Amatory gifts in Sense and Sensibility.
Recent eighteenth-century scholarship has used gift theory as a way to think about gender relations and emerging capitalist culture in the late eighteenth century. (1) My consideration of courtship gifts in Sense and Sensibility expands gift theory to Austen studies in order to understand the role of gift exchange in the shift from economically-motivated marriages to companionate marriages. The young, idealistic, and passionate Marianne Dashwood is aware of this shift when she expresses incredulity that the flannel-wearing Colonel Brandon would consider marriage at the hoary age of thirty-five. Her more measured sister Elinor concedes that perhaps an unmarried woman of twenty-seven may find something appealing in an alliance with a more mature man. Still, Marianne retorts that such a marriage would be '"only a commercial exchange'" between a man who can offer '"provision and security'" to a wife who really fulfills the "'offices of a nurse"' (45). This conversation suggests that even in Austen's world, where marriage is nearly always financially aware, Marianne makes a distinction between marriage as economic exchange and marriage as companionship. Elinor later acknowledges the same distinction when she protests that perhaps it is not all the same to Miss Morton whether she marries Robert or Edward Ferrars (though it does seem to be all the same to Lucy Steele) (336). Sense and Sensibility considers companionate marriage within a patronage system based on gift exchange. In the companionate model of marriage, do women still function as gifts? Can women participate in gift exchange with men? Austen explores these questions through heroines who deploy different gifting strategies and illustrates the consequences of these strategies for readers.
No consideration of gifting would be complete without reference to Marcel Mauss's landmark study The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies (1925), where Mauss theorizes a distinction between the gift, which is unique in producing or affirming relations between people, and the commodity, which obscures relations between laborers and the products of their labor. Mauss writes about gift exchange in various "archaic" societies as "presentations which are in theory voluntary, disinterested and spontaneous, but are in fact obligatory and interested" (1). In other words, gifts are just as much a part of exchange as commodities, but the result is different. Where commodities are exchanged for other things or money, gifts are exchanged to establish or maintain relationships, social bonds, and commitments.
In Gifts and Commodities: Exchange and Western Capitalism since 1700 (1995), James Carrier relates Mauss's observations to western industrial capitalism, and, for my purposes, to the eighteenth-century society in which Austen wrote. Carrier contrasts the freedom of buying and selling commodities in the commercial sphere, where obligation is discharged by payment, with gift exchange, where accepting a gift reifies a relation and perpetuates gift exchange. The exchange of gifts isn't the conclusion, but the start or continuation, of a bond.
From Mauss's analysis, Carrier distills three qualities of gifts, all of which make gifts distinct from commodities: gifts are obligatory, inalienable, and carried out between people whose relationship is displayed and affirmed by the exchange. Gifts are obligatory in requiring a return gift. The notion that voluntary generosity requires a return seems contradictory. Moreover, denying a gift to avoid the eventual return would be tantamount to denying a relationship to the giver. The inalienable quality of gifts reflects that they retain the identity of the giver, distinguishing gifts from commodities. While commodities are interchangeable--one toothpick case sold at Mr. Gray's shop is the same as another, no matter how particular Robert Ferrars is about the decoration of ivory, gold, and pearls--gifts are not, because of their inalienable quality. Had John Dashwood purchased his sisters a pair of earrings at Mr. Gray's shop, those would not be earrings the same as any others, but earrings purchased by a brother, carrying the unique mark of a relationship to him. Acting as more than just tokens of intimacy, the inalienable quality of gifts lends them an almost totemic quality. While this inalienability exists for the giver and the receiver, it can also signal a relationship to spectators, as "a social understanding of the object" (Carrier 24). Finally, Carrier writes that persons are defined socially in gift relations. To take another example from Sense and Sensibility, when Willoughby is found to possess a lock of Marianne's hair, that gift defines them as an engaged couple. (2) Gift exchange can both create and demonstrate a relationship, qualities especially relevant to gifts exchanged in courtship and marriage.
In Sense and Sensibility, the obligatory nature of gifts both suggests relationships and is implied by certain relationships. The novel opens with the dichotomy between contractual exchange and familial gift relations: the laws of property that declare John Dashwood and his wife, Fanny, as the legitimate owners of Norland are challenged by the bonds of affection that obligate John Dashwood to provide for his half sisters and stepmother beyond what the law requires, based on a promise to the late patriarch. The contradiction between the contractual and the familial is strongly felt in the case of Fanny's aggressive takeover of Norland: "No one could dispute her right to come; the house was her husband's from the moment of his father's decease; but the indelicacy of her conduct was so much the greater, and to a woman in Mrs. Dashwood's situation, with only common feelings, must have been highly unpleasing" (6). When John tells Fanny of his promise to the late Mr. Dashwood, and his intention of bestowing three thousand pounds upon his half sisters, Fanny, in her self-interest, considers his proposed action to overreach the bounds of his obligation and convinces him that all he is really obliged to do is assist his sisters in moving when they find new lodgings and provide the occasional present of fish or game. Where the marketplace declares an exchange value, the obligation of gift exchange is open to interpretation. By emphasizing the heavy obligation of gifts (after all, according to Fanny, '"people always live for ever when there is any annuity to be paid them'" ), Fanny convinces John to establish a relationship of small favors rather than significant financial support. Fanny's disruption of patriarchal gift exchange is both threatening to the established order (in fact, all of the Dashwood sisters' problems emerge from this gift gone wrong) and funny. We chuckle as Fanny proclaims that on a small income of 500 [pounds sterling] a year the Dashwood women will be in a much better position to present John Dashwood with a gift than vice versa.
The humor of the Dashwoods' refusal to participate in the prescribed gift exchange requires a consideration of tone. Why are we laughing? Why does Austen use an episode that disenfranchises her heroines as a comic moment? Marcia McClintock Folsom writes that the narrative tone of Sense and Sensibility is "contentious" and "aggrieved," "as though the narrator herself is angry at the mediocrity of some of her characters or at the exhausting triviality of social life" (29, 39). Free indirect discourse allows the narrator to direct this tonal revenge toward Fanny as the episode unfolds. When Fanny's disapproval of her husband's intentions is revealed, the narrator makes her contempt for Fanny's position known: "It was very well known that no affection was ever supposed to exist between the children of any man by different marriages; and why was [John Dashwood] to ruin himself, and their poor little Harry, by giving away all his money to his half sisters?" (10, emphasis mine). Fanny's biased perspective colors the language, and the tone suggests that Austen would not advocate meddling with the bestowal of patriarchal gifts. Fanny remains a self-serving gifter. When she later gives the Steele sisters needle books upon their arrival as guests at Harley-street, the gift is meant to indicate to Elinor her own inferiority in Fanny's estimation (288). Anne is careful to hide her gift, which refers back to the original terms of her relationship with the Ferrars family, after she and Lucy are sent home (312). Both Fanny's and Anne's scheming highlight the abuses to which the system of gift exchange is vulnerable.
While Fanny manages to redefine the relationship her husband will have with his sisters by lessening his sense of obligation, Willoughby attempts to establish a relationship of obligation when he gives Marianne a horse, Queen Mab. Elinor is surprised at Marianne's "imprudence and want of thought" in accepting the extravagant gift of a horse from Willoughby: "Without considering that it was not in her mother's plan to keep any horse, that if she were to alter her resolution in favour of this gift, she must buy another for the servant, and keep a servant to ride it, and after all, build a stable to receive them, she had accepted the present without hesitation, and told her sister of it
in raptures" (68). Despite the impractical nature of such a gift for a modest household, it is equally the "propriety" of the obligation that the acceptance of such a gift would create between Marianne and a man "so little, or at least so lately known to her" (69). If Marianne accepts the horse, she is obligated to make a return gift, and as she cannot likely afford to reciprocate in kind, she will remain in Willoughby's debt. Willoughby, even if Marianne cannot accept the gift, is intent on establishing a relationship. He pledges that the horse will remain Marianne's and that he will retain it for her until it becomes more practical for her to lodge it. Overhearing this conversation, Elinor becomes certain of an intimate relationship between Marianne and Willoughby: "she instantly saw an intimacy so decided, a meaning so direct, as marked a perfect agreement between them. From that moment she doubted not of their being engaged to each other" (70). In this instance, even when a gift is not accepted, the meaning attached to it demonstrates a specific relationship, evident even to observers.
Now that I have illustrated the obligatory nature of gifts in the novel, I turn to their inalienable quality, which takes on particular meaning in relation to women. Marianne and Lucy both give a lock of hair to their lovers, a particularly potent example of an item that retains their identity. When Marianne bestows a lock of hair upon Willoughby, shortly after declining the gift of Queen Mab, even the young, uninitiated Margaret, who witnesses the exchange, knows it to be a sure sign of engagement. Margaret recounts the episode to Elinor as evidence of Marianne and Willoughby's relationship: '"he seemed to be begging something of her, and presently he took up her scissars and cut off a long lock of her hair, for it was all tumbled down her back; and he kissed it, and folded it up in a piece of white paper, and put it into his pocket-book'" (71). Lilian Heydt-Stevenson writes that the exchange of hair between lovers was governed by a strict set of rules: a man can request a culturally significant and intimate token, like a lock of hair, from a woman even if they are not engaged, but a woman can only grant the request if they are already engaged (34). The rules for this type of gift exchange are unequal. Though both men and women are constrained by propriety in courtship, the responsibility for upholding the rules is Marianne's.
Lucy Steele bestows a lock of hair upon Edward, which assures Elinor of their engagement the same way that Marianne's lock assures Margaret. Before Elinor knows the hair belongs to Lucy, she--and Marianne--mistake it for Elinor's own. While Marianne suspects Elinor of having gifted Edward the token, "Elinor was conscious [That the lock] must have been procured by some theft or contrivance unknown to herself" but is flattered nonetheless (114). She presumes that Edward has stolen a token she could not have freely given--an indication of his love that has the advantage of freeing her from either needing to refuse the request or choosing to act improperly. Elinor's mistake--it isn't actually her hair--points out a challenge to the inalienable nature of gifts. Elinor apprehends the hair jewelry as a sign of a relationship, but she cannot tell between whom. Though Margaret and Elinor assume hair gifts to indicate engagement, the novel does not reward Lucy's or Marianne's gifts with the intended marriage, an essential consideration that I will return to later.
Lastly, Edward and Lucy's relationship illustrates the relationship-defining quality of reciprocal giving. Lucy possesses a miniature of Edward and regrets that she has not been able to sit for a painting so that she can give Edward a similar present. Instead, she has given him the lock of hair that he wears in a ring. Lucy laments the inequality of this exchange: "'Yes, / have one other comfort in his picture; but poor Edward has not even that. If he had but my picture, he says he should be easy. I gave him a lock of my hair set in a ring when he was at Longstaple last, and that was some comfort to him, he said, but not equal to a picture'" (154-55). While Lucy claims to rue the inequality of their gifts, it is precisely this unequal nature that assures the continuance of their relationship. Lucy and Edward remain mutually indebted to each other--Lucy has only given a ring, when she has received a miniature--and the debt can only be discharged with the continuance of the exchange. Lucy intends to sit for a miniature to give to Edward, but when he receives that along with the ring he already owns, he will be in her debt, which he would be obligated to discharge, perhaps with the further gift of a ring! Each exchange deepens their connectedness, renews their obligations, and reaffirms their engagement.
Amatory gifts purport to say something about the obligation, inalienability, and reciprocity of courtship relationships. However, a more pressing concern is that in Sense and Sensibility gifts rarely seem to tell the truth: neither Marianne and Willoughby nor Lucy and Edward will wed. Elinor struggles with the deceptive nature of gifts as she watches Marianne and Willoughby's courtship and contemplates her own relationship with Edward. Elinor continually defers her verdict about whether Marianne and Willoughby are engaged to one more piece of evidence. Elinor claims that the gift of Queen Mab confirms their engagement (70). Yet, a few pages later Marianne's secrecy seems so uncharacteristic to Elinor that she entertains doubt (83-84). When in London, Elinor determines that if Marianne and Willoughby correspond, their engagement is certain (183). Yet, even after Elinor sees letters exchanged between Marianne and Willoughby, she insists that her mother make a direct query about whether Marianne is engaged (188).
The fact that Elinor remains unconvinced speaks to the disjunction between gifts or exchanges and a verbal commitment. While Mrs. Dashwood is satisfied, and claims, '"I have not wanted syllables where actions have spoken so plainly,"' Elinor requires further proof: '"I want no proof of their affection, ... but of their engagement I do'" (92). The only true satisfaction for Elinor would be verbal confirmation, suggesting that no matter what Elinor says, she is suspicious of the truth contained in gifts. Elinor's skepticism is borne out in her relationship with Edward as well, where gifts, including the lock of hair and the miniature, convince her that Edward is engaged to Lucy but do not convince her that he loves Lucy. Gifts should serve as proof of a relationship: "the picture, the letter, the ring, formed altogether such a body of evidence, as overcame every fear of condemning him unfairly" (159). Yet, Elinor's conversation with Lucy results in the inverse of her doubts about Marianne and Willoughby. Elinor wants no proof of Edward and Lucy's engagement, but of their affection she does. In other words, while letters, rings, miniatures, and even horses say something about the relationship between the giver and the receiver, what they say doesn't necessarily correspond to the true nature of the relationship.
In contrast to Lucy's active gifting of herself to Robert Ferrars, Marianne's response to her failed gifts is a return to the more traditional passivity of the gifted object. The conventional conclusion to the marriage plot insists that no matter what agency women attempt to exercise in bestowing gifts, they retain their function as gifts in marriage. Austen represents Marianne and Colonel Brandon's marriage as a transaction between two groups, where Marianne is, even if by her own wishes, the object exchanged. A "confederacy" including Mrs. Dashwood, Elinor, and Edward supports Marianne's final role as the "reward" gifted to Colonel Brandon to balance the economy of the novel (429). When Elinor begins to feel some pity for Willoughby, she imagines that his wife dies, leaving him free to marry Marianne, but she quickly remembers that such an outcome would leave Colonel Brandon empty-handed after all he has invested in the Dashwood sisters' happiness. His gifts cannot go unreciprocated: "They each felt [Colonel Brandon's]] sorrows, and their own obligations, and Marianne, by general consent, was to be the reward of all" (429, emphasis mine). Austen's use of obligation emphasizes Marianne's role as a gift: Colonel Brandon is due something in return for providing Edward with a living and displaying perpetual concern for Marianne. Marianne is thus given as "reward" to solidify the relationship between the Dashwoods and Colonel Brandon. After her own gifting strategy fails, Marianne is redeemed through a traditional role. The reader is assured that Marianne will grow to be happy with Brandon, in fact that "her whole heart became, in time, as much devoted to her husband, as it had once been to Willoughby" and that through her marriage she assumes the valuable role as patroness of a village (430). Marianne's passive assent to be gifted by the patriarchy seems to sustain Elinor's suspicion of gifting.
It is tempting, in line with the oppositions that often characterize analysis of the sisters in Sense and Sensibility, to claim that no gifts pass between the successful couples, Elinor and Edward or Marianne and Colonel Brandon. However, as I have already pointed out, the sisters' situations are indeed alike, and Elinor does bestow a gift upon Edward. When Elinor entreats Colonel Brandon to offer Edward the living at Delaford, Colonel Brandon insists that Elinor present Edward with the gift: "unwilling to give Edward the pain of receiving an obligation from her, she would have been very glad to be spared herself;--but Colonel Brandon, on motives of equal delicacy, declining it likewise, still seemed so desirous of its being given through her means, that she would not on any account make farther opposition" (321). The conspicuous negotiation of how the gift will be presented suggests the importance of the action. Elinor assumes the role of patroness. She mediates a gift between men, which intertwines her in the obligation, the relationship-defining reciprocity, and the inalienability of the exchange. As much as Elinor emphasizes, in relating the offer to Edward, that it is Colonel Brandon who requested that she communicate the message, Colonel Brandon who takes pleasure in the offer, and Colonel Brandon who is Edward's benefactor, Edward lavishes his thanks on Elinor: '"to your goodness I owe it all'" (328). This claim of Edward's has big implications for his, and presumably Lucy's, eventual occupation of Delaford. When Edward credits Elinor with the living, Delaford receives her imprint, suggesting that she will either haunt his intended marriage to Lucy or be the only mistress fit to inhabit the Delaford parsonage, as it proves. Edward also becomes obliged to Elinor, and their relationship is reinforced after the disappointment of his engagement. (3) Elinor clearly prefers Edward, and theirs is a companionate marriage. However, Elinor secures this marriage by remaining inactive; her reserve and patience preserve her from the debts of obligation or risk of failed exchange. Elinor is complicit in the patriarchal gifting system, and through this traditional role she achieves both happiness and a financial competence. In fact, when Colonel Brandon makes "considerable improvements" to the parsonage in his "eager desire for the accommodation of Elinor," Elinor, now united with Edward, becomes the recipient of a gift for which she was previously the conduit (424).
Sense and Sensibility concludes with only the briefest indication of the heroines' lives after marriage. With Marianne's and Elinor's final roles in the gift economy of the novel, Austen shifts her heroines out of the perilous, interpersonal gifting of the marriage market and into the institutionalized charity of the rural village. Marianne ascends to her idea of a competence, and we are assured that in time she will be as happy with Brandon as she was with Willoughby as "patroness" of the village. Elinor, too, assumes a role in the patronage system as a clergyman's wife. While the novel spends almost no time on the role of women in rural parish life--the final image is instead the "constant communication" between the two couples--even the small suggestion of Marianne's and Elinor's new roles is helpful for defining the novel's final commentary on the role of women in gift exchange (431). If courtship gifts pose a challenge for Austen's heroines, philanthropy was a securely female domain in the early nineteenth century. In their married statuses, Elinor and Marianne are allied in doling out patriarchal gifts to the village and managing charity. A patroness, like Marianne, was expected to provide tenants with gifts of food and money (Gerard 186-87). As a parson's wife, Elinor would also manage her husband's charity and social projects in the village (Collins 125). In other words, while Sense and Sensibility shows female-initiated gifting to be threatening and ineffective in courtship, the conclusion of the novel extols the power offered by rural philanthropy for married women.
(1.) For examples of gift theory in eighteenth-century scholarship see Linda Zionkowski's "Clarissa and the Hazards of the Gift," Cynthia Klekar's "'Her Gift was Compelled': Gender and the Failure of the 'Gift' in Cecilia" and Lynn Festa on Yorick's snuffbox.
(2.) Engagement would not be implied by all gifts. Hair jewelry, according to Jillian Heydt-Stevenson, was a gift with particular "sexual intensity" for eighteenth- and nineteenth-century couples (34).
(3.) Not all courtship gifts in Austen novels fail. In Emma, the piano that Frank Churchill gives to Jane Fairfax doesn't prevent their secret engagement from becoming an avowed attachment. In Mansfield Park, though Fanny Price feels tricked when Mary Crawford admits that the chain she has given her was a present from Mary's brother, Henry, the other, simpler chain given by Fanny's cousin Edmund is a better fit, foreshadowing Fanny's refusal of Henry and marriage to Edmund. It is important to note that both Jane and Fanny accept gifts given by men. In bestowing the gift on behalf of Colonel Brandon, Elinor is aligned with these female characters who participate in gift giving but don't initiate it.
Austen, Jane. Sense and Sensibility. Ed. Edward Copeland. Cambridge: CUP, 2006.
Carrier, James G. Gifts and Commodities: Exchange and Western Capitalism since 1700. New York: Routledge, 1995.
Collins, Irene. Jane Austen and the Clergy. London: Hambledon, 1994.
Festa, Lynn. "Yorick's Snuffbox and the Paradox of the Sentimental Commodity." Sentimental Figures of Empire in Eighteenth-Century Britain and France. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2006. 69-81.
Folsom, Marcia McClintock. "The Narrator's Voice and the Sense of Sense and Sensibilty." Persuasions 33 (2011): 29-39.
Gerard, Jessica. "Lady Bountiful: Women of the Landed Classes and Rural Philanthropy." Victorian Studies 30.2 (1987): 183-210.
Heydt-Stevenson, Jillian. "Bejeweling the Clandestine Body/Bawdy: The Miniature Spaces of Sense and Sensibility." Austen's Unbecoming Conjunctions: Subversive Laughter, Embodied History. New York: Palgrave, 2005. 29-67.
Klekar, Cynthia. "'Her Gift was Compelled': Gender and the Failure of the 'Gift' in Cecilia" Eighteenth-Century Fiction 18.1 (2005): 107-26.
Lynch, Deidre Shauna. "Jane Austen and the Social Machine." The Economy of Character: Novels, Market Culture, and the Business of Inner Meaning. Chicago: UCP, 1998. 207-49.
Mauss, Marcel. The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies. Trans. Ian Gunnison. New York: Norton, 1967.
Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. "Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl." Critical Inquiry 17 (1991): 818-37.
Tanner, Tony. "Secrecy and Sickness: Sense and Sensibility." Jane Austen. 1986. New York: Palgrave, 2007. 75-102.
Zionkowski, Linda. "Clarissa and the Hazards of the Gift." Eighteenth-Century Fiction 23.3 (2011): 471-94.
Lauren Wilwerding is currently working on her Ph.D. in English at Boston College. Her research focuses on nineteenth-century literature and culture, specifically the place of the single woman in nineteenth-century plots. She obtained an undergraduate degree from Bowdoin College.
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Publication:||Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2015|
|Previous Article:||"Very knowing gigs": social aspiration and the gig carriage in Jane Austen's works.|
|Next Article:||"The world is not theirs": the plight of Jane Fairfax in Emma.|