Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

Sunday in the Park with Elinor Dashwood: "So Public a Place"

Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

Sunday in the Park with Elinor Dashwood: "So Public a Place"

Article excerpt

VOLUME THREE OF Sense and Sensibility opens with an exciting, fifteen-page chapter filled with gossip, overwrought posturing, and exuberant punctuation. First, Mrs. Jennings brings home to Berkeley Street the news of the Mrs. John Dashwood/Lucy Steele contretemps at Harley Street, exclaiming: "'Lord! my dear Miss Dashwood! have you heard the news!'" (291). Then, in an exchange punctuated with dashes on both sisters' parts, Elinor emotionally "undeceives" Marianne with the truth about Edward's situation. Finally, John Dashwood arrives to "talk over the dreadful affair" and to give details of the "'very shocking discovery that took place under our roof'" (300). This very theatrical chapter--rich in descriptions of Mrs. Jennings's bustling, "hurrying importance" (291); with reports of Fanny's suffering and "'violent hysterics'" (293), Lucy's fainting fit, and Mrs. Ferrars's bad behavior; and with accounts of Marianne's excessive crying (296), her constant "moving from one chair to another" (300), her "ecstacy of indignation" (302) and "vehemence" (305)--is exhausting for the characters (and for the readers). With its three mini-dramas about suffering, real and exaggerated, this chapter is admired by fans of the novel for its mixture of dramatic tension and humorous reportage, and by critics and cinematographers because so much is revealed and so much happens--yet all the while the major characters are boxed up inside the house on Berkeley Street.

By comparison, Chapter 2 is short (ten pages) and boring. This chapter has received virtually no critical attention, perhaps because Elinor's walk in a park lacks dramatic action; because conversation devolves into Nancy Steele's meandering, rude, and self-centered monologues; because "nothing" (a word repeated fifteen times) happens; and because, for most of the chapter, Elinor effaces herself from her company and her surroundings. While Miss Steele's speech is punctuated repeatedly with exclamation marks, Elinor responds calmly and tersely, mainly through questions. Always polite, she resorts to an exclamation only once, when she chides Miss Steele for her deviousness in gathering information: "'How!' cried Elinor; 'have you been repeating to me what you only learnt yourself by listening at the door?'" (311). Eavesdropping is revealed as the major crime of the social comedy in this chapter, yet neither Elinor nor the reader finds much enlightenment in Miss Steele's ill-gotten revelations. While the text's surface tranquillity, in conjunction with Elinor's extreme reserve, seems to offer little more than a respite from the storms of the preceding chapter, the reader is left to wonder what new insights into Elinor's feelings the chapter was intended to reveal. The content of the chapter is so slight--Miss Steele's reiteration of the events is partially a fantasy--that it seems an anomaly in the context of Austen's art of developing chapters and moving the plot along.

In terms of character development and social history, Chapter 2 serves an important function. While the excursion to Kensington Gardens, which ostensibly offers Elinor a time of "quiet reflection" (307), is interrupted by Miss Steele and apparently ruined by her long-winded prattle, the proposed walk draws Elinor out of the confines of the house on Berkeley Street, away from the network of family members' houses in Mayfair, and into public space. Along with Elinor, the reader is introduced to the activities polite Georgian society could indulge in when the weather was nice enough to draw ladies outdoors on a Sunday afternoon. Since Jane Austen names Kensington Gardens as the specific setting for the action (or lack thereof), attentive readers will realize that this specific setting has wide implications in the novel. The whole of Chapter 2 functions as a literary trope, an homage to the recurring pleasure garden scenes in other eighteenth-century novels (most evident in Fanny Burney's Evelina). The setting offers a backdrop to an ironic interlude that mixes private revelations and public space; as a bonus, Jane Austen may have plotted a political subtext into the scene. …

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