Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

Speaking Fictions: The Genres of Talk in Sense and Sensibility

Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

Speaking Fictions: The Genres of Talk in Sense and Sensibility

Article excerpt

IN HIS JOURNAL. The Loiterer, Jane Austen's brother James wrote about language with heavy irony: "Language," he says, used to be defined as "the Art of expressing our Ideas." But nowadays, he suggests, it can more justly be called "the Art of concealing our Ideas." Catherine Morland may well wonder, "How were people, at that rate, to be understood?" (NA 211).

Sense and Sensibility can be read as a set of variations on this "Art of concealing our Ideas." The uses and abuses of language, spoken and written, are constantly before us. Always alert to the speech habits of her characters, Austen is here particularly concerned to explore how their speech falls into different recurring modes of talk, developing several different branches of the art of concealing ideas, or of speaking, in Swift's phrase, "the thing which is not." Speech in Sense and Sensibility is all too often fiction, and fiction, we know, has its genres. Here I shall consider not the idiolects or individual speech patterns that make the characters' voices so instantly recognizable, but rather the recurring modes of speech that groups of characters share.

The most approved characters are aware of the tendency of language to slide towards fiction or misrepresentation, and try to combat it. Edward, for instance, lingers over the specialized terminology of the picturesque, and apologizes, '"I shall call hills steep, which ought to be bold; surfaces strange and uncouth, which ought to be irregular and rugged .... You must be satisfied with such admiration as I can honestly give'" (97).

This is a moment in which Edward, for once, deserves his status as the hero of Sense and Sensibility: for all too few characters bother themselves about admiring and speaking "honestly." Edward insists that Elinor "'must allow me to feel no more than I profess'" (98). He is really concerned to be exact in his expression, and not to get carried away, as other characters do, by pressure to speak emphatically, and merely for effect. "'[M]y idea of a fine country,'" he explains, is the landscape that "'unites beauty with utility'" (97).

In the same passage Marianne laments that because "'[e]very body pretends to feel'" for landscape, the terms have become "'worn and hackneyed out of all sense and meaning'" (97). The same vision of the devaluation of language by dishonest practice, I suggest, pertains at large in Sense and Sensibility, which presents with wonderful vividness and variety the verbal abuses that come so trippingly to so many tongues. Edward, with his concern for honesty, and Elinor, who tries valiantly to "explain the real state of the case" in her feelings for Edward (21), are a blessed minority among a crowd of characters whose speech is employed to dazzle and misrepresent. They earn their place in a moral center for their commitment to seeing and representing a thing, in Arnold's phrase, "as in itself it really is." For them language, like a fine country, should unite beauty with utility.

What is the "use" of language, spoken and written? The idealized view is that it is for the exact communication of truth, or for expressing our Ideas, as James Austen says: it is not to draw attention to itself, but rather to act as the transparent medium, like a pane of glass, through which we can view reality. But what Jane Austen does in all her novels, and in Sense and Sensibility especially, is to look at speech rather than through it, to examine not only what it truly communicates, but also the ways in which it colors, distorts, reverses, and misrepresents.

The abuses of language explored in Sense and Sensibility are not so much the debased diction and misuses of particular words that Henry Tilney makes his target in Northanger Abbey, but rather the abuses of truth and honesty that language, as our best means of communication, is meant to guard. Sense and Sensibility is the most satiric of Austen's novels, the one that presents the sourest view of human nature in general and of human speech in particular. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.