In Sense and Sensibility, both Elinor and Marianne hope to marry eligible young men of their acquaintance, only to find out that in both cases the men have histories of behavior and romantic entanglements that seriously threaten their own dearest wishes. Jane Austen brings these histories to light in her novel through letters, personal confidences, dialogue with servants, and other methods that men and women of the period used to gain and share information. What is more, Austen’s first two published novels, Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice, examine how individuals, and particularly young women, access, evaluate, and use information that has direct and significant consequences for their decisions and behavior regarding men, matrimony, and other important topics. Elinor, Marianne, Elizabeth, and Jane all must decide who and what to believe about characters as diverse as Willoughby, Lucy Steele, Edward Ferrars, Wickham, Darcy, and Bingley, and they must sift through and evaluate information from a variety of period-specific sources.
As an academic librarian whose research focuses on the teaching and learning of information literacy skills, I am struck with the way that Austen’s work highlights and explores the intellectual journey to what today we call information literacy—almost two hundred years before the term was coined. Close examination of these two texts in the context of the history of information reveals Austen’s engagement with important questions and concerns surrounding information and epistemology in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. In addition, by analyzing Austen’s control of information access and its evaluation in these two texts, we can see that she allows for narrative effects such as heightened drama or comedy while also encouraging the novel reader to follow the same intellectual development vis-à-vis information modeled by the heroines. For the reader, the end result is an understanding not only of the importance of evaluating information carefully but also of the moral and ethical responsibilities that accompany the possession of information.
It is, admittedly, anachronistic to use the term information literacy in conjunction with the works of Jane Austen. The term was first coined in the 1970s and really began to be used widely with the advent of the internet (Belshaw). More recently, in the United States, the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) released updated descriptions of information literacy running to several pages of nuance and detail, based on the scholarship of teaching and learning; similar organizations in other countries have done so as well (ACRL; Macdonald). Despite these recent developments, at its core information literacy is still commonly understood as knowing how to find and evaluate information and how to use it ethically (Macdonald). In education more broadly, scholars usually conceptualize information literacy as related to critical thinking and as a fundamental skill for success in today’s world. Austen’s novels show us these same issues at stake in the early nineteenth century: information access, evaluation, and use.
Issues surrounding the access and use of information come up in all the novels, but the exploration of the processes of accessing, evaluating, and using information is especially pronounced in Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice. Indeed, even the words “information,” “inform,” or related forms occur far more often in the first two published novels than in any of the others, and Austen devotes lines to describing the search for information in both. Scholars have pointed out that eighteenth-century discussions of how knowledge is obtained from experience and through reason are rooted in the empiricist and rationalist debates of the day, and certainly these provide important context for Austen’s work (Baker; Knox-Shaw 129–152). In education today, scholars define information literacy principles as threshold concepts that, once grasped, change the way a person thinks about information (Meyer and Land 6). Readers can identify exactly this sort of cognitive shift that accompanies the development of information literacy in Austen’s characters. These early novels show Austen grappling with epistemological questions around encountering information that does not align with what one “knows,” and they show her exploring how one develops critical faculties in a way that we can recognize today in the journey to information literacy. Additionally, in the process of reading her novels, readers embark on that same journey, practicing a similar evaluation of information, questioning information taken originally at face value, and making our own judgments about what to believe and whether information is being used responsibly.
Information history in the Regency
Although when people speak today of “the information age,” it is often synonymous with the age of computers and the internet, historians talk about multiple information ages. For our purposes the eighteenth-century information age is particularly important. In Jane Austen’s youth, England saw the rapid development of affordable ways of disseminating information, and people began thinking about the value of different types of information. The Post Office had been created in 1660, and the improvement of roads over the course of the eighteenth century greatly increased the ability of individuals to get information in a timely manner via post (Davidson 2). The number of paper mills quadrupled during the eighteenth century, and with cheaper paper came the rise of newspapers, magazines, and other affordable publications (McDowell). The proliferation of circulating libraries over the course of the eighteenth century, with reportedly over 1,000 in existence by 1800, also made it increasingly easy for individuals to access print materials in Austen’s day (Erickson 574).
Newspapers saw tremendous expansion over Austen’s lifetime and are mentioned throughout her novels and multiple times in her letters (Hessell 253). Although the first newsletters and newspapers date all the way back to the sixteenth century in England, it was the eighteenth century that saw real growth in their publication and dissemination (McDowell). Hampshire’s oldest newspaper, the Hampshire Chronicle, was launched in 1772, and the paper that became the Times was launched in 1785 (“History”). Navy-Lists as well as newspapers were an important information source about the actions of the Royal Navy and its officers during the Napoleonic wars, and Austen’s brothers Frank and Charles both appeared in articles in The Naval Chronicle and The London Gazette (Jones). It’s likely that Austen read newspapers such as the Hampshire Telegraph and the Hampshire Chronicle (Hessell; Miles). As for other types of periodicals, the eighteenth century saw the publication of numerous well-known periodicals such as the Tatler, the Spectator (mentioned by name in Northanger Abbey), the Rambler, and others (Italia 3). Austen’s brother James launched his own weekly periodical at Oxford, The Loiterer, in 1789, which lasted for more than a year (Tomalin 63).
In addition to paper-based information sources, informal networks providing access to oral information sprang up in coffee houses and other meeting places over the course of the eighteenth century, and information more akin to gossip was of course shared orally by neighbors, servants, tradesmen, and other information sources (McDowell). These informal networks are essential to the circulation of information in Austen’s novels. These different information sources did not all carry the same weight in the period; for the most part, writers and philosophers accepted the truth of the Latin saying “vox audita perit, littera scripta manet” (roughly, “the spoken word perishes, the written word remains”) and privileged the written (McDowell). In fields such as law, theology, and folklore, history, and lexicography, however, scholars were interested in the spoken word, and the conflict between the written and the spoken word in the eighteenth century is a very rich area of study (McDowell). Austen and her family would have likely been aware of the debates over the value of the oral and the written which were well-represented in the books and periodicals of the day (Davies 305, 310).
Additional contexts for Austen’s early novels are provided by gender and location. Timely access to quality information varied depending on whether you were near a city, where you would have faster access to information sources, or in the country. Gender was another variable—whether you discussed business or current events in coffeehouses, as men might do, or stayed home taking care of a house and children and conversing mostly with neighbors and servants, as women would.
Sense and Sensibility explores many of these issues surrounding the value of information sources current in Austen’s day. From the first chapters, we see that oral communications are subject to interpretation, distortion, and in some cases invalidation as they are passed from one person to another, in ways that written communications are not. In the very first pages we learn that the will settling the Dashwood estate on a child, which of course existed on paper, was irrevocable. On Henry Dashwood’s deathbed, he strongly urges his son to take care of his sisters and stepmother; John Dashwood “was affected by a recommendation of such a nature at such a time, and he promised to do every thing in his power to make them comfortable” (5). This promise, however, being only a verbal one, is not irrevocable and undergoes a great deal of interpretation and translation once John’s wife, Fanny, hears of it. In the end, John decides that it would be “absolutely unnecessary, if not highly indecorous” to do more for his stepmother and sisters than assisting them in finding lodgings, helping them move from Norland Park, and making them occasional gifts of fish and game (13–15).
But Austen’s examination of information sources is far more nuanced than this example implies. The characters in the book access information from numerous sources including newspapers, letters, personal confidences, reports of servants and tradesmen, overheard conversations, and gossip, and every one of these sources reveals itself to be incomplete, prone to misunderstanding, intentionally misleading, or downright false. Austen’s heroines and her readers are challenged to determine the reliability of the information they encounter and to develop the critical faculties necessary to judge it accurately and use it responsibly.
Newspapers and “news”
Newspapers play a very small role in Sense and Sensibility, unlike the small but more important role they play, for example, in Mansfield Park (Miles). Nevertheless, we do see characters interacting with them in the novel. The newspapers are mostly associated with Sir John Middleton, who sends his over to Barton Cottage for the ladies to enjoy, and with Mr. Palmer, who is usually depicted reading one. Marianne scrutinizes the daily papers for information about Willoughby’s marriage but actually receives that news from her sister. Elinor has arranged for a source (most likely a servant) to bring the information to her directly so she can share it with Marianne privately—feeling that Marianne “should not receive the first notice of it from the public papers” (246). Austen mentions those public papers again after the birth of the Palmer child: “the newspapers announced to the world, that the Lady of Thomas Palmer, Esq. was safely delivered of a son and heir; a very interesting and satisfactory paragraph, at least to all those intimate connections who knew it before” (279). Austen’s caveat about the prior knowledge of family members is both humorous and significant: she has written this moment in such a way that the reader, along with “the world,” does receive the information as if it were coming from the newspaper after the family knows.
Whether the information sought is about Willoughby’s marriage or the Palmer baby, there is a sense that although the public papers may have accurate information, people may be better off getting it elsewhere. This sort of redundancy of news in newspapers is somewhat unique to Sense and Sensibility; Anne Elliot is well-informed by newspapers and other publications on the actions of Captain Wentworth in the years they are apart, and newspapers are the way Fanny Price learns about Henry Crawford and Maria Rushworth’s elopement (Jones; Miles). In Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice, however, Austen does not use newspapers as primary information sources for her characters; instead, they must rely on sources that require more careful evaluation.
Newspapers may not be terribly useful sources for the kinds of information needed by the characters in Austen’s first two published novels, but “news”—that is gossip or information disseminated through private conversations—raises problems of its own. Patricia Meyer Spacks describes different types of gossip falling along a continuum that stretches from malicious gossip intended to injure, through gossip that looks more like “idle talk” that is not purposefully malicious, to “serious” gossip that really looks a lot more like private conversation between individuals who share a certain level of trust and intimacy (4–5). She examines the way that gossip drives plot in drama and fiction; her analysis focuses particularly on the realist novel, and she examines Austen’s use of gossip in Emma at length. She notes that gossip in Emma provides opportunities for the reader to engage in interpretation and “do something with it” (169). Although Spacks does not address the use of gossip, or “news,” in Sense and Sensibility or Pride and Prejudice, this demonstration of the way that gossip invites the reader’s interpretation seems close to the way that Austen uses “news” in the earlier novels to differentiate between responsible and irresponsible users of information, and to instruct the reader about how to evaluate “news” received from less than reliable sources.
In Austen’s novels, “news” in the form of information exchanged through conversation is often problematic. It is most often associated with women such as Mrs. Jennings and Mrs. Bennet.1 Indeed, in the first chapter of Pride and Prejudice we are told of Mrs. Bennet that “[t]he business of her life was to get her daughters married; its solace was visiting and news” (5). Mrs. Jennings has already successfully married both her daughters, but she is no less passionate about news than Mrs. Bennet and is one of the primary sources of private information in the novel. Elinor receives information from Mrs. Jennings about both Willoughby’s engagement to Miss Grey and the discovery of Lucy’s secret engagement to Edward. Mrs. Jennings is an unreliable information source, however: the false report of Willoughby’s engagement to Marianne circulating in society comes from Mrs. Jennings and her daughters (197), and she shares false information about Eliza’s parentage with Elinor and Marianne as well (78). Even if some of the information Mrs. Jennings shares is factual, through this character we are shown how private sources can easily misinterpret information and prove untrustworthy, especially if they do not carefully assess their information before passing it along.
The most humorous scene involving Mrs. Jennings and “news” occurs when she overhears part of the conversation between Elinor and Colonel Brandon about the living he wishes to bestow upon Edward. She tells Elinor, “‘I do not ask you what the Colonel has been saying to you; for though, upon my honour, I tried to keep out of hearing, I could not help catching enough to understand his business’” (323). She mistakenly believes that Colonel Brandon has proposed to Elinor. Several pages of diverting miscommunication pass between Elinor and Mrs. Jennings until in response to Elinor’s “‘Colonel Brandon’s only object is to be of use to Mr. Ferrars,’” Mrs. Jennings exclaims, “‘Lord bless you my dear!—Sure you do not mean to persuade me that the Colonel only marries you for the sake of giving ten guineas to Mr. Ferrars!’” (330). Austen writes that both ladies gain “considerable amusement” from this misunderstanding (331), as does the reader who has, unusually for this novel, been in on the joke from the beginning. Since this scene of miscommunication does nothing to advance the plot or develop character, it seems that its most important function is to reinforce a message about the unreliability of private information sources. Mrs. Jennings could have asked Elinor to verify what she thought she had overheard, but she does not. The erroneous “news” is nearly passed along to the entire social circle; Mrs. Jennings mentions sharing it with Lucy Steele before Elinor asks her not to do so. By giving the reader access to all the information, she also allows the reader to evaluate what Mrs. Jennings has overheard, laugh at her mistake, and make the correct judgment. The scene confirms that information gained by eavesdropping on conversations might be accurate (such as that shared with Elinor by Anne Steele) or faulty (as in this case), but it is not reliable until verified in some manner. The scene also highlights the way that Austen manages the dramatic effect of revelation by controlling who has or lacks information.
Pride and Prejudice goes even further to destabilize the reliability of “news” from private information sources. As mentioned above, “news” is associated most strongly in the novel with Mrs. Bennet, although we quickly learn that Mrs. Phillips, Mrs. Long, and Lady Lucas are all similarly reliable—or unreliable—sources of news. For example, Mrs. Bennet is concerned when Mr. Bingley goes to London shortly before the first ball, but “Lady Lucas quieted her fears a little by starting the idea of his being gone to London only to get a large party for the ball; and a report soon followed that Mr. Bingley was to bring twelve ladies and seven gentlemen with him to the assembly” (10). The narrator quickly clarifies that his party turns out to be only five people: himself, Mr. Darcy, his brother-in-law Mr. Hurst, and his two sisters. Similar stories reported by Mrs. Long and other women are also quickly corrected by the narrator or by other characters, demonstrating that in Pride and Prejudice “news” obtained from these sources is not reliable information. Here the lines drawn between reliable and unreliable information sources are even more clearly drawn than in Sense and Sensibility, and both the reader and the heroine must learn the difference or risk misinterpreting much.
Letters as information sources
As sources of written information, letters are important in Sense and Sensibility; Guyonne LeDuc traces references to forty-three extant or hypothetical letters or notes in the text (297), and six complete letters are included. Some of these are simple business or social letters, such as the ones written by Mrs. Dashwood and Sir John Middleton about potential lodging for the Dashwoods, and by Mrs. Jennings to her many correspondents. Others convey important information, such as the one received by Colonel Brandon about Eliza, and the note written to Mrs. Dashwood by Elinor about Marianne’s illness. These letters provoke actions on the part of the recipients and convey both essential and reliable information. A common practice of epistolary novelists is to show the fallibility or fragility of letters by demonstrating how even the most reliable letters can be delayed or damaged on their journey from writer to recipient, and Austen uses this technique herself in Pride and Prejudice when Jane’s letter about Lydia’s elopement reaches Elizabeth tardily after having been “missent” (301). Austen does not employ this technique in Sense and Sensibility. Letters from Elinor, Sir John Middleton, and others regarded as trustworthy are effective and are received in a timely manner. Eliza Williams, however, is unable to inform Willoughby of her condition because she lacks his address, another potential complication when relying on letters to convey important information.2
Not all letters, or letter-writers, are equal in Sense and Sensibility, however; some letters prove much more troublesome and require more evaluation. Elinor sees Willoughby’s letter denying any previous relationship with Marianne and reporting his engagement to Miss Grey as shockingly cruel but does not think to doubt its legitimacy, given that it is written in his hand. When she asks him about it later, though, he says, “‘[W]hat do you think of my wife’s style of letter-writing?—delicate—tender—truly feminine—was it not?’” and adds that although it was in his handwriting, “‘I had only the credit of servilely copying such sentences as I was ashamed to put my name to’” (372). The forged or, in this case, forced letter, another stratagem of the epistolary novel, also serves to discredit the infallibility of written information sources, a further insistence that all information must be evaluated carefully.
Lucy Steele is also a letter-writer who proves to be problematic. She writes letters that, while not pure falsehoods, misrepresent the truth of her situation, of Edward’s feelings, and ultimately of her decision to marry Robert Ferrars. They are highly suspect as information sources. Austen’s characters question the reliability of Lucy’s letters due to the nature of the letter-writer and her abilities as a correspondent. Finally freed from his engagement to Lucy, Edward disparages her letter-writing:
“For worlds would not I have had a letter of hers seen by you in former days.—In a sister it is bad enough, but in a wife!—how I have blushed over the pages of her writing!—and I believe I may say that since the first half year of our foolish—business—this is the only letter I ever received from her, of which the substance made me any amends for the defect of the style.” (414)
Although Edward’s complaint focuses on Lucy’s style and vulgarity, the letter she writes to Edward after her marriage to his brother, presented in its entirety in the text for the reader to judge, is full of falsehoods and misrepresentations of feelings and motives. Lucy writes, “‘Being very sure I have long lost your affections, I have thought myself at liberty to bestow my own on another,’” even though her previous letter to Elinor reported a contrary view:
“I am sure you will be glad to hear, as likewise dear Mrs. Jennings, I spent two happy hours with [Edward] yesterday afternoon, he would not hear of our parting, though earnestly did I, as I thought my duty required, urge him to it for prudence sake, and would have parted for ever on the spot, would he consent to it; but he said it should never be, he did not regard his mother’s anger, while he could have my affections.” (314)
In her final letter, her closing “Sincerely wish you happy in your choice” (413) seems highly doubtful given the spiteful message sent via Thomas meant to mislead Elinor about her marriage. The reader undoubtedly agrees with Edward, who has revised his judgment of Lucy after receiving her last letter and, “now thoroughly enlightened on her character, had no scruple in believing her capable of the utmost meanness of wanton ill-nature” (415). Lucy’s correspondence shows us that letters are not necessarily the infallible written documents we might wish them to be when the letter-writer is unreliable. This moment of critical reevaluation, arising from the documentary evidence of a letter, will be expanded in Pride and Prejudice when Elizabeth must reevaluate what she knows after reading Darcy’s letter.
Fact-checking information sources
Mika Suzuki has highlighted Austen’s use of “life stories” in Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice: first-person confidences that provide the reader with historical information essential to the plot and act as bridges not just between events “but also between the speaker and the listener and, ultimately, between the novel and the reader” (61). Indeed, as the reader learns to evaluate these confidences alongside Austen’s characters, the stories do create a bridge between the information recipients in the novel and the information recipient embodied by the reader. Although Willoughby suggests that Colonel Brandon’s story about the two Elizas may be partial or biased, the story is treated as trustworthy in the novel and is accepted by Elinor; no other character questions Brandon’s veracity.3 This assumed truthfulness is not extended to every character, however.
Although Willoughby’s heartfelt confidences at Cleveland are taken as essentially truthful if self-serving, his earlier statements and confidences at Barton Cottage are, after his true and complete history is known, judged as less than fully honest at best and villainously deceptive at worst. When Willoughby says that Barton Cottage “‘will always have one claim on my affection which no other can possibly share’” (85), the Dashwood ladies understand this comment as a clear avowal of his regard. After his final rupture with Marianne, however, when Elinor has learned how deceptive his words and appearances have been, she can only see Willoughby as inconstant, ungentlemanlike, and “deep in hardened villainy” (209).
Austen echoes this same reevaluation of a character’s words and behavior in Pride and Prejudice as Elizabeth must reevaluate all that she has been told by Wickham. Early in the novel, Elizabeth tells Jane about Wickham’s history with Darcy:
“I can much more easily believe Mr. Bingley’s being imposed on, than that Mr. Wickham should invent such a history of himself as he gave me last night; names, facts, every thing mentioned without ceremony.—If it be not so, let Mr. Darcy contradict it. Besides, there was truth in his looks.” (96)
In this scene, Elizabeth is sure of the truth of what she’s been told, so sure that she believes that Wickham’s “looks” provide some proof of his credibility. After reading Mr. Darcy’s letter, however, she realizes that she has not evaluated the information Wickham provided. She carefully reexamines all the information he shared, fact-checking it with her own observations and knowledge:
She was now struck with the impropriety of such communications to a stranger, and wondered it had escaped her before. She saw the indelicacy of putting himself forward as he had done, and the inconsistency of his professions with his conduct. (229)
Elizabeth admits that she should have critically examined the information when it was first shared, especially in such an inappropriate manner, and realizes that she has been “blind, partial, prejudiced, absurd” (230): “‘Pleased with the preference of one, and offended by the neglect of the other, on the very beginning of our acquaintance, I have courted prepossession and ignorance, and driven reason away, where either were concerned’” (230). With this self-recrimination, Austen demonstrates exactly the kind of careful evaluation of information that should happen, even if for Elizabeth it is belated.
Using the language drawn from the scholarship of teaching and learning, we might say that Elizabeth is changing her approach to information evaluation and grappling with a threshold concept, an idea that takes cognitive work to grasp because it goes against what she thought she knew; it will forever change her thinking and her actions going forward (Meyer and Land 7). Not only is this moment a turning point in the plot, but it is a moment that changes Elizabeth’s relationship to all other information she receives. From this point on, we see her carefully weighing the authority and context of information she receives, and we also see her considering carefully when and if she should share information herself. In Sense and Sensibility, the moments of re-evaluation happen more subtly, with nothing like Elizabeth’s explicit assessment of her own mistakes regarding the authority and credibility of information, but we can still see characters developing critical faculties in a way that is fleshed out with much more detail in Pride and Prejudice.
Lucy’s confidences to Elinor are the most suspect of all in the Sense and Sensibility, manipulative and partial even when based in fact. What is interesting for our purposes is that Elinor carefully fact-checks what Lucy tells her, precisely because she doubts Lucy’s sincerity and truthfulness, in part due to the impropriety of such confidences. After Lucy tells her about her secret engagement to Edward, Elinor says, “‘I beg your pardon; but surely there must be some mistake of person or name. We cannot mean the same Mr. Ferrars’” (150). John Wiltshire’s analysis of this scene shows that Elinor’s extremely careful and circumspect questioning of Lucy about her engagement is, though discreet, quite relentless (34–38). Because she feels secure in Edward’s regard for herself and because she undoubtedly wishes Lucy to be lying, Elinor examines Lucy’s story carefully. But the heroine also knows that her future feelings and actions will be determined by the information she has just received. It is essential, then, that the information be verified. Unfortunately for Elinor, the evidence piles up: Elinor was “most feelingly sensible of every fresh circumstance in favor of Lucy’s veracity” (153). Lucy answers every question calmly, shows Elinor a miniature of Edward, and finally hands over a letter from Edward himself: “Elinor saw that it was his hand, and she could doubt no longer” (154). As Lucy has provided enough evidence to verify what she says, Elinor accepts the information as factual. Due to the abundance of evidence, the reader is also convinced of its basic truth, despite suspicion of Lucy’s motives and character.
Elinor’s need to have proof of Lucy’s claims is echoed in her desire for proof of Marianne’s engagement with Willoughby; she does not view unverified assumptions as trustworthy. Certain facts seem to imply an engagement: Willoughby’s promise to Marianne that he will have a horse waiting for her “‘[w]hen you leave Barton to form your own establishment in a more lasting home’” (70) and his request for a lock of her hair. But without verbal confirmation Elinor is uneasy: “for this strange kind of secrecy maintained by them relative to their engagement, which in fact concealed nothing at all, she could not account; and it was so wholly contradictory to their general opinions and practice, that a doubt sometimes entered her mind of their being really engaged” (83–84). Soon after Willoughby’s departure, Elinor urges her mother to ask Marianne outright if they are engaged, but her mother refuses. Then, in London, she writes to her mother, “relating all that had passed, her suspicions of Willoughby’s inconstancy, urging her by every plea of duty and affection to demand from Marianne an account of her real situation with respect to him” (196). Elinor’s search for verification, of even unwelcome information, is consistent throughout the novel.
Another instance of fact-checking comes at the end of the book, when Thomas, the Dashwoods’ manservant, shares information about Lucy’s marriage with the Dashwoods, thereby leading Elinor and her family to assume, wrongly, that Lucy and Edward are married. Elinor begins the interrogation, but Mrs. Dashwood, apparently wishing to spare Elinor pain, picks up where Elinor leaves off and questions Thomas about his information—from whom he obtained it, if he saw the parties with his own eyes, and so on (400–02). Of course, we later find out that she has not asked the one essential question she should have asked—whether Thomas is sure that it was Edward whom he saw in the carriage. After the revelation of the truth, Elinor believes that this misunderstanding was created intentionally by Lucy, and her knowledge of Lucy’s character is exactly why she and her mother pose their questions to Thomas in the first place. By allowing the fact-checking to fail, Austen creates dramatic tension just before the resolution of Elinor and Edward’s story, since both Elinor and the reader can only assume that Edward is irrevocably lost to Elinor.
In addition to showcasing how controlling the heroine’s—and the reader’s—evaluation of information shapes a story, the scene between Elinor, Mrs. Dashwood, and Thomas may also serve as another warning that private information sources are not trustworthy and can lead to unnecessary pain. In contrast to the revelation of Willoughby’s marriage, here it would have been far better to learn about this wedding from the public papers, which would make it clear that Robert, not Edward, Ferrars had married Lucy Steele. As with the birth notice of the Palmer baby, however, the newspaper notice would likely have reached Elinor too late to enlighten her; in all likelihood Edward himself would have arrived at Barton Cottage before she had a chance to read one of Sir John Middleton’s newspapers. Austen reminds readers of how limited was the access to information of women living in the country: they do not travel to the market town to take care of business, as Thomas is doing when he sees Lucy and Robert in Exeter; they do not necessarily have reliable access to newspapers; and they often have only the notoriously unreliable reports of neighbors, servants, and tradespeople for news.
Colonel Brandon seems to be the most careful consumer of information in Sense and Sensibility. From early in the novel, we see him carefully checking what he has heard before making decisions, taking actions, or sharing information. Even after hearing that Marianne is engaged to Willoughby and seeing letters addressed to him in her hand, he visits Elinor in London to verify what he believes is likely true, asking, “‘Is everything finally settled?’” (197). Soon afterwards, he overhears talk about Willoughby’s engagement to Miss Grey, but he does not give it credence until he speaks with Elinor. When she tells him Marianne is unwell, he says to Elinor, “‘Perhaps, then . . . what I heard this morning may be—there may be more truth in it than I could believe possible at first”’ (225). His information is both detailed and correct, but he accepts it only after it is verified by Elinor.
Similarly, when Colonel Brandon hears about Edward’s disinheritance—undoubtedly from Mrs. Jennings or a similar source of “news”—his first act is to go to Elinor and inquire: “‘I have heard,’ said he, with great compassion, ‘of the injustice your friend Mr. Ferrars has suffered from his family. . . . Have I been rightly informed? Is it so?’” (320). This verification of information seems to be the key to responsible evaluation and, eventually, action: information gained by unreliable means is suspect until it can be verified. Since Elinor and Colonel Brandon are the two characters who most often engage in this kind of verification or fact-checking, it seems clear that it is an important part of the sense and judgment that both embody—and that is distinctly lacking from most of the other characters in the novel.
Information and responsibility
The responsibility to share information is also explored in Sense and Sensibility, although not to the extent that it is in Pride and Prejudice. When Lucy, unprompted, asks Elinor about the character of Mrs. Ferrars, “Elinor did think the question a very odd one, and her countenance expressed it” (147). After Lucy shares with Elinor the secret of her engagement, Elinor comments, “‘I certainly did not seek your confidence . . . , but pardon me if I express some surprise at so unnecessary a communication’” (152). Elinor seems to be questioning the propriety of Lucy’s confidences in this scene. Indeed, the impropriety shown here by Lucy seems similar to that exhibited by Wickham in Pride and Prejudice. Elinor, with a much greater sense of propriety than Lucy or Anne Steele, keeps Lucy’s secret until it becomes public knowledge because her promise requires her to do so. In keeping the secret, Elinor then must hide her own feelings from Marianne, and though the propriety of Elinor’s circumspection is never questioned, it creates distance between the sisters and causes great pain to Elinor herself. Colonel Brandon possesses important information about Willoughby that we, as readers, are not privy to until he feels that sharing it with Elinor will be helpful to Marianne. Elinor also must use judgment about when information should be shared or concealed; she decides to share with Marianne information about Eliza and about Willoughby’s past feelings and letter, but she decides to conceal what Willoughby says about his current feelings.
Elizabeth Bennet faces a similar conundrum about information concealing and sharing in Pride and Prejudice. Elizabeth’s awakening to the unreliable nature of some types of information happens in roughly the middle of the book, but Austen has more to say about our interactions with information. After reading Darcy’s letter, Elizabeth believes, correctly, that she now knows the truth about both Wickham and Darcy, but she is unsure whether she should share that knowledge with her community. After discussing the matter with Jane, she decides that she will not share this information because she was asked to keep the particulars about Georgiana to herself. Keeping the information about Wickham secret does, however, have repercussions, since without knowing Wickham’s true nature, neither the family nor the Forsters can protect Lydia from him. When she learns of the elopement, Elizabeth’s regret bursts forth:
“When I consider . . . that I might have prevented it!—I who knew what he was. Had I but explained some part of it only—some part of what I learnt, to my own family! Had his character been known, this could not have happened. But it is all, all too late now.” (305–06)
According to Mrs. Gardiner, Darcy also blames his concealment of Wickham’s nature for what happens to Lydia. She explains that Darcy took care of all the arrangements and expenses for Lydia’s marriage himself because, “It was owing to him, to his reserve, and want of proper consideration, that Wickham’s character had been so misunderstood, and consequently that he had been received and noticed as he was” (359).
The reader is left with the sense that having irrefutable information of this sort carries with it a responsibility to ensure that those making decisions regarding Wickham do not do so in ignorance. Whether a teenager should be allowed to spend time with someone like Wickham, or whether tradesmen should extend credit to him, or whether his courtship of an heiress should be encouraged—these are all decisions that would be greatly impacted by better knowledge of Wickham’s character. William Galperin and others have pointed out that Colonel Brandon possessed knowledge of Willoughby’s true character and chose not to share it in time to spare Marianne from the intense suffering that follows her rupture with him in London (115). Indeed, Marianne might have been more seriously at risk from Willoughby, especially considering his history with women and given Marianne’s and Willoughby’s behavior that crossed lines of propriety. Would she have been less likely to risk her reputation if she had known more about Willoughby’s character and past? Would the Bennets have forbidden Lydia from going to Brighton if they had known the risk she would face there from Wickham? Although Elizabeth and Darcy both decide to keep information about Wickham private to protect the reputation of another young woman, Georgiana, their self-recriminations suggest that solutions other than total silence should perhaps have been sought. Allowing people to make serious decisions in ignorance, when information exists to undeceive them, may actually be unethical. Both Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice interrogate this notion of privacy by showing that sharing private information about someone’s conduct, particularly their conduct towards vulnerable young women, may be necessary to protect the innocent from greater harm, even if the act of sharing private, personal information of this type might be seen as indelicate or improper.
The complexities of the information world that young women such as Elinor and Elizabeth must navigate is a theme of both novels, and in following their journey the reader learns how to engage with different types of information sources responsibly. The young women in these novels are relatively sheltered, with limited access to information and no instruction from parents about how to evaluate, interpret, and use information from sources as varied as letters, “news” from social networks, and personal testimony. It is through trial and error and interactions with those who have learned to exercise proper judgment regarding information that Austen’s heroines learn to determine what is credible and what is not, what to share and what to conceal, and the reader learns along with them as Austen carefully conceals or reveals essential information depending on the needs of the narrative. Elizabeth, Elinor, and the reader learn that information sources must be evaluated, that information cannot be taken at face value, and that there is a power and a responsibility in holding information important to young women trying to steer themselves safely through society. Information literacy may be a newer term, but even without using the term we can recognize it in these novels as Austen’s work highlights both the evolving nature of information and the individual’s relationship to it.
2For an excellent discussion of the role of letters in the eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century media landscape and this history’s significance in our understanding of the epistolary novel, see Rachel Scarborough King.