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

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Abstract

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

Keywords

Literary Critic Ontic Status Mass Reproduction Loud Voice Paternal Authority 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

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Notes

  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
  3. 2.
    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
  4. 3.
    Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson (New York: Harper & Row, 1962), p. 69, pp. 71–3.Google Scholar
  5. 6.
    Walter J. Ong, Orality and Literacy (London: Methuen, 1982). In his discussion of the psychodynamics of orality, Ong emphasizes the additive rather than subordinative grammatical structure of oral texts, which, in my terms, would account in part for the subversive nature of gossip. See also the recent essay of Paul Zumthor. Ong, Orality and Literacy (London: Methuen, 1982). In his discussion of the psychodynamics of orality, Ong emphasizes the additive rather than subordinative grammatical structure of oral texts, which, in my terms, would account in part for the subversive nature of gossip. See also the recent essay of Paul Zumthor, ‘The Impossible Closure of the Oral Text’, YFS, 67 (1984), 25–41.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. 7.
    Patricia Meyer Spacks, Gossip (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1985), p. 47. For a dissenting view about gossip’s operational efficiencies, see my review of Spacks’ volume in MLN 101, no. 5 (1996), 1273–9.Google Scholar
  7. 9.
    Wayne Booth, The Rhetoric of Irony (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974), pp. 64–5. In his discussion of the marks of stable irony which serve as a preamble for a discussion of Lady Susan Booth is heavily dependent upon what could only be described as the vocabulary of concealment. The variables in his determination of the stability of the irony include: (1) the degree of openness or disguise; (2) the degree of stability in the reconstruction; and (3) the scope of the truth revealed. Since what is hidden necessarily occupies a small space, any criticism which emphasizes Jane Austen’s ironies tends to reinforce the author’s own view of her work as limited, capable of inclusion on that minuscule bit of ivory.Google Scholar
  8. 11.
    Jurgen Habermas, ‘Legitimation Problems in the Modern State’, in Communication and the Evolution of Society, trans. Thomas McCarthy (Boston: Beacon Press, 1979), pp. 178–205. Crucial to Habermas’s ‘universal pragmatics’ is his analysis of a crucial distinction between communicative action and strategic action with widely different validity claims upon the respective participants.Google Scholar
  9. 12.
    Susan Stewart, On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984). Stewart argues that the collection endows often individually disparate objects with a false history by creating the illusion of a totality. The determination of when a collection is complete is complicated by the same factors that impede the determination of whether gossip is complete.Google Scholar
  10. 14.
    Lionel Trilling, ‘Why We Read Jane Austen’, TLS, 5 March 1976, p. 251.Google Scholar
  11. 15.
    Barbara Johnson, The Critical Difference (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980), pp. 110–16.Google Scholar
  12. 17.
    Hans-Georg Gadamer, ‘The Hermeneutics of Suspicion’, in Hermeneutics: Questions & Prospects, ed. Gary Shapiro and Alan Sica (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1984), p. 62.Google Scholar
  13. 21.
    Anne Ehrenpreis, ‘Introduction’ to Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972), p. 10.Google Scholar
  14. 22.
    Stanley Fish, Is There a Text In This Class?: The Authority of Interpretive Communities (Boston: Harvard University Press, 1980), pp. 14, 321. If interpreters act as extensions of institutional communities, as Fish alleges, then one must wonder why there is the necessity to metacritically wander from error to error, as Fish admits, while community remains constant. In both Fish’s work and in the operation of Jane Austen’s gossip the threat of antinomianism looms very large: the tendency to make the interpretation of salvational signs collective rather than individual. Of course, this sleight of hand also explains why every interpretation is bound to succeed, why gossips have a higher success ratio than they should.Google Scholar
  15. 23.
    Homer O. Brown, ‘The Errant Letter and the Whispering Gallery’, Genre, 10 (1977), 574–84.Google Scholar
  16. 26.
    See U. C. Knoepflmacher, ‘“The Importance of Being Frank”: Character and Letter-Writing in Emma’, SEL VII (1967), 639–58, for a detailed discussion of the processes by which the letter comes to be devalued as an instrument of sincerity in the novel.Google Scholar
  17. 27.
    D. A. Miller, Narrative and Its Discontents: Problems of Closure in the Traditional Novel (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981), pp. 104–6.Google Scholar
  18. 28.
    Anne Banfield, ‘The Influence of Place: Jane Austen and the Novel of Social Consciousness’, in Jane Austen in a Social Context, ed. David Monaghan (London: Macmillan, 1981), pp. 28–48.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. 30.
    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
  20. 31.
    Michel Serres, The Parasite, trans. Lawrence R. Schehr (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982). For Serres, the ‘success’ of the parasite is directly proportional to the diminishment of its designation as an ‘intruder’. Total assimilation or total dependency would be absence; its renewed existence and ultimate longevity are possible only when it is a supplement that can obscure its role.Google Scholar
  21. 32.
    Beatrice Marie, ‘Emma and the Democracy of Desire’, Studies in the Novel XVII (1985), pp. 1–13, adapts René Girard’s theory of mimetic desire to the plot of Jane Austen’s novel. She is one of the few critics who see Emma as a potentially revolutionized world in which traditions of rank and the play of decorum are being simultaneously devalued.Google Scholar
  22. 33.
    R. F. Brissenden, ‘Mansfield Park: Freedom and the Family’, in Jane Austen: Bicentenary Essays, ed. John Halperin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975), pp. 156–71.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Jan B. Gordon 1996

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Tokyo University of Foreign StudiesJapan

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