A-filiative Families and Subversive Reproduction: Gossip in Jane Austen



Both Mrs. Dashwood and the feminist criticism of Nina Auerbach respond similarly to the threat of association with Jane Austen’s garrulous, gossiping spinsters. Their mode of resistance to the gossip — and hence resistance to a kind of specialized criticism — varies. In one instance, it masks a desire for some anonymous integration of the gossip’s voice within the homogeneous oral speculation of society at large; whereas, in the other disposition, her marginality is indexed to a spatial ‘containment’. Whether this dispatch of the gossip-figure be sited in some imaginary colony or manifested as a narrative quarantine, the attempt to control her associations by controlling the occasions of her voice resonates in the responses of all Jane Austen’s heroines, including her critics, to the subversive potential of the ladies Jennings, Gardiner, Bates and Norris. Not coincidentally, they are the very figures entrusted by Jane Austen’s narrators with that most precious of all commodities: information that is either privileged or pretends to privilege, from agents (disguised as sources) who are never really either one. Gossip, perhaps like all criticism, must find a place for its representations within more socially respected narratives, and for that reason, incessantly competes for our attention with other commodities that similarly lack completion and cry out for ‘finish’ in arenas so resistant to closure: eligible bachelors and waiting women; ‘prospects’ for a future living; uninterpreted gestures; barely defective sensibilities; unimproved estates.2


Literary Critic Ontic Status Mass Reproduction Loud Voice Paternal Authority 
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  1. 1.
    Janet Todd, Women’s Friendship in Literature (New York: Columbia University Press, 1980), p. 260.Google Scholar
  2. 1.
    Todd is in fundamental agreement with Nina Auerbach, Communities of Women (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978), p. 47, who imagines a similar purgatorial existence for the gossip and her companions in all of Jane Austen’s work.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    Alistair Duckworth, The Improvement of the Estate: A Study of Jane Austen’s Novels (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1971). Although Duckworth astutely sees the urge to improvement as part of the process by which houses in Jane Austen’s work become ‘metonyms for inherited structures’, he fails to see the extent to which this metonym demands a double-reading. If the metaphor of improvement is a decadent, modernist impulse, as Duckworth alleges, then the act of inheritance is part of a double-bind. Since inheritance could never be inheritance-as-is, the estates are doomed to decline either by being improved by the next generation or by decline through a weakened filial succession. Gossip, similarly, never circulates as is; it either improves upon what is inherited or omits part of its paternity.Google Scholar
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    Jean Baudrillard, For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign, trans. Charles Levin (St Louis: Telos Press, 1981), pp. 112–22. For Baudrillard, in the social dynamics of the auction, each moment is dependent upon the previous one, and hence on a reciprocal relationship between bidders who have become part of a reciprocal relationship enjoyed by partners. This specific development produces a time different from that abstract time which circumscribes most economic exchange.Google Scholar
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Copyright information

© Jan B. Gordon 1996

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Tokyo University of Foreign StudiesJapan

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