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Written by Stephanie
(9/27/2012 10:33 p.m.)
The bit saying Mrs. Jennings 'had actually made her own woman enquire of Mr. Willoughby's groom (ch. 13) was of interest to me.
Author Austen lived in a world where servants were ubiquitous; so much so, that they are barely mentioned. It is very different today, at least amongst MY acquaintance! When Edward dismounts and gives his horse to his servant in ch. 16, that is the only reference that he is NOT riding alone. When the ladies first see him, they do not say, "A man and his servant." They say "a gentleman," which (I gather) meant that he was a man with a servant along (otherwise, he would not necessarily be a gentleman?).
That Mr. Willoughby's groom knew where he had been, and what he had done there, puts the lie to the understanding we (of the 21st century) might otherwise have had, when we are told several times that Marianne went to Allenham alone, with no other person than Mr. Willoughby. The groom was there, but his presence is not supposed to guard Marianne from the impertinence of gossip, nor to conciliate Elinor to the fact of her going in so improper a manner. His being there does not mean that Marianne was not open to censure, or that she acted properly the whole time.
But the line about Mrs. Jennings digging for gossip adds some more implications, I think: the disbelief that the reader needs to have overcome, implied by the word 'actually,' means that one would not normally ask a servant to research another's private matters.
So, because they are all around, all the time, there must be rules that govern how they can intrude on the lives of the gentility they serve, and how they can be employed on the grounds of honour. Mrs. Jennings seems to have done something borderline improper by discovering their destination in this way. It is never explained further, so I must think that it was a well-understood standard of behavior at the time. Author Austen will sometimes have a character muse on a point that everyone of her age knows (i.e., Elinor thinking in ch. 15 that a correspondence between Marianne and Willoughby MUST mean they are engaged), but she never gives a passing glance on why we are to question Mrs. Jennings really employing servants to further her own means of gathering gossip.
So, I am left with a handful of curiosities, that Author Austen did not satisfy. Did Willoughby reprimand his man for carrying the tale? Would he have been right to do so? Should the gentry have to tell their servants each time knowledge about their masters is to be kept secret? (The beginning of Persuasion springs to mind, when Sir Walter is assured that his business could never be kept quiet, with everyone watching him so closely.) Are servants that can gather gossip well, useful for such people as Mrs. Jennings (and Mrs. Bennet in P&P, and Mrs. Cole in Emma, etc.)? Are servants that can keep from discussing their masters' dealings the kind that would be hired for Mr. John Dashwood (or Mr. Knightley, or Mr. Darcy, etc.)?
What if the attendant groom HAD seen something improper between Marianne and Willoughby -- a kiss, or a cuddle, or something? Would he be honour-bound to tell it? To conceal it? Would he expect a bribe to do either? Are servants, of another class as they are, allowed to do such things in public, themselves, so they would think nothing of it, when they see the gentry do it? We know how the Dashwoods found out Willoughby's financial situation, but in many of Author Austen's books we do not know how such accurate assessments become public. It is, however, the usual point on which the gossip is unlikely to err: I suppose this means the servants publicize their masters' situations?
So many questions! I will send my woman to Author Austen's maid, and see if she can find out the answers to any of them... *chuckles*
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