October 2015 Meeting: Gossip in Jane Austen’s Emma

October 26, 2015

Posted by Marilyn.

In Austen’s novels, a reader can encounter gossip in the dialogues and correspondence of the characters, and the narrator’s commentary (free indirect speech).

Some critics see the novels made up largely of gossip, presented in a dramatic form. Scott based his criticism of Austen’s writing on her concern for the “foolish and vulgar” characters .

Various definitions of “gossip” were discussed agreeing on the Oxford words of “Idle talker “, especially if the topic of conversation were absent. In the enclosed world of Highbury, gossip kept the residents up to date. Gossip provided oral transmission of news in place of newspapers. Jane Austen used the term “prosings”. She wrote of Miss Bates, “So prosing”.

Newcomers were heralded by letters, the contents spread by gossip. A hundred pages occur before we meet Frank Churchill and yet gossip has made us familiar with him.

Gossip was associated with lower class behaviours and with women. It seems that Miss Bates and Mrs Cole are the source of much gossip that is eagerly received by others such as Emma and Mrs Weston. Miss Bates and Mrs Cole could be described as gossip mongers but the reader is endeared towards Miss Bates and we do not judge her. Miss Bates acts as a channel between the strata of society, allowing the free movement of gossip to and from Hartfield and Randalls.

Civil falsehoods prevail and protect in this society, and at Box Hill we see the consequences when Emma sets these conventions aside.

In the sense that gossip includes the intimate affairs of characters, some have suggested that superficial gossip is used to protect the characters from revealing deeper issues about themselves.

Although women were most associated with gossip, it is Frank Churchill’s loose statement about Mr Perry’s coach that almost thwarts his designs to hide to his relationship with Jane. Frank uses gossip for his personal advantage to mislead all of Highbury to keep them from knowledge of his engagement .This is apparent in the letter he writes to Mrs Weston. Mr Knightley distances himself and men from gossip, stating that “in our communication we deal only in the great.”

Since the dialogues are significantly more prolific than descriptions, gossip contributes to the portrayal of the characters. This is demonstrated in the four-dimensional theory, one of which presumes that a character is presented by the perspective of other characters.This includes gossip and brings into play the perception of the gossipers as reliable, as well as the character who is the topic of the gossip.

Even the narrative voice in Emma contains gossip, such as in vol 1ch 5: Mr Knightly and Mrs Weston discuss “Emma has been meaning to read since she was twelve”, contributing to the readers perception of Emma and establishing themselves as a reliable source of information. Emma gossips and speculates with herself in thoughts and, as ‘the imaginist’, she creates a comic notion of Mr Dixon as supplier of the piano. Frank encourages this process and Mr Knightley tries to reduce it.

Purposeful gossipers who make use of vicious gossip or gossip tinged with spite, as a strategy for their personal gain and social enhancement, like Mrs Elton, further discredit themselves .

Gossip has also proven to play a significant role in the plot dynamics. Not only that it makes characters act, but it also changes their attitudes and establishes relationships of friendship or rivalry. A gossip contributes to driving the course of events towards the climax of the narrative where openness prevails and a happy marriage between three couples occurs. Perhaps gossip is the glue of Highfield society. It logically follows that without gossip, rumours, and backbiting, Austen’s characters would be deprived of their liveliness and diversity, and her narratives would be deprived of the drama, the effect of suspense, and the narrator’s unique voice and irony.