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Marriage and Marriageability: A Linguistic Study of Mrs. Dashwood and Mrs. Jennings

Despite their limited interactions throughout the course of Sense and Sensibility, the stately and elegant manners of Mrs. Dashwood stand in stark contrast to those of the gregarious Mrs. Jennings, whose carelessly outspoken nature verges on coarse. Differences in the mannerisms of these two characters, both mothers of children either married or of marriageable age, figure prominently in the novel’s rendering of the topic of matrimony. Careful attention to these characters’ speech acts at the level of the word and the sentence thus makes manifest narrative choices surrounding the implicit or explicit discussion of the potential, realized, or thwarted marriage. An analysis of their relevant utterances can therefore provide insight into these two critical maternal characters’ relationships to marriage and marriageability, the central concerns around which the novel’s plot turns.

Mrs. Jennings and Mrs. Dashwood are united by their shared desire to see productive matches made of their young company, yet divided by their divergent mannerisms, notions of respectability, and the terms upon which they consider and discuss hypothetical or actual matrimony. To explore and explicate how these points of similarity and difference are rendered through dialogue, I draw upon Mikhail Bakhtin’s theory of speech genres, which provides a framework for considering the relationship between literary style and the communicative capacity of what he calls “utterances.” I further apply Dan Sperber and Deirdre Wilson’s relevance theory, and particularly their notion of ostensive-inferential communication, to help unpack the significance of particular characters’ speech acts. By attending closely to these two contrasting visions of motherhood as presented by the dialogue within the text, we may situate the novel’s construction of these characters within its broader figuring of marriage.

Mrs. Jennings’s frequent, unsubtle bids for romantic intel (which she, in turn, guards none too carefully) represent a dramatic departure from Mrs. Dashwood’s respectful restraint on the matter, even (and perhaps particularly so) where it concerns her own daughters. Mrs. Jennings lowers herself to probing the youngest Miss Dashwood for information (“‘Oh! pray, Miss Margaret, let us know all about it . . . What is the gentleman’s name?’” [62]) and recruiting Elinor to extract further details about Lucy from Nancy (“‘Get it all out of her, my dear. She will tell you any thing if you ask’” [254]). She feigns furtiveness, using linguistic cover to direct contemplation toward that matter which the omission of detail is ostensibly intended to downplay: “‘Aye, aye . . . we know the reason of all that very well; if a certain person who shall be nameless, had been there, you would not have been a bit tired . . . ’” (163). By contrast, Mrs. Dashwood recoils from the notion of questioning Marianne directly regarding her incipient relationship with Willoughby: “‘I would not ask such a question for the world. Supposing it possible that they are not engaged, what distress would not such an enquiry inflict! At any rate it would be most ungenerous. I should never deserve her confidence again, after forcing from her a confession of what is meant at present to be unacknowledged to any one’” (84).

Relevance theory, which ties the contextualized applicability of a pronouncement (or “utterance,” in Bakhtin’s terms) to its cognitive impact, is useful for assessing these representative quotations. Within this framework, the notion of “ostensive-inferential communication” characterizes utterances as being defined by both an informative intention and a communicative intention (Sperber & Wilson 255). Accordingly, Mrs. Jennings communicates not just a desire for personal knowledge of the romantic interests and pursuits of others, but her view of the acceptability of gathering such details by whatever means may prove expedient. By the same token, the outraged character of Mrs. Dashwood’s response suggests not only her personal aversion to such a line of questioning, but a more sweeping disapproval of so direct a verbal pursuit of information related to others’ dealings in the realm of betrothal and marriage. In the context of the novel, this dichotomy enshrines verbalizations surrounding romantic intents and entanglements as a metric by which we may assess the nature of a character and her significance to the story.

Further, in accordance with their significance to character development, the nature of a character’s dialogical utterances shifts according to context. When news of Lucy’s marriage to one of the brothers Ferrars reaches Mrs. Dashwood, she immediately assumes the burden of procuring further details, allowing “Elinor . . . the benefit of the information without the exertion of seeking it” (329). Her follow-up questions are simple, straightforward, information-gathering utterances: “‘Who told you that Mr. Ferrars was married, Thomas? . . . Was there no one else in the carriage? . . . Do you know where they came from? . . . And are they going farther westward? . . . Did Mrs. Ferrars look well?’” (329-30). Mrs. Dashwood, correctly sensing an opportunity to be of assistance to her eldest daughter, politely takes on the investigative speaker role more commonly occupied by Mrs. Jennings for ends that are not so plainly noble. By representing both characters as pursuing such lines of questioning under different circumstances and with different apparent justifications for doing so, the narrative emphasizes points of departure in their respective natures and notions of acceptability within relationships.

Similarly, these two characters’ spoken reactions to Colonel Brandon’s situation allow for a particularly direct comparison of their mannerisms and attitudes. Addressing the Colonel, whose infatuation with Marianne has become plain to her (though not through his own acknowledgement), Mrs. Jennings bluntly states: “‘I do not know what you and Mr. Willoughby will do between you about her.’” While addressing the subject of her utterance directly in so straightforward a manner that a claim of jocularity would not stand, she nonetheless centers herself—that is, she cannot fathom what will be done. She goes on in much the same vein: “‘Ay, it is a fine thing to be young and handsome. Well! I was young once, but I never was very handsome—worse luck for me. . . . But Colonel, where have you been to since we parted? And how does your business go on? Come, come, let’s have no secrets among friends’” (156). This monologue is instructive as to the manifestly unfiltered character of Mrs. Jennings’s verbalizations. She openly discusses what no other character will name in mixed company (the implicit romantic rivalry between Brandon and Willoughby), before plainly meditating upon her own erstwhile situation in greater detail than could be expected from any other character, and finally turning to an insistent inquiry into the Colonel’s own goings-on. Her sense of entitlement to information is somewhat tactless, perhaps, but not sinister, as she offers information about herself as freely as she solicits personal information from others. Mrs. Jennings’s keen interest in others’ lives is merely one of the more materially troublesome facets of her cheerful, sociable, good-natured disposition.

When Mrs. Dashwood discusses the Colonel’s affection for Marianne, meanwhile, she distinguishes herself from Mrs. Jennings by doing so covertly, in intimate conversation with Elinor. She even opens the conversation with the explicitly articulated acknowledgement of having waited to discuss the matter until they could speak privately: “‘At last we are alone. My Elinor, you do not yet know all my happiness. Colonel Brandon loves Marianne. He has told me so himself . . . You are never like me, dear Elinor, or I should wonder at your composure now’” (313). Beyond the insinuation that to speak of such matters in anything other than absolute privacy would be untenable, it is worth noting that, even privately, Mrs. Dashwood relays only what has been made quite clear to her in person. Where Mrs. Jennings speaks freely on the basis of intuition, Mrs. Dashwood exercises discretion even when the truth has been confirmed. Further, Mrs. Dashwood intimates that she judges herself discomposed by naming a contrast with Elinor’s apparent equanimity, ensuring that her efforts to avoid public discussion or revelation of the details she mentions privately are read as all the more intentional.

While the “common-place raillery” and “rather vulgar” nature (36) of Mrs. Jennings is dramatically out of step with Mrs. Dashwood’s characteristic “romantic delicacy” (84), the contrast between their mannerisms ultimately intensifies the parallels between their similarly principled natures. For instance, the narrator intimates from the outset that Mrs. Dashwood’s assessment of a prospective partner for her daughter is “alike uninfluenced by either [the] consideration” of his potential fortune or the precarity of its realization: “It was enough for her that he appeared to be amiable, that he loved her daughter, and that Elinor returned the partiality” (17). Subsequently, rejecting “with a good humoured smile” Sir John’s insinuation that her daughters may end up in conflict for the affections of Willoughby (who is deemed “‘very well worth catching’” for his projected fortune), Mrs. Dashwood replies: “‘Men are very safe with us, let them be ever so rich’” (46). Mrs. Dashwood apparently bears no anger toward her cousin for his somewhat indelicate language, but is nonetheless careful to correct his suggestions about the imagined actions of her daughters.

Likewise, when the revelation of Lucy and Edward’s heretofore furtive engagement provokes fury and outrage from Mrs. Ferrars and her daughter, Mrs. Jennings explicitly rejects the idea that considerations of class should unduly hinder an otherwise promising match: “‘I have no notion of people’s making such a to-do about money and greatness’” (242). Nor can Mrs. Jennings’s characteristic “blunt sincerity” be restrained, even in the presence of Mr. Dashwood himself, whose critical assessment of Edward’s decision to maintain his engagement she cannot allow to stand unchallenged: “‘I beg your pardon, Mr. Dashwood, but if he had done otherwise, I should have thought him a rascal’” (250). Mrs. Jennings’s sense of propriety thus exists not in the minutiae of tactful conversation, but in the extent to which one’s actions reflect constancy and respectable principles.

Verbal expression allows these two maternal characters to find alignment in their shared distaste for a solely class-based approach to matchmaking. Here, disparate verbal approaches amount to similar displays of moral fortitude. Mrs. Dashwood shields her daughters from the suggestion of undignified fawning by notably including herself in her reply, while Mrs. Jennings’s repeated use of first-person statements shows her dauntlessly owning her personal judgment of Edward’s behavior to both Elinor and John (the latter of which, it should be noted, shies away from the appearance of argument merely on the basis of his respect for her wealth). While the nuances of their verbiage set them apart in terms of personality, the character of their pronouncements ultimately unites Mrs. Dashwood and Mrs. Jennings in a shared commitment to defending the integrity—indeed, the marriageability—of their young relations.

While attempting to convince Elinor and Marianne to accompany her to her wintertime residence, Mrs. Jennings rejects out of hand their proffered excuse (that their mother could not spare them): “‘I am sure your mother will not object to it; for I have had such good luck in getting my own children off my hands that she will think me a very fit person to have the charge of you’” (146-7). Though indiscreet and perhaps indecorous, she is nonetheless correct in her implicit assumption that she and Mrs. Dashwood both view the successful marriages of their children as their highest reward. Later, the latter recounts to Elinor her deep satisfaction at the prospect of Marianne’s marriage to Brandon: “‘Had I sat down to wish for any possible good to my family, I should have fixed on Colonel Brandon’s marrying one of you as the object most desirable’” (313-4). With respect to matrimony, Mrs. Jennings is positioned as looking toward the future; she is intrepid, if hasty and prone to verbally misstep. Mrs. Dashwood’s dignified manners and cautious approach to dialogue on the subject of marriage provide a noteworthy contrast, which ultimately reifies the centrality of marriageability to the concerns of all in the pair’s social circle.

Works Cited
  • Austen, Jane. Sense and Sensibility. Edited by Rosalind Ballaster, Penguin Books, 1995.
  • Bakhtin, M. M. Speech Genres & Other Late Essays. Translated by Vern W. McGee. Edited by Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist, University of Texas Press, 1986.
  • Sperber, Dan, and Deirdre Wilson. “Relevance Theory.” The Handbook of Pragmatics. edited by Laurence R. Horn and Gregory L. Ward, Blackwell, Malden, MA, 2006, pp. 607–632.
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