed into silence so that she won’t be perceived as an idle prattler like her mother and sisters.  As Spacks notes, however, “If the man values, and has a right to value, secrecy, the woman values, and has a right to value, community.  She needs community in order to resist an imposition of power” (45).  If women cannot communicate freely with each other without ridicule, then they cannot report upon men behaving badly; but if women learn to develop trusted communities of confidantes, the power of gossip might be put toward keeping that community safe. 

Gossip as power 

Austen subtly makes us aware of the power of gossip, for good and for evil, throughout the novel.  The most overt examples of gossip are usually negative, ranging from silly to harmful.  What remains consistent throughout is the pervasiveness of gossip, its ability to transcend class and background:  the servants gossip, and so does Lady Catherine.  Men as well as women gossip, with the immediate examples of Mr. Collins, Mr. Bennet, and Mr. Wickham coming to mind. 

Nearly every major woman character in the novel gossips at some point, and this pattern is not coincidental.  Just as Austen’s gossiping women can have the power to negatively influence lives—such as the dislike of Darcy after the Meryton ball or Lydia’s nearly ruined reputation—Austen subtly suggests a way in which a shared information in a group of women can protect and strengthen their families and communities.  Knowing when to spread information, when to withhold it, and with whom to share it, proves to be an invaluable lesson that Elizabeth learns throughout the course of the novel.  In the final chapter, Austen outlines the ways in which Lizzy stays in communication with the women around her while cleverly finding ways to exclude the influences that might threaten their happiness.  The final chapter details how Elizabeth and Jane learn to limit their time with their mother while still receiving the benefit of visits from Mr. Bennet, “especially when he was least expected”; how Kitty is “carefully kept” from “the farther disadvantage of Lydia’s society” (385); how Mary benefits from no longer being “mortified by comparisons between her sisters’ beauty and her own” (386); how Lizzy permits Lydia to visit Pemberley without her husband, when he “was gone to enjoy himself in London or Bath”; how Miss Bingley learns to cease sniping about Elizabeth and “pa[y] off every arrear of civility” (387); how Georgiana is strengthened by Lizzy’s willful influence, “receiv[ing] knowledge which had never before fallen in her way”; and how Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner become valued members of Pemberley’s shared community, “on the most intimate terms” (388).  With a curated community of women such as Jane, Mrs. Gardiner, Kitty, and Georgiana, Elizabeth is certain to benefit from the power of shared confidences, discreet secrets, and, yes, even a little juicy gossip every now and then. 

Though Fordyce might not have enjoyed the prattling that must certainly result from the communication between so many women, he may very well have approved of Elizabeth’s surrounding herself by this chosen community of friends and family members.  In his Sermon V: “On Female Virtue, Friendship, and Conversation,” he writes, “Happy beyond the common condition of her sex is she, who has found a Friend indeed” (1: 86).  Austen may not have agreed with Fordyce on every position, but on this point they seem to be in alignment:  that a trusted companion, sister, friend, confidante, and community, carefully chosen and formed, can make all the difference between danger and safety, loneliness and despair or bright sparkling happiness.

Works Cited
  • Austen, Jane.  Pride and Prejudice.  Ed. R. W. Chapman.  3rd ed.  Oxford: OUP, 1965.
  • Bander, Elaine.  “Gossip as Pleasure, Pursuit, Power, and Plot Device in Jane Austen’s Novels.”  Persuasions 23 (2001): 118–29.
  • Ford, Susan Allen.  “Mr. Collins Interrupted: Reading Fordyce’s Sermons with Pride and Prejudice.” Persuasions On-Line 34.1 (2013).
  • Fordyce, James.  Sermons to Young Women.  3rd ed.  Philadelphia: Carey, 1809.  Hathi Trusthttps://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=mdp.39015008247788&view=1up&seq=5
  • Fowler, Marian E.  “The Feminist Bias of Pride and Prejudice.”  Dalhousie Review 57.1 (1977): 47–64.
  • Goss, Erin M.  “Homespun Gossip: Jane West, Jane Austen,and the Task of Literary Criticism.”  The Eighteenth Century 56 (2015): 165–78.
  • Schantz, Ned.  Gossip, Letters, Phones: The Scandal of Female Networks in Film and Literature.  Oxford: Oxford Academic, 2008.
  • Spacks, Patricia Meyer.  “In Praise of Gossip.”  The Hudson Review 35.1 (1982): 19–38.
  • Vorachek, Laura.  “Intertextuality and Ideology: Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and James Fordyce’s Sermons to Young Women.”  New Windows on a Woman’s World: Essays for Jocelyn Harris.  Ed. Colin Gibson and Lisa Marr.  Otago Studies in English 9.  Vol. 2.  Dunedin, NZ: Dept. of English, U of Otago, 2005.  129–37.
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