Adventures in Reading

Sense & Sensibility: Raping Locks
September 13, 2007, 3:13 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

rape.jpgI have commented before about my interest in the search terms that lead Internet explorers to my blog. An example from today’s search list is “gossip definition 1828 old english,” which seemed quite appropriate considering the vast amount of gossiping that occurs in Austen’s novels. I turned to the ever so handy Oxford English Dictionary and found a great deal of information though the third definition looks to be the one I am looking for: “To talk idly, mostly about other people’s affairs; to go about tattling.” From an unpublished paper by Man in Self-Arrest he says, “The word gossip as a noun used to refer to women past middle age, and became a sign of respect synonymous with mothers or godmothers (350). It has since changed meaning to reflect and diminish the conversation of these ‘gossips.'” [1] And as a final reference I visisted Brewer’s and searched for “gossip.” I obtained quite the variety of results but my favorite (and suitable for Austen) had to be scandal-broth: “Tea. The reference is to the gossip held by some of the womenkind over their ‘cups which cheer but not inebriate.’ Also called ‘Chatter-broth.'”

Probably my most exciting momet while reading Sense & Sensibility is when Margaret retells the story of Willoughby requesting and obtaining a lock of Marianne’s hair. Later the lock reference comes up again as Edward is wearing a lock of hair around his finger. He explains, in company, that it is Fanny’s though Elinor believes it is her hair and later Lucy claims it to be her own lock. With all of this hair madness going on what else can a girl think of besides Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock? I am atrocious with dates so before anything else I wanted to place Pope’s poem in the appropriate chronological time with Austen. Pope lived from 1688 to 1744 and his poem was published in 1712 while Sense & Sensibility was published in 1811. The poem is a satirical story and the title the rape or the theft of a lock of hair is reminiscent of heroic epics and women, such as Helen, being stolen away.

While I have not managed to find any sources on the importance of giving and receiving hair it is obviously an intimate and personal gift. Thus, in Pope’s tale the theft of a lock of hair brings about a family feud while in Austen’s Sense & Sensibility it is a token of affection and esteem. Though I do find myself quite curious in the history of lock giving and taking.

In chapter eight some gossip comes out regarding Colonel Brandon from Mrs. Jennings. The group (Middletons, Brandon, Jennings, Dashwoods, Willoughby, etc) are gathered to visit Brandon’s estate when a letter arrives for him, which calls him immediately away much to the shock and chagrin of the party. Here Mrs. Jennings shares a most succulent piece of gossip: Brandon is associated with a younger woman that Jennings claims to be his daughter or his “love child.” While this seems a very un-Brandonlike piece of news it does give the party much to think about.

Soon after the party the Willoughby Tragedy strikes. He is called to London. After Colonel Brandon left the party everyone decided to still make the best of the day. Willoughby and Marianne soon leave on their own only for the reader to find out later that they had spent the day touring the house and properties of Allenham – a property Willoughby is to inherit upon the death of his aunt Mrs. Smith. It is interesting news in many respects that they went off alone for so long, that Marianne toured Mrs. Smith’s home without the woman’s consent, and of course with the growing affection between Marianne and Willoughby it seems very much that she is looking over her own future property. Mrs. Jennings is delighted by more gossip while Elinor is affronted by Marianne’s improper behavior. Right after all of this takes place, as I mentioned, Willoughby leaves and in such a manner that no one knows what to think. Mrs. Dashwood and Marianne hope for the best (though are thoroughly depressed) while Elinor remains cynical of Willoughby’s behavior.

A central theme in Sense & Sensibility is gossip and how gossip misinforms and misrepresents. Think of a large tree on a sunny late summer’s day. The wind blows through the branches only allowing for some light to cascade through the fluttering leaves. This is a pretty good metaphor for how gossip works in the story. If the light is what is actually happening we only have scant periods to observe the actual situation. Thus, most of Sense & Sensibility is only learned through retrospect (or a second reading) when the reader has the opportunity to sift through what is so and what is not so.

[1] Walker, Barbara. The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets. Harper and Row: San Francisco. 1983.

This post’s image is from a random 1999 English course syllabus (thanks Google!) and the illustration is attributed to Aubrey Beardsley for Pope’s “The Rape of the Lock.” London: Leonard Smithers, 1896. The Elisha Whiittelsey Collection.

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