Jane Austen’s Whisper Networks
Her books aren't just about marriage and romance—they're about how women talk to each other about men
It is a truth universally acknowledged that when a woman’s economic well-being depends on the men around her, it pays to listen to what other women have to say about them. This truth gave us the Shitty Media Men list, as well as any number of industry-specific whisper networks and gossip over cocktails. And 200 years before that, it gave us the novels of Jane Austen.
As Austen (through Charlotte Lucas) cynically observes in Pride and Prejudice, marriage is “the only provision for well-educated young women of small fortune, and however uncertain of giving happiness, must be their pleasantest preservative from want.” The marriage industry— the most common and respectable one for Regency-era English gentlewomen—had its own industry-specific whisper networks. When your work is obtaining and maintaining a good marriage, a bad boss or coworker could ruin you forever– could keep you from a career before it begins, or destroy one you had without hope of a second. So how do you find out what man to trust? For all the attention paid to the economic underpinnings and shrewd cultural commentary behind all of Jane Austen’s romances, we seldom discuss how her plots resolve not through romance, but through the use of female networks and alliances. One of the most subtly important things a heroine can do is create, expand, and maintain a network of female friends and relatives. It is by maintaining those networks that the heroine discovers mens’ true characters and solves the mysteries that have been driving the plot.
Though this structure appears in all six of Jane Austen’s published novels, it can be seen most clearly in her most famous work, Pride and Prejudice. In one of her characteristic ironies, she underlines the necessity of these female whisper networks in Pride and Prejudice by having the heroine Elizabeth disbelieve everything she hears from other women about rake-masquerading-as-virtuous-man George Wickham.
Caroline Bingley, whom Elizabeth dislikes and who dislikes Elizabeth in turn, does offer the truth—that Wickham “treated Mr. Darcy in the most infamous manner”—but she ascribes this not to Wickham’s actions but to his background. The framing of this new information plays into Elizabeth’s preconceived ideas of both Caroline and Wickham: that Caroline is an obnoxious snob whose chief motivation in life is flattering and agreeing with Darcy, and that Wickham has been Done Wrong by those who consider themselves his social betters. Later at the same ball, Elizabeth’s older sister Jane similarly reports that she’s heard from host Mr. Bingley, who heard from his friend Mr. Darcy, that Wickham “is by no means a respectable young man.” As Pride and Prejudice might also be honestly called Confirmation Bias, Elizabeth interprets this information from a trusted source (her beloved sister Jane) not as proof that Wickham’s a man she ought to cross off her list of eligible bachelors, but as proof of Mr. Bingley’s sincerity and loyalty. Bingley is exactly the sort of friendly and good-natured young man who believes whatever his friend Mr. Darcy tells him. The information Jane reports is therefore not only second-hand, but from a biased source.
If Elizabeth had listened to the whisper network, she might have realized that Wickham is objectively awful, and his subsequently abandoning Elizabeth and going after a local heiress is not pragmatism but part of a troubling pattern. As Darcy reveals in a letter to Elizabeth, Wickham had previously attempted to elope with Darcy’s fifteen-year-old sister. Wickham isn’t a charming young man who’s been hard done by; he’s an amoral mercenary who exploits young women for his benefit. Wickham was after the financial capital of the two heiresses, and Elizabeth’s social capital, as she is the well-connected and well-respected daughter of the largest local landowner. Elizabeth may not have a fortune for Wickham to use for his own ends, but her social position means that if she believes his story and vouches for him, so will everyone else in her small society. Once Elizabeth has processed this information, she turns to her closest confidante, elder sister Jane, for advice on her most pressing concern: should they tell anyone else about Wickham?
In a conversation that could take place today, they decide to remain silent; Elizabeth fears exposing an innocent woman’s part in a scandal, and she doubts anyone would believe her anyway. Jane also wonders whether outing Wickham as a cad could rebound on her and her sister. If she and Elizabeth reveal Wickham’s past misdeeds to the whole neighborhood, they might “ruin him forever” and “make him desperate”—an echo of the modern “think about his bright future.” The choice of “desperate” also evokes to the modern reader the implicit threat of retaliation. If the Bennet sisters expose him, who’s to say Wickham wouldn’t revenge himself on them?
He does anyhow. In a letter from Jane, Elizabeth learns that Wickham has run off with Elizabeth and Jane’s fifteen-year-old sister, Lydia. It’s a terrible decision, made on a whim, that could ruin not just Lydia’s future, but the futures of all the Bennet sisters. Their reputations are tainted by association. No one will want to marry a gentlewoman of small fortune with a scandalous family. Elizabeth and Jane blame themselves for keeping silent. Interestingly, it’s only when they talk with other women that the plot resolves. Elizabeth’s careless youngest sister Lydia first lets it slip that Darcy was present at Lydia and Wickham’s wedding, offering the first clue in unraveling the mystery of How the Hell Did This Awful Rake Get Forced to Do Right by Lydia. Elizabeth then writes to her aunt, Mrs. Gardiner, for an explanation, which she gives: Darcy had been at the wedding because he had arranged it. Why? It is in part thanks to Darcy’s new awareness of how— even though it’s against his own understanding of what it means to be a moral member of society who fulfills his duties to others— he has helped perpetuate a system that allows the Wickhams of the world to thrive. His silence meant Wickham could get away with doing the same things over and over. Mrs. Gardiner also suggests Darcy did it out of love and concern for Elizabeth. In a neat parallel, Darcy’s aunt, the uber-snobbish Lady Catherine de Bourgh, tries to force Elizabeth to promise to marry Darcy and ends up proving to Darcy that Elizabeth now loves and respects him enough to wish to marry him.
What caused Elizabeth to change her mind? Again, it was speaking to other women about a man’s true character. Elizabeth jokes to her sister Jane that she fell in love with Darcy upon “seeing his beautiful grounds at Pemberley” but this glib attempt at changing the subject points towards Darcy’s character reference from the women who depend on him: Darcy’s housekeeper, Mrs. Reynolds, and his sister, Georgiana.
This structure certainly varies in her other novels. Persuasion, for example, also narratively rewards the heroine for reaching out to other women for information (Anne Elliot discovers from an old schoolfriend with whom she’s reconnected that a man she didn’t have any reason to dislike but didn’t trust was actually horrible), but Mansfield Park flips this structure on its head and points out the dangers of not listening to women who have seen men behaving badly and no longer trust them. Though anti-heroine Mary Crawford points out that her rakish brother Henry treats women badly, she is ignored—as is heroine Fanny, who refuses to marry Henry and is pressured by everyone around her to change her mind. Henry runs off with Fanny’s married cousin, ruining her… but not suffering much himself. He’s still welcomed by society, in another gloomy parallel to contemporary reality. But at the heart of these novels is the question: how does a woman survive under patriarchy? And the consistent answer: with the help of other women.
Public discussion of Austen’s work tends to focus on heterosexual romantic relationships, but the female networks that surround her heroines deserve equal analysis and weight—because of what they tell us about Austen’s time, but also about our own. These networks have endured since the Regency era because they are still sadly necessary. A shitty man taking advantage of you can still ruin your reputation as thoroughly as in the Regency era, albeit in a different way than a Lydia Bennett or Maria Rushworth. But as Austen hints,the most important thing to learn, as a woman trapped within a patriarchal society, is how to befriend, trust, and above all talk, to other women.