Sense and Sensibility is a novel that is best understood within the context of the era in which it was written. Austen lived in that period of English history when eighteenth century rationalism was giving way to the increasing popularity of nineteenth century romanticism, as typified by William Wordsworth and the Romantic poets. The open embrace and deliberate cultivation of sensibility—deep feelings and passionate emotions—were perhaps a natural reaction to the admiration of reserve and practicality that had typified the preceding decades.
Austen’s novel, her first published work, offers a portrait of two sisters, Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, who embody the two qualities set forth in the title. Elinor, the elder of the two, is intelligent, loving, and wise enough to see the potential folly in failing to temper emotion with good sense. Marianne, although sharing many of these qualities, lacks her sister’s wisdom; she is, as Austen describes her, “everything but prudent.”
Marianne’s insistence on giving her emotions free rein leads her into an unhappy romance with the fortune-hunting Willoughby when she mistakes his false expressions of sentiment for love. Although Marianne’s own excessive displays of emotion spring from genuine feeling, they blind her to the realization that less fervently expressed emotions may also be heartfelt and true. Waiting patiently throughout the book is the quiet, steadfast Colonel Brandon, a man of deep but reserved feelings who loves Marianne and whose true worth she comes to recognize only after she is forced by her failed romance with Willoughby to reassess her views.
Elinor remains her sister’s mainstay throughout her unhappy first love, assisting her toward maturity with patience and tenderness. She, too, is ín love, with her selfish sister-in-law’s brother, Edward Ferrars. Both are restrained in their expressions of their feelings, Elinor out of modesty and a sense of propriety and Edward because he is secretly and unhappily engaged to another woman favored by his snobbish mother. Yet adherence to principles of rational thought and good sense does not prevent Elinor from suffering greatly when she believes that her hopes of marrying Edward are impossible. Their eventual union is as happy and full of emotion as that of any two people in love.
Although her own sympathies are perhaps most closely aligned with those of Elinor, Austen writes with affection for both sisters and her message is one of compromise. She is careful to show that a balance of both heart and intellect is necessary for a full life—a blending of sense and sensibility that both Elinor and Marianne possess by the novel’s close.
When Mr. John Dashwood inherits his father’s estate, it is his intention to provide comfortably for his stepmother and his half sisters. His wife, Fanny, has other ideas, however, and although she is independently wealthy, she cleverly prevents her husband from helping his relatives. When Fanny’s brother, Edward Ferrars, begins to show an interest in Elinor, John’s half sister, Fanny is determined to prevent any alliance between them. She makes life so uncomfortable for the older Mrs. Dashwood and her daughters that the ladies accept the offer of their relative, Sir John Middleton, to occupy a cottage on his estate.
Mrs. Dashwood, Elinor, and Marianne are happy in the cottage at Barton Park. There they meet Colonel Brandon, Sir John’s thirty-five-year-old friend, who is immediately attracted to Marianne. She considers him too old and rejects his suit. Instead, she falls in love with John Willoughby, a young man visiting wealthy relatives on a neighboring estate.
Once, while the young people are preparing for an outing, Colonel Brandon is called away in a mysterious fashion. Elinor and Marianne are surprised later to hear that he has a daughter; at least that is the rumor they hear. Willoughby seems determined to give Marianne a bad impression of Colonel Brandon, which displeases Elinor. Shortly after the colonel’s sudden departure, Willoughby himself leaves very suddenly and without explanation. Elinor cannot help being concerned about the manner of his departure, particularly since he did not make a definite engagement with Marianne.
A week later, Edward Ferrars appeared at the cottage for a visit. Elinor is strongly attracted to him, but Edward seems no more than mildly interested in her. After a short stay, he leaves the cottage without saying anything to give Elinor hope. Meanwhile, Sir John invites to his home Miss Lucy Steele and her sister, two young ladies whom Elinor thinks vulgar and ignorant. She is therefore stunned when Lucy tells her that she is secretly engaged to Edward, whom she met while he was a pupil of Lucy’s uncle. According to Lucy’s story, they were engaged for four years, but Edward’s mother would not permit him to marry. Since Edward has no money of his own and no occupation, they are forced to wait for Mrs. Ferrars’s consent before they can announce their engagement. Concealing her unhappiness at this news, Elinor tells Lucy that she will help in any way she can.
A short time later, Elinor and Marianne are invited to London to visit friends. Marianne immediately writes to Willoughby to inform him that she is near. Although she writes two or three times, she gets no reply. One day, she meets him at a social event. He is with another young lady and treats Marianne courteously but coolly. The next morning, Marianne receives a letter from him telling her that he is sorry if she misunderstood his intentions and that he has long been engaged to someone else. All of her friends and relatives are furious with Willoughby. Although she is heartbroken, Marianne continues to defend him and to believe that he is blameless. She is comforted by Colonel Brandon, who is also in London.
The colonel privately tells Elinor Willoughby’s story. The colonel had a ward, a young girl some believed to be his daughter, who is in reality the daughter of his brother’s divorced wife. The colonel had to leave Barton Park so suddenly because he learned that his ward was seduced and then abandoned by Willoughby. When Elinor tells Marianne the news, her sister receives it with such sorrow that Elinor fears for her health. Colonel Brandon continues to be kind to Marianne, and it is obvious to everyone that he loves her deeply.
The young women stay on in London. A little later, their brother John and his wife take a house there. When the Misses Steele also arrive in town for a visit, Edward’s mother learns at last that he and Lucy are engaged. Angrily, she settles what would have been Edward’s inheritance on her other son, Robert, leaving Edward and Lucy with no means of support. Edward plans to study for the ministry, and Elinor arranges with Colonel Brandon that he become a curate on his estate so as to enable Edward and Lucy to be married.
Before Elinor and Marianne return home, they visit Cleveland, an estate between London and Barton Park. There Marianne becomes ill with a severe cold. Because she is anxious to see her mother, Colonel Brandon goes to fetch Mrs. Dashwood. Before they return, Willoughby, hearing of Marianne’s illness, calls at the house. He admits to Elinor that he treated Marianne so shamefully because he has no money of his own and because his wealthy relative learned of the affair with Colonel Brandon’s ward; as a result, his relative cut off his allowance, and he renounced Marianne to marry a wealthy young woman. He declares that he still loves Marianne and wishes her to know his story so that she will not think too harshly of him.
Marianne recovers from her illness and returns home with her mother and Elinor. After Elinor tells her Willoughby’s story, Marianne continues to be sorrowful for him, but she no longer loves him.
After their return, Elinor learns from a servant that Mr. Ferrars and Lucy are married. She assumes that Edward married Lucy. Soon Edward appears at the cottage and tells the Dashwoods that the unscrupulous Lucy married his brother instead of him, since their mother disinherited Edward in favor of Robert. Edward comes to ask Elinor to marry him, and he has no trouble in gaining her consent as well as that of her mother. It remains only for him to secure a living. He goes to London to seek his mother’s forgiveness. Because Mrs. Ferrars repudiated her son Robert after his marriage to Lucy, she feels a need for affection from one of her children. After much weeping and pleading, which fails to move Edward in his determination to marry Elinor, Mrs. Ferrars gives her consent to the wedding. After their marriage, they move into the parsonage that Colonel Brandon promised Edward some months before.
The colonel continues his quiet and gentle courtship of Marianne. At last, she recognizes his true worth, and they are married. When they move to his estate, the two sisters are near each other once more. Fanny and John are so pleased to be related to the colonel that Fanny even forgives Edward for marrying Elinor. Mrs. Dashwood is delighted at the good fortune of her children, and the families live in peace and contentment.