The subtleties of Austen's words and ideas in Sense and Sensibility build a social and cultural picture peopled by vital and authentic characters, all of which is overlooked when the subtleties are given less than close, sensitive, and careful readings. Let's look at a close reading of some points with subtleties that may be misconstrued lacking in-depth reading.
WILLOUGHBY'S FEELINGS FOR MARIANNE
There is some confusion as to Willoughby's true feelings for Marianne. Indeed, this confusion is interior (part of the plot structure) as well as with the reader and drives major and subplot elements. In other words, as readers, we feel the same confusion Elinor does because it is Elinor through whom Austen focalizes the plot and subplot. While Austen clears up the confusion in the text--firstly by revealing hints and secondly by Willoughby's explanatory speech--some readers don't quite follow the unknotting from intentional confusion to deliberate revelation when Austen sets forth that Willoughby and Marianne both give the same account and the same explanations about Willoughby's feelings for Marianne.
"When I first became intimate in your family, I had no other intention, no other view in the acquaintance than to pass my time pleasantly while I was obliged to remain in Devonshire [with Mrs. Smith] [...] I found myself, by insensible degrees, sincerely fond of her; and the happiest hours of my life were what I spent with her when I felt my intentions were strictly honourable, and my feelings blameless. [...] I had determined, as soon as I could engage her alone, to justify the attentions I had so invariably paid her,.... (Ch 44)
Willoughby's speech to Elinor confirms what Marianne had long before told her soon after the events of the ball. Then, to defend Willoughby's honor and intentions--though no actual engagement had ever been made, thus no promise nor honor factually broken--Marianne protested that, though unspoken, Willoughby's love and heart had been hers:
"He DID feel the same, Elinor—for weeks and weeks he felt it. I know he did. Whatever may have changed him now, (and nothing but the blackest art employed against me can have done it), I was once as dear to him as my own soul could wish. This lock of hair, which now he can so readily give up, was begged of me with the most earnest supplication. (Ch 29)
With the proof of both their hearts and both their words--asserting and confirming the same thing--it is not credible to say that a fortune hunting Willoughby--which indeed he was--had "false expressions of sentiment" for Marianne. When guided by the text, we must join with Marianne in saying:
"[Willoughby] is not so unworthy as you believe him. ... I was once as dear to him as my own soul could wish." (Ch 29)
COLONEL BRANDON IN LONDON
After the ball and letter and Miss Grey debacle (Ch 28), during which Willoughby makes his final choice and takes his final stand--"his complexion changed and all his embarrassment returned; but as if, on catching the eye of the young lady with whom he had been previously talking, he felt the necessity of instant exertion, he recovered himself again"--Colonel Brandon remains the confidant of Elinor and sympathizer of Marianne. Make no mistake though, it is not until after Colonel Brandon summons his courage and tells the story of Eliza and her daughter, Miss Williams, that Marianne can even countenance speaking to Brandon:
"It is Colonel Brandon!" said [Marianne], with vexation. "We are never safe from HIM." (Ch 31)
Brandon begins in Chapter 27 to confide in and support Elinor when he inadvertently reveals to Elinor that talk of Marianne's engagement to Willoughby is general knowledge in their extended social circle:
[Colonel Brandon said,] "as they openly correspond, and their marriage is universally talked of. ... By many—by some of whom you know nothing, by others with whom you are most intimate,..." (Ch 27)
Brandon implicitly reveals to Elinor, by design, since "on [her] prudence [he has] the strongest dependence," that his heart is devoted to Marianne, although she returns not even kindness. In relation to the common belief that Marianne and Willoughby are engaged, Brandon asks Elinor if he has any hope besides that of concealing his ardent feelings: "Tell me that it is all absolutely resolved on, that any attempt, that in short concealment, if concealment be possible, is all that remains" (Ch 27)
Only after Elinor relates to Marianne Brandon's tragic story of first lost, then devastated love, does Marianne yield in her disdain and occasionally speak to or look kindly upon Brandon. Because of this textual plot conflict and this sequence of events, it is impossible to say that Marianne is "comforted" by Brandon or that he expresses kindness to Marianne. In point of fact, even after Marianne becomes yielding and respectful (Ch 32), Brandon speaks to Marianne but little and she to him even less: "[Marianne was] speaking to him, even voluntarily speaking, with a kind of compassionate respect" and to her credit "no longer avoiding Colonel Brandon when he called."
Colonel Brandon's delicate, unobtrusive enquiries were never unwelcome to Miss Dashwood. He had abundantly earned the privilege of intimate discussion of her sister's disappointment, by the friendly zeal with which he had endeavoured to soften it, and they always conversed with confidence. His chief reward for the painful exertion of disclosing past sorrows and present humiliations, was given in the pitying eye with which Marianne sometimes observed him, and the gentleness of her voice whenever (though it did not often happen) she was obliged, or could oblige herself to speak to him. (Ch 32)
MARIANNE, BRANDON AND WILLOUGHBY AT CLEVELAND, SOMERSETSHIRE
[T]hough [Elinor] saw [Marianne's] spirits less violently irritated than before, she did not see her less wretched. Her mind did become settled, but it was settled in a gloomy dejection. (Ch 32)
"Cleveland!"—she cried, with great agitation. "No, I cannot go to Cleveland."—
"You forget," said Elinor gently, "that its situation is not...that it is not in the neighbourhood of..."
"But it is in Somersetshire.—I cannot go into Somersetshire.—There, where I looked forward to going...No, Elinor, you cannot expect me to go there." (Ch 39)
The second day brought them into the cherished, or the prohibited, county of Somerset, for as such was it dwelt on by turns in Marianne's imagination;.... (Ch 42)
The most dramatic plot development, the climactic hinge upon which the plot turns, happens when Elinor and Marianne arrive at Cleveland--the Palmers' country estate, just a few mile from Combe Magna, the Willoughbys' country estate--as the guest of Mr. and Mrs. Palmer (Mrs. Jennings' daughter, Charlotte) and in company with Mrs. Jennings and Colonel Brandon. Even though Marianne's first response was a violent rejection of the idea of traveling to Cleveland, Elinor's presentation of the nearness of Barton Cottage and home swayed her agitated feelings in favor of reaching her mother's comforting care sooner.
Marianne's unstrung emotions receive a fresh agitation by being so near to Willoughby's estate, a place she was to make home and of which she was to be mistress, until the truth of Willoughby's need for a wealthy wife--after being cut off completely by Miss Smith for his infamous abandonment of Brandon's ward Miss Williams--dashed all Marianne's expectations to dust. It was a bittersweet discovery that a walk through the far reaches of the Cleveland estate, near the Grecian temple, allowed her to gaze to the southeast and, in her imagination, "fancy that from their summits Combe Magna might be seen" (Ch 42). Several days of continual rain prevented Marianne from her determination to walk to the temple and the "distant eminence" to let her gaze "fondly rest on the farthest ridge of the hills" to imagine, though far distant, "Combe Magna might be seen."
In the "twilight" of the third and fourth evenings Marianne did wander on her desired path to fulfill the bitter sorrow of her emotional, yearning heart even though the grasses were the tallest and wettest of all the estate following the rains. To add a sense of destitution to deepen her emotional churnings, she neglected herself so far as to sit about after her walks in wet shoes and wet stockings. She further neglected her well-being by ignoring the "feeling, in her head and throat, the beginning of a heavy cold" that Colonel Brandon did not fail to notice.
[Marianne said,] "My illness, I well knew, had been entirely brought on by myself by such negligence of my own health, as I had felt even at the time to be wrong. Had I died,—it would have been self-destruction."
The next day convinced her to take medications and rest in bed, while the following day, feeling "restless and feverish," convinced her to accept the attentions of an apothecary, who announced an infection. All but Mrs. Jennings and Colonel Brandon abandoned Cleveland in order to protect Charlotte's baby from illness. Three days after the last one left, Marianne took a violent turn for the worse. She was roused from another feverish sleep with delirious ramblings about her mother being coming from Barton and about how Mrs. Dashwood must not go through London or be lost:
[Elinor was] almost wishing to rouse her from so painful a slumber, when Marianne, suddenly awakened by some accidental noise in the house, started hastily up, and, with feverish wildness, cried out,—
"Is mama coming?—"
"Not yet," cried the other, concealing her terror, and assisting Marianne to lie down again, "but she will be here, I hope, before it is long. It is a great way, you know, from hence to Barton."
"But she must not go round by London," cried Marianne, in the same hurried manner. "I shall never see her, if she goes by London."
With these scenes firmly in mind, it is clear that the time at Cleveland is critical to plot development; critical to character development; and critical to the plot devices that allow for the commencement of the revelations in the falling action. It is also clear that Marianne has done far more than to catch a violent cold: Marianne has courted a violent cold by indulging in melancholy romantic sentimentality and maudlin neglect of common sense in the most rudimentary care of herself. In other words, Marianne went out to gaze at the distant hill and imagine herself and Willoughby at Combe Magna and probably to torture her frayed emotional state by imagining Mr. and Mrs. Willoughby at Combe Magna.
While it is true that at Cleveland Marianne comes down with a severe cold, it is worse than severe--it is life threatening--and she actively pursues the cold as a result of indulging her heightened sensibilities. This is one of Austen's greatest points, and the meaning of Sense and Sensibility is missed if this critical element is overlooked or glossed over as a mere incidental.
BRANDON TO BARTON COTTAGE
Elinor is "sanguine" (calm, untroubled) throughout Marianne's illness until the night she becomes delirious. Since Marianne awakened "with feverish wildness, [and] cried out," wondering if her Mama were coming and beseeching that "she must not go round by London" or forever be lost to her, "I shall never see her, if she goes by London," it is not reasonable to characterize Marianne as being anxious to have her mother come to Cleveland. Yes, Marianne has anxiety--anxiety, but oh so much more--but it is not true that Marianne was in a rational state and expressing a rational desire and request to have her mother's attendance.
On the contrary, it is Elinor who makes a sudden decision and chooses on Marianne's behalf to bring their mother to Cleveland. The fetching of Mrs. Dashwood to Marianne's bedside is the first of the falling actions that occur because of the climactic event of Marianne's dangerously severe infection. Brandon is solicited to take the carriage to Barton Cottage, and responds with eagerness, but it is Elinor in great distress who sees the need, expresses the request and dispatches Brandon as the messenger, a role he had already prepared for and committed to. Mrs. Dashwood comes because Elinor sees that Marianne is in danger and might be dying and insists upon Mrs. Dashwood being present:
Her fears and her difficulties were immediately before [Brandon]. Her fears, he had no courage, no confidence to attempt the removal of:—he listened to them in silent despondence;—but her difficulties were instantly obviated, for with a readiness that seemed to speak the occasion, and the service pre-arranged in his mind, he offered himself as the messenger who should fetch Mrs. Dashwood.
WILLOUGHBY AT CLEVELAND
The flaring lamps of a carriage were immediately in view. By their uncertain light she thought she could discern it to be drawn by four horses; and this, while it told the excess of her poor mother's alarm, gave some explanation to such unexpected rapidity.
Never in her life had Elinor found it so difficult to be calm, as at that moment. The knowledge of what her mother must be feeling as the carriage stopt at the door—of her doubt—her dread—perhaps her despair!—and of what SHE had to tell!—with such knowledge it was impossible to be calm. All that remained to be done was to be speedy; and, therefore staying only till she could leave Mrs. Jennings's maid with her sister, she hurried down stairs.
The bustle in the vestibule, as she passed along an inner lobby, assured her that they were already in the house. She rushed to the drawing-room,—she entered it,—and saw only Willoughby. (Ch 43)
Elinor, starting back with a look of horror at the sight of him, obeyed the first impulse of her heart in turning instantly to quit the room, and her hand was already on the lock, when its action was suspended by his hastily advancing, and saying, in a voice rather of command than supplication,
"Miss Dashwood, for half an hour—for ten minutes—I entreat you to stay."
"No, sir," she replied with firmness, "I shall NOT stay. Your business cannot be with ME. The servants, I suppose, forgot to tell you that Mr. Palmer was not in the house." (Ch 44)
To say that Willoughby called upon the inhabitants of Cleveland because he heard Marianne was ill is an unacceptable understatement. Firstly, he has no social right to call upon Elinor or Marianne, as Elinor is quick to point out: "Your business cannot be with ME." Secondly, he knows good and well that only deliberate rudeness or insistence can gain him entrance and an interview:
"Had they told me," he cried with vehemence, "that Mr. Palmer and all his relations were at the devil, it would not have turned me from the door. My business is with you, and only you."
Thirdly, in a beautiful arrangement of syntax and vocabulary, Austen builds a tension and urgency that yields the impression of Willoughby bursting into the room as urgently as Elinor herself bursts in: "She rushed to the drawing-room,—she entered it,—and saw only Willoughby." Fourthly, Willoughby was well aware that he was not at all welcome: "Elinor, starting back with a look of horror at the sight of him, obeyed the first impulse of her heart in turning instantly to quit the room, and her hand was already on the lock, when its action was suspended by his hastily advancing,...."
So to say less than that--having heard that Marianne was in danger of dying--Willoughby risked considerable marital and social censure for grievous impropriety to dash the 30 miles from Combe Magna to Cleveland, while knowing he was an unwelcome guest, is to discount and underplay a vital part of Austen's most carefully--and emotionally--worked plot element. Willoughby's demanding urgency is confirmed in that, when he is composed enough to "be quick—and if you can—less violent," his first remark is to ask if Marianne is truly going to live: "Your sister," said he, with abruptness, ... "is out of danger. ...-But is it true? is it really true?"
Austen weaves so many minute, yet vital, pieces of information within each sentence and throughout the entire plot, that we risk missing the fine points of her story, themes, emotion, wit and talent if we err by giving Sense and Sensibility quick or less than careful readings.