Why do Elinor and Edward act with such restraint toward each other?
While it is correct to say that both Elinor and Edward are calm and decorous in their expressions of esteem and fondness and that their level of emotional display stands in contrast to the heightened display of Marianne and Willoughby, it is not correct to suggest that Elinor's reason is modesty and that Edward's reason--that Edward's sole reason--is his secret engagement. In regard to his secret engagement to Lucy, it is a error to suggest that Edward's mother, Mrs. Ferrars, approves of or favors Lucy, whom she has never met and of whose engagement to Edward she has no idea.
What is true to say is that Elinor governs her emotions and her expectations through sense—half of the principle theme of the novel—that is borne of a strong, self-confident, capable personality and social interactions, which are not based in modesty (to have modesty: to have a moderate or humble estimate of one's worth and importance to self and society) but in a sound and reasonable psychological nature in which sense is embedded. When considering sense versus sensibility and the differences or similarities between Mrs. Dashwood, Elinor, and Marianne, one must note Austen's foray into the discussion now known as "nurture versus nature": while Elinor and Marianne are raised in the same environment by the same persons, they have exceedingly different personalities and expressions of sense and sensibility.
What is true to say about Edward is that he is restrained in his display of emotion for three reasons. The first, of course, is his secret engagement, but the second and third are that it is Edward who is modest, as revealed by the narrator who conveys Elinor's thoughts, "... charity with the modesty and worth of the other [Edward compared to Robert] (Ch 36)," and that he received an inferior private education rather than public education; he received "the misfortune of a private education (Ch 36)."
Edward's education was, by his own and Robert's accounts, inferior in that it was "private" rather than "public." It left Edward without the depth of education that would rendered him skilled and without practice in the social interactions that might compensate for his natural modesty and diffidence. He might have still preferred the quiet life of the clergy, yet he would not have been so inexperienced with society as he is had he had a public education.
English Public and Private Education
It is important to understand the difference between public and private English education. English public education is for the elite and wealthy (or for those on scholarship, which is how Geoffrey Chaucer, Edmund Spenser, and William Shakespeare were educated: at public school on scholarship) and is conducted for "public" groups at boarding schools, such as Eaton, which England's Princes William and Henry attended.
English private education is the placement of a student with a master or tutor, often a clergyman or some other scholar, in their private residence—sometimes with a small group of other private students and sometimes as the sole student—for an entire education or for a specialized part of an education. English scholar, Christian apologist, and novelist C. S. Lewis discusses his private education for maths in his autobiography Surprised by Joy. He was struggling with maths, so he was placed with a private tutor for the year preceding his entrance exams for Oxford.
The disadvantages of private and public education (each of which has its individual strengths as well) are seen in the experiences of Robert and Edward: a private education can foster natural tendencies to reclusiveness and false modesty, as with Edward, while a public education can foster proclivities toward arrogance and false pride, as with Robert. This idea of nurturing through education is, of course, one of the themes which is explored by Austen in Sense and Sensibility and which was advanced by John Locke (1632-1734) in the 1700s (Austen, 1775-1817).
Edward, Lucy, and Mrs. Ferrars
The premise by which Lucy introduces the interesting topic of...
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