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Sense and Sensibility

by Jane Austen
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In Sense and Sensibility, how does the relationship between Marianne and Colonel Brandon change over the course of the novel?

In Sense and Sensibility, the relationship between Marianne and Colonel Brandon changes from being very unbalanced to apparent equality. Initially the colonel is infatuated with an immature girl who devalues him, but in the end they center their marriage with mutual love and respect.

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At the beginning of the novel, Marianne is described as

eager in everything … her sorrows, her joys, could have no moderation. … She was everything but prudent (chapter 1).

These characteristics of sensibility shape Marianne’s first reaction to Colonel Brandon. She believes that he is “an absolute old bachelor, for he was on the wrong side of five and thirty” (chapter 7). When they first meet, Marianne is asked to sing for the group, and Colonel Brandon is the only one that pays her “the compliment of attention” (chapter 7). Marianne appreciates his attention but feels underwhelmed by his response to music in general. She feels it is his age that moderates his appreciation.

From this first meeting, Colonel Brandon is “very much in love with Marianne Dashwood” (chapter 8). However, Marianne believes that they have nothing in common because she assumes that Colonel Brandon has lost his enthusiasm for life in his “old” age. Marianne spurns Colonel Brandon’s attention in favor of John Willoughby, a young man who is as sensible as she is.

When Willoughby breaks her heart, Marianne walks in the rain and becomes very ill. Willoughby realizes that he did love Marianne, but she discovers that she wants someone with a more even temperament, like her sister Elinor. The narrator tells the reader,

Marianne Dashwood was born to an extraordinary fate. … She was born to overcome an affection formed so late in life as at seventeen, and with no sentiment superior to strong esteem and lively friendship, voluntarily to give her hand to another—and that other, a man who had suffered no less than herself under the event of a former attachment, whom, two years before, she had considered too old to be married. … Instead of falling a sacrifice to an irresistible passion, as once she had fondly flattered herself with expecting … she found herself at nineteen submitting to new attachments. (chapter 50)

Marianne’s perspective on Colonel Brandon changes as she matures. Colonel Brandon’s attachment to Marianne is as steady as his character. Therefore, the development of their relationship hinges on Marianne’s character development. At the beginning of the novel, she only follows her heart; by the end of the novel, Marianne uses her reason as well.

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In the early part of the novel, the teenage Marianne scorns Colonel Brandon as impossibly old for her, because he is thirty-five. Although a wealthy man and in love with her, he wears a flannel vest and doesn't have the poetic charisma or youthful good looks of Willoughby. At this point, Marianne lives her life from emotion—"sensibility"—and so sees no reason not to treat people exactly as she feels in the moment. This means she is sometimes rude to Colonel Brandon, leaving the sensible Elinor to have to smooth over any hurt feelings. This early Marianne is self-absorbed; she can't bear any person that doesn't share all her opinions, and she is not very likable.

As the novel progresses, however, Marianne matures. When Willoughby, after leading her on, rejects her to marry a wealthy woman he doesn't love, Marianne realizes she is not always going to get whatever she wants. This leads her first into emotional upset and next into a dangerous illness. By the time she recovers, she accepts the reality that she is not going to have Willoughby in her life. Sobered and wiser, she is able to see past Colonel Brandon's facade to the responsible and honest man of true worth he is. Although she is not in love with him the way she was with Willoughby, she is able to marry him on the firmer basis of esteem and affection.

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At first, Colonel Brandon's quiet but steadfast love for Marianne is quite unrequited, while John Willoughby, a young man visiting wealthy friends in the neighborhood, becomes the object of her affections. She considers Colonel Brandon, who is thirty-five, to be far too old and staid for her.

It is only later in the story, when Marianne and Elinor visit London and discover that Willoughby actually has a fiance and was just toying with Marianne's emotions, that Colonel Brandon, who is also in London, gets his chance. He comforts Marianne in the aftermath of her discovery of Willoughby's true situation—that he is engaged to be married and was merely toying with Marianne's emotions.

Because the colonel knew what Willoughby was like, his concern and affection for Marianne sometimes came across as paternal rather than romantic in the early stages of the story. Later, however, after she has had her heart broken by Willoughby and become physically ill as a result, it is the colonel who is by her side, waiting for her to heal and showing her that he is husband material. In a nutshell, Marianne gradually realizes that while there was no immediate spark of passion, Colonel Brandon offers stability, honesty, and the type of love that lasts.

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In Sense and Sensibility, the relationship between Marianne and Colonel Brandon begins as a very unbalanced one, in which his obvious interest in her is not remotely reciprocated. In part because of the difference in their ages, Brandon is captivated by the lovely, energetic adolescent, but she longs for romance with a dashing young man. Throughout the course of the novel, Marianne matures considerably; she moves from purely embodying the “sensibility” side of the equation to gaining more of her sister’s “sense.” The colonel demonstrates that his affection is genuine and steadfast, not a passing fancy. Each of them in different ways learns the importance of trust and constancy, as well as open communication. By the novel’s end, the mutual respect they have gained is blossoming into love, and the reader can infer that their marriage will be happy and enduring.

Part of the contrast between Marianne and Brandon stems not only from his greater age but the knowledge that he conceals. His interest in Marianne sometimes seems more paternal than romantic, and the reader later learns that he had prior knowledge of Willoughby’s despicable behavior. He later realizes that had he been forthcoming with this knowledge, he might have had a more positive effect on Marianne and even prevented her falling ill.

As Marianne physically recovers from her illness and emotionally recovers from her broken heart, Brandon is at her side. She comes to treasure his attention and appreciate qualities that are more than skin deep. While he is clearly the more mature one of the pair, not just the older one, his increasing self-awareness is also a necessary step in making him fully worthy of her and ready to enter into marriage.

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While it is true to say that Marianne has no attraction toward Colonel Brandon because he is too old and wears "flannel" waistcoats, it is not true to say that, as a consequence, she rejects his suit: Colonel Brandon makes no suit for her love--thus no suit can be rejected--until well after Edward and Elinor are married and settled in the parsonage at Brandon's estate of Delaford. It is equally untrue to say that at any point Brandon continues a courtship of Marianne: Colonel Brandon never has the heart to initiate a courtship until Marianne spends considerable time in visits to Elinor and Edward at Delaford, and then only with Mrs. Dashwood's assistance and encouragement.

Marianne Meets Brandon

How does Marianne meet Colonel Brandon and on what is her long-lasting first impression formed? Marianne and all the Dashwoods are invited to take dinner at Barton Manor. It is at this dinner that Marianne meets Colonel Brandon. Her first assessment of him is that he, at thirty-five, is "old," "infirm" and in "declining life." She finds a modicum of respect for him because he is attentive, although not rapturous, about the music she sings and plays. She considers him an unfortunate man of "advanced years" in a "forlorn condition as an old bachelor." So, had he been, in her opinion, pretentious enough to advance a suit of marriage, she indeed would have rejected it. Yet pursuing a courtship of Marianne was not a possibility Brandon even contemplated because of Marianne's decided disinterest in him.

Second Attachments and Flannel

Although, as Mrs. Jennings and Sir John noticed, Colonel Brandon had an immediate "partiality" for Marianne (we later learn the immediate nature of his partiality was due to her striking resemblance to Eliza), Marianne has, as shown above, an immediate disdain for Brandon: Marianne was "prejudiced against him." On top of this dislike for thirty-five-year-old Brandon, Marianne was completely enamored of twenty-five-year-old Willoughby: "what could a silent man of five and thirty hope, when opposed to a very lively one of five and twenty?" In view of Marianne's sensibilities, it would take a bold and audacious man to pursue Marianne's affection, which we know Brandon was not; he was grave and "reserved."

In addition, Marianne's "romantic" ideas about love and attachments prohibit the existence of "second attachments," second loves in life. As Brandon's conversation with Marianne brings out, even if Brandon had overcome his gravity and reserve and had summoned the fortitude to dare to approach Marianne while her thoughts and affections were absorbed by Willoughby, he would have thwarted because of Marianne's rejection of second loves, especially second loves in "old" and "infirm" men who dare to wear flannel.

[Marianne said,] "[Colonel Brandon] may live twenty years longer. But thirty-five has nothing to do with matrimony."

Marianne's Opinion on Brandon

On the day of the group outing to the "very fine place about twelve miles from Barton," when Brandon is so suddenly called away to attend to urgent business that "cannot afford to lose ONE hour," Marianne agrees with Willoughby's diminishing pronouncement that Brandon probably invented the urgency as a rouse to avoid the "party of pleasure." Before Brandon mounted his horse to leave, he "bid [Elinor] farewell for a longer time than [he] should wish to do" but "merely bowed" to Marianne "and said nothing."

Brandon's behavior throughout this time does not bespeak the behavior of a man who is pursuing a romantic suit for Marianne's love. He doesn't see her again until they are all in London and Marianne is first desperate to hear from Willoughby and then desperate because she has heard cold and unloving things from him. It is highly unlikely that Brandon would even contemplate pursuing Marianne's affection in such an atmosphere of sensibilities. Marianne leaves London to go to Cleveland only to fall into dangerous illness--caused by her own neglect and melancholy dejection--that brings her to the brink of death. It is Brandon who, at word of Elinor's fears, volunteers to go to Barton to bring Mrs. Dashwood to Marianne's side.

Brandon Confides in Mrs. Dashwood

It is during the carriage drive back to Cleveland that Brandon pours his heart out to Mrs. Dashwood, telling her of his deep and earnest love for Marianne and sharing all the trials of his ill-fated love for Eliza. Mrs. Dashwood is deeply by her responsive sensibilities and grants Brandon her blessing in attempting to gain Marianne's love as his own, although both have realistic doubts as to Marianne's ability to respond or reciprocate. It is during Marianne's convalescence that Brandon is invited to call at Barton cottage to inquire from Marianne about her continued improvement. Even later, Mrs. Dahwood continues to encourage Brandon to make himself a guest at their home:

"I ... rather expect to see, than to hear from [Colonel Brandon] again. I earnestly pressed his coming to us, and should not be surprised to see him walk in today or tomorrow, or any day."

Mrs. Dashwood Helps Brandon

Brandon's hours at his home at Delaford were spent in repining over the disparity and "disproportion between thirty-six and seventeen." His gloomy mood upon arriving again at Barton cottage could only be lifted by Marianne's improved health and kind welcome and by Mrs. Dashwood's encouraging words.

[Brandon] had little to do but to calculate the disproportion between thirty-six and seventeen, ... [and was] in a temper of mind which needed all the improvement in Marianne's looks, all the kindness of her welcome, and all the encouragement of her mother's language, to make it cheerful. Among such friends, however, and such flattery, he did revive.

A man in this condition of sorrowful despair could not be described as a man who was engaged in continuing a gentle suit for the love of Marianne. So when does Brandon actually initiate an active suit for Marianne's love? It is doubtful that we can truly say that he ever actually does initiate an active suit for her love. It is more correct to say that proximity and Mrs. Dashwood's good efforts cause a blooming of regard in Marianne that Brandon finally plucks by proposing marriage.

Mrs. Dashwood was acting on motives of policy as well as pleasure in the frequency of her visits at Delaford; for her wish of bringing Marianne and Colonel Brandon together was hardly less earnest, ... It was now her darling object. Precious as was the company of her daughter to her, she desired nothing so much as to ... see Marianne settled at the mansion-house ... [Marianne] was born to overcome an affection ... [and] voluntarily to give her hand to another!—and THAT other, a man who had suffered no less than herself ... [who] she had considered too old to be married,—and who still sought the constitutional safeguard of a flannel waistcoat!
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