Why does Jane Austen feel compelled to move the plot of Sense and Sensibility along through the device of secrecy? Does she have the proclivity toward all words with an alliteration of “S”? And what exactly do secrets reveal about sense and/or sensibility?
First, I believe it is essential to note that all the major secrets in the plot revolve around intimate relationships. Let me endeavor to layout the secrets that ensnare the Sense and Sensibility plot line. Mr. Ferrars keeps Lucy Steele a secret from Elinor. Elinor keeps Mr. F a secret from the gathering at Sir John’s. Mr. Willoughby hides his engagement to Miss Grey, and his relationship with Colonel Brandon’s charge, Eliza. Colonel Brandon hides his long lost love of Eliza.
What is the essential importance of secrecy in Jane Austen’s society? Though secrets may be more enjoyed by frivolous women, the secrets are hidden by both men and women. Finally the sexes are equal…at least in their secrets. Are males better at hiding secrets than women? If so, is this a positive or negative reflection on their character? Colonel Brandon keeps his secret to protect his charge, Eliza; however, Willoughby’s clandestine affairs solely benefit him. What does Mr. Ferrars’ secret reveal about his character? Is he a gentlemen who keeps his word, or maybe he is a coward? He seems to be too concerned about upsetting his mother or Ms. Steele, that he would rather remain passive than incite anger, even if this means losing Elinor. What about Elinor’s refusal to admit even to her family her deep feelings for Edward? Is repression of feeling to the extreme a sensible action?
On this note let us now consider how the notion of secrecy is tied to sense and/or sensibility. Maybe it is more sensible to hide a secret? Keeping one’s life private may encourage more public scrutiny gossip. An example being Colonel Brandon’s secret business to which he has to attend. However, Willoughby expertly is able to hide his various love affairs to the benefit of his social position. Healthy sensibility would dictate that a person’s inner emotions should be displayed outwardly and immediately (Marianne’s affection for Willoughby). Thus, does sensibility have anything to do with secrets? Possibly sensibility is tied more to the emotional reaction of the revealed secret. Perhaps this is best exemplified through Marianne’s exclamation to Willoughby, “Will you not shake hands with me?” and her constant stream of tears at Willoughby’s rejection letter.
What is Austen trying to do through her secrets? Were secret relationships really as common as Miss Austen makes them seem to be? Were the secrets just a plot device? Or maybe the secrets are used to reveal the morals of the characters participating in them (actively or inactively)? … Could all of these options hold true?
All I do know regarding secrets in Sense and Sensibility is that they do not stay secret for long.