Tag Archives: Secrecy in Sense and Sensibility

Secrets in Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

I always enjoy rereading Jane Austen’s novels. Whichever one I choose there is always something new to discover, a character I didn’t notice before, or a plot moment that makes sense. I belong to the South West branch of the Jane Austen Society, and have greatly missed our meetings where learned enthusiasts provide insights and pleasure from their presentations. 

I reread Sense and Sensibility in preparation for an online talk later this month, focussing on money in the novel. The characters of John Dashwood and his wife, who in their meanness fail to provide for his stepmother and sisters, have always made a deep impression on me. How easy it is to persuade yourself against undertaking the right thing that you don’t want to do if someone supports you.

Mrs John Dashwood has come in haste to occupy the house of her deceased father-in-law and to usurp his second wife, with no sensitivity but all the entitlement. John Dashwood had some modest suggestions for how to support his relations. But she argues against her husband making any provision for his father’s second wife and three daughters:

It was very well known that no affection was ever supposed to exist between the children of any man by different marriages; and why was he to ruin himself, and their poor little Harry, by giving away all his money to his half sisters? (43)

Selfishness is a key feature of several of the characters in this novel. My own interest in rereading it after 10 years is in the secrecy that so many of the characters employ, and which frequently drives the plot. The reader is in the know of all these secrets, and able to see the affects upon the people involved.

Sense and Sensibility

Mrs Dashwood senior leaves the home of her married life with her three daughters to live in a cottage near Exeter provided by a generous cousin and neighbour, Sir John Middleton. Her two elder daughters are at the age when they have to think about getting married. Elinor, the oldest of the three, is a young woman of good sense and modest skills in drawing. She has formed an attachment to Edward Ferrars and believes that the feeling is mutual although he has not yet declared himself.

Marianne is younger, and more headstrong, inclined to believe that her own sensibilities are a better guide than society’s strict codes of behaviour. On running down a hill in the countryside near their new accommodation she falls and is rescued by Willoughby. He is a well-connected young man, the supposed heir of his aunt’s nearby estate. He and Marianne are immediately attracted to each other, and it is clear to everyone that they are falling in love. After a few happy weeks he suddenly tells the Dashwoods that he must leave Devon and does not expect to return. Has he proposed to Marianne before he left, or not? Marianne does not say, her family do not ask, and when Marianne meets him again in London a few a months later, he rebuffs her.

The novel follows the fortunes of the two sisters, whose natures are in contrast, as they find their way to their marriages. 

Secrets in Sense and Sensibility

Openness is not a feature of society in Jane Austen’s day. Some secrets can be seen as discretion, information that should not be widely discussed. Some secrets are power, to control of the behaviour of others. And some are protection from society’s codes.

Elinor, as a young woman of evident sense and thoughtfulness, becomes the recipient of two secrets. The first is Colonel Brandon’s story about his brother’s wife. Her reputation and that of her daughter has been ruined by a seducer. This is at the bottom of the Colonel’s sudden departure from Devon, and he will not reveal it despite all attempts by Mrs Jennings to discover it. His revelation to Elinor in part demonstrates his good character and also how much he is deserving of our sympathy.

The second secret is imparted to Elinor in order to control her behaviour. Lucy Sharpe is an ambitious and selfish young woman who some years before caught the affections of Edward Ferrars, and they became secretly engaged. Lucy tells Elinor of this and by making her her confidante it is impossible for Elinor to become as close to Edward as she might have wished. The reader can see how mean-spirited Lucy is and understand why Edward Ferrars behaves with reserve towards Elinor.

Marianne is not open with her mother and sister about her relationship with Willoughby, partly because she does not wish to be controlled by society’s codes, would rather be governed by her own disposition. This lack of openness allows her mother to believe the best of Willoughby, and to fail to warn Marianne about the dangers she is in, not least from a broken heart. After her great disappointment at Willoughby’s rejection, and the decline of her spirits, Marianne becomes quite wrapped up in herself and eventually falls seriously ill. Only when she recovers does she come to see her behaviour as wilful and selfish rather than the expression of great sensibility. She takes herself to task and after listing all the people she feels she has wronged, and reflecting on Elinor’s troubles with Edward Ferrars she acknowledges this neglect to her sister in this way:

Not less when I knew you to be unhappy, than when I had believed you to be at ease, did I turn away from every exertion on duty or friendship scarcely allowing sorrow to exist but with me, regretting only that heart which had deserted and wronged me, and leaving you, for whom I professed an unbounded affection, to be miserable for my sake.’ (337-8)

Mrs Jennings is a colourful figure, initially it seems without any self-awareness to prevent her enquiring into people’s secrets. She enjoys gossip and teasing her young acquaintances. But she redeems herself by her generosity and her ability to act in the best interests of the two Dashwood sisters. 

Mr John Dashwood is against secrets. Edward Ferrars is his wife’s brother. But when Lucy Sharpe suddenly marries Edward’s brother, Robert, he expresses this view

The secrecy with which everything had been carried on between them, was rationally treated as enormously heightening their crime, because, had any suspicion of it occurred to the others, proper measures would have been taken to prevent the marriage; and he called upon Elinor to join with him in regretting that Lucy’s engagement with Edward had not rather been fulfilled … (360)

He demonstrates a lack of understanding of Elinor’s feelings by this outburst. There is something a little chilling about the idea of ‘proper measures’ being taken to prevent the marriage. It sits alongside another rather uncomfortable observation about Marianne’s eventual marriage (not to Willoughby). Her mother and sisters and even Mrs Jennings are united in encouraging Marianne to accept this second suitor.

With such a confederacy against her … – what could she do? (366)

Jane Austen has a great deal of fun at the expense of those characters for whom selfishness and lack of generosity are paramount. They are condemned from their own mouths as I have indicated. And those who would indulge their children can be criticised too: Mrs Dashwood with Marianne, Mrs John Dashwood with Harry,  and Mrs Ferrars with Robert. The novel nicely indicates the tension in society between being rational and restrained on the one hand and emotional and following one’s desires on the other.

Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen was her first published novel, appearing in 1811. I used the Penguin English Library edition of 1969. 371pp

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