Form and Content (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
Sense and Sensibility is Jane Austen’s first published novel. It grew out of the sketch “Elinor and Marianne,” which was written in the 1790’s and was revised several times before its publication in 1811. The novel is written in the form of a comedy of manners, and in it the author satirizes the lifestyle of her characters with much humor and irony. Although it has a happy ending, Sense and Sensibility contains Jane Austen’s usual hardheadedness, which makes her fiction powerfully realistic and timeless.
The plot centers on Mrs. Henry Dashwood and her three daughters. Not much is said of Margaret, the youngest daughter. Elinor’s and Marianne’s trials as eligible young ladies are the focus of the story. Their mother, Mrs. Dashwood, has been left without much of an income, for her husband Henry has had only a life interest in his estate, which means that his wife must vacate it in favor of the new heir, her stepson, John Dashwood. On his deathbed, Henry Dashwood has made his son John promise to provide for Henry’s wife and three daughters. Unfortunately, John’s avaricious and insensitive wife, Fanny, convinces him that he has very little obligation to Mrs. Dashwood and her daughters, and that they can do well on their very small income. Consequently, Mrs. Dashwood has little choice but to accept the kind offer from a relative of a cottage in Devonshire, to which she moves with her three daughters.
It is difficult for Elinor to leave her family home, since she has fallen in love with the circumspect Edward Ferrars. He is a peculiar suitor, subdued and tentative, but Elinor appreciates his mild manner and modesty, and she is willing to have their courtship proceed at an even, if extremely slow, pace. Elinor understands that Edward’s mother will probably oppose his marrying Elinor because Elinor does not have the great wealth or position that Edward’s mother seeks in a bride for her son. To Marianne, this is provoking. Why should Elinor be content with such a hesitant lover? Why should she make excuses for Edward when Marianne attacks his want of spontaneity? To Marianne, he seems neither intense nor determined enough to seek Elinor’s hand. She cannot understand why Edward is not forthright and why Elinor does not lose patience with him. Elinor finds, however, that Edward’s quiet,...
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Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
Barton cottage. Home of Mrs. Dashwood and her three daughters, near Barton Park in Devonshire, three days’ journey from London in southwest England, that is under the control of a distant relative. Mrs. Dashwood and her daughters move into the cottage after her stepson, John Dashwood, marries and his new wife makes it clear that they are no longer welcome in the home that she now manages. The women make the cottage comfortable and are resigned to the social gaucheries of Sir John Middleton and his mother-in-law, Mrs. Jennings, who apparently are to be their main social resources.
The novel’s central romantic entanglements are introduced at the cottage, where the daughters begin receiving gentleman callers who represent prospective husbands. One caller, Edward Ferrars, who gives Elinor hope that her affection for him may be returned, is partial toward the cottage because he prefers the seclusion and quiet of country life to the social bustle of London. Eventually the two older daughters find happiness with the lovers of their choice.
Norland Park. Sussex home of the widowed Mrs. Dashwood and her daughters that is inherited by her stepson, John Dashwood. Mrs. Dashwood fondly remembers it as her former home, Marianne remembers it for its elegance, and Elinor remembers it as the place where she and Edward became fond of each other.
Berkeley Street. Exclusive London neighborhood where Elinor and Marianne are the guests of Mrs. Jennings, Lady Middleton’s mother, for an extended winter visit. At a party there, Marianne is stunned by the appearance of her former lover, Willoughby, and his efforts to snub her.
Cleveland. Somersetshire home of Mr. and Mrs. Palmer, Mrs. Jennings’s other daughter, that serves as a convenient stopover for Elinor and Marianne on their return from London to Barton Cottage. Here, primarily from self-neglect, Marianne contracts an infectious fever, giving Colonel Brandon the chance to serve her by going after her mother. A drunken Willoughby appears, having heard that Marianne is dying, to beg her forgiveness for his marrying for money and to insist that he loves only her. Marianne recovers and comes to appreciate Colonel Brandon’s devotion.
Context (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
Jane Austen is the first great female English novelist and has been acknowledged as such in countless articles and books. An avid reader, she built on the tradition created by Samuel Richardson (1689-1761), whose novels Pamela (1740) and Clarissa (1747-1748) focus on female characters with their own distinct problems and sensibilities, and also on the work of earlier female novelists such as Fanny Burney (1752-1840), who perfected the novel of manners. Jane Austen went beyond these authors, however, in giving her female characters a new level of maturity and self-awareness. They are sharper and shrewder, more prone to criticize society even as they uphold its basic values.
Jane Austen’s style has been the model for countless writers, male and female. In recent years, her complex vision of society has been increasingly appreciated. Her earliest critics thought of her as modest, a miniaturist of society who did not deal with the large issues that concern male novelists such as Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832), William Thackeray (1811-1863), or Charles Dickens (1812-1870). This view, however, has been challenged by later critics, many of them female, who see her as being much more actively involved with broader social issues—even if the social contexts of her novels seem narrow. Her recent biographers have abetted this critical trend, showing how acute Austen could be on the issues of her day and how political her sensibility and style actually are.
Compare and Contrast
Topics for Further Study
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Butler, Marilyn. Jane Austen and the War of Ideas. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1987. Argues that this “unremittingly didactic” novel intends to oppose Marianne’s idealistic values with the decisive correctness of Elinor’s cautious civility. Asserts that Austen complicates this effort, however, by making Marianne too sympathetic.
Fergus, Jan. Jane Austen and the Didactic Novel: “Northanger Abbey,” “Sense and Sensibility,” and “Pride and Prejudice.” Totowa, N.J.: Barnes & Noble Books, 1983. Very good on Austen’s style and in situating her early novels in the tradition of eighteenth and early...
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