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Abstract

Claudia Johnson has remarked that "Mansfield Park is noticeably more allusive than Austen's other novels," and the work's explicit references to Cowper, Inchbald, and Shakespeare would seem to corroborate her hunch. Yet Mansfield Park’s allusions may be distinguished less by how frequently they appear than by how insistently they call attention to themselves, how “noticeable” they are. My subject in this article is the slippery, hard-to-see allusiveness of Sense and Sensibility -- in particular, a heretofore unremarked allusion to John Dryden's “To the Memory of Mr. Oldham” in volume 1, chapter 12. If, as Irvin Ehrenpreis asserts, “Austen deserves minute attention because ... few authors conceal their opinions on subjects of controversy so well,” then careful scrutiny of this subtle allusion may provide an interesting interpretive context for the novel, one that promises to shed light on the critical controversy concerning how thoroughly Austen differentiates the two Dashwood sisters, whether she defines alternative spheres of value through them, and where her sympathies lie. On the other hand, the allusion’s unobtrusiveness, its proximity to Austen’s better-known—if no less subtle—invocation of Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock, and its location at exactly the point where the novel begins to explore problems of evidence, detection, and interpretation suggest that the invocation of Dryden may function less as a key to the resolution of interpretive quandaries than as an interpretive trap, a reminder that one’s perspective determines the meaning of the evidence and not the reverse. Thus, while John Halperin maintains that Austen teaches the reader in Sense and Sensibility “to see what is there, and not just what one wishes to see,” Austen also experiments with what we now call standpoint epistemology by questioning whether it is possible to “see what is there” uncoloured by one’s wishes and experiences. Moreover, by treating Pope and Dryden not as Augustan artifacts but as vital participants in contemporary debates about sensibility and sexual politics, Austen casts a different shade on them, one that challenges traditional, too-easy distinctions between Austen’s debt to an Augustan poetics of knowledge and her obligations to a sentimental and Romantic poetics of feeling.

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