Sense and Sensibility: Volume I, Chapter 6

Re: S&S, Ch 6: "He insisted on conveying all their letters . . . "

In S&S we have many carefully set up but then unused details. Many times Austen uses the slightest detail in a plot several times over: this is how she gains concision, depth, and fullness all at once. It is curious to find these loose ends and thrown away opportunities,

In the portrait of Sir John Middleton that is stretched out over Chapter 5 & 6 as a genial, cordial, well-meaning if empty-headed and obtuse man, we are told:

"He insisted, moreover, on conveying all their letters to and from the post for them, and would not be denied the satisfaction of sending them his newspaper every day" (Oxford S&S, ed Chapman, I:6, 30).
"All their letters?" To whom are these three women writing so much? We are told that Elinor and John Dashwood write to one another. Late in the novel we are given snatches of letters John sends to Elinor in response to some of hers to him. She waits anxiously for news of Edward from her correspondence with him. But now what would he be writing to her? We see him writing his steward late in the book. This was not a correspondence of one heart to another. It would have to be one whose pleasure was satirical revelation of John Dashwood's mind (just as when we read Mary Musgrove's letter she gives away her selfishness and grasping nature at every turn of her pen). We are also told late in the book that Willoughby knew of Marianne's illness because Mrs Jennings and Charlotte Palmer write frequently. But whom did Mrs Dashwood write to? She's no woman of business. Yet it is a letter from Sir John to her which brings them to Devonshire, is it not? And hers in reply.

Admittedly this is not as an obtrusive an unused detail as when in Persuasion we are told several times that Anne meant to tell Lady Russell the truth about Mr Elliot, but people and obligations kept getting in her way. There we can clearly see something has been intended which has been cut off: at the coming party or Tuesday night play, Lady Russell was to have behaved devastatingly wrongly because of a lack of information. Who is vulnerable there? Well at the musical concert Austen showed us: Captain Wentworth. He was to have been mortified once more. Another volume's worth?

What about here? Austen uses this sentence later as the source of Mrs Dashwood's rationalisation that Marianne and Willoughby are corresponding secretly since Sir John would see any open letters. But this is patched over stuff. This is a detail from some passage accounting for the original letters by which the novel was told -- accounting for how they got to the post office. Bringing them in so we would accept this view of the Dashwoods as letter writers.

Here's a thought. Was Margaret originally at school? Austen was sent to school. She would therefore be Marianne's correspondent -- and her mother's.

Ellen Moody

----- "His countenance was thoroughly good-humoured;
and his manners were as friendly as the style of his letter . . "
--- Jane Austen, _S&S_, Ch 6

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Page Last Update 8 February 2003