Does Sense and Sensibility contain any sociocultural commentary?

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The Georgian period is an extended period in English history. It covers the reigns of four Georges, from George I, beginning in 1714, to George IV, ending in 1830. The Regency was a sub-period spanning 1811 to 1820. Knowing the periods during which Austen's novels were written gives subtle shades of character, cultural and philosophical details to her novels. Identifying the periods of the novels is made more complex because, while the first three were written before the Regency, they were all published after the beginning of the Regency.

Sense and Sensibility

  • Written in 1797 (Georgian)
  • Published in 1811 (Regency)

Pride and Prejudice (originally First Impressions)

  • Written in 1798 (Georgian)
  • Published in 1813

Northanger Abbey

  • Written in 1798-1799 (Georgian)
  • Published posthumously in 1817 (Regency)

Mansfield Park

  • Written between 1811 and 1813 (Regency)
  • Published 1814

Emma

  • Written in 1814-1815 (Regency)
  • Published 1815
  • Dedicated to the Prince Regent, George IV

Persuasion

  • Written in 1815-1816 (Regency)
  • Published posthumously in 1817
  • Revisions were in progress when Austen died in 1817

One of the cultural differences is apparent in women's clothing. Movies regularly show Austen's women dressed in the sleek Empire-waisted fashions that came into being due to the influence of Josephine Bonaparte after 1800. When Austen wrote her first three novels, her women were clothed, in her mind's eye—although she never describes clothing for us--in the attire that was fashionable in the late 1790s, having been influenced by the fashions of the 1780s. Of course, these were the clothes that Austen herself was accustomed to wearing, as she was born in 1775.

The 1780s ushered in a softening of women's hair and bodice styles. Very ornate, high hair styles were replaced by long, flowing style influenced by Marie Antoinette's interest in the pastoral as represented by shepherdesses. Stiff bodices and tight waists atop rigidly formed full skirts covering multiple petticoats gave way to softer bodices, more relaxed waists, full gathered or pleated skirts free of wooden shaping-forms underneath. Ruffles defined necklines and graced long hemlines while wide ribbons adorned waistlines and flowers and feathers adorned hats. The end of the decade saw some return of elaborate hairstyles and stiffer dresses but nothing as extreme as the styles of the 1770s. Jane Austen would have been in her childhood (1775-1785) during this softer, more romantic period.

The 1790s brought in other changes. Bodices were again softer, not stiff, and essentially modest, although some styles had plunging curved or square necklines. The waistline and adorning ribbon rose up from the waist to rest under the bosom. The skirt hem remained long, soft, flowing and full, still with gathers, pleats and ruffles. Hair returned to long and flowing styles. Hats remained similar to the wide brimmed ones of the 1780s but with smaller brims. Hair- and hat-feathers remained a necessary accessory. This was the period of Jane's emerging adulthood (1790-1795; 15 to 20 years of age). This is when Jane was writing her juvenilia and practicing for her first adult novel effort with Northanger Abbey, a satire and parody of Gothic romance that is reminiscent of Austen's later Marianne character.

In 1797 to 1799, dresses were often of cotton lawn and silk. Cotton muslin was especially popular. In Sense and Sensibility, written in 1797, Austen makes a point of dressing Elinor in muslin for an outing in the park where she meets Miss Steele who comments on Elinor's muslin dress, which was decorated with tiny dots, or spots, of thickly worked, richly colored silk floss.

[Said Miss Steele to Elinor,] "La! if you have not got your spotted muslin on!—I wonder you was not afraid of its being torn."

By 1799, these thin, gauzy muslin dresses were revealing in the extreme since they were often worn without benefit of under-bodices or stays. These are the fashions (1797-1799) Jane would have worn while writing and rewriting her first three novels.

After 1800, Josephine Bonaparte carried the sheer, revealing muslin look to its height. By 1811, when Austen published Sense and Sensibility, the French Empire look--which fans of the Regency are so familiar with--had been modified enough to more reasonably grace the modest forms of well-bred English women. By 1811, though waists were still of the Josephinian Empire style and petticoats were still at a minimum, the shortened skirts, which showed the shoes, had taken on more form, heavier cloth and more often had decoration like ruffles, flowers and pleats. These are the fashions the mature Jane would have worn. These are also the styles that Fanny Price (1811-1813; 1814), Emma Woodhouse (1814-1815; 1815) and Anne Elliot (1815-1816; 1817) would have worn.

So what subtle shades of meaning are affected by these differences in clothing? Are there subtle changes in characterization? Are there subtle comments on culture or society? The answer to each of these exploratory questions is, "Yes." Let's consider an example for each from Sense and Sensibility.

Imagine Marianne dressed in the straight lines and raised hem of an 1811 Regency Empire dress, her dress bodice covered by a short pelisse jacket, her swept up hair covered by a trim bonnet. Now, slide back in time to when she was created (1797) and imagine her in a high-waisted white shepherdess gown with multiple layers of ruffled petticoats and a fully gathered, free-flowing, long skirt. Imagine ruffles around her bodice neckline and heavily gathered, banded sleeves trimmed with lace. Imagine the raised waistline tied with a wide red or blue ribbon with a romantically fluffy bow rippling down her back.

Imagine her dark hair hanging loose in rich Georgian curls that flounce when she walks and glisten in shifting light when she sings. Imagine her walking along the fateful hilltop with Margaret, her curls blowing in the fierce wind. Imagine her tumbling down the hill, skirt and curls tumbling with her. Imagine curls, skirt and soft ruffles drenched in rain as Willoughby scoops up girl, dress, ribbons, ruffles and dangling hair. Finally, imagine this shepherdess-dressed Marianne listening at a later date to Willoughby read Hamlet where passion-driven Ophelia in madness throws herself in the river to die for lost love of both Hamlet and her father.

The image that best encapsulates a vision of the violent passion of Romanticism, which later takes Marianne to the edge of death, is the one that existed at the time that Austen created Marianne, add to this the confirmation that Austen's juvenilia contained at least one story that satirized the romanticism later immortalized in the perfectly crafted character of Marianne. Knowing the culture of the period during which Austen wrote the character makes a difference in how characters are understood.

Considering subtle comments on culture or society, and remembering that Austen is criticized by some for being devoid of sociocultural commentary, we find an unexpected commentary in the "spotted muslin" remark made by Miss Steele, Lucy's sister. These sheer muslin dresses were rather scandalous in a couple of regards. One way was that they were believed to lead to respiratory problems because the thinness of the sheer cloth and the low necklines on some left the wearer exposed to the seasonal chills of English weather. It is documented that so many young women were falling ill to pneumonia and bronchitis, with some dying, that pastors began to preach from the pulpit against wearing them.

Romanticism of the 1700s was philosophically embodied in more than words, such as those written of Cowper, Coleridge and Byron. Romanticism was philosophically embodied in an idealization of the pastoral, of the simple pleasures of simple people, of music and song, and of pure, untainted love.

By identifying the pastoral connections in the novel, the primary one being Marianne's characterization, Austen's satirization of romanticism is more keenly brought to the fore. This association between Marianne and the pastoral, which is symbolized by her late 1790s attire, more clearly shows how Austen uses Marianne's characterization to disprove the basic philosophical tenets of romanticism. Without setting and characterization properly placed in the time period at which Austen wrote Sense and Sensibility, her satire and irony loses its sociocultural and philosophical basis, as demonstrated for Sense and Sensibility. Thus, yes, there is a subtle and important difference to Austen's satire and irony when her novels are moved from the time period in which they were written.

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