Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1140
Sense and Sensibility
The following entry presents criticism of Austen's novel Sense and Sensibility (1811). See also, Pride and Prejudice Criticism, Mansfield Park Criticism, Northanger Abbey Criticism, and Jane Austen Criticism.
Sense and Sensibility was Jane Austen's first published novel. Although similar to her other novels in plot, tone, and type of characters, Sense and Sensibility differs from the others in its representation of the courtship of two sisters; rather than one heroine, there are two. Elinor, the subdued, quiet one, and Marianne, the emotional, outgoing one, are contrasting character types Austen would use alternately in later novels. In addition, Sense and Sensibility brings to the fore issues of property, patronage, and gender that were prominent in the years following the French Revolution. Like Austen's other novels, Sense and Sensibility is regarded as a classic and is still widely read.
Austen began writing the story in 1795 at the age of twenty-one. At that time it was probably in epistolary form, and was titled "Elinor and Marianne." Austen began to revise it two years later in third-person narrative form, and in 1809 and 1810 worked the story into what is now known as Sense and Sensibility.
After Austen finished the novel, one of her brothers served as an intermediary between her and her publisher, Thomas Egerton. Expecting that the book would cost more than it returned, Austen had saved some money to pay for the printing of the book. She retained copyright and the publisher received a commission for distributing the book. Sense and Sensibility was published in the fall of 1811, the title page stating only that the novel was "By A Lady." Because "authoresses" at that time were regarded with hostility and "proper" women did not appear as public characters, Austen insisted on anonymity. The first edition sold out in less than two years. Austen's next publication would be Pride and Prejudice (1813), again a revision of an earlier work and also well received. Although this subsequent novel was also published anonymously, Austen's authorship became known publicly.
Plot and Major Characters
Sense and Sensibility begins with the widowed Mrs. Dashwood and her three daughters—Elinor, Marianne, and Margaret—being ousted from their home when the new owner, John Dashwood and his wife, Fanny, move in. John Dashwood, Mr. Dashwood's eldest son from his first marriage, inherits his father's entire estate, under the laws of primogeniture. The Dashwood women are given a home, Barton Cottage, on the estate of Sir John Middleton, a distant relative. One visitor to the area, Colonel Brandon, is interested romantically in Marianne, but he does not fit her ideal of a romantic hero and she ignores him. However, another visitor to the area, Willoughby, matches her expectations and she falls in love with him. Meanwhile, Elinor becomes disappointed that the man in whom she is interested, Edward Ferrars (Fanny Dashwood's brother, a young clergyman), does not call on her as she had expected. Other guests at the Middletons' include the Palmers and the Misses Steele (who, like the Dashwood sisters, are dependent upon others to avoid slipping from gentility to poverty), the younger of whom, Lucy, reveals to Elinor that she is secretly engaged to Edward Ferrars. Although bitterly disappointed, Elinor promises to keep the secret and bears this news with fortitude. In London, Marianne discovers that Willoughby is going to marry for money and reject her entirely. When Lucy Steele reveals her secret engagement to Edward, he is disinherited in favor of his younger brother, Robert. Returning to Barton, Marianne falls ill at the Palmers' estate. Willoughby arrives, concerned about Marianne, and confesses to Elinor that he loves Marianne and must now suffer an unhappy marriage. At Barton, Marianne recovers and Elinor learns that Edward has been freed from his engagement. Upon learning of Edward's disinheritance, Lucy turns to his brother, Robert, as the better prospect. Edward, having accepted Colonel Brandon's offer of a position, proposes to Elinor, and Marianne comes to see the virtues of the colonel and marries him.
Critics agree that Sense and Sensibility reflects Austen's own experience in terms of her role as a woman in her family and in post-Revolutionary society. Austen's situation as a young woman mirrored that of the Dashwood sisters at the outset of the novel: after her father's death, Austen, along with her mother and sister, were forced to rely on the benevolence of relatives (in Austen's case, her brothers) for financial support. Although the novel is not autobiographical, Austen understood the position of women who were deprived of the means to earn an income but needed to maintain their social standing. This predicament was also reflected in the Steele sisters, who were without parents and were wards of their uncle, but who relied on coquetry and intrigue (considered vulgar in post-Revolutionary society) for social advancement. The worst of court culture (artificial politeness and social games) is demonstrated through the Dashwoods (John and Fanny) and old Mrs. Ferrars.
All of this accords with the post-Revolutionary society in which Austen lived. "Sensibility," the indulgence of personal absolutes regardless of social conventions and laws, was viewed widely as a major source of Revolutionary transgression; "sense" was often opposed to Revolutionary theory. The triumph of sense over sensibility in the novel establishes the value of conventional feminine virtues, a position also espoused by other writers in the aftermath of the Revolution. Elinor and Marianne's "sense" triumphs and suffering brings happiness in the end.
Much critical commentary on Sense and Sensibility deals with the terms referred to in the title—"sense" versus "sensibility." Some critics have concluded that Austen advocated a woman's possessing "sense," not "sensibility," while others have argued that Austen advocated possessing neither one nor the other, but a balance between the two. It is not surprising that a good deal of criticism on the novel revolved around comparisons of one type or another which harken back to the one Austen presents to readers in the title. Critics compare Elinor and Marianne, Willoughby and Edward Ferrars, and lesser characters such as Fanny Dashwood and Lucy Steele. One critic aligns the Dashwood sisters and Willoughby against the rest of the novel's characters. Commenting on other comparisons or "pairings," other critics note that Austen negotiates between actual and hypothetical language; private desire and public voice; epistolary and objective narration.
In addition, several critics have commented on the novel's position within feminist and gender studies. One critic finds the novel the most antifeminist of all Austen's books in its consideration of female authority and power, while another posits that feminist criticism is vital to evaluating Sense and Sensibility for the way in which it offers new ways of valuing the female experience. Yet another critic argues that Austen has created, through the character of Elinor, a female intellectual, signaling Austen's attempt to reshape ideas about gender through her novel.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 77264
Marilyn Butler (essay date 1975)
SOURCE: "Sense and Sensibility," in Jane Austen and the War of Ideas, Clarendon Press, 1987, pp. 182–237.
[In the following essay, originally published in 1975, Butler discusses Austen's use of didactic comparison in Sense and Sensibility, focusing primarily on the Dashwood sisters, Willoughby, and Edward Ferrars.]
Of the novels Jane Austen completed, Sense and Sensibility appears to be the earliest in conception. An uncertain family tradition suggests that its original letter-version, 'Elinor and Marianne', may have been written in 1795:1 before the publication of Mrs. West's similar Gossip's Story, and in the same year as Maria Edgeworth's Letters of Julia and Caroline. The didactic novel which compares the beliefs and conduct of two protagonists—with the object of finding one invariably right and the other invariably wrong—seems to have been particularly fashionable during the years 1795–6. Most novelists, even the most purposeful, afterwards abandon it for a format using a single protagonist, whose experiences can be handled more flexibly and with much less repetition.2 On the whole, therefore, all Jane Austen's other novels are more sophisticated in conception, and they are capable of more interesting treatment of the central character in relation to her world. But there is a caveat. Catherine in North-anger Abbey is dealt with, as we have seen, in an inhibited manner. A rather mindless character, of somewhat undefined good principles, she matures in a curiously oblique process that the reader does not quite witness. The format of the contrast-novel, with all its drawbacks, at least obliges Jane Austen to chart the mental processes of her heroines directly, and to locate the drama in their minds.
By its very nature Sense and Sensibility is unremittingly didactic. All the novelists who choose the contrast format do so in order to make an explicit ideological point. Essentially they are taking part in the old argument between 'nature' and 'nurture': which is the more virtuous man, the sophisticated, or schooled individual, or the natural one? Obviously there is a total division on the issue between the type of traditional Christian who takes a gloomy view of man's unredeemed nature, and the various schools of eighteenth-century optimists, whether Christian or not. Although a Catholic, Mrs. Inchbald is also a progressive: of the two brothers in her Nature and Art, the sophisticated one stands for greed, self-seeking, worldly corruption, the 'natural' one for primal simplicity, honesty, sympathy, and innate virtue.3 Maria Edgeworth, although in a sense favouring 'nurture' in her Letters of Julia and Caroline, does so on idiosyncratic terms which take her out of rancorous current controversy. But Mrs. West, in preferring her disciplined, self-denying Louisa to her self-indulgent Marianne, is entirely relevant to the contemporary issue, and entirely conservative. So, too, is Jane Austen.4
Jane Austen conscientiously maintains the principle of a didactic comparison. Her novel advances on the assumption that what happens to one of the central characters must also happen to the other; at every turn the reader cannot avoid the appropriate conclusion. The motif of the first volume is the attitude of each girl towards the man she hopes to marry. When the novel opens Elinor already knows Edward Ferrars. Her views about him are developed in conversation with Mrs. Dashwood, and the reader is also given Marianne's rather qualified opinion. When Edward and Elinor have to separate, Mrs. Dash-wood invites him to visit them at Barton, but Edward seems reluctant. Thereafter Elinor's endurance of uncertainty about Edward's feelings becomes a factor in her character, and in our response to her.
Shortly after the family's arrival at Barton Cottage, Marianne's lover, Willoughby, enters the novel. His dramatic arrival is in keeping with his more flamboyant character; his appearance, too, is contrasted with Edward's; but the manner in which the sequence of his courtship is developed shows Jane Austen's concern to enforce a similarity of situation in order to bring out a dissimilarity of character. Again, Mrs. Dashwood gives her enthusiastic approval, while the other sister, in this case Elinor, expresses her reservations. When Willoughby leaves, Mrs. Dashwood once more issues her invitation, which is inexplicably not accepted, and Marianne, like Elinor, is left to a period of loneliness and anxiety.
When in the second volume the two heroines go to London they are placed, again, in a similar predicament. Both expect to meet the loved one there, both are obliged uneasily to wait; cards are left by each of the young men; each is lost, or seems lost, to a rival woman. In all the embarrassments and worries of the London visit, the reader's developing knowledge of the sisters is based on a substructure which demands that he adjudicate between them. And they leave London, as they entered it, still similarly placed, travelling towards the county, Somerset, where each believes her lover to be setting up house with his bride.
The parallels can be taken further, for example to the influence first of upbringing, later of idleness, on the characters of the two young men. The entire action is organized to represent Elinor and Marianne in terms of rival value-systems, which are seen directing their behaviour in the most crucial choices of their lives. It is an arrangement which necessarily directs the reader's attention not towards what they experience, but towards how they cope with experience, away from the experiential to the ethical.
In the two contrasted opening sequences the emphasis is on each girl's scale of values as she applies it to both young men. Edward Ferrars's attractions are not external. 'Edward Ferrars was not recommended to their good opinion by any peculiar graces of person or address. He was not handsome, and his manners required intimacy to make them pleasing.'5 But even Marianne, who has reservations about Edward as a lover, has 'the highest opinion in the world of his goodness and sense. I think him everything that is worthy and aimiable.'6 For Elinor, this is commendation so high that she does not know what more could be said. As for herself, she admits that she 'greatly esteems' and 'likes' him: words which define the state of her understanding rather than her feelings, and, as such, seem to Marianne inappropriate.
But Marianne hesitates because in addition to Edward's lack of physical grace (what we might call physical attractiveness), he does not act like a lover with Elinor. In Marianne's language, he wants fire and spirit. His passionless temperament is further illustrated in his attitude to literature and to matters of 'taste' generally. When set by Marianne to read Cowper, he was, as she complains to her mother, tame and spiritless:
'To hear those beautiful lines which have frequently almost driven me wild, pronounced with such impenetrable coldness, such dreadful indifference!——' 'He would certainly have done more justice to simple and elegant prose. I thought so at the time; but you would give him Cowper.'
'Nay, Mama, if he is not to be animated by Cowper!—but we must allow for difference of taste. Elinor has not my feelings, and therefore she may overlook it, and be happy with him. But it would have broke my heart had I loved him, to hear him read with so little sensibility!'7
Marianne's objection is that Edward does not give free rein to the intuitive side of his nature. She equates lack of 'taste' with lack of response, an inability to enter subjectively into the emotions of a writer, or to attempt rapport with the spirit of a landscape. Again, as in Northanger Abbey, the reader is certainly not supposed to draw a moral distinction between characters concerned with literature, and characters concerned with life: for Elinor likes books and drawing, and Edward, who has views about both, and about landscape too, would do justice to 'simple and elegant prose'. But he, like Elinor, approaches the arts differently from Marianne. He would be likely to concern himself more than she with the intellectual content; when he looks at a landscape, he considers questions of utility—such as whether the terrain would be good for farming—and practicality—such as whether a lane would be too muddy for walking.
Edward's tastes can be considered aesthetically, as Augustan and thus in terms of contemporary landscape art old-fashioned: he has more in common with Pope than would please Marianne. But, and this is more to the novel's purposes, they are also the tastes of a self-effacing man, who likes to apply objective criteria, independent of his own prejudices and the limitations of his knowledge. His objective approach to art resembles Elinor's way of evaluating him. She knows enough of his background to see beyond the defects of his manner to the enduring qualities of his mind and spirit, his 'sense' and 'goodness', and both these words imply that Edward's virtues are those of a given code of value, namely the Christian. Edward's character, Edward's aesthetic opinions, and Elinor's method of assessing Edward, all have this much in common—that they are based on prescribed standards, not on subjective impulse.
With all this Marianne's choice of Willoughby is carefully compared. His entrance, like that of the 'preserver' of the heroine in a romantic novel, at once gives him a superficial glamour. He is 'uncommonly handsome' and his manner 'frank and graceful', so that not merely Marianne, but Mrs. Dashwood and Elinor,8 are struck with admiration on his first appearance. His beauty encourages an intuitive response from Marianne, and receives it. She reacts to Willoughby with the same whole-hearteded impulsiveness with which she reacts to books, and indeed before long she is reacting to books and Willoughby together, in a style that suggests all feeling, little or no intellectual detachment:
The same books, the same passages were idolized by each—or, if any difference appeared, any objection arose, it lasted no longer than till the force of her arguments and the brightness of her eyes could be displayed. He acquiesced in all her decisions, caught all her enthusiasm; and long before his visit concluded, they conversed with the freedom of a long-established acquaintance.9
When Elinor teases Marianne for running so recklessly through the beauties of Cowper and Scott, Jane Austen clearly means no criticism of two poets who were among her own favourites. But she does mean to criticize, through Elinor, the way Willoughby and Marianne read, and to show that, when they abandon themselves to their reading together, the result is grossly self-indulgent. Everything they do follows the same pattern of shared selfishness. Wholly absorbed in one another and in their exclusive pursuits, they rudely ignore the rest of their social circle, and, on the day of the cancelled outing, drive off together to Allerton in Willoughby's phaeton. As it happens, Sir John Middleton and Mrs. Jennings cheerfully tolerate the lovers. They in their turn are less tolerant; indeed, their self-sufficiency has an unattractive arrogance about it, which is displayed when they mount their unreasonable joint attack on Colonel Brandon. Willoughby's irrationality is as apparent here—'he has threatened me with rain when I wanted it to be fine'10—as it is later, when he begs that no lateration be made to Barton Cottage because he has pleasant associations with it as it is.11 That Marianne has gone far along the same subjective path is demonstrated after her visit to Allerton. Elinor argues that she has been guilty of serious impropriety in going there in Mrs. Smith's absence. Marianne relies on her usual criterion, intuition: "'If there had been any real impropriety in what I did, I should have been sensible of it at the time, for we always know when we are acting wrong, and with such a conviction I could have had no pleasure."'12
She believes in the innate moral sense; and, since man is naturally good, his actions when he acts on impulse are likely to be good also. Just as Marianne has no doubts about herself, so she can have none about her alter ego, Willoughby. Neither can Mrs. Dashwood, who, proceeding according to the same intuitional method as her second daughter, is wholly convinced of the goodness of Willoughby. When Elinor tries to argue with her, and to check instinct with the objective test of Willoughby's behaviour, her mother protests. She rightly sees that a broader question is at issue: Elinor's sense (stemming from the Christian tradition that man's nature is fallible) has come into conflict with the sentimentalist's tendency to idealize human nature. From Elinor's caution, Mrs. Dashwood draws a universal inference. 'You had rather take evil upon credit than good.'13
So far, then, the issue between the two contrasted sisters is presented according to the view of the nature-nurture dichotomy usually adopted by conservatives. The contrast, as always, is between two modes of perception. On the one hand, Marianne's way is subjective, intuitive, implying confidence in the natural goodness of human nature when untrammelled by convention. Her view is corrected by the more cautious orthodoxy of Elinor, who mistrusts her own desires, and requires even her reason to seek the support of objective evidence.
It is in keeping with Elinor's objectivity (and also typical of the feminine variant of the anti-jacobin novel) that she should advocate a doctrine of civility in opposition to Marianne's individualism. Elinor restrains her own sorrow in order to shield her mother and sister. By her politeness to Mrs. Jennings she steadily makes up what Marianne has carelessly omitted. She respects Colonel Brandon for his activity in helping his friends long before Mrs. Dashwood and Marianne have seen his virtues. Civility is a favourite anti-jacobin theme, which does not appear in Northanger Abbey, although it is present in Jane Austen's later novels. Its objective correlative, the sketch given in Sense and Sensibility of society at large, is impoverished compared with the solid worlds of Mansfield Park, Emma, and Persuasion: the Middletons and Colonel Brandon, even supported by Mrs. Jennings, hardly stand in for a whole community. Yet this is a judgement arrived at by a comparison with Jane Austen's later work. If Sense and Sensibility is compared with other novels of the same genre, and originating at the same time, it can be seen to move in innumerable small ways towards fullness and naturalness. A conception of civility illustrated by gratitude to Mrs. Jennings is more natural, for example, than portraying a similar concept in terms of prayers beside a dying father, or fidelity to the death-bed advice of an aunt.14
In fact, granted the rigidity imposed by the form, the second half of Sense and Sensibility is remarkably natural, flexible, and inventive. Both the sisters are presented as plausible individuals as well as professors of two opposing creeds. Another contemporary novelist—Mrs. West, Mrs. Hamilton, or the young Maria Edgeworth—would almost certainly have had Marianne seduced and killed off, after the errors of which she has been guilty. For during the first half of the novel Marianne has stood for a doctrine of complacency and self-sufficiency which Jane Austen as a Christian deplored:
Teach us to understand the sinfulness of our own hearts, and bring to our knowledge every fault of temper and every evil habit in which we have indulged to the discomfort of our fellow-creatures, and the danger of our own souls…. Incline us to ask our hearts these questions oh! God, and save us from deceiving ourselves by pride or vanity….
Incline us oh God! to think humbly of ourselves, to be severe only in the examination of our own conduct, to consider our fellow-creatures with kindness, and to judge of all they say and do with that charity which we would desire from them ourselves.15
After Allerton, Marianne failed to examine her own conduct at all. She had none of the Christian's understanding of the sinfulness of her own heart; and she showed a notable lack of Christian charity towards Colonel Brandon, Mrs. Jennings, and the Middletons. Elinor alone had exercised the self-examination prescribed for the Christian, by questioning the state of her heart in relation to Edward, and, even more, her complex and disagreeable feelings about Lucy. Elinor never had the same certainty that Edward loved her which Marianne always felt about Willoughby. 'She was far from depending on that result of his preference of her, which her mother and sister still considered as certain.'16
The most interesting feature of the character of Elinor, and a real technical achievement of Sense and Sensibility, is that this crucial process of Christian self-examination is realized in literary terms. Elinor is the first character in an Austen novel consistently to reveal her inner life. The narrative mode of Sense and Sensibility is the first sustained example of 'free indirect speech', for the entire action is refracted through Elinor's consciousness as Northanger Abbey could not be through the simple-minded Catherine's. Other technical changes necessarily follow. Dialogue is far less important in Sense and Sensibility, since the heroine is not so much in doubt about the nature of external truth, as concerned with the knowledge of herself, her passions, and her duty. Judging by the narrative mode alone, Sense and Sensibility is, like Mansfield Park after it, an introspective novel. And yet it is clearly important to recognize that both are introspective only within closely defined limits. The inner life led by Elinor, and later by Fanny, is the dominant medium of the novel, but it is entirely distinct from the irrational and emotional states which the post-Romantic reader thinks of as 'consciousness'.
Technically, as well as intellectually, Elinor's scrupulous inner life has great importance in the novel, and Jane Austen brings it out by giving similar qualities to the two male characters who approach a moral ideal. Edward Ferrars and Colonel Brandon have the same wary scepticism about themselves. Rather to the detriment of their vitality, Jane Austen's characteristic word for both of them is 'diffident'. Diffidence helps to explain Edward's unwillingness to expatiate on matters of taste; and 'the epicurism, selfishness and conceit' of Mr. Palmer are contrasted with Edward's 'generous temper, simple tastes and diffident feelings'.17 Robert Ferrar's complacent comparison of himself with his brother Edward enforces a similar point.18 And diffidence, especially in relation to Marianne, is also the characteristic of Colonel Brandon as a lover.19
But it is Elinor alone who can be seen living through the moments of self-examination that are evidently typical of both men. The most interesting sequence in which she is shown doubting herself occurs after she has heard Willoughby's confession. Many modern critics interpret this passage as evidence that Jane Austen is qualifying her own case, in order to arrive at a compromise solution somewhere between 'Sense' and 'Sensibility'. According to Mr. Moler, for example, Elinor feels after she has heard Willoughby that her own 'Sense' has been inadequate: 'Elinor's rationality causes her to reach a less accurate estimate of Willoughby than Marianne and Mrs. Dashwood reach with their Sensibility.'20
Such interpretations are interesting as evidence of the difficulty the twentieth-century reader has with the notion of an objective morality. What happens in this episode is surely that Elinor is shaken by her feelings, for she finds both that she pities Willoughby and that she has a renewed sense of his 'grace', or personal attractiveness. Her judgment is assailed by involuntary sympathy: part of her wants to excuse his injuries to Marianne and Miss Smith. Yet the fact that Willoughby was tempted—by the two young women on the one hand, and by an education in worldliness on the other—does not in fact absolve the adult man, or not, at least, if one employs the objective ethical code rather than the relativist subjective one. The progressive supposedly sees the evil in individual men as social conditioning, the operation of impersonal forces which the individual cannot help. Elinor now considers Willoughby from this point of view—which is, of course, his own—and she finds it impossible to absolve him. 'Extravagance and vanity had made him coldhearted and selfish.'21 This is not Jane Austen qualifying Elinor's sense with a dash of Marianne's sensibility. On the contrary, she shows Elinor's judgement reasserting itself, with some difficulty, after a most effective and deeply felt appeal has been made to her sympathies:
… Willoughby, in spite of all his faults, excited a degree of commiseration for the sufferings produced by them, which made her think of him as now separated for ever from her family with a tenderness, a regret, rather in proportion, as she soon acknowledged within herself—to his wishes than to his merits. She felt that his influence over her mind was heightened by circumstances which ought not in reason to have weight; by that person of uncommon attraction, that open, affectionate and lively manner which it was no merit to possess; and by that still ardent love for Marianne, which it was not even innocent to indulge. But she felt that it was so long, long before she could feel his influence less.22
It is easy to mistake Elinor's sense for coldness. She is intended to be quite as loving and quite as accessible to 'feeling' as Marianne. The difference between them is one of ideology—Marianne optimistic, intuitive, unself-critical, and Elinor far more sceptical, always ready to study the evidence, to reopen a question, to doubt her own prior judgements. She can be ready to revise her opinion of Willoughby. She can admit her mistakes, as she does of her wrong estimate of Marianne's illness.23 The point about both episodes is that Elinor was never intended to be infallible, but to typify an active, struggling Christian in a difficult world. Indeed, Jane Austen clearly argues that we do not find the right path through the cold, static correctness of a Lady Middleton, but through a struggle waged daily with our natural predisposition to err.
It is the role of Marianne Dashwood, who begins with the wrong ideology, to learn the right one. After her illness she applies her naturally strong feelings to objects outside herself, and her intelligence to thorough self-criticism in the Christian spirit. In what for her is the crisis of the book, her confession of her errors to Elinor,24 Marianne resembles Jane Austen's other heroines Catherine, Elizabeth, and Emma, all of whom arrive at the same realization that (in the words of Jane Austen's prayer) 'pride' and 'vanity' have blinded them in relation both to themselves and to external reality.
It is quite false to assume that merely because Marianne is treated with relative gentleness, Jane Austen has no more than a qualified belief in the evils of sensibility. She spares Marianne, the individual, in order to have her recant from sensibility, the system. Even this is possible only because Marianne, with her naturally affectionate disposition and her intelligence, is never from the start a typical adherent of the doctrine of self: youth and impetuosity for a time blinded her, so that she acted against the real grain of her nature.25 Because Marianne is not representative, other characters are needed, especially in the second half of the novel, to show the system of self in full-blooded action. Jane Austen provides them in the group of characters who fawn upon and virtually worship that false idol compounded of materialism, status-seeking and self-interest, Mrs. Ferrars.
The leading characters who take over from Marianne the role of illustrating what worship of the self really means are Lucy Steele and Fanny Dashwood. It is clear, of course, that neither Lucy nor Fanny is a 'feeling' person at all. Both are motivated by ruthless self-interest, Lucy in grimly keeping Edward to his engagement, Fanny in consistently working for her immediate family's financial advantage. But both Lucy and Fanny, though in reality as hard-headed as they could well be, clothe their mercenariness decently in the garments of sensibility. Lucy flatters Lady Middleton by pretending to love her children. She acts the lovelorn damsel to Elinor. Her letters are filled with professions of sensibility. Similarly, in the successive shocks inflicted by Lucy's insinuation of herself into the family, 'poor Fanny had suffered agonies of sensibility'.26 It is no accident that at the end the marriages of the two model couples, Elinor and Marianne and their two diffident, withdrawing husbands, are contrasted with the establishments, far more glorious in worldly terms, of Lucy and Fanny and their complacent, mercenary husbands.27 Lucy and Fanny may quarrel, but it is suitable that they should end the novel together, the joint favourites of old Mrs. Ferrars, and forever in one another's orbit. However it begins, the novel ends by comparing the moral ideal represented by Sense with a new interpretation of 'individualism'. The intellectual position, originally held in good faith by Marianne, is abandoned; what takes its place is selfishness with merely a fashionable cover of idealism—and, particularly, the pursuit of self-interest in the economic sense. Willoughby's crime proves after all not to have been rank villainy, but expensive self-indulgence so habitual that he must sacrifice everything, including domestic happiness, to it. Lucy's behaviour is equally consistent, and it, too, is crowned with worldly success:
The whole of Lucy's behaviour in the affair, and the prosperity which crowned it, therefore, may be held forth as a most encouraging instance of what an earnest, an unceasing attention to self-interest … will do in securing every advantage of fortune, with no other sacrifice than that of time and conscience.
Jane Austen's version of 'sensibility'—that is, individualism, or the worship of self, in various familiar guises—is as harshly dealt with here as anywhere in the anti-jacobin tradition. Even without the melodramatic political subplot of many anti-jacobin novels, Mrs. Ferrars's London is recognizably a sketch of the anarchy that follows the loss of all values but self-indulgence. In the opening chapters especially, where Marianne is the target of criticism, 'sensibility' means sentimental (or revolutionary) idealism, which Elinor counters with her sceptical or pessimistic view of man's nature. Where the issue is the choice of a husband, Jane Austen's criteria prove to be much the same as Mrs. West's: both advocate dispassionate assessment of a future husband's qualities, discounting both physical attractiveness, and the rapport that comes from shared tastes, while stressing objective evidence.29 Both reiterate the common conservative theme of the day, that a second attachment is likely to be more reliable than a first.30 By all these characteristic tests, Sense and Sensibility is an anti-jacobin novel just as surely as is A Gossip's Story.
The sole element of unorthodoxy in Sense and Sensibility lies in the execution, and especially in the skilful adjustment of detail which makes its story more natural. Sense and Sensibility is not natural compared with Jane Austen's later novels. Any reader will notice the stiffness of some of the dialogue, particularly perhaps those speeches early in the novel where Elinor sums up the character of Edward.31 And yet, especially in the second half of the novel, it is remarkable how the harsh outlines of the ideological scheme are softened. Often the changes are small ones, such as turning the jilted heroine's near-obligatory decline and death into a feverish cold caught, plausibly, from staying out to mope in the rain. Alternatively the difference may show in the born novelist's sense of occasion, her flair for a scene. Twice in the latter half of the novel, for example, there are theatrical entrances, consciously worked for: Edward's, when at last he calls on Elinor in London, only to find her with Lucy Steele; and Willoughby's, when he comes to Cleve-land in response to the news that Marianne is dying. Developments like this do more than rub away some of the angularities of the old nature-nurture dichotomy. They begin to make so many inroads on it (particularly in relation to Marianne) that many readers have had the impression Jane Austen was trying to break it down altogether. Certainly there is plenty of evidence in the second half of the novel that Jane Austen was impatient with the rigidity of her framework; and yet all the modifications she makes are a matter of technique, not ideology. Lucy Steele resembles Isabella Thorpe and Mary Crawford, George Wickham, Henry Crawford, Frank Churchill, and William Walter Elliott in that she does not come, like some other authors' representations, vociferously advocating free love, or revolution, or the reading of German novels. She is a harbinger of anarchy for all that.
Compared with the common run of anti-jacobin novels it is a considerable achievement, and yet it has never been found quite good enough. Sense and Sensibility is the most obviously tendentious of Jane Austen's novels, and the least attractive. The trouble is not merely that, for all the author's artistic tact, the cumbrous framework and enforced contrasts of the inherited structure remain. It matters far more that the most deeply disturbing aspect of all anti-jacobin novels, their inhumanity, affects this novel more than Jane Austen's skilled mature work. In a way Sense and Sensibility is worse affected than many clumsy works by lesser writers, because it is written naturally, and with more insight into at least some aspects of the inner life. The reader has far too much real sympathy with Marianne in her sufferings to refrain from valuing her precisely on their account. There is plenty of evidence that Jane Austen, anticipating this reaction, tried to forestall it. As far as possible she tries to keep us out of Marianne's consciousness: Marianne's unwonted secrecy, after Willoughby has left Barton, and after her arrival in London, functions quite as effectively in restricting the reader's sympathy as in restricting Elinor's. Merely to have Marianne's sufferings described after she has received Willoughby's letter is sufficient, however, to revive all the reader's will to identify himself with her. The effort to point up Elinor's feelings instead will not do: either we do not believe in them, and conclude her frigid, or the felt presence of suffering in the one sister helps us to supply imaginatively what we are not told about the inner life of the other. It is difficult, in short, to accept the way consciousness is presented in this novel. Marianne, and to some extent also Elinor, are drawn with strong feelings which the reader is accustomed to sympathize with, and actually to value for their own sake. But it is the argument of the novel that such feelings, like the individuals who experience them, are not innately good. Unfortunately, in flat opposition to the author's obvious intention, we tend to approach Marianne subjectively. Right or wrong, she has our sympathy: she, and our responses to her, are outside Jane Austen's control. The measure of Jane Austen's failure to get us to read her story with the necessary ethical detachment comes when she imposes her solution. What, innumerable critics have asked, if Marianne never brought herself to love Colonel Brandon? The fact that the question still occurs shows that in this most conscientiously didactic of all the novels the moral case remains unmade.
1 W. Austen Leigh and R. A. Austen Leigh, Jane Austen, her Life and Letters, A Family Record, London, 1913, p. 80.
2 Maria Edgeworth does not completely discard the contrast-novel, which recurs in one of the Popular Tales, The Contrast, 1804, and in Patronage, 1814. Jane Austen does not quite discard it either—for Mans-field Park is a contrast-novel, of the consecutive rather than the continuous type….
3Nature and Art appears to borrow its format from Thomas Day's Rousseauistic Sandford and Merton, 1783–9, with its spoilt little aristocrat Tommy Merton, and its robust, simple farmer's son, Harry Sandford.
4 The very terminology adopted by some of the titles is revealing. Mrs. Inchbald sees the issue in terms of 'nature' versus 'art', art in this context having the connotation of artificiality. 'Sense' gives nurture a very different bearing. By the mid-nineties sensibility is commonly a pejorative word. See E. Erämetsä, A Study of the Word 'Sentimental', etc., Helsinki, 1951.
5Sense and Sensibility, ed. R. W. Chapman, Oxford, 1923, p. 15.
6 Ibid., p. 20.
7 Ibid., p. 18.
8Sense and Sensibility, p. 42. Elinor's involuntary admiration of Willoughby is important in the light of their last interview together….
9 Ibid., p. 47. Cf. the courtship in A Gossip's Story….
10 Ibid., p. 52.
11 Ibid., p. 73.
12 Ibid., p. 68.
13Sense and Sensibility, p. 78.
14 Tests of the heroine's virtue in, respectively, Mrs. West's Gossip's Story, and Mrs. Hamilton's Memoirs of Modern Philosophers.
15 Prayers composed by Jane Austen: Minor Works, ed. R. W. Chapman, Oxford, rev. ed., 1963, pp. 453–4 and 456.
16Sense and Sensibility, p. 22.
17Sense and Sensibility, p. 305.
18 Ibid., pp. 250–1.
19 Ibid., p. 338.
20Jane Austen's Art of Allusion, p. 70. For other expositions of the view that J A is 'ambivalent' between sense and sensibility, see Mary Lascelles, Jane Austen and her Art, p. 120; Andrew Wright, Jane Austen's Novels: A Study in Structure, pp. 30–1 and 92; and Lionel Trilling, 'A Portrait of Western Man', The Listener, 11 June 1953, 970.
21Sense and Sensibility, p. 331.
22Sense and Sensibility, p. 333.
23 For Mr. Moler, Elinor's complacent first opinion, that Marianne will soon recover, is further evidence that J A meant to show the limits of sense, and to strike a balance with sensibility. Jane Austen's Art of Allusion, pp. 62–73.
24Sense and Sensibility, pp. 345 ff.
25 Marianne's intelligence is of a kind which gives her moral stature within Jane Austen's system of belief. Although she begins the novel professing an erroneous system, it is always clear that she has the capacity for the searching self-analysis of the Christian. Simple, good characters like Mrs. Jennings are valued by Jane Austen, but she never leaves any doubt that individuals with active moral intelligence are a higher breed….
26Sense and Sensibility, p. 371.
27 Some critics have called Elinor's marriage 'romantic', Lucy's 'prudent', and the end another instance of J A's compromise between sense and sensibility. (Cf. Andrew Wright, Jane Austen's Novels, p. 92.) But this shows a continued misunderstanding of J A's interpretation of her two terms: her 'sense' approximates to the traditional Christian personal and social ethic, her 'sensibility' to a modern individualist ethic in two different manifestations, Marianne's and Lucy's.
28Sense and Sensibility, p. 376.
29 See above, pp. 97–101.
30 Marianne, Colonel Brandon, Edward Ferrars, the late Mr. Dashwood, and even perhaps Lucy Steele are better matched in their second choice than in their first.
31Sense and Sensibility, p. 20.
Zelda Boyd (essay date 1983)
SOURCE: "The Language of Supposing: Modal Auxiliaries in Sense and Sensibility," in Jane Austen: New Perspectives, Vol. 3, edited by Janet Todd, Holmes & Meier, 1983, pp. 142–54.
[In the following essay, Boyd presents evidence of a new pairing in Sense and Sensibility—that of the actual and the hypothetical.]
Given Jane Austen's fondness for balanced verbal pairs—sense and sensibility, pride and prejudice—it is perhaps not inappropriate for me to propose another such set for discussion, namely, the actual and the hypothetical. The actual has to do with existing states of affairs, with the way the world in fact is as distinct from our wishes, desires, and suppositions. However much philosophers may argue about the external world, the actual is very real for Austen. Estates are unfairly entailed. Young men are engaged elsewhere. Uncles arrive unannounced to abort theatricals. Worse yet, uncles die (as in Sense and Sensibility) and leave their estates contrary to everyone's expectations. Every novel of hers turns at the beginning on a dislocation in the world, either a marriage or a death, an arrival or departure.
In addition, the books pulse with the small details of life. Think of the sides of pork and bushels of apples that go from Hartfield and Donwell Abbey to the Bateses. Think of the ribbons that are purchased, the wedding cake that is consumed. Consider Mrs. Allen's careful inventory of every new hat and gown that is to be seen in Bath, or Elizabeth Bennet's much remarked-upon muddy skirts. The sense of the circumstantial is so strong that critics have been tempted to see Jane Austen very much as the careful recorder of particulars, the acute historian of a world she knew so well. Caroline Mercer, for example, in the "Afterword" to the Signet edition of Sense and Sensibility, quotes from the Letters to underscore Austen's devotion to detail and desire to ground her fiction in fact:
If you could discover whether Northamptonshire is a country of Hedgerows, I should be glad again.1
This view is not wrong. At the same time we know there is another Jane Austen, who is as much concerned with how people ought to behave as she is with hedgerows. Presumably this is the Austen that F. R. Leavis had in mind when he cited her as the progenetrix of the Great Tradition, because of her "intensely moral preoccupation."2 Leavis, too, is right. Although he is maddeningly evasive about what a "moral preoccupation" would entail, we recognize intuitively what he means about Austen. The question is how to put it into words.
Maybe one way to begin is with the hypothetical, with the world of supposition and desire as opposed to the world of hedgerows and apples. In this world we find the comic figures—like Mr. Woodhouse or Mrs. Jennings or Sir John Middleton—who are comic precisely because they are always busily remaking the actual to suit their assumptions. For Mr. Woodhouse, Mrs. Weston is forever "poor Miss Taylor." Mrs. Jennings is forever assuming that possible engagements are real ones, and Sir John insists that events "must and shall" be as he wishes them. They are incorrigible. But even misguided heroines fall into the same temptation, and the happy endings present us not only with suitable marriages but with a presumably reformed Catherine Morland or Emma Woodhouse or Marianne Dashwood now prepared to deal with things as they are. Yet who has not harbored the suspicion that young girls, even heroines, are not so easily rehabilitated? And what of the multitude of other fiction-makers in the novels? Who can assume that human nature is so malleable, so easily subdued to the exigencies of the actual? Certainly not Jane Austen.
The picture of Jane Austen as the judgmental narrator who delivers the main characters from error, leaving the minor ones forever mired in their delusions, and then steps in to tell us in a magisterial way how people ought to behave is no more adequate than the picture of her as an ironic miniaturist, simply sketching human foibles for our amusement. Yet, as everyone has noticed, her language is the language of judgment. There is scarcely a page that doesn't abound with "musts," "oughts," "shoulds," "coulds"—in fact, the whole range of modals, that peculiar set we were taught to call "helping verbs" in grammar school.3
If we begin, then, with her language and specifically with her use of modal auxiliaries, perhaps we can arrive at a more subtle, more modulated view of Austen. The etymology of the word "modal" is itself unclear but provocative. It comes either from the Old English mod for "mind" or from the Latin modus meaning "manner," or conceivably from both. The Old English and the Latin are not so different as to pose difficulties, for one could easily regard modals as reflecting the manner of the mind. They are the language of what I have called "the hypothetical"—of reflection, supposition, deliberation, judgment, in contrast to matters of fact.
The first question to consider is who uses modals in Austen. And the answer to that is easy: everyone uses modals,4 Mr. Knightley as well as Emma, Elinor Dashwood as well as Sir John. There is hardly a conversation anywhere in the novels that doesn't revolve around what someone believes might be, should be, must be. And conversely, there is surprisingly little talk of the actual, of what was or is,5 except as a point of departure for speculation, and that of course brings us back to the realm of the hypothetical (the modal).
Consider, for instance, the conversation between Mr. and Mrs. Dashwood in Chapter 2 of Sense and Sensibility. The actuality here is that John promised at his father's deathbed to take care of his stepmother and half-sisters. Now, at leisure, with the dead buried, Mr. and Mrs. Dashwood consider whether three thousand pounds would constitute reasonable care. Mrs. Dashwood is an expert at hypothetical deliberations of this sort.
How could he rob his child, and his only child, too, of so large a sum? And what possible claim could the Miss Dashwoods … have….6
John's answer—that it was his father's wish—is easily countered by her. He could not have meant them to give away half their fortune (which, needless to say, it is not). Yes, concedes John,
"Perhaps it would have been as well if he had left it wholly to myself. He could hardly suppose I should neglect them. But as he required thepromise, I could not do less than give it: at least I thought so at the time. The promise … must be performed. Something must be done." …
Mrs. Dashwood seizes the opportunity to remind him that money, once gone,
never can return…. Your sisters will marry … the time may come [when] it would be a very convenient addition.
"It would," John echoes.
The discussion goes on like this for five pages, full of "woulds," "coulds," and "mays" with which Mrs. Dashwood sketches various possible scenarios, all of which augur doom for them and prosperity for Marianne and Elinor, only to conclude with a series of "cans," "wills," and "musts" which assert a happy ending for all if they do nothing. John is easily turned around. He never needed much convincing—a paragraph would have sufficed to disinherit the women—but who could cut short such a delicious scene of self-interest masquerading as disinterested deliberation?
I have focused on this scene because it provides the clearest example of what modals can do—not to mention what people can do with modals. They allow us to talk about the nonliteral, for they constitute the world of possibility, in this particular case the unsavory world of self-justifying fictions. And we do find in Austen, in Sense and Sensibility and elsewhere, that the foolish, the selfish, the manipulative are those most prone to fall into modal language, since they are forever reshaping the facts to match their desires. Sir John Middleton, for example, while miles beyond the Dashwoods in generosity, is just as bent as they upon remaking the world to conform to his will. Consider his response when it appears that the trip to Whitwell must be canceled because of Colonel Brandon's sudden departure.
"We must go," said Sir John. "It shall not be put off when we are so near it. You cannot go to town till to-morrow, Brandon, that is all."
Here modals serve for what we surely read as imperatives. But whereas imperatives are direct expressions of will, the modals simply report that an imperative exists. Thus Sir John's "cannots" and "shall nots" and "musts" tend to mask (although very thinly in this case) the crudely willful nature of his outburst. They transform subjective desire into objective grounds, "I want you to stay" into "It is absolutely necessary that you stay." When Colonel Brandon proves recalcitrant, Sir John reluctantly assents to his going. Indeed, he could hardly do otherwise. But lest we should think that he has learned any lessons in submission, Sir John immediately begins planning the colonel's return. "He must and shall come back," he declares.
The covert willfulness expressed by modal language is not exclusively the mark of comic characters, however. We find even Elinor sounding very much like Sir John when, in reply to her mother's question about Willoughby, "Do you suppose him really indifferent to her?" she says, "No, I cannot think that. He must and does love her. I am sure." The certainty of that "I am sure" is illusory. We can be sure that there are or are not hedgerows in Northamptonshire, but our inferences about other minds are not similarly verifiable. Mrs. Dashwood is righter than she knows in asking "Do you suppose," for that is precisely what they are doing. And Elinor's answer is curiously evasive, for all its positiveness. After all, "I cannot think that" does not mean that she doesn't, and "He must love her" doesn't mean that he does. Binding as they are, "can" and "must" apply only to what is possible or necessary in an ideal world; they do not ensure the actual—in this case, the condition of Willoughby's heart. Finally, Elinor is invoking a hypothetical (and just) order in which lovers love where they ought, and appearances are not deceiving. She is as prone as Sir John or her contemptible brother- and sister-in-law to fictionalizing, creating scenarios in which events match her wishes.
The sensible characters, it turns out, are not much more immune to the charms of the hypothetical than the most self-indulgent wishful thinkers. One finds surprisingly little difference in the use or the frequency of their modals. Elinor, Edward, and Colonel Brandon use as many as Marianne or Sir John or Mrs. Jennings does, and all of them use modals to invoke nonactual worlds (some more pleasing or plausible than others) which instantiate and objectify their desires. Evidently, the distinction between Elinor and Marianne, or, for that matter, between Edward, the supposed literalist, and Marianne, the emotionalist, is less sharp than the contrastive "and" of the title suggests, at least insofar as their language is concerned.
Elinor is presumably the model of sense. She does none of the foolish things Marianne does in the name of love—no passionate letters or secret visits to ancestral houses for her. She never abandons herself to her feelings when her lover fails her, and, unlike Marianne, she is never publicly distraught. Moreover, Elinor doesn't seek out occasions for self-dramatization. She abjures poetical farewells and picturesque vistas, all opportunities for modal language. In contrast, Marianne savors such moments. "Oh! happy house," she exclaims on leaving Norland,
"could you know what I suffer … I may view you no more … but you will continue the same. No leaf will decay … although we can observe you no longer … but who will remain to enjoy you?"
Marianne's posturing here is closely akin to her love of the picturesque, as becomes clear in her exchange with Edward about the picturesqueness of Barton Valley.
"Look up at it and be tranquil if you can."
"It is a beautiful country," he replied; "but these bottoms must be dirty in winter."
"How can you think of dirt with such objects before you?"
"Because," replied he, smiling, "among the rest of the objects before me, I see a very dirty lane."
Although this exchange appears to set up a clear-cut opposition between the literal and the imaginative, there is something more subtle going on: Edward is revealed to be less wooden and more fallible than one might guess. He sees the dirty road only partly, as he claims, because it's there. In fact, he, too, selects, focusing on the dirt because Marianne doesn't, and because he is low in spirits and in no mood to be shown the splendors of anything. So he offers his own projection to counter hers. His answer that the bottoms "must" be dirty in winter is no more an account of the actual than is her poeticizing. It is, rather, another hypothetical version, as the inferential "must" indicates.
In a slightly less fractious mood, Edward continues:
"I shall call hills steep which ought to be bold; surfaces strange and uncouth which ought to be irregular and rugged; and distant objects out of sight which ought to be indistinct."
It is clear that Edward sees the picturesque as connected with a series of modal prescriptions, and the "oughts" of Marianne's doctrine offend him. What is less clear is the way in which Edward himself is using those same modals to argue unfairly. His characterization—hills that ought to be bold and surfaces that ought to be irregular—places the obligation squarely on the natural scene to behave as Marianne wishes, and although there is surely some truth in this parody, the "oughts" are, after all, Edward's misrepresentation and not hers.
Elinor herself is, in private, less sensible than one might expect. She is all too willing to construct arguments to rationalize Edward's behavior, which she continually contrasts favorably with Willoughby's. Looked at from the outside, it seems open to question whether there is so sharp a division between the two men as Elinor makes. If Willoughby makes love to Marianne and then drops her for a provident marriage, Edward too engages Elinor's affections although he cannot hope to wed her. Nor is he discreet. In his quiet way he makes his preference as public as Willoughby does his, with the additional consideration that Edward is engaged, while Willoughby is at least free. Yet rarely does Elinor seriously blame Edward. Quite the contrary. At the beginning of Book II, having heard Lucy's astonishing secret, she is "at liberty to think and be wretched." And liberty she takes. She cannot doubt the truth of the engagement, "supported as it was … by such probabilities and proofs, and contradicted by nothing but her own wishes." Nevertheless, she manages to envision a state of affairs very different from that described by Lucy. In a long introspective flight, full of hypotheses about how "it might have been," "it ought to be," she persuades herself that
his affection was all her own. She could not be deceived in that … the youthful infatuation of nineteen would naturally blind him … but the four succeeding years … must have opened his eyes….
Although Elinor tries hard to separate the reality from her own "wishes," she manages, against all internal warnings about persuasion, to persuade herself of what she wants to believe.
It appears that all of us, even Elinor, live rather more than we admit in modal rather than actual worlds. And one lesson of Sense and Sensibility, like that of North-anger Abbey or Emma, seems to be that we must give up these imaginary realms to take up firmer residence in the here and now. But Austen's view is not so simple, nor are modals so avoidable. Modals can be used to serve the ends of false reason precisely because they are fundamentally the language of all reasoning. And the most important lesson to be learned from Austen is not that some people are deluded, or even that all people are deluded, but that hypothesis, inference, supposition are what John Searle calls ground-floor properties of the human mind.
Almost everyone in Sense and Sensibility at some point considers the question of what would constitute right reasoning, even those least likely to act on that knowledge. The most amazing people invoke rationality. Marianne judges her mother's decision that they remain in London "to be entirely wrong, formed on mistaken grounds," and when Elinor assures Willoughby that Marianne "has long forgiven you," he objects, "Then she has forgiven me before she ought…. But she shall forgive me again, and on more reasonable grounds." Elinor criticizes her mother and Marianne because "with them, to wish was to hope, and to hope was to expect," only to have her own cautious skepticism called into question by Mrs. Dashwood, who asks, quite reasonably, "Are no probabilities to be accepted merely because they are not certainties?"
Accurate or not, the hypothetical is an inescapable mode (and inescapably modal) in a world where there are many more probabilities than certainities, and in actual life thought and discourse turn less on empirically verifiable statements like "The cat is on the mat" than on modal ones about unobservable things like causes, reasons, states of mind. Even as the talk ranges from trifling subjects like Mrs. Dashwood's intended remodeling to serious discussions of Edward's future, or Marianne's possible engagement, it involves the same processes of supposing and speculating about what someone might do, will do, ought to do. If Mr. and Mrs. Dashwood's vision of their own poverty on several thousands a year and their relations' affluence on several hundred serves as an ironic instance, other conversations equally full of modals need to be taken seriously. As an illustration, here is Colonel Brandon speculating about what Edward will do now that he has offered him a living. Brandon does not
suppose it possible that the Delaford living could supply such an income as any body in his style of life would venture to settle on …"This little rectory can do no more than make Mr. Ferrars comfortable … it cannot enable him to be married…. What I am now doing … can advance him so little toward what must be his principal … object of happiness. His marriage must still be … distant … it cannot take place very soon."
Brandon's assessment of the situation is not inaccurate, as Edward and Elinor later confirm when considering whether the income will suffice for them. (It won't.) Unlike the Dashwoods, Brandon is neither selfinterested nor rationalizing reluctance in saying he would do more if he could. About Edward's actual eagerness to marry, both the reader and the colonel may harbor some doubts. But Brandon is reasoning theoretically; his argument rests not on Edward's real feelings, but on a (not incorrect) supposition about what men of his class should feel and would do, what Edward himself would undoubtedly have done if Lucy had not conveniently defected. In other words, Brandon is not discussing what the facts are (for Edward could easily choose to ignore all of the supposed difficulties and marry); he is outlining what must be the case if Edward behaves as he ought.
David Hume argued earlier in the century that it is impossible to derive an "ought" from an "is," that "oughts" occupy a separate realm derived from nonempirical premises, and Austen, in describing the way we reason, supports this. What one does is very different from what one might do, could do, or even must do. Conversely, "can" asserts global possibility without entailing its enactment. "I can call you" doesn't mean that I do; nor does "I might call" mean that I will; not even "must" entails necessity in the actual world. "If that's the noon whistle, it must be twelve o'clock" is a reasonable supposition, although the whistle may have gone off at eleven-thirty. Only in the mental realm of pure deduction, which exists independent of the empirical world, do "musts" hold absolutely—two and two must be four because we have priorly defined them that way, but that a man who is engaged ought to be in love is true only if we assume as the major premise that men always engage themselves honorably. Of course, that premise is not only a supposition, but one open, especially in Austen, to the gravest doubts.
The hypothetical and the actual, then, do not simply exist side by side in discrete realms; although distinct, they intersect, and we are constantly being asked to consider the connection (and often the disconnection) between the two. While surmising that it must be twelve o'clock because the noon whistle went off is legitimate enough, we need also ask whether the whistle went off when it ought—that is, we need to check the "ought" against the empirical question of whether it did. Now, figures like Mrs. Bennet rarely move from their fictive worlds into the actual. She never gives way on the subject of the entail and is saved from her refusal to acknowledge it only through the kindly offices of the novelist, who provides the rich suitors Mrs. Bennet has no reasonable right to expect. No one is quite so recalcitrant in Sense and Sensibility but, on the other hand, everyone is caught to varying degrees within the circle of his or her suppositions.
Consider, for example, how everyone in Sense and Sensibility handles one of the central questions in the book: Is Marianne engaged to Willoughby? No one seems to find it legitimate to cut the Gordian knot by asking Marianne how things stand. Elinor believes it is her mother's place to ask; Mrs. Dashwood feels that to ask would be an intrusion; Mrs. Jennings and Sir John simply assume an engagement; and Colonel Brandon is far too tactful to inquire—although perhaps he prefers speculation to certain knowledge.
Elinor, for one, works hard to shape her limited bits of information into a reasonable hypothesis and is the first to suspect that Marianne is not assured of Willoughby. After Willoughby's public rebuff, Elinor ponders the affair.
That some kind of engagement has subsisted … she could not doubt … however Marianne might still feed her own wishes she could not…. Nothing but a … change of sentiment could account for it … absence might have weakened his regard, and convenience might have … overcome it, but that such a regard had … existed she could not bring herself to doubt.
As for Marianne on the pangs, which so unhappy a meeting must … have given her, and … on those … which might await her … she could not reflect without deepest concern.
Elinor is quite correct in her suppositions; a change has taken place, and Marianne's suffering is real enough. Nevertheless, Elinor clings to a mistaken assumption in order to judge her sister less harshly, and both her sympathy and her inferences are founded on a false premise—that there was an engagement—a premise she surely knows enough of her sister's impetuous nature to question. She doesn't because she is reasoning less about the real Marianne than about what ought to be the case, supposing Marianne's behavior to be justified.
Elinor is clever and, like Emma Woodhouse later, she reasons well, but reasoning well is not enough, as Austen makes patently clear in Emma and suggests even in this earlier novel. At some point hypothetical constructs must touch base with the actual. If the literalness of the inexperienced Catherine Morland, who never speculates about anything until she is seduced by Udolpho and abused by the world, is no model for wisdom, neither is Emma's willful disregard of the actual lest it fail to confirm her scenarios. Elinor in contrast tries hard to avoid either of these extremes, and it is less her error than a mark of the fundamental fugitiveness of human knowledge that she too comes to imperfect assessments.
That reasonable sequences often turn out to be wrong is one of the great sources of irony in Austen's work, but it is important to understand that the irony derives less from faulty reasoning than from the collision between the smooth logic of hypothetical scenarios and the unpredictability of the actual world. For example, Miss Steele's account of Lucy and Edward's conversation realizes all of Colonel Brandon's earlier assumptions about money and marriage. Lucy has told Edward that "she could live with him upon a trifle and how little soever he might have she should be very glad …" They (Lucy and Edward) "talked for some time about what they should do and they agreed that he should take orders directly, and they must wait to be married…. " But of course none of this comes to pass, for Lucy is not about to wait or to be poor if she can help it.
Perhaps the highest comic dissonance between the hypothetical and the actual is achieved in those scenes where Lucy and Elinor play at being confidantes in a language filled with the politest and most tentative of modals, while each is very much aware of the other's real motives.7 Elinor has surmised quite correctly that Lucy's revelations are directed at stinging her to jealousy while at the same time warning her to stay away from Edward. "What other reason for the disclosure … could there be but that Elinor might be informed … of Lucy's superior claims." Elinor on her part "could not deny herself the comfort of endeavoring to convince Lucy that her heart was unwounded." In a sequestered corner they chat. Lucy confesses that she feared she might have offended Elinor by her secret. "Offended me! How could you suppose so…. Could you have a motive for the trust that was not honourable and flattering to me?"—the answer to which, we all know, is yes, indeed, she can and does. Lucy proceeds to sketch a charming fictional version of her innocent and romantic attachment:
I could give up every prospect … and could struggle with any poverty for him … we must wait, it may be for many years. With almost any other man … it would be an alarming prospect; but Edward's affection and constancy nothing can deprive me of, I know.
"That conviction must be everything to you" is Elinor's sweetly acid reply, while thinking to herself, "All this … is very pretty but it can impose on neither of us." The delicacy of these modals hardly needs to be demonstrated. If we substitute indicatives for the modals, we can see at once how the archness is lost as the insinuation becomes an assertion. We also see how dangerously confrontational the game becomes.
There is more than comedy to be gained by the modal language of supposition and more than wisdom about human reasoning to be learned. Society moves on these smoothly greased modal rails, and while hypothesis needs to be checked against the empirical world, acknowledging the actual too directly risks bringing the whole machine to a grinding halt. For instance, when Mrs. Jennings commits the ultimate gaucherie of openly referring to pregnancy, asking Colonel Brandon, "How does Charlotte do? I warrant you she is a fine size by this time," the colonel as a gentleman can only change the subject, hoping desperately, no doubt, that the size of a woman's belly is never again made the topic of polite conversation. With Elinor, too, the literal borders on the obscene when she defends Colonel Brandon against Marianne's charge of "infirmity." Taking the word in its literal, i.e., etymological sense, she assures Marianne that, aged as he "may appear … you can hardly deceive yourself as to his having the use of his limbs." These embarrassments of frankness only underscore the need for decorum and reticence, and among other things the indirect language of modals provides the very means of comfortable social intercourse.
The point is that modal language is neither the mark of the foolish and the willful nor strictly the sign of the self-reflective, although it certainly serves both of these functions. Beyond that, however, it is the language that binds human society together, the language that creates, both in the best and the worst sense, the fictions we live by. While reasoning rightly about others is at its best difficult, given our imperfect knowledge both of other minds and of our own, nevertheless, as Austen recognizes, human beings do (and probably must) make suppositions, perhaps even fictions, about the world in order to live in it, and that process, unideal yet inescapable, is reflected in the modal language of Sense and Sensibility. The gossip, the endless examination of trivia, the possible scenarios are all subcategories of deliberation. And deliberation is at the center of the novels—people reflecting on their own situations and those of others. Finally, it is the nature of thinking itself, hypothetical, suppositious, sometimes confusing desire with certainty, that we are being asked to consider, and I suspect this is what Leavis was responding to when he praised Austen's "intensely moral preoccupation," for her preoccupation is with the moral, not in the prescriptive sense of telling us (or her characters) what to believe or do, but in the wider sense of showing us how we come to decide these issues.
1 Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility, with an afterword by Caroline G. Mercer (New York: New American Library, 1961), pp. 307ff.
2 F. R. Leavis, The Great Tradition (Garden City: Doubleday, 1954), p. 16.
3 Grammatically, modal auxiliaries constitute a finite syntactic set: "can'/"could," "may"/"might," "will"/"would," "shall"/"should," "must" and, with qualifications, "ought." These operate like the main auxiliaries, "be," "do," "have," in that the negative is attached directly to them and in the interrogative they are simply moved from the second to the first place in the sentence. But modals differ from the main auxiliaries (and are unique in English) because they are oddly morphologically defective. They don't inflect in the third person ("He eats," "He does eat," but not "He cans eat"); they have neither a present nor a past participle, nor a passive, nor an infinitive. Modals also form a semantic set, sharing the feature of what I have called the hypothetical, or nonactual. Where the other auxiliaries mark tense and/or aspect, modal auxiliaries mark certain nonindicative moods: possibility, necessity, obligation, permission. This is where philosophers pick up modals. Their concern is with conceptual notions like possibility or necessity, and while there are other ways of expressing these ideas (notably through adverbs—"maybe," "probably"—or through catenatives like "have to," or through subjective complements like "is possible" or "is a possibility"), the analysis of these concepts usually involves, especially in ordinary language philosophy, a discussion of the modal auxiliaries per se. Although one could certainly follow the philosophers and consider all kinds of modalized sentences, I have chosen to follow the traditional grammarians and consider specifically those sentences containing modal auxiliaries, partly as a convenient way of delimiting the topic, but, more important, because such sentences from so large a part of Austen's language.
4 Any writer who is much concerned with deliberation and possibility can be expected to use a highly modalized language. Henry James is an example. Conversely, the marked absence of modals also tells us something important about a writer's preoccupations. Hemingway, especially in the short stories, is in full flight from reflection and deliberation, and if we look at the places (there are not many of them) where modals do occur in his stories, we find that they are always connected with uncertainty and discomfort.
5 Notice that "will be" has been omitted from the temporal series, since the division hypothetical/actual places the future in the hypothetical domain. The etymology of the word "future"—from Latin "futurus," meaning roughly "the about to be"—serves to corroborate this placement. Moreover, regarding the future as hypothetical is not only philosophically plausible it also allows us to avoid the difficulties in English between "shall" and "will," both of which are used for the future, sometimes to make predictions about what is to come, sometimes to make declarations of intention about bringing it about. The conceptual distinctions between "shall" and "will" are real enough, but for the purposes of this essay it is sufficient to see them both as expressions of the nonactual.
6 All quotations are from Jane Austen, The Novels of Jane Austen, ed. R. W. Chapman, 5 vols., 3rd edition (London: Oxford University Press, 1932–34, 1966). The italics here and hereafter are mine unless otherwise indicated.
7 It is hard these days to avoid the question of "women's language" when dealing with a woman writer. The fact that modals are sometimes used as politeness forms and/or to express tentativeness rather than assertion has invited speculation about whether modal language is not peculiarly feminine (if we think in terms of the traditional stereotypes). I do not think Austen offers support for this view. In the standard case, modals characterize not the language of reticence but the language of anyone concerned with reflection and deliberation, with what is possible or necessary. And this is certainly Austen's primary use of them. Moreover, her characters are, at their worst, more willful than polite; at their best, more deliberative than decorous. Not one of them exhibits "feminine" deference, either in language or behavior. In fact, unctuousness, the mark of fools like Mr. Elton or Mr. Collins or Miss Steele, is remarkably free from modals, not surprisingly, since the people never stop to think.
Claudia L. Johnson (essay date 1983)
SOURCE: "The 'Twilight of Probability': Uncertainty and Hope," Philological Quarterly, Vol. 62, No. 2, Spring, 1983, pp. 171–86.
[In the following essay, Johnson discusses Austen's indebtedness to Samuel Johnson's "tradition of doubt" in Sense and Sensibility.]
Sense and Sensibility is Jane Austen's least loved and least respected novel. One reason why is that most readers believe that Sense and Sensibility is about its title. Critics typically explain the moral theory relevant to the novel, survey Elinor's and Marianne's predecessors in late eighteenth-century fiction and then almost invariably conclude that neither "sense" nor "sensibility" alone is adequate to human experience.1 The polarized abstractions in the novel's title, however, do not provide the most inclusive or penetrating terms for understanding Sense and Sensibility, and so critical preoccupation with them has produced readings that are simpler and more schematic than the novel itself.
A cursory review of the plot of Sense and Sensibility will disclose what this novel is really about. Marianne loves a man who has all the attributes of a devoted suitor but who is not, we later learn, a devoted suitor at all. He drops Marianne in favor of a more lucrative attachment, marries, but finally confesses that, to his own surprise, he had not been deceiving Marianne all along after all. Meanwhile, Elinor loves a man who is not demonstrative but who really is, we eventually discover, her ardent admirer. He likewise drops her because of another, mysterious attachment, and is on the brink of marriage, only to be unexpectedly released at the very last minute and left free to marry the woman he has always truly but almost covertly loved. Although the way each sister bears these utterly incalculable twists does reflect some of the competing claims of sense and sensibility, the logic that unifies and propels the plot does not depend on an opposition between sense and sensibility. Marvin Mudrick perceived this apparent discrepancy long ago: "Has it been Marianne's sensibility that was responsible for her mistake [about Willoughby]? Judgment, on the basis of partial evidence, is difficult for any one."2 Precisely. But because Mudrick believes that Marianne's mistakes ought to be causally related to the governing theme of sensibility, he, like many readers, concludes that Austen is willfully unfair to Marianne.
The fact is that both Elinor and Marianne consistently err because they must judge, as Mudrick puts it, "on the basis of partial evidence." Because both are confronted with suitors who are, as Elinor says specifically of Willoughby, "unfathomable,"3 both have difficulty in knowing what to believe and what to expect. Sense and Sensibility has as its starting point, then, epistemological problems—problems of knowing and assent—that baffle Elinor and Marianne alike. The characters themselves often formulate this problem explicitly. When Elinor argues with her mother about Willoughby's suspiciously abrupt departure and the possibility of his bad faith towards Marianne, Mrs. Dashwood, always anxious to make excuses, indignantly responds, "Are no probabilities to be accepted, merely because they are not certainties?" (pp. 78–79). This question pinpoints the problem the sisters face—though Marianne hardly suspects it—as they try to ascertain and anticipate the intentions of their extremely misunderstandable suitors.
The terms of Mrs. Dashwood's question, like so much else in this opaque and sceptical novel, place Sense and Sensibility in the eighteenth-century philosophical tradition, where the distinction between certainty and probability figures prominently. Locke, for example, argues that our understandings are so narrow and the world so complex that our certainty is limited to very few kinds of propositions and that we live in the "twilight … of probability" with respect to just about everything.4 Jane Austen's favorite moralist in prose, Dr. Johnson, shares many of Locke's philosophical assumptions, but insists even more strenuously and far more anxiously on "our ignorance of the most common objects and effects."5 Although Johnson most frequently dwells on our uncertainty about the future, our inability to have certain knowledge about the present also preoccupies him:
Such is the uncertainty, in which we are always likely to remain with regard to questions, wherein we have the most interest, and which every day affords opportunity to examine: we may examine indeed, but we never can decide, because our faculties are unequal to the subject. (Adventurer, no. 107)
This tradition of doubt what we can know bears very forcefully on Sense and Sensibility.) The stock terms of sensibility surface here only occasionally and somewhat vestigially. But, as I will show, terms such as "doubt," "belief," "conjecture," "certainty" and "probability" conspicuously dominate the novel as a whole. Such "philosophic words" testify to Austen's concern with the fallibility of our knowledge and serve to depict a dark and pervasive "twilight of probability."6 As Austen's most saliently Johnsonian novel, Sense and Sensibility dramatizes the danger of accepting even the most compelling of probabilities as certainties, and urges the need to govern what we allow ourselves to hope and to believe; for error and delusion "with regard to questions, wherein we have the most interest," and Johnson puts it, can be crushing and, in Marianne's case, almost deadly.
At the beginning of the novel, Elinor is differentiated from her family not so much in terms of the power of her feelings as in terms of the powers of her understanding. Whereas Elinor is noted for her "coolness of judgment" and "strength of understanding," Marianne and Mrs. Dashwood share "cleverness" and "eagerness of mind" (p. 6). "Judgment" here, of course, does not refer to a general sort of good sense, but to an ability to make distinctions and to discern differences and relations, an ability which, in Elinor's case, is cool and independent of her inclinations. "Eagerness of mind," on the other hand, suggests less measured, hastier and more passional mental activity. Furthermore, while "cleverness" signals adroit but not necessarily sound thinking, Elinor's "strength of understanding" alerts the reader to her steady and reliable use of the mind. Terms such as these merit serious attention because they are more than clichés used to introduce the characters. Indeed the ability to make distinctions soon becomes the very stuff of the plot.
Mrs. Dashwood and Marianne consistently fail to exercise judgment:
"Like him!" replied her [Elinor's] mother with a smile. "I can feel no sentiment of approbation inferior to love."
"You may esteem him,"
"I have never yet known what it was to separate esteem and love." (p. 16)
Marianne was afraid of offending, and said no more on the subject; but the kind of approbation which Elinor described as excited in him [Edward] by the drawings of other people, was very far from that rapturous delight, which, in her opinion, could alone be called taste. (p. 19)
These passages unquestionally exhibit the warm sensibility of Marianne and her mother, but they also demonstrate an eager tendency to compress distinctions between ideas, much as Marianne will later equate competence and wealth, or a touch of rheumatism with virtual decrepitude. In such cases, Marianne does not discriminate, and yet she believes her opinions so firmly that the discovery that they are not shared or borne out prompts her to exclaim ingenuously "How strange this is!" (p. 39)—as if the problem did not originate in her own hasty judgments. These are but small miscalculations compared to her more serious and more plausible mistake of believing Willoughby.
Elinor, of course, does make distinctions and, unlike Marianne, does not cherish her determinations too confidently. Elinor's scepticism is a persistent source of tension in her family. Mrs. Dashwood charges that Elinor ungraciously "love[s] to doubt where [she] can" (p. 78), while Elinor in turn regrets that she cannot "inspire her [mother] with distrust" (p. 155) of Willoughby. In addition to telling polite lies, Elinor's major activity throughout the novel is doubting—resisting eager or premature assent. She rarely by-passes distinctions for the sake of reaching attractive conclusions: proof of Willoughby's "affection," for example, must not be confounded with proof of his "engagement" (p. 78). Wary of misplaced credence, Elinor habitually distinguishes and deliberates.
By juxtaposing these differences between Elinor and Marianne, Austen examines the problem of making judgments. Though Austen has in many ways stacked the deck against Marianne, she still deals her a respectable hand. The same steep hill and sudden downpour that expose Marianne's absurd enthusiasm for nature also occasion an extravagant but nevertheless actual heroic rescue. Whatever the excesses of Marianne's sensibility, her opinions, about Willoughby in particular, are not deluded or far-fetched. If anything, they are excessively simple. To Marianne, the world is transparent and people are as they seem. If appearances are not partial or doubtful, then judgments can be formed every bit as confidently and conclusively as Marianne forms them. Thus Willoughby seems to be and therefore must be honorable and manly, and his manifest courtship of her unquestionably bespeaks an intention of marriage. In a similar way, Marianne infers from Mrs. Jennings' coarse humor that she has a callous heart, or from Colonel Brandon's reserve that he is dull and passionless. Because Marianne presumes that one can effortlessly know precisely whom one is dealing with, the painstaking discrimination Elinor routinely practices is simply superfluous, and the protectively decorous reserve she urges "a disgraceful subjection of reason to commonplace and mistaken notions" (p. 53) which needlessly complicates the whole business of knowing and dealing with others. Much more is at stake here than impetuous sensibility, for while Marianne is not altogether right, she is certainly not all wrong either. If she errs in inferring that Elinor is not in love because she is neither sleepless, antisocial nor starved, she is on the mark in observing Edward's coolness and in concluding it shamefully inappropriate for a suitor.7
The case of Willoughby proves that Austen is more interested in probing the fallibility of Marianne's judgments than in exposing the folly of her sensibility. Although Willoughby is everything Marianne's "fancy had delineated … as capable of attaching her" (p. 49), he is not a projection of her sensitive imagination. In fact, she has every apparent reason for believing in the sincerity of his suit because, as every one can attest, "his behaviour declared his wishes to be in that respect as earnest, as his abilities were strong" (p. 49). Only with the benefit of hindsight can anyone discover the discrepancy between behavior and wish, or learn that the wish itself changes. Confounding certainty with probability, Mrs. Dashwood believes that Willoughby and her family have "perfectly understood each other" (p. 80), that nothing "has passed to justify doubt" (pp. 80–81), and that nothing can challenge her "method of understanding" (p. 78) Willoughby's admittedly strange departure.
Elinor's is the only voice of cautionary dissent. She alone seems to recognize that all live in a "twilight of probability" and that judgments therefore must be formed tentatively. There is truth to Mrs. Dashwood's quip to Elinor, "If you were to see them [Marianne and Willoughby] at the altar, you would suppose they were going to be married" (p. 80, emphasis added), because Elinor rarely knows quite what to think. Indeed, when Mrs. Dashwood insists that Elinor declare exactly what she suspects of Willoughby, Elinor replies, "I can hardly tell you myself (p. 79). Her doubts about Willoughby as well as about Edward spring from a recognition that she knows so little, that, for example, the elaborate circumstances Mrs. Dashwood postulates to account for Willoughby's conduct quite simply "may, or may not have happened" (p. 78).
By subjecting what she perceives to be partial appearances to her judgment, Elinor avoids Marianne's stubbornness of opinion as well as her credulity. Elinor frequently practices the same kind of suspension of assent which Marianne wishes Willoughby had practiced when she supposes that a wicked woman has calumniated her name: "Whatever he might have heard against me—ought he not to have suspended his belief?" (p. 190). If Elinor candidly refuses to decide upon "imperfections so much in the mass" (51), she also declines to decide upon perfections in the mass. Alerted by Willoughby's inconsistency, Elinor suspends her belief in him, content instead to "acknowledge the probability of many, and hope for the justice of all" (p. 82) her mother's explanations. Elinor is just as wary about believing in Edward, though doubt and impartiality here require considerably more effort. Marianne and Mrs. Dashwood eagerly await her imminent marriage to Edward, but Elinor resists. She "required greater certainty of it to make Marianne's conviction of their attachment agreeable to her" (p. 21). Aware that Edward's affection for her is "doubtful" and not yet "fully known," Elinor resolves "to avoid any encouragement of [her] own partiality, by believing or calling it [Edward's regard] more than it is" (p. 21). Elinor's concern with the control of assent itself is made even more explicit when, after allowing Marianne to believe whatever she pleases about the extent of her own affection for Edward, she insists that Marianne refrain from deciding upon Edward's affection: " … farther than this you must not believe" (p. 21).
Yet for all Elinor's cautious discernment, she is just as error-prone as Marianne, and both often make mistakes which good judgment could hardly avoid. The pronouncement "Mrs. Dashwood could find explanations whenever she wanted them" (p. 84)—a statement which encapsulates so much of the drama in this novel—applies just as aptly to Elinor. Mrs. Jennings unwittingly articulates the central problem in Sense and Sensibility when, impatient with Elinor's denials that Marianne and Willoughby are engaged, she protests, "Did I not see them together in Devonshire every day, and all day long; and did I not know that your sister came to town with me on purpose to buy wedding clothes?" (p. 182, emphasis added). Mrs. Jennings may be vulgar, but she is not imperceptive, and her explanation for what she sees is all too credible. In Sense and Sensibility, however, there is a chasm between seeing and knowing that no one, not even the judicious Elinor, can bridge. While Mrs. Dashwood explains away Willoughby's inconsistency by supposing him dependent on a capricious aunt, Elinor rationalizes Edward's puzzling conduct by attributing it to "fettered inclination" (p. 102) in the form of parental tyranny, little suspecting that his inclination is fettered in quite another way. Similarly, when Elinor sees a lock of hair around Edward's finger, she is "instantaneously" (p. 98) satisfied, "beyond all doubt" (p. 99), that the hair is her own. But, needless to say, Elinor has no idea that a Lucy Steele exists, just as she and Marianne could not possibly have suspected anything about Willoughby's libertine past. By consistently striving to place her characters in the "twilight of probability," Austen dramatizes the fallibility of the inferential process itself—and she does not let the reader in on the irony, as she does in Pride and Prejudice and even in Emma.
If Elinor with all her scrupulous judgment is just as error-prone as Marianne with all her intrepid credulity, what then do the differences between them amount to and how are they consequential? Austen's concern with the management of the mind is not limited to judgment or assent in any dryly intellectual sense. She is also concerned with how beliefs are complicated by wishes, hopes or fears. Austen's subject matter is particularly well-suited to this set of psychological concerns, for the passivity and circumscription of women's lives give rise to intense situations of hope, fear or—later perhaps—regret. Because they do not have what Henry Tilney terms "the advantage of choice" (NA, p. 77), women can only wait for and conjecture about the possibility of proposals. They must observe their suitors' gestures, review their encouraging words, speculate about their intentions, and then wait. As bold and active as they are in every other respect, even Elizabeth Bennet and Emma Woodhouse must finally wait in doubtful suspense, and this is practically all that Fanny Price and Anne Elliot ever do.
Elinor and Marianne too do little else than wait for Edward and Willoughby to disclose their intentions. While they wait, however, hopeful and fearful anticipations operate on their understandings and their beliefs in very different and very telling ways. Austen carefully specifies these differences early in the novel:
[Elinor] knew that what Marianne and her mother conjectured at one moment, they believed in the next—that with them, to wish was to hope, and to hope was to expect, (p. 21)
[Marianne's] mother too, in whose mind not one speculative thought of their marriage had been raised, by his [Willoughby's] prospect of riches, was led before the end of a week to hope and expect it; and secretly to congratulate herself on having gained two such sons-in-law as Edward and Willoughby. (p. 49)
As usual, the judicious Elinor observes that conjecture is tenuous knowledge indeed, and that wishing, hoping and expecting are related but distinct activities which imply different degrees of assent. To wish is to express a desire, to hope is to desire with some confidence, and to expect is to anticipate something as a virtual certainty. The way Marianne and her mother eagerly and carelessly pass from wishful speculation to cherished and certain conviction recalls Johnson's observation, "what men allow themselves to hope, they will soon believe" (Rambler, no. 8). This path towards delusion which Johnson so often delineates is difficult to avoid, for the "natural flights of the human mind" are and should be "from hope to hope" (Rambler, no. 2). At thex same time, however, hopes tend to take violent and unshakable possession of the mind as they are admitted and believed in as actualities. The astronomer's madness, for instance, begins with no more than a wish. Austen's debt to Johnson is usually assessed stylistically or normatively.8 But the most dynamic and suggestive aspect of Johnson's legacy to Austen is his distinctive conception of psychology, his emphasis on the operations of hope and anticipation or, conversely, regret and memory, and his conviction that these activities must be properly regulated.9 While later novels such as Mansfield Park and Emma explore the need to regulate such mental activities as wit and memory within an explicitly moral context, Sense and Sensibility explores how the limitation of what we can know for certain requires us to regulate what we hope in the interest of preserving sanity. Austen's concern here is to show how the mind animated by hope is later shackled by expectation and finally despondently arrested by disappointment, and how any hope or sorrow can become what Johnson calls a "pertinacious adhesion" (Idler, no. 72).
Marianne is particularly reckless about the management of her mind. Willoughby's departure creates a vacuum in her life which she endeavors to fill first by recollection and then by anticipation, thus dramatizing Johnson's formula for the mind's behavior when the present is "unable to fill desire or imagination with immediate enjoyment" (Rambler, no. 203). Marianne indulges sorrowful recollections as a "duty" (p. 77). Such behavior is typical of countless heroines of sensibility, but the basis of Austen's critique of it can best be traced to Johnson, for whom the indulgence of sorrow is an invitation to obsession:
[M]ournful ideas, first violently impressed and afterwards willingly received, so much engross the attention, as to predominate in every thought, to darken gayety, and perplex ratiocination. An habitual sadness seizes the soul, and the faculties are chained to a single object, which can never be contemplated but with hopeless uneasiness. (Rambler, no. 47)
Johnson also treats this process in the chapters devoted to Nekayah's grief in Rasselas. Like Marianne, Nekayah resists consolation, ritualizes her sorrow as a duty, feels ashamed when her thoughts stray elsewhere and exploits memory in order, as Johnson elsewhere puts it, to renovate "the impression which time is always wearing away, and which new images are striving to obliterate" (Idler, no. 72). By courting "the misery which a contrast between the past and present was certain of giving" (p. 83), both women attempt to arrest their minds. Austen explicitly presents Marianne's behavior not merely as an excess of sensibility, but more fundamentally as a misuse of the mind itself. Elinor can walk with Marianne in order to protect her from the dangers of seclusion, but she realizes that she cannot force Marianne to turn her thoughts elsewhere: "Marianne's mind could not be controuled" (p. 85, emphasis Austen's).
Marianne is just as careless about indulging anticipations, likewise in order to fix Willoughby in her mind. As she is walking with Elinor, focusing her inward attention on him alone, she and Elinor notice a gentleman in the distance galloping towards them—whereupon Marianne rapturously cries, "It is he; it is indeed;—I know it is! … I knew how soon he would come" (p. 86). An abrupt dis-illusionment follows. The gentleman is not Willoughby—"The person is not tall enough for him, and has not his air" (p. 86), as Elinor could discern—but rather Edward, whose unprepossessing appearance Austen has already contrasted with Willoughby's dashing air. Marianne's eager indulgence of hope has prompted her in an almost hallucinatory fashion to project her inward wish upon outward fact. Austen's attitude to the pathetically ardent hope that gives rise to Marianne's delusion is complex. Until learning of Willoughby's engagement, Marianne is in a persistent state of expectation, and Elinor, for one, views this "rapture of delightful expectation which fill[s] the whole soul and beam[s] in the eyes of Marianne" (p. 159) quite positively. Having just learned of Edward's engagement, Elinor, like Anne Elliot later, must live without having anything to look forward to, and so she envies Marianne for having an "animating object in view," a "possibility of hope," a "prospect" (p. 159).
The basis of Elinor's respect is again Johnsonian. Johnson's caution that the "understanding of a man, naturally sanguine, may, indeed, be easily vitiated by the luxurious indulgence of hope" must be balanced by his assertion that hope is "necessary to the production of every thing great or excellent" (Rambler, no. 2). Hope must be admitted as an animating incentive to purposeful action, a blessing happily holding forth the possibility of some future good, without which we could never bestir ourselves: "[I]t is necessary to hope, tho' hope should always be deluded, for hope itself is happiness, and its frustrations, however frequent, are yet less dreadful than its extinction" (Idler, no. 58).10 Hope becomes vitiating to the mind when its demands, like those of any desire, become imperious, when "by long indulgence it becomes ascendent in the mind" (Rambler, no. 207)."11
Austen dramatizes this process of ascendancy in the London episode, where Marianne's expectations become progressively more frantic, even manic. Here (again) Marianne's ecstatic conviction that Willoughby is approaching—"[I]t is Willoughby, indeed it is!" (p. 161)—is abruptly undercut, this time by Colonel Brandon's appearance. This reversal only reinforces Marianne's hope: the "disappointment of the evening before seemed forgotten in the expectation of what was to happen that day" (p. 164). Wherever Marianne goes, she expects to see him: "[H]er eyes were in constant inquiry … her mind was … abstracted from every thing actually before them" (p. 164). Because her thoughts are filled with the urgent anticipation of a future so unaccountably delayed, her present is crowded out and she passes her time between "the anxiety of expectation and the pain of disappointment" (p. 166), watching from the window and awaiting the "longexpected rap" (p. 166). When she eventually does see Willoughby, only to be chilled by his distant civility, she must "feed her own wishes" (p. 178). Finally, after receiving his letter, Marianne still must hope that he will write, rescue and reassure her of his enduring devotion. As Elinor observes, Marianne's "endeavours to acquit" Willoughby irritate her mind "more than a perfect conviction of his unworthiness" (p. 211) could, because these efforts maintain the punishing turbulence of hope and disappointment that has buffetted her ever since Willoughby left Barton.
Once Marianne's "mind [is] no longer supported by the fever of suspense" (p. 185), Marianne has a new torment to undergo: desolating sorrow about the past, this time suffered in earnest rather than voluntarily indulged as a matter of duty. For Marianne, to whom the faculty of memory had been so dear, recollection is now a source of anguish which calls her entire manner of judging and behaving, her "happy ardour of youth" (p. 159), into question. Once again, Johnson can illuminate Marianne's painful discovery:
Hope will predominate in every mind, till it has been suppressed by frequent disappointments. The youth has not yet discovered how many evils are continually hovering about us … his care is rather to accumulate good, than to shun evil. (Rambler, no. 196)
Reproaching herself in particular for her "unguarded affection" (p. 345), Marianne acquires an awareness that the world abounds in hovering, incalculable evils and obstacles to which her sanguine and unsuspecting ardor render her especially vulnerable. Significantly, Marianne feels the "loss of Willoughby's character" more acutely than the "loss of his heart" (p. 212), because it obliges her to doubt everything she formerly believed in and depended upon so confidently. Oppressed by this disappointment, Marianne's mind "settle[s] in a gloomy dejection" (p. 212), and her immovable despondency is later reinforced by the "pain of continual self-reproach" which deprives her even of the "hope of amendment" (p. 279).
Elinor always guards herself against possible evils. Indeed Mrs. Dashwood charges that she would "rather take evil upon credit than good" (p. 78). The truth is that Elinor prefers to take nothing on credit at all. Consequently, she makes it a point to restrain speculative activity. When Colonel Brandon speaks too feelingly about a young lady much like Marianne, Elinor fancifully connects his present emotion with the recollection of a past love affair, but "attempted no more" (p. 57). Elinor extends this same restraint to her personal, but equally speculative, hopes. During Marianne's illness, for example, she begins "to fancy, to hope she could perceive a slight amendment in her sister's pulse" (p. 314). But Elinor "wait[s], watchefs], and examine[s]" before yielding to her hope. Once "hope had already entered," Elinor feels "all its anxious flutter" as intensely as Marianne herself would. But here and everywhere else, Elinor "con[s] over every injunction of distrust" (p. 314). Later, hearing the approach of a carriage, Elinor cannot believe that Colonel Brandon and her mother have arrived, even though she has wished for and envisioned their arrival all evening. Instead, she considers the "almost impossibility of their being already come." She opens a window "to be satisfied of the truth." And when she sees that the carriage is drawn by four horses, she at last has "some explanation" for "such rapidity" (p. 316). Of course, Elinor is wrong, despite all her efforts to be right. As she rushes into the drawing room to greet her eagerly awaited mother, she sees "only Willoughby" (p. 316). But what is significant here is that Elinor does not behave as Marianne does in identical situations. Elinor is not disposed to credit hopes with the status of actualities. Like everyone else, Elinor sees by "uncertain light" (p. 316). But she does not assume that everything she sees is what she wishes: she does not cry out in visionary rapture, "It is she! Indeed I knew how soon she would come!"
Unlike Marianne, then, Elinor respects the differences between wishing, hoping, and expecting just as judiciously as she distinguishes between wealth and competence. Not only does she refuse to call or believe Edward's affection more than it might really be, but she refuses as well to "depend[ … ] on that result of his preference of her, which her mother and sister still considered as certain" (p. 22). Having erroneously concluded that Mrs. Ferrars is the "general excuse for every thing strange" (p. 101) in Edward's behavior, Elinor sagely reflects on the age-old opposition of duty and will and even permits herself a fanciful Marianne-like vision of that felicitous time when all such conflict will cease. But if Elinor's judgment is helpless to keep her free from error, it can and does oblige her to turn away from these "vain wishes" (p. 102) about a future too uncertain to be expected or depended upon.
After Edward leaves Barton, Elinor aims to control her mind. Unlike Marianne, she does not "augment and fix her sorrow, by seeking silence, solitude and idleness" (p. 104). In Rambler, no. 85, Johnson, citing Locke, singles out idleness and solitude as two primary threats to the well-being of the understanding because an "empty and unoccupied" mind is more vulnerable to the incursions of "any wild wish or vain imagination." Anticipating the terms of Anne Elliot's debate with Captain Harville about the durability of women's affections, Johnson continues by arguing that the confined and undiversified quality of women's lives makes them more likely to be "cankered by the rust of their own thoughts" and therefore more in need of occupations which provide "security against the most dangerous ensnarers of the soul, by enabling them to exclude idleness from their solitary moments, and with idleness her attendant train of passions, fancies, and chimeras, fears, sorrows and desires." Elinor resorts to employment and social activity in order to avoid the snares Johnson describes, yet finds that her thoughts perforce return to Edward:
Her mind was inevitably at liberty, her thoughts could not be chained elsewhere; and the past and the future, on a subject so interesting, must be before her, must force her attention, and engross her memory, her reflection, and her fancy, (p. 105)
The language of this passage is strikingly Johnsonian. The words "chained," "forced" and "engross" convey the irresistible power with which ideas can usurp the mind.12 Austen's implicit point here is that Elinor endeavors to resist the kind of violent fixation Marianne actually invites.
Elinor is maintaining equipoise between hope and doubt when Lucy Steele presents her with a "body of evidence" consisting of "probabilities and proofs" that can be contradicted only by her own "wishes" (p. 139). Lucy's surprising disclosure about her engagement to Edward accomplishes "the extinction of all her [Elinor's] dearest hopes" (p. 141). But compared to Marianne's reflections on a similar occasion, Elinor's reflections are remarkable for what they do not include. She never wishes his engagement away, never fancies that he will fly to her feet and never gives way to sorrow. Johnson defines sorrow as
that state of mind in which our desires are fixed upon the past, without looking forward to the future, an incessant wish that something were otherwise than it has been, a tormenting and harassing want of some enjoyment or possession which we have lost, and which no endeavours can possibly regain. (Rambler, no. 47)
Johnson's definition perfectly describes Marianne's paralyzing sense of irretrievable loss, but it never applies to Elinor. In fact, she seems implicitly to practice Johnson's "art of forgetting" as she puts aside "useless and afflictive" remembrances so that the "past may no longer encroach upon the present" (Idler, no. 72). Elinor avoids talking with Marianne about Edward's engagement "upon principle, as tending to fix still more upon her thoughts, by the too warm, too positive assurances of Marianne, that belief in Edward's continued affection for herself which she rather wished to do away" (p. 270). All of Elinor's exertions are aimed at achieving "composure of mind" (p. 264)—what Johnson calls "intellectual domination" (Idler, no. 72)—by resisting the predominance of painful ideas, vain wishes and possibly delusive expectations.
When the Dashwoods hear of Lucy Steele's marriage, everyone reasonably concludes what they expected, that is, that Edward and not Robert Ferrars is her husband. Only now does Elinor discover that "in spite of herself, she had always admitted a hope" (p. 357) that Edward would extricate himself. Now definitively deprived of her prospect, Elinor experiences an impatient need for "something to look forward to" (p. 358) and resolves to expect Colonel Brandon's informative visit, when Edward arrives instead to claim her hand.
Viewed in isolation, Lucy's marriage to Robert Ferrars seems mere literary sleight-of-hand which Austen employs only to bring her novel to a close. Its preposterousness even stumps Elinor:
To her own heart it was a delightful affair, to her imagination it was even a ridiculous one, but to her reason, her judgment, it was completely a puzzle. (p. 364)
Lucy's marriage is a puzzle, but one which is of a piece with all the other unforeseeable twists in this novel that baffle the reason and judgment. The rationale for Austen's persistent use of surprise can be found earlier in the novel when, describing Mrs. John Dashwood's incivility to her sisters-in-law, Austen writes,
But while the imaginations of other people will carry them away to form wrong judgments of our conduct, and to decide on it by slight appearances, one's happiness must in some measure be always at the mercy of chance. (p. 248)
Austen gets more specific by relating how a random visitor "allowed her fancy so far to outrun truth and probability" (p. 248) as to infer that the Dashwood sisters were staying with their brother. Of course, the visitor's inference is hardly implausible, and all this talk about outstripping truth and probability is ironic. But Austen's generalization nevertheless stands and points to the fallibility of even the most peripheral, modest and probable determinations in the novel. In an essay on chance, Johnson poses the problem this way:
[Let the reader] enquire how he was placed in his present condition. He will find that of the good or ill which he has experienced, a great part came unexpected, without any visible gradations of approach; that every event has been influenced by causes acting without his intervention, and that whenever he pretended to the prerogative of foresight, he was mortified with a new conviction of the shortness of his views. (Rambler, no. 184)
Chance plays an important role in Austen's fiction. But Sense and Sensibility is most patently a novel of surprises. Here, unobservable causes continually reverse expectations and unfold misleading prospects or doubtful retrospects in order to demonstrate the "shortness of our views" and what Lady Russell later calls "the uncertainty of all human events and calculations" (P, p. 159). Only when we recognize that the most reasonable judgments are eluded by the unseen and unforeseen can we evaluate the conduct of each sister. In her principled ardor, Marianne has allowed her hope for Willoughby to exceed a dearly desired wish and to become a radical dependency on something which, after all, might not be. Marianne may think she is devoting herself to the ideal of a single attachment, but she is actually cultivating a "pertinacious adhesion." Johnson aptly describes the monomania Marianne cultivates:
We represent to ourselves the pleasures of some future possession, and suffer the thoughts to dwell attentively upon it, till it has wholly ingrossed the imagination, and permits us not to conceive any happiness but its attainment, or any misery but its loss. (Rambler, no. 17)
Austen chastizes Marianne's single-minded ardor not because it fosters unseemly emotionality, but because it is not the appropriate response to a world where "one's happiness must in some measure be always at the mercy of chance" (p. 248). It is the disappointment of an entirely plausible but obsessively cherished hope that debilitates and almost destroys Marianne.
The circumspect Elinor would seem to be the one who, in Johnson's words, "too scrupulously balances probabilities, and too perspicaciously foresees obstacles" (Rambler, no. 43) and so ventures nothing in order to lose nothing. Mrs. Dashwood senses this possibility when she censures Elinor's unwillingness to go to London: "[I]f Elinor would ever condescend to anticipate enjoyment, she would foresee it there from a variety of sources" (p. 157). But Elinor does not anticipate desolation either. When she must teach herself to expect Edward's marriage to Lucy, she still quietly and patiently admits a hope. In this respect Elinor resembles Johnson's wise man:
He never considered things not yet existing as the proper objects of his attention; he never indulged dreams till he was deceived by their phantoms; nor ever realized non-entities into his mind. (Rambler, no. 29)
Elinor's "strength of understanding" (p. 6) keeps her from realizing "non-entities" into her mind. And given the mind's tendency to live obsessively "in idea"—as Johnson puts it in Rambler, no. 2—Elinor's effort to be animated but not deluded by hope is genuinely heroic. Knowing that hopes are only probable, she does not allow them to engross her mind, and instead cultivates a lucid readiness for any eventuality which enables her to go forward—the activity which Johnson insists is "the business of life" (Idler, no. 72).
Sense and Sensibility closes with a prospect of muted felicity: Elinor and Marianne will be happy principally because they and their husbands do not quarrel. The destinies of the other characters are described in similarly negative ways: Lucy and Robert Ferrars are granted "harmony" (p. 377) despite frequent eruptions of family bickering; Willoughby enjoys "no small degree of domestic felicity" because his wife is "not always out of humour, nor his home always uncomfortable" (p. 379). The anti-climactic quality of this conclusion is especially significant because Austen's aim has been not so much to expose the folly of intense feeling as to show the danger of hoping too intensely for so much, given a world that cannot be penetrated by our understandings, much less conjured by our wishes. Austen circumscribes her heroines' felicity, then, to show that this is the most which may safely be hoped for. And, ironically, it is only in comparison to the confidently high-wrought expectations that Marianne once nurtured that the prospect of an ordinary but everlastingly happy marriage seems like such a severe comedown. Sense and Sensibility is not as bleak as "The Vanity of Human Wishes." But it does express a concern to restrain wishes as well as the act of wishing itself, precisely in order to achieve one of the few salutary wishes Johnson allows for in that poem: "a healthful mind."13
1 For the literary heritage of Sense and Sensibility see Alan McKillop, "The Context of Sense and Sensibility," Rice Institute Pamphlets, 44 (April, 1957), 65–78; and relevant chapters in Kenneth Moler's Jane Austen's Art of Allusions (U. of Nebraska Press, 1957) and Henrietta Ten Harmsel's Jane Austen: A Study in Fictional Conventions (The Hague: Mouton, 1964). Studies stressing moral theory include Everett Zimmerman, "Admiring Pope No More Than Is Proper," in Jane Austen: Bicentenary Essays, ed. John Halperin (Cambridge U. Press, 1975), pp. 229–42; Ian Watt, "On Sense and Sensibility," in Sense and Sensibility, ed. Ian Watt (New York: Harper, 1961), pp. 229–42; and Alistair Duckworth's chapter on this novel in The Improvement of the Estate (Johns Hopkins U. Press, 1971).
2Jane Austen: Irony as Defense and Discovery (Princeton U. Press, 1952), p. 82.
3Sense and Sensibility, ed. R. W. Chapman (London: Oxford U. Press, 1953), p. 199. Subsequent citations from Chapman's edition of Austen's novels will be noted parenthetically.
4Essay Concerning Human Understanding, ed. John W. Yolton (New York: Dutton, 1961), IV.xiv.2.
5Idler, no. 32 in The Adventurer and the Idler, ed. W. J. Bate, John M. Bullitt and L. F. Powell (Yale U. Press, 1963), p. 98. The numbers of Johnson's periodical essays cited subsequently are based on The Yale Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson (Yale U. Press, 1958–). II-V, and will be noted parenthetically.
6 Several critics have noted Locke's relevance to Austen's novels. Considering the matter generically, Sheridan Baker remarks that "how the mind will generate its cloudy expectations, and how the event will inevitably differ" is the "center of Jane Austen's comedy" and her "legacy from Locke by Sterne." See "The Idea of Romance in the Eighteenth-Century Novel," Papers of the Michigan Academy of Science, Arts, and Letters, 49 (1964), 519–20. In his introduction to the Penguin edition of Pride and Prejudice, Tony Tanner uses the works of Locke and Hume to illuminate Elizabeth Bennet's assent to first impressions. Tanner does not, however, allow for the bearing of these epistemologists on the problems of Elinor and Marianne; see Sense and Sensibility, ed. Tony Tanner (Baltimore: Penguin Press, 1969), p. 26. Lloyd Brown has discussed the pervasive importance of "reasoned assent" in Austen's fiction and has isolated the significance of Locke's Essay, IV.xiv.3–4; see Bits of Ivory: Narrative Technique in Jane Austen's Fiction (Louisiana State U. Press, 1973), pp. 40–41.
7 In the best recent discussion of Sense and Sensibility, Stuart Tave argues that Marianne is excessively bound to the "rigid forms" of sensibility; see Some Words of Jane Austen (U. of Chicago Press, 1973), p. 80. Tave's point is well taken, but it is worth noting that Marianne bases her argument on an appeal to reason. Marianne's objections to concealment seem more compelling and less merely conventional when we consider them within the context of the problem of knowing. This is how the issue of concealment is canvassed in Pride and Prejudice.
8 The best discussions of Austen's debt to Johnson's style include Mary Lascelles, Jane Austen's Art (London: Oxford U. Press, 1939), pp. 107–09; A. W. Litz, Jane Austen: A Study of Her Artistic Development (New York: Oxford U. Press, 1965), pp. 49–51; and Norman Page, The Language of Jane Austen (Oxford: Blackwell, 1972). Studies which argue that Johnson supplied Austen with moral norms often imply a Johnson more prescriptive, conservative and commonsensical than he really is. These include C. S. Lewis, "A Note on Jane Austen," Essays in Criticism, 4 (October, 1954), 359–71; rpt. in Jane Austen: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Ian Watt (Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice-Hall, 1963); Frank W. Bradbrook, Jane Austen and Her Predecessors (Cambridge U. Press, 1966), pp. 12–15; and Robert Scholes, "Dr. Johnson and Jane Austen," PQ, 54 (1975), 380–90. More recently, Peter L. De Rose has claimed that Johnsonian norms of common sense, experience, reason and discipline govern Austen's novels; see Jane Austen and Samuel Johnson (Washington, D.C.: U. Press of America, 1980).
9 See W. Jackson Bate's discussion of hoping, wishing and "the hunger of the imagination" in The Achievement of Samuel Johnson (New York: Oxford U. Press, 1955), pp. 63–91. In an excellent recent book on Austen, Susan Morgan also discusses such activities as waiting and remembering. But Morgan turns to the Romantic poets to illuminate Austen's treatment of the mind's existence in time, having previously asserted that Johnson and Locke are not relevant to Austen's work. See In the Meantime: Character and Perception in Jane Austen's Novels (U. of Chicago Press, 1980).
10 The following description of Mrs. Dashwood shows how closely Jane Austen follows Johnson in her treatment of hope: "In seasons of cheerfulness, no temper could be more cheerful than hers, or possess, in a greater degree, that sanguine expectation of happiness which is happiness itself (p. 8).
11 See Johnson's development of this same view in Boswell's Life of Johnson, ed. George Birkbeck Hill, rev. L. F. Powell (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971), I. 368.
12 W. Jackson Bate highlights Johnson's use of these metaphors: "The imagery of being dragged down and shackled or enchained is a recurring figurative expression of dread on Johnson's part when he is speaking of something he fears," in particular, the fear of losing the ability "to be a free agent." See Samuel Johnson (New York: Harcourt, c. 1977), pp. 386–87.
13 "The Vanity of Human Wishes," line 359.
P. Gila Reinstein (essay date 1983)
SOURCE: "Moral Priorities in Sense and Sensibility," in Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature, Vol. XXXV, No. 4, Summer, 1983, pp. 269–83.
[In the following essay, Reinstein argues that in Sense and Sensibility Austen promotes moderation—"the mix ture of prudence and decorum"—as the ideal quality to possess, not the strict extremes of sense and sensibility.]
In Sense and Sensibility Jane Austen ostensibly opposes practicality and sensitivity, praising the former and censuring the latter. Further examination of the novel, however, reveals a subtler, more significant moral opposition between selfishness and unselfishness. Although the title of the novel suggests a simplistic approach to values, Austen's characters and moral discriminations are, in fact, complex, reflecting the complexity of life itself. The qualities of sense and sensibility are embodied by characters in the novel in many gradations and with different shades of definition. Neither consistent, unmitigated sense nor thoroughgoing sensibility is, finally, acceptable in the novel, for both tend to lead to selfish, even destructive behavior. Moderation, the mixture of prudence and decorum with warm emotions and aesthetic enthusiasm, seems to be the ideal presented in Sense and Sensibility.
Austen skillfully portrays the tensions between sense and sensitivity, selfishness and selflessness through the characters she creates, both in their actions and in their patterns of speech and thought. Norman Page, in his excellent study, The Language of Jane Austen, suggests that this novel "evinces an alert interest in language as an aspect of social behavior,"1 and establishes his point by analyzing the syntax of the chief characters, especially Elinor and Marianne. I would like to extend his study by utilizing the techniques of stylistic analysis to explore the language patterns of various significant characters both major and minor, and to relate the results to a thematic analysis in the tradition of what might be called the "morality school" of Austen criticism.2
The most important characters to consider are the heroines, Elinor and Marianne Dashwood. In the course of the novel, each grows to be less one-sided and more like her sister. On this point I disagree with Robert Garis, who asserts that Sense and Sensibility fails because Elinor neither learns nor changes, and is "emphatically praised for not needing to."3 It seems to me that one of Austen's central points is that both sisters need to change, and the novel is a comedy because both are able to. When the novel opens, Elinor is prudent, judicious, and self-controlled to the point of stiffness, whereas Marianne abandons herself to quivering passions and irrational intuitive judgments. Elinor is conscious of her duties to family and society; Marianne rejects all outside claims and lives according to her own personal standards. Neither, to be sure, is a pure caricature of sense or sensibility, even initially. Austen clearly indicates that both possess good qualities of mind and feeling, but exercise them differently. When Austen first introduces the heroines, she tells us that Elinor has "strength of understanding and coolness of judgment," but also "an excellent heart;—her disposition was affectionate, and her feelings were strong; but she knew how to govern them."4 Marianne, in turn, "was sensible [here meaning intelligent] and clever; but eager in everything; her sorrows, her joys, could have no moderation … she was everything but prudent" (p. 6).
At the beginning of the novel, the reader learns that each sister has constructed a self-image which she tries to realize completely and use as a standard in everyday affairs. Elinor determines to be judicious; Marianne, sensitive. The girls are innocent and inexperienced, and therefore believe that they will be able to control their lives and their reactions to the lives of those around them by merely choosing to do so. Marianne expresses their complacent sense of self control: "At my time of life opinions are tolerably fixed. It is not likely that I should see or hear anything to change them" (p. 93). Life, however, does get in the way. A self-image is very easy to preserve under circumstances that do not challenge it beyond its limits. Elinor and Marianne are taxed beyond their control and find themselves shaken by feelings and occurrences they cannot dominate. A similar set of events happens to them, and they are both educated and matured through their experiences. Both fall in love with a man who is not able or willing to get attached, but who, despite himself, reciprocates the affection. The young women suffer a trial of waiting while their lovers' worth is tested: the men have to uphold or break a previous decision. Both seem to have lost their loves and endure intense pain. Finally, all is explained, and Elinor triumphs by consummating her romantic attachment, while Marianne grows wiser, learning that love can have many manifestations. It is an ironic touch that prudent Elinor marries Edward, her first and only love, despite family opposition, on the verge of poverty, and then only by a quirk of fate—Lucy Steele's sudden shift. Marianne, on the other hand, is forced to retract her youthful, ignorant assertions about romantic first love. She makes a rational, practical match for esteem and comfort, with a man whom she learns to love slowly, in a mild and quiet way, altogether unlike her earlier images of what satisfactory love must be. At the end of the book, both young women are more mature and less one sided; Marianne makes a conscious effort toward self-control and propriety, and Elinor is so overwhelmed by emotions that she shows her feelings openly and spontaneously.
The plot gives some idea of the way in which the girls change, but language reveals far more. Austen's use of syntax is "a medium for communicating, by imitation rather than summary or analysis, the outline of a passage of experience, and the structure of the sentence forces upon the reader … a miming of the heroine's experience" (Page, 99). Consider Elinor. At the begin ning of the book she speaks of her regard for Edward.
"Of his sense and his goodness," continued Elinor, "no one can, I think, be in doubt, who has seen him often enough to engage him in unreserved conversation. The excellence of his understanding and his principles can be concealed only by that shyness which too often keeps him silent. You know enough of him to do justice to his solid worth. But of his minuter propensities as you call them, you have from peculiar circumstances been kept more ignorant than myself." (p. 20)
Elinor's prose is balanced, and sentences frequently divide neatly into two equal parts joined by a coordinating conjunction. Her use of the formal sentence reflects her sense of the importance of self control, discipline, and duty. "Her syntax is thus an index of her temperament," according to Norman Page (Page, 94). Elinor's sentences are heavy with nouns and substantives (participles, gerunds, and infinitives used as nouns) such as "sense," "goodness," "conversation," "excellence," "to do justice" and so on, which give the sentences a weighted, static tone. Notice her concern for judging and evaluating, which here she expresses in terms of "solid worth." She seems deliberately hesitant to use adjectives and adverbs, and she avoids colorful phrasing. Her verbs are most often "state of being" words or passive voice or impersonal constructions or verbs of intellectual activity such as seeing, knowing, thinking. Instead of describing Edward in bold terms, Elinor uses limiting, qualifying words and negatives which repress emotional intensity and put a distance between Elinor and her own opinions: "no one can, I think, be in doubt, who has seen him often enough," and so on. She seems to put her most private feelings and thoughts into the third person, as if that were the only way to justify them.
Contrast Marianne's "autumn leaves" speech, which also appears early in the book.
"Oh!" cried Marianne, "with what transporting sensations have I formerly seen them fall! How have I delighted as I walked, to see them driven in showers about me by the wind! What feelings have they, the season, the air altogether inspired! Now there is no one to regard them. They are seen only as a nuisance, swept hastily off, and driven as much as possible from the sight." (pp. 87–88)
Her sentences are asymmetrical; instead of balancing clauses, Marianne piles up phrases of increasing intensity which come to a climax. Jane Austen uses a great variety of rhetorical devices to heighten Marianne's style. In the quoted passage, an interjection sets the tone of excitement. Marianne's speeches are typically graced with rhetorical questions, apostrophe, personification, and hyperbole. Elinor speaks in a static prose of nouns and colorless verbs; not so Marianne. Marianne's verbs are active, and her adjectives, participles, and adverbs evoke lively pictures: "walked," "driven," "have inspired," "hastily swept," and so on. By assigning such a style to Marianne, Austen brings to life, rather than merely tells about, a girl of strong feelings, susceptible to beauty in her environment and prone to exaggerated modes of expression. Elinor, in contrast, keeps in abeyance all those feelings not strictly permitted by the social code. She takes an amused, mildly critical view of Marianne's excesses. After the latter concludes her nostalgic outburst, Elinor dryly remarks, "It is not every one … who has your passion for dead leaves."
These are the heroines at the beginning of the novel, before life steps in to overturn their self images. When Elinor first learns she has lost Edward to Lucy Steele, she is still in relative control of herself, but her balance begins to break down, in speech as well as in behavior.
"Engaged to Mr. Edward Ferrars!—I confess myself so totally surprised at what you tell me, that really—I beg your pardon; but surely there must be some mistake of person or name. We cannot mean the same Mr. Ferrars." (p. 131)
And yet, for all the dashes, and disjointed and fragmentary sentences, Elinor exerts herself to maintain politeness to Lucy, and by so doing, keeps herself from falling apart. She spares herself humiliation, and Lucy, triumph. Later, alone, she weeps more for Edward's mistake than for her own disappointment. Because her sense of duty sustains her—duty to Lucy's confidence and duty to spare her mother and sister unnecessary and premature suffering—she manages to conceal the painful information for months.
Marianne's reaction to the sudden collapse of her hopes is characteristically different. When Willoughby returns her letters and informs her that he is engaged to Miss Grey, Austen contrasts Elinor's long-suffering, unselfish control with Marianne's self-centered emotionalism.
"Exert yourself, dear Marianne," she cried, "if you would not kill yourself and all who love you. Think of your mother; think of her misery while you suffer; for her sake you must exert yourself."
"I cannot, I cannot," cried Marianne; "leave me, leave me, if I distress you; leave me, hate me, forget me! but do not torture me so. Oh! how easy for those who have no sorrow of their own to talk of exertion! Happy, happy Elinor, you cannot have an idea of what I suffer."
"Do you call me happy, Marianne? Ah! if you knew!—And can you believe me to be so, while I see you so wretched?" (p. 185)
Elinor urges Marianne to fulfill her responsibility to those who love her. Her own sense of duty sustains her, but Marianne's is insufficient to the task. Marianne bursts out with intense, illogical hyperboles and exclamations. Elinor, of course, has been rejected in the same way by her beloved—indeed, in a more irritating manner, by nasty Lucy Steele in person. Elinor here almost slips and reveals her own sorrow when Marianne accuses her of being happy, but quickly covers up her momentary lapse with a credible, if self-righteous excuse. Elinor's discipline is strong to a fault, for she denies herself the sympathy of those who love her and refuses them the chance to give, which is, after all, half of the act of loving. Both young women are suffering, both are deeply touched, but one selfishly wallows in misery while the other tries to carry on her life as usual.
Thus far, the self-images hold up rather well, with only minor deviations. When life becomes more complicated, however, the over-sensitive Marianne is chastened, while the self-negating Elinor loses control and pours out repressed feelings despite herself. Illness frightens Marianne and then allows her time to meditate. She recovers, a reformed young woman, and her speech pattern reflects her new attempt to control herself and observe decorum (Page, 196). For the first time she concerns herself with rational judgment, moral responsibility, and propriety. Of the Willoughby affair she says, "I can talk of it now, I hope, as I ought to do" (p. 344). Austen assigns to Marianne the stylistic quirks of Elinor, such as qualifying statements with apologetic phrases, to show us Marianne's newly reflective nature. Marianne, realizing the resemblance between her own and her sister's misfortunes, is doubly humbled when she compares their reactions to pain.
"Do not, my dearest Elinor, let your kindness defend what I know your judgment must censure. My illness has made me think—it has given me leisure and calmness for serious recollection. Long before I was enough recovered to talk, I was perfectly able to reflect. I considered the past; I saw in my behaviour since the beginning of our acquaintance with him last autumn, nothing but a series of imprudence towards myself, and want of kindness to others." (p. 345)
Here her sentences are balanced and symmetrical, turning on carefully polished antitheses and parallels. Verbs are static or describe mental, rather than physical, action. The new pace of Marianne's sentences is slow and dignified, not impulsive and irregular as before. Marianne's maturation/reformation is reflected by her use of Elinor-like sentences.
Elinor has an opposite development. She, through long tension and disappointment, begins to let emotional, bitter words escape, as her carefully guarded propriety cracks. Under stress she occasionally repeats, accumulates phrases for emphasis, and conveys the breathless, impulsive tone originally characteristic of Marianne. Speaking of Lucy's engagement to Edward, she says,
"It was told me,—it was in a manner forced on me by the very person herself, whose prior engagement ruined all my prospects; and told me, as I thought, with triumph…. I have had her hopes and exultations to listen to again and again." (p. 263)
Although here Jane Austen opens Elinor's heart and has the character show some of the turmoil it contains, Elinor is still able to express herself verbally. There is one further step in her education to womanhood: she must be so deeply moved that she is speechless and unable to depend on the polite formulas with which society usually provides her. This final chastening experience happens when Edward suddenly returns after Elinor has, presumably, lost him forever. In this scene, she is at first able to make small talk, to "rejoice in the dryness of the season" (p. 359), but then is forced to put her head down in "a state of such agitation as made her hardly know where she was" (p. 360). When the truth of Lucy's marriage to Robert Ferrars comes out, Elinor completely loses control of herself, can no longer sit in her place, but dashes out of the room and bursts "into tears of joy, which at first she thought would never cease" (p. 360). Elinor is overcome by sensibility.
Why do Elinor and Marianne both need to change in the novel? What is it that each has that the other must learn? Is it simply that Marianne must correct her irresponsible freedom and adopt Elinor's stifling prudence? Are warmth and sensitivity frowned upon? Are practical concerns set above personal ones? It seems to be more complicated than that. Neither sense nor sensibility by itself is attacked; neither, unqualified, is sufficient. The focus of Austen's criticism seems to be elsewhere.
The true opposition in the novel is between selfishness and selflessness. Marianne's relationship with Willoughby errs, not in its warmth, but in its selfcenteredness. In public they have words and glances only for each other. Their imprudent display of attachment, their lack of reserve in company and between themselves comes from belief in a personal morality which cuts them off from the rest of the world. Their relationship flourishes for their own pleasure, independent of the demands of society and family. Since they feel superior to everyone else in sensitivity and candor, they judge others without honest reflection and continually mock their friends. Their love is exclusive and smugly self-centered; when the relationship collapses, Marianne is left with the bitter residue of those feelings. In her suffering, she believes herself to be unique and inconsolable; instead of trying to pull herself out of misery, she remains "equally illdisposed to receive or communicate pleasure" (p. 171). The illness, which she cannot call up or dismiss by whim, cures her of her exclusive concern for her own pleasures and pains. Elinor's relationship with Edward is something rather different. Although his family objects to a marriage between them, their friendship is acceptable to their society. Their behavior is decorous and inoffensive. In public they are active members of whatever group they find themselves in; to Elinor's immediate family, the friendship brings comfort and delight, because everyone is welcome to share in the affection of the couple. Their love, unlike Marianne and Willoughby's, turns outward.
Marianne is sensitive and absorbed in herself, while Elinor is practical and concerned primarily with her duty to others. Neither is a caricature of either extreme, and as the book develops, they grow toward a golden mean. To Jane Austen, neither sense nor sensibility is all-good or all-bad. Her judgment upon all the characters, including the heroines, depends on whether they use their sense or sensibility for selfish satisfaction or for the general comfort.
Austen seems to use Elinor as a voice for her own opinions, and is altogether less critical of her than of Marianne. Elinor, for example, is the ear into which Lucy, Colonel Brandon, Willoughby, and Marianne confess. Elinor advises and lectures the others how to behave properly under their difficult trials. For these reasons it seems as if Austen's principal approval lies on the side of sense rather than sensibility. This imbalance of emphasis is really caused by the fact that sensibility is inclined to individual satisfaction at the expense of general happiness, whereas sense tends toward the opposite.
As if to underscore this point, the novel includes several secondary characters who speak for greater extremes of sense or sensibility, with differing amounts of selfishness and unselfishness. The John and Fanny Dashwoods, for example, are prime instances of people abounding in hard, cold sense and very little else. Austen condemns them beautifully in the second chapter of the first volume, which contains the dicussion of John's promise to his dying father. Fanny, exercising brilliant logic and playing on selfish rationalizations, pares down the aid John is to give his sisters from three thousand pounds to nothing. Their language is almost a parody of Elinor's balanced, reflective, polished sentences.
"Well, then, let something be done for them; but that something need not be three thousand pounds. Consider," she added, "that when the money is once parted with, it never can return." (p. 9)
The repetition of phrases, the symmetry, and the careful concern for cause and effect, is the style of sense. Or again, consider this passage:
"Indeed, to say the truth, I am convinced within myself that your father had no idea of your giving them any money at all. The assistance he thought of, I dare say, was only such as might be reasonably expected of you." (p. 12)
Notice the apologetic, qualifying phrases that give a weighted, judicious tone to the inexcusably greedy sentiments. Austen lets us know that these people are practical, but laughably self-centered.
Mrs. Dashwood, the girls' mother, is at the opposite extreme. She, because she is older, is fully confirmed in her imprudent, impractical ways. To be sure, she is often able to comfort her daughters in the abundance of her warmth, but she is also able to inflict pain from her want of caution. She "valued and cherished" (p. 6) Marianne's excesses of sensibility. She persistently pushes Marianne and Willoughby, and Elinor and Edward together, by assuming and letting it be spoken of, that the couples are about to be engaged. Her injudicious, misplaced affection is an agent of unintentional destruction; her unguarded, hasty statements or guesses cause suffering precisely where she means to soothe and strengthen. Trusting feeling, rather than thought, she blinds herself to whatever does not suit her purposes. One notable instance is the letter she sends to Marianne praising Willoughby, which reaches London after Willoughby's engagement to Miss Grey has been announced. Her letter, instead of supporting Marianne and leading her to wise self-government, cuts her so deeply that she falls apart. After Marianne's illness, Mrs. Dashwood is somewhat more sympathetic to Elinor's pleas for prudence, but she has not really learned: she is, for example, carried away by Colonel Brandon's love for Marianne, and invents and exaggerates to suit her fancy. Her impractical, sensitive self-absorption is shown to be sometimes dangerous, always foolish.
Perhaps an ideal combination of sense and sensibility on a lower level of education and refinement than that of the heroines', is Mrs. Jennings. She is a mother-substitute for them during most of the story, and therefore can be contrasted reasonably with Mrs. Dashwood. Mrs. Jennings' speech is occasionally ungrammatical and coarse, and she is addicted to gossip and teasing. Norman Page notes that, "She is exceptional in Jane Austen's gallery in being given dubious linguistic habits which nevertheless carry no overtones of moral censure" (Page, 145). Despite her language, she func tions properly in society, like Elinor, and communicates affection in her family circle, like Marianne. Most significantly, toward the end of the novel she evaluates situations more justly than any other adult.
Austen first introduces Mrs. Jennings in the role of a buffoon—fat, merry, loquacious, even boisterous and vulgar. She retains the character of a foolish jokester until the sisters accompany her to London. There, in her own home, Austen develops Mrs. Jennings into a truly worthy woman. She is genuinely kind and solicitous for the happiness of her guests, although surrounded by superficial, egotistical people. Unlike her daughter, Lady Middleton, Mrs. Jennings is not a snob. She is loyal to her "old city friends" (p. 168) who seem distastefully unfashionable to her elegant children. Her town house, her friends, her way of life are described as handsome and not at all insipid. Full of life, Mrs. Jennings is able to laugh at herself as well as at others, and her jokes are good-humored, without barbs. What is possibly the most impressive of Mrs. Jennings' qualities is that, while she knows the world and understands the call of money, she holds people and their feelings to be more important. Her nature is warm like Mrs. Dashwood's, but she is neither tremulously sensitive nor blind to the realities of society. Although her mind is acute, she is neither cold nor reserved. When all the adults suddenly turn against Edward, after his engagement to Lucy is made known, she defends him and his spirit. She approves of his loyalty and willingness to sacrifice material comfort for what is, as the reader must agree, a high and unselfish end. Mrs. Jennings delights in the youth and joy of the couple although there is no question of any personal gain for her. When events turn so that Elinor wins Edward, she does not become sour or resentful that her happy predictions were mistaken. It is enough for her generous heart that a bit of happiness is advanced in the world.
Mrs. Jennings' style of speech is an amusing mixture of controlled balance and effusive disorder. At some points she speaks evenly weighted prose with parenthetical expressions to slow the pace and formalize the tone. Her words are never ponderous, because her lively mind undercuts any heavy seriousness.
"Upon my word I never saw a young woman so desperately in love in my life! My girls were nothing to her, and yet they used to be foolish enough; but as for Miss Marianne, she is quite an altered creature. I hope, from the bottom of my heart he won't keep her waiting much longer, for it is quite grievous to see her look so ill and forlorn. Pray, when are they to be married?" (p. 181)
This combination of logic (or semi-logic), of comparison and contrast, of affectionate catch phrases ("Upon my word," "from the bottom of my heart"), of unlabored, yet approximately symmetrical structure, is typical of Mrs. Jennings at her best. Much of her language, however, is fragmented, disjointed, and relatively chaotic in form. She overflows with the breathless wordiness of a fat, merry, middle-aged woman to whom meanness or hardness of any sort is foreign.
"Poor soul!" cried Mrs. Jennings, as soon as she [Marianne] was gone, "how it grieves me to see her! And I declare if she is not gone away without finishing her wine! And the dried cherries too! Lord! nothing seems to do her any good. I am sure if I knew of any thing she would like, I would send all over the town for it. Well, it is the oddest thing to me, that a man should use such a pretty girl so ill! But when there is plenty of money on one side, and next to none on the other, Lord bless you! they care no more about such things!—" (p. 194)
Although she sees the cruel pursuit of wealth and position around her, it does not corrupt her judgment of how things ought to be. Mrs. Jennings is free of what Jane Nardin calls "Ambition … the farthest extreme of mercenary 'sense' and it characterizes all the really bad people in the novel…"5 She may be an incorrigible chatterer, but she is also a faithful friend in all her attitudes and actions. She talks a lot, but she does more and does it gladly, without complaint. In a way, Jane Austen explains Mrs. Jennings by putting these words in her mouth: "And what good does talking ever do you know?" (p. 195). Her noisiness does little good, as she herself knows, but neither does it do any harm, for it is always light in tone. Her actions, her steady, honest giving of warmth, encouragement, and spirit, help Elinor through the hard days, and set an example of mingled good sense and sensibility, unmarred by selfishness.
Willoughby is another character whose actions demonstrate that neither sense nor sensibility is implicitly frowned upon, but that both are evil when selfishly applied: Willoughby acts both parts, but is always consummately self-centered. His life is guided solely by what will bring him maximum pleasure at minimum expense of wealth or emotional effort. He becomes involved with Marianne mostly because she is a convenient distraction to fill the idle time he must spend in the country with Mrs. Smith. Charmed by Marianne's beauty and vivacity, he falls into her pattern of selfindulged, exclusive sensitivity. That Willoughby follows Marianne's lead, Austen makes clear by her wry, after-thought inclusion of Willoughby's beliefs.
But Marianne abhorred all concealment where no real disgrace could attend unreserve; and to aim at the restraint of sentiments which were not in themselves illaudable, appeared to her not merely an unnecessary effort, but a disgraceful subjection of reason to commonplace and mistaken notions. Willoughby thought the same…. (p. 53)
He is a weak, drifting character, willing to change himself, if the change will assist him in his pursuit of pleasure. "He acquiesed in all her decisions, caught all her enthusiasm" (p. 47). Typical of his flabby morality is the way in which he excuses himself for the dreadful affair with Eliza Williams, Colonel Brandon's ward; he lays the blame on her, calling her wild and ignorant, rather than castigating himself for taking advantage of her.
A comparison of Willoughby's actions and speeches with those of his fellow-suitor, Edward, brings to light some curious parallels. Willoughby, like Marianne, superficially represents the "sensible," and Edward, like Elinor, the "sense." As the book develops, however, Willoughby acts more for selfish, practical motives, and Edward for unselfish, emotional, even romantic ones. Both men have prior attachments when they meet the Dashwood sisters, and both want only an innocent friendship, without complications. Edward is so involved with Lucy that he feels himself safe from serious emotional attachment. Willoughby, deeply in debt, has prior plans of marrying a lady with a fortune, and uses Marianne as a means to remove the summer tedium, as well as to gratify his vanity by winning her affection. Both men, contrary to their intentions, fall in love and find themselves in a dilemma. Willoughby takes the cold, mercenary way out—he chooses the selfish "sense" of Fanny and John Dashwood, of Mrs. Ferrars, of Lucy Steele. Edward, on the other hand, determines to stand by his rash, youthful promise. He refuses to compromise his honor and cannot bring himself to inflict pain where he thinks he is trusted and long loved. Elinor's extreme reserve keeps him ignorant of her love, and he has no real sense of hurting her by his loyalty to Lucy. Willoughby makes a money match and regrets it; Edward stands by one love match until free to make a second, and is rewarded for his choice.
The language of the two men is as markedly different as that of the sisters. Most of the time Willoughby speaks wittily, twisting Elinor's logically structured sentences into clever jests by using anti-climax, surprise antithesis, and nonsensical pseudo-logic. Answering Elinor's defense of Colonel Brandon,
"Miss Dashwood," cried Willoughby, "you are now using me unkindly. You are endeavouring to disarm me by reason, and to convince me against my will. But it will not do. You shall find me as stubborn as you can be artful. I have three unanswerable reasons for disliking Colonel Brandon: he has threatened me with rain when I wanted it to be fine; he has found fault with the hanging of my curricle, and I cannot persuade him to buy my brown mare." (pp. 51–52)
His flippant sentences balance, turn neatly on polished constructions, and have many of the other characteristics previously attributed to Elinor's more serious prose. He does occasionally speak in the language of enthusiasm borrowed from Marianne:
"And yet this house you would spoil, Mrs. Dashwood? You would rob it of its simplicity by imaginary improvement! and this dear parlour … you would degrade to the condition of a common entrance, and everybody would be eager to pass through the room which has hitherto contained within itself, more real accommodation and comfort than any other apartment of the handsomest dimensions in the world could possibly afford." (pp. 73–74)
The sentence structure rambles asymmetrically, accumulates phrases, uses extreme, hyperbolic words and superlatives altogether out of place with the normal amount of energy given to discussions of household improvement, and generally takes on the traits of "sensibility." Willoughby's language vacillates between the two styles, depending on whom he is with and what kind of impression he wants to make. His vacillation differs from Mrs. Jennings' in that he seems able to manipulate his style to curry favor: his fickle, insincere point of view matches his glib talk.
When he comes to confess to Elinor, that stormy night when Marianne lies deathly ill, he uses the vocabulary of a Lovelace. He scourges himself verbally, but in his melodrama, he seems as insincere as ever. He cannot simply admit to himself that he did wrong and caused pain. Instead, he must convince himself of his remorse by using high flown diction: "Oh God! what an hard-hearted rascal I was!" (p. 324); "I was a libertine" (p. 322); "Thunderbolts and daggers!" (p. 325), and so on.
Contrast this carrying on with Edward's more modest, but no less interesting, words. Throughout the novel, Edward's speeches are self-effacing, even mildly selfmocking. He has an excellent sense of humor, which is always directed against himself. Discussing the countryside around the Dashwood cottage, in response to Marianne's lyric excitement, he says:
"You must not inquire too far, Marianne—remember I have no knowledge in the picturesque, and I shall offend you by my ignorance and want of taste if we come to particulars. I shall call hills steep, which ought to be bold; surfaces strange and couth, which ought to be irregular and rugged; and distant objects out of sight, which ought only to be indistinct through the soft medium of a hazy atmosphere. You must be satisfied with such admiration as I can honestly give." (pp. 96–97)
His prose is smooth and even, like Elinor's, and has a similarly slow, reflective pace, because Austen uses many of the same stylistic devices for both. He judges himself by strict standards, but is not self-righteous. He maintains the same style of speech, regardless of his audience: he is consistent, unlike the hypocritical Willoughby. Edward's sense of his own worth is very small; he does not believe that anything is owed to him because of his personal merits or birth. His under-estimation of his own worth leads to a certain amount of trouble, causing him to attach himself to Lucy originally, though he was worthy of far better. That is also how he failed to see Elinor's growing love—someone who esteems himself so lightly and judges himself so sternly is unlikely to assume that a young woman is falling in love with him, especially without encouragement.
When he finally returns to Barton to explain his new freedom and express his love for Elinor, he chooses simple, characteristically modest phrases. After the few broken sentences which consititute the scene that dramatically reveals Lucy's duplicity, Edward comes back to make a full confession of his mistakes. Unlike Willoughby, he does not accuse himself of grand and dastardly deeds, but of a natural stupidity based on inexperience and insecurity. His words are halting, qualified by apologetic phrases: "I think," "what I thought at the time," "at least I thought so then, and I had seen so little of other women," and so on. The conclusion and climax of his speech are in negatives of reasonable self-censure, not at all hyperbolic or artificially intensified by diction or imbalanced structure—but the intensity, although suppressed, is evident:
"Considering everything, therefore, I hope, foolish as our engagement was, foolish as it has since in every way been proved, it was not at the time an unnatural, or an inexcusable piece of folly." (pp. 362–63)
He concerns himself with judgment, with the standards of society, and does not exclude himself from humanity because of his guilt, as Willoughby tries to do. And yet, Edward's remorse and chagrin are clearly conveyed, and the passage is charged with restrained emotion of a more convincing sort than that professed by Willoughby.
Edward and Willoughby, Elinor and Marianne, more than extremes of sense and sensibility, represent extremes of ego-negation and ego-centrism. In the course of the novel, Edward's modesty wins him rewards after much suffering. Willoughby reveals himself to be pitifully cold and selfish under his facade of sensibility. The sisters grow to be refined, elegant young women, following the excellent moral example of Mrs. Jennings. Overwhelming sense is criticized in the persons of John and Fanny Dashwood; and overwhelming sensibility, in the character of Mrs. Dashwood. Both poles inflict pain by self-willed blindness to the feelings of others or to the consequences of their actions. Sense and Sensibility is a novel describing the education of two young women into the world of mature responsibility, the world in which compromises are necessary when circumstances get out of control. The sisters learn to look to others instead of being engrossed in themselves; they learn to accept the love and help of others instead of assuming that they can manage alone; they learn to combine warmth and intensity with prudence and judgment. Elinor and Marianne, when the novel closes, are prepared to add to the pleasure and happiness of those immediately around them as well as to their society in general. Sense and Sensibility presents a complicated and compelling morality through an excellent story.
1 Norman Page, The Language of Jane Austen (New York: Harper and Row, 1972), p. 20, hereafter cited parenthetically in the text as Page.
2 See, for examples, Gilbert Ryle's essay, "Jane Austen and the Moralists," in Critical Essays on Jane Austen, ed. B. C. Southam (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1968), pp. 106–22, and Jane Nardin's Those Elegant Decorums: The Concept of Propriety in Jane Austen's Novels (Albany: SUNY Press, 1973).
3 Robert Garis, "Learning Experience and Change," in Critical Essays on Jane Austen, p. 61.
4Sense and Sensibility, ed. R.W. Chapman (London: 1953), p. 6. All quotations from the novel are cited in the text.
5 Nardin, p. 37.
R. F. Brissenden (essay date 1984)
SOURCE: "The Task of Telling Lies: Candor and Deception in Sense and Sensibility," in Greene Centennial Studies, edited by Paul J. Korshin and Robert R. Allen, University Press of Virginia, 1984, pp. 442–52.
[In the following essay, Brissenden proposes that the characters of Willoughby and the Dashwood sisters stand in stark contrast to the novel's other characters who are rooted in artificial politeness and social games.]
No one would wish to argue that Sense and Sensibility is Jane Austen's greatest novel. The title, however, is one of her most brilliant touches. Titles of this sort, in which two related, often antinomous, qualities or concepts are set together, were of course, popular at the time.1 No other, I think, crystallizes so lightly and precisely such a large and significant subject. The debate concerning the relative merits of the head and the heart, the reason and the feelings, had been pursued widely and vigorously during the eighteenth century—to such a degree, indeed, that by the time Jane Austen put her novel into its final shape one could have been forgiven for assuming that the subject was exhausted. The freshness, vivacity, and openness with which she explores it, however, prove that in her hands at least it was not. Indeed, one of the strongest impressions which the novel leaves us with is the sense that the question is ultimately irresolvable and inexhaustible. Among the most surprising and admirable features of what in some ways is very much a "first" book is the air of ambiguity and mystery with which in the end it is pervaded.
At one level it purports to resolve the question posed by the title in a simple and final way—and it is possible that Jane Austen thought that this was what she was doing. If we believe this we shall no doubt read Sense and Sensibility as little more than a roman à thèse and find it, as Marilyn Butler does, "the most obviously tendentious of Jane Austen's novels and the least attractive."2 In this view the work is relatively uncomplicated, and what complexities do exist have arisen incidentally to what the author saw as her primary objective: "Marianne, and to some extent Elinor, are drawn with strong feelings which the reader is accustomed to sympathise with, and actually to value for their own sake. But it is the argument of the novel that such feelings, like the individuals who experience them, are not innately good. Unfortunately, in flat opposition to the author's obvious intentions, we tend to approach Marianne subjectively. Right or wrong, she has our sympathy: she, and our responses to her, are outside Jane Austen's control."3 Quite apart from the very large assumptions made about the author's aims and purposes, such a reading of the novel strikes me as limited and unsatisfactory. It sets up a moral paradigm to which Jane Austen would no doubt have been happy to acknowledge allegiance—but it does not take adequately into account the extent to which as a human being and specifically as a creative writer she was aware of the incongruities—often painful, often amusing—that arise when one attempts to fit the lives of ordinary, fallible people to preordained moral patterns. It may well be that her consciousness of these incongruities grew as she was writing the book: like most first novels Sense and Sensibility is a work of self-discovery. As a result there is a degree of untidiness about the action which leaves us at the conclusion with some dissatisfaction: the neatness with which the two sisters, Marianne and Elinor, are disposed of does not fully accord with our sense of them as living, individual, and to a degree unpredictable people—a sense that has been able to develop only through the imaginative insight and vitality with which Jane Austen has envisaged them, and the dramatic freedom with which she has allowed them to move and grow. But this does not mean that they are out of her control or that, specifically, she does not appreciate the degree to which Marianne has engaged our sympathies. What it does suggest, I think, is that she came to realize in the course of writing and rewriting the novel that the questions it raised were incapable of any final solution—at least within the context of the situation with which she originally set herself to work. But the questions themselves have not been evaded. As Ian Watt observes, "Clearly no very simple verdicts are being invited in this early novel,"4 and "there is every evidence that Jane Austen intended a complex and not a complacent response."5 Although Sense and Sensibility may be a minor piece, it is the work of a major writer; and among its most striking qualities are the creative flexibility, imaginative insight, and human sympathy with which the author renders and reanimates a stereotyped situation.
Her originality displays itself most powerfully and also most subtly in her treatment of the "sensible" sister, Elinor. According to a well-established fictive convention, stories in which "sense" and "sensibility" characters were set against each other were designed to demonstrate the dangers of trusting entirely to the feelings and the merits of being reasonable, conventionally moral, and to a degree hard-headed. Although Sense and Sensibility in general conforms to this pattern, the triumph of sense is by no means clearcut: Elinor and Marianne act not only as foils to but as moderating influences upon each other.6 By the end of the novel Elinor has learned to acknowledge and respect the power and value of spontaneous feeling just as much as Marianne has learned the necessity of prudence and self-control. But there is more to her spontaneity than this. The freshness, honesty, and strength of Marianne's feelings and the depth of her suffering (it almost brings about her death) arouse in us an unavoidable sense of loss: the price that is paid not merely by Marianne but by society in order to acquire prudence, restraint, and conventional wisdom is substantial. And it is a mistake to assume that Jane Austen is neither aware of nor troubled by this sacrifice. The felt and acknowledged complexity of her attitude is borne out not merely through the power with which Marianne's passion is delineated—to a degree this is what the formula demands—but also and more interestingly by the sympathetic yet at the same time ironic and probing manner in which Elinor's character and the moral and social attitudes she stands for are presented and examined.
In the end it is Elinor who engages most deeply not only our attention but also our feelings. Stuart M. Tave puts it well: "Sense and Sensibility is the story of Elinor Dashwood. The action of the novel is hers; it is not Marianne's and it is not equally divided between the sisters; it is Elinor's."7 Although Marianne's grief and anguish are moving, in the process of the novel they eventually become significant not so much in themselves as in the effect they have on Elinor. The incident in London in which Willoughby publicly rejects Marianne provides a significant instance. Ostensibly, the main focus of our regard is directed toward Marianne: she has been deeply wounded, and it soon becomes clear from the intensity of her grief that hers is no merely sentimental or hysterical reaction. What guarantees the authenticity of her suffering, however, is Elinor's behavior: she also—but uncharacteristically—gives way "to a burst of tears … scarcely less violent than Marianne's.8 And when she reads the letter in which Willoughby brutally breaks off the relationship her response in its own way is almost more angry and shocked than Marianne's:
She [could not] have supposed Willoughby capable of departing so far from the appearance of every honourable and delicate feeling—so far from the common decorum of a gentleman, as to send a letter so impudently cruel: a letter which, instead of bringing with his desire of a release of any profession of regret, acknowledged no breach of faith, denied all particular affection whatever—a letter of which every line was an insult, and which proclaimed its writer to be deep in hardened villany.
She paused over it for some time with indignant astonishment; then read it again and again; but every perusal only served to increase her abhorrence of the man, and so bitter were her feelings against him, that she dared not trust herself to speak, [p. 159]
On the evidence Elinor's attitude would not appear to be unreasonable, and her sister's loyalty to the Willoughby she thinks she knows seems sentimental and selfdelusory. '"Elinor, I have been cruelly used, but not by Willoughby.' 'Dearest Marianne, who but himself? By whom can he have been instigated?' 'By all the world rather than by his own heart. I could rather believe every creature of my acquaintance leagued together to ruin me in his opinion, than believe his nature capable of such cruelty'" (p. 164). Later in the same conversation Marianne swings over to Elinor's position—"It is too much! Oh! Willoughby, Willoughby, could this be yours! Cruel, cruel—nothing can acquit you. Elinor, nothing can" (p. 165). But her first response is not completely unjustified: Willoughby's heart has not been entirely corrupted, and he has indeed been used. But we are not to learn this fact until later. The revelation comes in what is unquestionably the most powerful scene in the novel—a scene that for all its theatricality is one of the most powerful in the corpus of Jane Austen's fiction—the final confrontation between Elinor and Willoughby. The meeting, be it noted, is with Elinor not Marianne—although Marianne's near fatal illness is what has brought it about. But it is to say the least interesting that Elinor's relationship with Willoughby should in the end be the most significant in the novel—more significant than the relationship between Marianne and Willoughby and more significant than the relationship between Elinor and her own lover, the colorless Edward Ferrars.
The quality of the scene in which Elinor hears Willoughby's confession has been commented on by a number of critics—and this is not surprising.9 What has not been brought out, however, is the extent to which its effectiveness and force derive from what has gone before, especially from what occurs in Volume I. The way in which the situation, the developing action, and above all the character of Elinor are here presented to the reader is of the greatest importance. The presentation is, one need hardly say, ironical—but the full range and subtlety of the irony are not perhaps immediately apparent, particularly in the case of Elinor. Probably the main reason for this is that the primary objects of Jane Austen's wit and satire stand out so clearly. Marianne's sentimental self-indulgence and her determination to see everything in romantic and literary terms are obvious targets; so too are the insensitive heartiness and oppressive sociability of the Middleton family and the sly hypocrisy of the Steele sisters. Jane Austen's touch in this first volume of her first novel is as delicate and assured as it is anywhere in her later work. She evokes a world which is full of noise, bustle, and people—Sir John Middleton's "prevailing anxiety was the dread of being alone" (p. 136)10—but which is, or at least appears to be, essentially empty. It is a world in which privacy seems to be impossible; and the incessant gossip and boisterous teasing, the unrelenting succession of hints, digs, and queries about beaux and lovers, soon induce an atmosphere of mounting claustrophobia. Austen gives this claustrophobia a disturbingly physical dimension in scenes such as the one in which the Middletons, Mrs. Jennings, and the Palmers practically burst in upon Elinor as she sits alone for a few moments in the cottage enjoying the luxury of being able to think about Edward. Sir John doesn't bother to knock at the door but steps across the turf, obliging her "to open the casement to speak to him, though the space was so short between the door and the window as to make it hardly possible to speak at one without being heard at the other" (p. 90); Mrs. Jennings also comes "hallooing to the window"; Lady Middleton and the two strangers walk in through the door; and Mrs. Dashwood and Margaret come down the stairs—everybody talking at once. One is left with the enduring impression that Barton Cottage is rather small and constricted while Barton Hall is excessively noisy.
Against this background Marianne's genuine (as distinct from her conventional) spontaneity of feeling, Willoughby's apparent directness and lack of stuffiness, and Elinor's sensitive and tactful awareness of other people stand out with refreshing sharpness and clarity. Willoughby, like the Dashwood sisters, brings a breath of clear air and good humor into the artificially polite and strenuously sociable world of Barton; and from his first conventionally gallant entrance onto the scene the aspect of his character that most impresses everybody—including the reader—is its pleasant candor. He is open and direct in his response to people while at the same time preserving an air of tact and friendliness. When he brings Marianne into the cottage after her fall we are told that "he apologized for his intrusion … in a manner so frank and so graceful, that his person, which was uncommonly handsome, received additional charms from his voice and expression" (p. 36). The next day, when he calls to inquire after her health, Marianne soon loses her shyness when she sees "that to the perfect good-breeding of the gentleman, he united frankness and vivacity" (p. 39). He has "good abilities, quick imagination, lively spirits, and open, affectionate manners"; and the only fault that Elinor can find in him is a propensity to say what he thinks "without attention to persons or circumstances." But in a world of Middletons, Palmers, Steeles, and John Dashwoods it seems a positive virtue rather than a fault to slight in this way "the forms of worldly propriety" (p. 41). Elinor's reservations about his social recklessness cannot in the end withstand his charm—or his genuine candor. The whole force of their final interview for Elinor lies in the reassurance it gives her that, at least in his feelings for Marianne, he had been honest and sincere—he had not been deliberately deceptive. His "disposition," she is able to tell herself, was "naturally open and honest," and he had "a feeling, affectionate temper." It was "the world [that] had made him extravagant and vain" (p. 290)."11
Willoughby may be more of a fool than a knave, but it cannot be denied that he has acted badly. Nonetheless, the genuineness and spontaneity of his feelings set him apart from the cold, self-deluding, and hypocritical villains of the piece, John Dashwood and Robert Ferrars. These are damned completely because they have almost no feelings, no sensibility at all. Willoughby has feelings and, even though he eventually acts against them, he suffers for it. And it is because of this quality that he not only appears to be but is more interesting, a richer character than Edward. From the beginning Edward is set in contrast to Willoughby. Edward suffers from a "want of spirits, of openness, of consistency" (p. 87), and although he takes a much tougher line with Marianne's sentimental enthusiasms than anyone else does, he is not sufficiently confident of the validity of his own feelings to be emotionally honest with either Lucy or Elinor. Edward's coolly deflating comments on landscape and the picturesque somehow don't carry as much weight as Willoughby's frank avowal of his affection. And even though he behaves irresponsibly and eventually very cruelly, Willoughby does not in the end deny either his love for Marianne or the weakness and selfishness that have led him into his marriage. He may be a deceiver but he is not a hypocrite. And it is this honesty of feeling to which Elinor responds—almost like a thirsty woman reaching for a glass of water—in their final conversation. Willoughby may have been corrupted by "the world," but not without some sort of fight nor without some understanding of the cost. Edward Ferrars never openly says what he really thinks about his mother or his brother—Willoughby, on the other hand, is prepared to confess to Elinor that his wife's death would give him a "blessed chance at liberty," (p. 291), a chance to think of Marianne again. The thought is reprehensible, the dream is impossible—but the candor is refreshing; and even though Elinor reproves Willoughby for the thought, she cannot prevent herself from entertaining it, if only briefly, in the days after their meeting. "Willoughby, 'poor Willoughby' as she now allowed herself to call him, was constantly in her thoughts … She … doubted whether … [Marianne] could ever be happy with another; and for a moment wished Willoughby a widower. Then, remembering Colonel Brandon, reproved herself … and wished any thing rather than Mrs. Willoughby's death" (pp. 293–94). To admit openly to such feelings is not what "the world" would advise; and, despite all his faults, Willoughby, though defeated and corrupted by it, never belongs entirely to "the world." Indeed, in the opening sequences of the novel Willoughby's frankness and lack of cant serve as a means of criticizing the society of which he is a member. In this respect he shows most clearly his lineal connection to Richardson's Lovelace. Lovelace, of course, is a genuine and deliberate villain—but he is also a shrewd exposer of the hypocrisies and vanities of the world.
It is against "the world" that Jane Austen's irony is most obviously directed, especially in the first volume. And the contrast between those who clearly belong to the world and those who do not is so marked and so dramatically effective that our attention is drawn away from another level at which Jane Austen's irony is operating, and operating in a much more gentle and subtle manner. Because the Dashwood family—and to all appearances, Willoughby—are so different from the majority of the people with whom they have to mix, and because we see things for the most part from Elinor's point of view, we do not immediately realize that Elinor herself is also an object—indeed the most important object—of Jane Austen's ironic vision. Vision is the operative word: while the way in which Elinor sees herself and the world often coincides with the way in which Jane Austen sees these things and presents them—and thus with the "truth" or "reality" of the fictive world of the novel—there are occasions on which this coincidence is lacking. These occasions, as one would imagine, are of considerable significance; and one of the central elements in the process of the novel is the gradual clarification and realignment of Elinor's vision of herself and the world. By the end of the novel she has, like Emma, learned, though not so painfully, "to understand, thoroughly understand her own heart."12
The question of how people in general—not merely Elinor—see themselves is of central importance. Equally if not more important is the question of how people wish to be seen by the world, and consequently of how they present themselves to others. The contrast between appearance and reality and the fact that things are not always what they seem, that our eyes and ears can deceive us, is continually emphasized. Mistaken interpretations of character and situation function as one of the primary motive forces of the novel. And they range from things as complex as the assessment of Willoughby by the Dashwoods to things as simple and as broadly theatrical as Marianne's mistaking Edward Ferrars for Willoughby, Elinor's assumption that the lock of hair Edward wears in his ring is from her own head, Mrs. Jennings's mistaking Colonel Brandon's conversation with Elinor for a proposal, and the conclusion that Lucy had married Edward and not Robert Ferrars—a conclusion drawn by the Dashwoods' servant who, significantly, does not see Lucy's husband clearly nor hear him speak: "I just see him leaning back in [the carriage], but he did not look up;—he never was a gentleman much for talking" (p. 311). It is indicative of the fundamental unity and coherence of Sense and Sensibility that this incident, the most blatant piece of stage machinery in the novel, should be so completely in harmony with its essential thematic preoccupations. Jane Austen is, of course, concerned throughout her fiction with the conflict between illusion or appearance and reality. But the emphasis given to this theme in Sense and Sensibility, particularly in Volume I, seems to be unusually pronounced. As new characters are brought on to the scene we are repeatedly shown how they "appear," what they "seem" to be, how their "address" or "manner" strikes people on first acquaintance. We are then invited—often within the space of a few sentences—to consider whether the "appearance" accurately reflects or expresses the reality. Thus when Sir John Middleton calls on his cousins in their new home we are told that "his countenance was thoroughly good-humoured; and his manners were as friendly as the style of his letter." Then the qualification is added: "Their arrival seemed to afford him real satisfaction, and their comfort to be an object of real solicitude to him (p. 25; my italics). With Lady Middleton the contrast is made even more sharply. After sending the Dashwoods a "very civil message" and receiving "an invitation equally polite," she calls at the cottage. "They were of course very anxious to see a person on whom so much of their comfort at Barton must depend; and the elegance of her appearance was favourable to their wishes…. her face was handsome, her figure tall and striking, and her address graceful…. But … her visit was long enough to detract something from their first admiration, by shewing that though perfectly well-bred, she was reserved, cold and had nothing to say for herself beyond the most common-place inquiry or remark" (pp. 25–26).
Throughout Volume I the theme is developed and explored. The Dashwood family, for instance, in their response to their acquaintance—and especially, in the end, to Willoughby—come back always to the question of genuineness and integrity. "You must think wretchedly indeed of Willoughby," says Mrs. Dashwood to Elinor, "if after all that has openly passed between them, you can doubt the nature of the terms on which they are together." The key word is "openly"—Willoughby must be what he has appeared to be. Then she goes on to ask (in expectation of being refuted) the basic question: "Has he been acting a part in his behaviour to your sister all this time?" Elinor's reply, of course, is "No, I cannot think that" (p. 69). But later, in a theoretical discussion of the whole business of assessing people she confesses that she sometimes makes mistakes: "I have frequently detected in myself … a total misapprehension of character … fancying people so much more gay and grave, or ingenious or stupid than they really are, and I can hardly tell why, or in what the deception originated" (p. 80). The reductio ad absurdum is reached when Elinor asks Mrs. Palmer whether they saw much of Willoughby at Cleveland and "whether they were intimately acquainted with him." "Oh! dear, yes," she replies, "I know him extremely well…. Not that I ever spoke to him indeed; but I have seen him for ever in town" (p. 98).
The climactic touch is achieved with the arrival of the Miss Steeles. Sir John enthusiastically commends them as "the sweetest girls in the world, and they are so "doatingly fond" of Lady Middleton's spoiled children that she declares them "to be very agreeable girls" (p. 102). "Agreeable" appears more than once in the account given of the Steele sisters—but Elinor's response is cool: "Their manners were particularly civil, and Elinor soon allowed them credit for some kind of sense, when she saw with what constant and judicious attentions they were making themselves agreeable to Lady Middleton" (p. 103). The way in which Lucy Steele and her sister sweetly suffer the Middleton brats is the occasion of some of the happiest comedy in the novel. But they serve as more than a mere source of amusement. They act, in a fairly obvious way, as foils to the two Dashwood sisters; and less obviously, perhaps, they provide a means by which the moral and social sensibilities of the two girls may be tested and compared.
Marianne's response is quick and positive to the point of rudeness. She "had never much toleration for anything like impertinence, vulgarity, inferiority of parts, or even difference of taste from herself; and "the invariable coldness of her behaviour towards them" cannot be disguised (p. 109). Elinor, however, allows them "some kind of sense"—a significant allowance, surely, in view of the title and the theme of the novel—and although she has no illusions about the real nature of the Steele sisters, particularly Lucy, she is prepared to play the social game with them. She allows Lucy to involve her in long—and, ultimately, very painful—heart-to-heart discussions, even while admitting to herself that "she could have no lasting satisfaction in the company of a person who joined insincerity with ignorance, and who suffered from "a thorough want of delicacy, of rectitude, and integrity of mind" (p. 110). And when Marianne, who finds it "impossible … to say what she did not feel, however trivial the occasion," becomes so disgusted that she cannot even bring herself to take part in social small talk with the sisters, we are told that "upon Elinor therefore the whole task of telling lies when politeness required it, always fell" (p. 105).
"Telling lies"—the phrase is used lightly; and Jane Austen's wry insistence that absolute honesty in conversation would make ordinary social intercourse impossible is amusing rather than horrifying. But, as always, she is perfectly aware of what the words she is using mean. In order to be tactful and prudent Elinor has to tell lies—and the degree of her prevarication is heightened by the very falsity and hypocrisy of the society in which she moves. To compromise with people like Lucy Steele and Lady Middleton is to be corrupted: despite her own toughness and honesty Elinor is seduced into playing the game of polite lying to some degree on their terms. And she does it, of course, very well: in the two "confidential discourses" she has with Lucy about Edward, the honors may appear to be even, but there is no doubt as to who has the real mastery of the situation or the better understanding of it.
And yet it is Elinor's understanding—her "sense"—that at crucial points in the action, lets her down or leads her astray, even though in the end it may be her salvation. This is most obvious in her commitment to decorum. She assumes that, provided one knows what one is doing, provided one is prepared to call a lie a lie, it is often better to preserve the social priorities than to embarrass others through excessive frankness. This is a view that we may safely assume Jane Austen would have endorsed. Commenting on the passage, Tony Tanner observes that "the astringent realism of Jane Austen's vision is [here] clearly in evidence … for society is indeed maintained by necessary lies."13 But it is maintained at a cost—and the way in which the limitations in Elinor's position are exposed and explored suggest very clearly what the cost may be. It is not that she undervalues candor—on the contrary. And her unwillingness to follow Marianne's example and attempt to speak the truth at all times no matter what the penalty may be is understandable and indeed commendable. But to begin with at least she is rather too ready to follow the apparently easier and wiser paths of polite prevarication. And at certain crucial points in the action this has a disproportionately significant effect. There are moments at which if Elinor had been prepared to say what she really thought and felt the outcome of events may have been rather different.
This is demonstrated most clearly in her response to the relationship between Marianne and Willoughby. Her intuitive assessment of the situation is basically sound. As she says to her mother, "I want no proof of their affections … but of their engagement I do" (p. 40). And she sensibly points out that the whole problem could be settled very simply: "Why do you not ask Marianne at once whether she is or is not engaged to Willoughby?" (p. 72). But when her mother refuses to do this for fear of hurting Marianne's feelings. Elinor allows herself to be persuaded against her better judgment to remain silent: "[She] urged the matter farther but in vain; common sense, common care, common prudence, were all sunk in Mrs. Dashwood's romantic delicacy" (p. 73). In one way this is a triumph of "sensibility" over "sense." But in another it is not. To begin with, Mrs. Dashwood's "delicacy" is a false delicacy: it is "romantic." And then Elinor's acquiescence exhibits "some kind of sense"—though not the highest kind. She refuses to commit the impropriety of going against the wishes of her mother. Thus decorum is preserved—as it is when Elinor sustains polite conversation with the Steeles—and Marianne's feelings are, for the moment, spared. And the convenient fiction—the lie—of Willoughby's engagement to Marianne remains unchallenged.
Elinor's greatest error—and it is one that Marianne to begin with, but only briefly, also falls into—occurs in her assessment of Mrs. Jennings. Although at first sight merely a comic buttress to the main action, Mrs. Jennings plays a most significant role in the novel—a role that is similar to and almost as important as that of Miss Bates in Emma. Elinor initially is repelled by Mrs. Jennings's apparent vulgarity, her insensitivity to the demands of decorum and propriety, and repelled to such a degree that when the old lady asks them to stay with her in London Elinor at first rejects the invitation not only on her own behalf but also—assuming a right she does not possess—on Marianne's. "Though I think very well of Mrs. Jennings' heart" she tells her mother primly, "she is not a woman whose society can afford us pleasure, or whose protection will give us consequence" (p. 134). She makes a similar and potentially much more disastrous mistake in her initial refusal to take Marianne's illness seriously. Mrs. Jennings, even though she enjoys the morbid drama of the situation, is the one who acts with real sense and prudence: it is she who insists that the apothecary be sent for, that Mrs. Palmer and the baby be got out of the house, and that she stay to help look after the patient—displaying in all this "a kindness of heart that made Elinor really love her" (p. 269). Kindness and common sense—these are what she invariably shows when the chips are down. When Marianne collapses after receiving Willoughby's dismissal, Mrs. Jennings shows "real concern" and "great compassion"—and a healthy feminine contempt for the perfidy of men: "a good-for-nothing fellow! I have no patience with him…. I wish with all my soul his wife may plague his heart out … if I ever meet him again, I'll give him such a dressing as he has not had this many a day" (p. 166). And once Willoughby is out of the way she immediately starts thinking of how this will improve Colonel Brandon's chances:
Lord how he'll chuckle over this news! I hope he will come tonight. It will be all to one a better match for your sister. Two thousand a year without debt or drawback—except the little love-child, indeed; aye, I had forgot her; but she may be 'prenticed out at a small cost, and then what does it signify? Delaford is a nice place, I can tell you; exactly what I call a nice old fashioned place, full of comforts and conveniences; quite shut in with great garden walls that are covered with the best fruit-trees in the country: and such a mulberry tree in one corner! Lord, how Charlotte and I did stuff the one time we were there! Then, there is a dovecote, some delightful stewponds, and a very pretty canal; and everything, in short, that one could wish for. [pp. 170–71]
No nonsense concerning flannel waistcoats and middle age here—this is the real world that Mrs. Jenning is talking about, and doing so with a warmth and concreteness that bring it vividly to life and give the whole novel a solidity and vitality that it would otherwise lack.
This is the world with which Elinor and Marianne and through them the reader have to come to terms. It is also true that they are forced by both social and literary conventions to come to terms with something less—with the accepted priorities and niceties of civilized behavior as the world in Jane Austen's day understood it. The concluding chapters of Sense and Sensibility are neat, banal, and to a degree unsatisfying—the characters are reduced to ciphers, and the whole task of telling lies that politeness demands is here deftly picked up by the author herself. But in a real sense this does not matter—we can easily accept the conclusion as a mere conventional formality that cannot and does not destroy the authenticity of what has preceded it. And we can do so because both Elinor and Marianne in the course of the action have had to acknowledge and bear witness to the truth about themselves and their society. In coming to terms with the reality of the world in which they live, a world embodied so substantially in Mrs. Jennings and all she stands for, they also come to terms with, learn to understand, their own natures. In the beginning, if Elinor had possessed more confidence in her feelings and less in her judgment and if Marianne had been more sensible, had acted with prudence, the affair with Willoughby would never have been allowed to develop. But for this to have occurred they would have had to be already the mature women they are to become by the end of the novel—and there would have been no story for Jane Austen to tell. And the reader would have been denied a unique chance of learning something not only about sense and sensibility but also about the human capacity both for deception and for simple honesty of feeling.
1 See Kenneth L. Moler, Jane Austen's Art of Allusion (Lincoln, Neb., 1968), pp. 46–58.
2Jane Austen and the War of Ideas (Oxford, 1975), p. 195.
3 Ibid., p. 196.
4 Sense Triumphant Introduced to Sensibility," in Jane Austen: Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice and Mansfield Park: A Casebook, ed. B. C. Southam (London, 1976), p. 139.
5 Ibid., p. 145.
6 Andrew Wright puts it well: "Marianne … does gradually acquire sense; but it is also true that Elinor becomes increasingly sensitive as the book progresses" (Jane Austen's Novels, [London, 1954], p. 86). More recently Joseph Wiesenfarth makes the more general point that the novel "is … about the reality of sense and sensibility being integral to every life that is meaningfully human, and it is about the necessity of sense and sensibility, blending harmoniously to make life meaningful" (The Errand of Form [New York, 1967], p. 53). A. Walton Litz argues interestingly that while this may be the intention of the novel, it is not always achieved (Jane Austen [London, 1965], pp. 78–79).
7Some Words of Jane Austen (Chicago, 1973), p. 96.
8Sense and Sensibility, ed. Claire Lamont (London, 1970), pp. 157–58. Subsequent references are to this edition and appear in text.
9 See in particular Moler, Austen's Art of Allusion, pp. 70–71. Litz maintains that "this fine scene is ultimately negated by the reversion to literary stereotypes in the final chapter" (Jane Austen, p. 82), and while this may be true it does not detract from the power of the episode in itself.
10 Sir John cannot understand why, once they are thrown into each other's company, the Misses Steele and Dash-wood should not immediately become friends: "to be together was, in his opinion, to be intimate" (p. 107).
11 Elinor, of course, cannot completely exonerate Willoughby—but the extent to which she now pities him and sympathizes with him is surprising even to her: "Willoughby, in spite of all his faults, excited a degree of commiseration for the sufferings produced by them, which made her think of him as now separated for ever from her family with a tenderness, a regret, rather in proportion, as she soon acknowledged within herself—to his wishes than his merits" (p. 292).
12Emma, ed. Stephen M. Parrish (New York, 1972), p. 283. The parallels between Emma and Elinor are worth exploring: Elinor's false assessment of Mrs. Jennings, for instance, is similar in some ways to Emma's treatment of Miss Bates; and Emma, to much greater and more dangerous degree, is like Elinor "a victim of moral-emotional blindness." (The phrase is Moler's; see Austen's Art of Allusion, p. 46.)
13 "Secrecy and Sickness in Sense and Sensibility," in Jane Austen: Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice and Mansfield Park: A Casebook, p. 137.
George E. Haggerty (essay date 1988)
SOURCE: "The Sacrifice of Privacy in Sense and Sensibility," in Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature, Vol. 7, No. 2, Fall, 1988, pp. 221–37.
[In the following essay, Haggerty argues that in Sense and Sensibility Austen is able to use the narrative to express "authentic feeling" (private desire) without hysteria and to investigate social behavior (public voice) without cool detachment and an abandonment of all emotion.]
Sense and Sensibility remains one of Austen's "problem" texts. On the one hand, critics find it too programmatic in its analysis of the traits suggested by the title; on the other, they find the resolution of the work at best a baleful compromise.1 Recent critics have shifted the focus of discussion from "sense" and "sensibility" in themselves to modes of perception and the "fallibility of our knowledge."2 Claudia Johnson, for instance, suggests that "the stock terms of sensibility surface here only occasionally and somewhat vestigially. But … terms such as 'doubt,' 'belief,' 'conjecture,' 'certainty,' and 'probability' conspicuously dominate the novel as a whole."3 When critics do take the title of the work seriously, they startingly revise our sense of its implication. Nina Auerbach, for example, claims that "sense is less a medium of enlightenment than an organ of Romantic terror and confinement."4 These controversial readings suggest not only the inherent complexity of this novel but also its ambiguous position as the final chapter in the long history of the literature of Sensibility.
"Sense" and "sensibility" establish poles of signification in the text and invite us to interpret behavior within the novel according to the tenets that these terms suggest, yet how those tenets determine judgment the novel keeps revising.5 The more closely we watch the two heroines, Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, the more uncertain any evaluative dichotomy becomes. Austen defies the simple hierarchy that the title might suggest:
"What a sweet woman Lady Middleton is!" said Lucy Steele.
Marianne was silent; it was impossible for her to say what she did not feel, however trivial the occasion; and upon Elinor therefore the whole task of telling lies when politeness required it, always fell.6
Austen seems to offer the basis for easy contrast and evaluation in a passage such as this. Marianne becomes the sullen guardian of her own emotions, while Elinor accepts the implications of "polite" society and soldiers on. But from another perspective, Marianne's silence is attractive, dictated as it is by real feeling; and Elinor's polite "lies" seem a questionable basis for honest social interaction. Which response is more to be prized? Popular opinion has always felt Marianne's authentic emotionalism to be more heartwarming than Elinor's calculated coolness. To be sure, Elinor assumes responsibility in those areas in which she finds Marianne lacking; but Marianne suggests that her "cold-hearted" sister has herself areas of human response that remain undeveloped (p. 17).7 There is something heroic about Marianne's refusal to speak in situations such as this; speech itself would be tantamount to self-betrayal.
Yet Marianne's refusal "to say what she did not feel" hints at a more serious danger than social awkwardness. Her silence at this moment is a harbinger of that longer and more threatening silence that accompanies her almost total physical collapse later in the novel. There social form is altogether rejected, and the retreat into private feeling becomes absolute. Marianne's situation becomes indistinguishable from the kind of "hysteria" that an overly excitable sensibility was assumed by contemporary psychologists to cause. Critics who celebrate Marianne's spontaneity perhaps forget that her subjection of public to private value, her reliance on emotion and imagination, can in the Age of Sensibility only lead in the direction of madness and silence. "From now on," Michel Foucault says, "one fell ill from too much feeling."8
But how much feeling is "too much"? This is a problem Austen explores in Sense and Sensibility, not just in regard to Marianne and Elinor, but also in regard to the challenges facing her as an emerging novelist. By analyzing the consequences of her characters' relations to the world and to their feelings, in other words, Austen explores for herself the possibilities of novelistic expression. Subjective emotionalism, that world of feeling already marked out for the female novelist, and objectively didactic social analysis, the possibilities of which Austen had begun to explore in her earliest writing, existed as debilitating alternatives for the aspiring female novelist.9 I wish to argue in this essay that by examining the implications of "sense" and "sensibility," in themselves and in relation to one another, Austen was able to establish a form of narrative that could express feeling without giving way to hysteria and explore social behavior without becoming coldly analytical. In Sense and Sensibility, that is, Austen dramatizes her own discovery of a public voice imbued with private desire, and in doing so she expands the expressive power of fictional discourse itself.
As critics have noted, language mirrors the tension that arises between public and private experience in Jane Austen's world. "Sense" and "sensibility" are not merely different ways of reacting to experience in this novel, they are different ways of expressing that reaction as well. How the sisters use language becomes as important as what they say. Gila P. Reinstein points out that "Marianne's speeches are typically graced with rhetorical questions, apostrophe, personification, and hyperbole," while "Elinor speaks in a static prose of nouns and colorless verbs." "Marianne's verbs," she notes, "are active, and her adjectives, participles, and adverbs evoke lively pictures."10 In the Age of Sensibility, Marianne's use of language would have been quite familiar. The same description could apply to Collins or Mackenzie or Cowper (Marianne and Austen's favorite). Claudia Johnson may be right to say that Austen does not always refer directly to sensibility, but what need is there for direct reference when a mode of response can be called up in the structure of language itself?
Writers throughout the last half of the eighteenth century were searching for a kind of authenticity in language that philosophy was rendering increasingly remote. The obsession with sensibility itself arises from an anxiety about the nature of selfhood that Locke's theories had made inevitable and that eighteenth-century philosophy deepened and intensified.11 Such anxiety informs the literary concern with the relation of public to private experience and with the public expression of private emotion in language. What Laurence Sterne cites as the central problem for the writer of Sensibility—the ease with which language can subvert true feeling and the corollary threat that the self may have no meaning beyond its own limited consciousness—remains a problem for Austen as well. In Sense and Sensibility, she tries to solve the dilemma of her age in a manner both persuasive and sustaining. Marianne is the last of a long line of characters who must confront that gaping abyss between emotion and language, between authentic feeling and what Sterne calls the "pomp of words."12 The emphasis on perception and the relation of the private to a threatening public world had been at the heart of Sensibility from the first.
When Elinor attempts to ascertain the truth of the relation between her sister and Willoughby, the paradoxical nature of the sisters' relations to language is brought into high relief. Elinor taxes Marianne about a letter she is expecting. When Marianne resists, Elinor becomes pointed:
After a short pause, "you have no confidence in me, Marianne."
"Nay, Elinor, this reproach from you—you who have confidence in no one!"
"Me!" returned Elinor in some confusion; "indeed, Marianne, I have nothing to tell."
"Nor I," answered Marianne with energy, "our situations then are alike. We have neither of us any thing to tell; you, because you communicate, and I, because I conceal nothing." (pp. 146–47)
We know that Elinor's response to Marianne is less than honest (Lucy has insisted on secrecy regarding her engagement to Edward Ferrars) and that Marianne's accusations are justified. Paradoxically, Elinor is more suited to the public world because she has a more highly developed sense of the private. She uses secrecy as a way of protecting her deepest feelings and shielding those closest to her. She understands the nature of her emotions and therefore hides them even from herself. Language has become for Elinor a means to execute this disguise and mask her inner self with a surface of sociability. Marianne uses language merely to express what she feels.13 Elinor considers private experience in relation to the public context, while Marianne can only understand private experience in relation to it-self. Elinor thinks about her relation to the world, while Marianne primarily feels it.
Marianne, in other words, exists in a world of what Hume calls "impressions," and Elinor in a world of "ideas." "All the perceptions of the human mind," Hume says, "resolve themselves into two distinct kinds, which I shall call IMPRESSIONS and IDEAS…. Those perceptions, which enter with most force and violence, we may name impressions; and under this name I comprehend all our sensations, passions and emotions, as they make their first appearance in the soul. By ideas I mean the faint images of these in thinking and reasoning…. Every one of himself will readily perceive the difference betwixt feeling and thinking."14 In Sense and Sensibility, the implied crisis for a thinking, social being is worked out in detail. "Impressions" are more vivid and immediate, according to Hume, than are "ideas," but it is upon those "faint images … in thinking and reasoning" that most human activity is regulated. Austen is clearly interested in the implications of this knotty contradiction, and in Sense and Sensibility she plays a "thinking" character against a "feeling" one as a way of unraveling it.
In another context, Hume says that "as an idea of the memory, by losing its force and vivacity, may degenerate to such a degree, as to be taken for an idea of the imagination; so on the other hand an idea of the imagination may acquire such a force and vivacity, as to pass for an idea of the memory, and counterfeit its effects on the belief and judgment."15 It is part of Austen's subtlety that Marianne's "feelings" themselves may be predetermined by her imagination. Susan Morgan puts the case succinctly: "the conventions of sensibility, far from representing a mode of spontaneous and open response … are a means of predetermining truth, of dictating judgment and behavior."16 Marianne, in other words, becomes the victim of her own delusions in the very manner that Hume describes: she is so devoted to her fantasies that she establishes them in her imagination as fact; her feelings take such precedence that she goes out of her way to create situations that will elicit them. Moreover, she does nothing to curb the pain they cause. "I must feel—I must be wretched—" she says during her first shock over Willoughby's desertion (p. 164). This is a character who has become trapped in her own self-conscious response.17
Marianne's emotional and physical collapse at the center of the novel is a linguistic collapse as well. Her eloquence is transformed by the pressure of self-contempt into "inarticulate sounds of complaint," "feverish wildness," and "sleepless pain and delirium," almost as if her syntactic pyrotechnics had turned on herself (pp. 271–73). We are made to feel that her collapse results from a sensibility heightened by imagination to the point that feeling has started to self-destruct.
In the eighteenth century, the word "sensibility" connoted physical as well as emotional susceptibility to pleasure and pain, as this passage from George Cheyne's The English Malady (1733) suggests:
Those who stutter, stammer, have a great Difficulty with utterance, speak very low, lose their Voice without catching Cold, grow dumb, deaf, or blind, without an Accident or an acute Distemper; are quick, prompt, and passionate; are all of weak Nerves; have a great Degree of Sensibility; are quick thinkers, feel Pleasure or Pain the most readily, and are of a most lively imagination.18
Marianne's symptoms may not be as extreme as those described here, but the last half of the passage does call her personality to mind. Notice, too, that Cheyne's analysis relates nervous speechlessness to heightened sensibility and a lively imagination. Imagination is a faculty, as Hume's analysis has suggested, that could easily undermine the coherent structure of thought and speech, rendering the subject isolated in the silence of a world beyond speech, a world of madness.19
Cheyne connects amply documented "hysterical" behavior to physical disorders of a particularly suggestive kind:
I never saw any Person labour under severe, obstinate, and strong Nervous Complaints, but I always found at last, the Stomach, Guts, Liver, Spleen, Mesentery, or some other great and necessary Organs or Glands of the lower Belly were obstructed, knotted, schirrous or spoil'd, and perhaps all these together.20
Michel Foucault, in Madness and Civilization, uses descriptions such as this one by Cheyne to suggest a relation between the female sexual organs and early diagnoses of hysteria.21 In his chapter on "Hysteria and Hypochondria," Foucault centers his discussion on the notion of "irritability of fibers," thereby suggesting the relation between physiology and psychology in the eighteenth century. Foucault says that "all life was finally judged by this degree of irritation," and he shows that physical irritability easily gives way to mental instability: "once the mind becomes blind through the very excess of sensibility—then madness appears" (my italics).22 It is, further, this configuration of madness with a guilty conscience, or really unconscious, that Foucault sees as the origin of modern psychiatry.
Marianne clearly borders on the kind of sexual hysteria that Foucault describes. Her imagination creates a form of desire that is impossible even for Willoughby to satisfy. She focuses her attention on Willoughby because he alone seems able to participate in her private fantasy. But that is a momentary delusion. The "violent affliction" (p. 64) she suffers when he is separated from her later becomes "excessive affliction" (p. 155) when he has proven himself false. Marianne's "irritability" is emphasized throughout the novel. For instance, Elinor wonders "that Marianne, … thoroughly acquainted with Mrs. Jennings' manners, and invariably disgusted by them, … should disregard whatever must be most wounding to her irritable feelings, in her pursuit of one object" (p. 133). Soon after, Elinor accepts Marianne's plea for silence, made "with all the eagerness of the most nervous irritability" (p. 156); and later she notes "the irritable refinement of [Marianne's] mind" and "the delicacies of a strong sensibility" (p. 175). Although we are repeatedly treated to displays of Marianne's irritability—those frequent outbursts of frustration or disgust—we are perhaps apt to miss their diagnostic significance. I would like to emphasize the degree to which the play of Marianne's private imagination has made her susceptible to the kind of self-delusions in which her character abounds. "Madness became possible," according to Foucault, "in that milieu where man's relationships with his feelings … were altered."23
The connection between "hysteria" and linguistic disturbance is implicit in Cheyne's remarks. An excess of feeling seems to disrupt the syntactic contiguity of language and to substitute private incoherence for the public coherence that language represents. At its worst, Marianne's raging fever traps her in heartbreaking isolation from those around her. Her exuberant speech, which had become almost manic in its intensity, is silenced in the misery of self-contempt. Out of this dark silence, however, she emerges to find herself in a new relation with herself and the world around her.
Whether we go so far as to apply to Marianne Foucault's sexual interpretation of hysteria probably depends on the degree to which we find it implicit in the details of the novel. When we listen to Marianne's outburst of guilt following her illness, however, such associations are impossible to ignore:
"Do not, my dearest Elinor, let your kindness defend what I know your judgment must censure. My illness has made me think—It has given me the leisure and calmness for serious recollection. Long before I was enough recovered to talk, I was perfectly able to reflect…. I saw that my own feelings had prepared my sufferings, and that my want of fortitude under them had almost led me to the grave. My illness, I well knew, had been entirely brought on by myself, by such negligence of my own health, as I had felt even at the time to be wrong. Had I died,—it would have been self-destruction…. I cannot express my own abhorrence of myself." (p. 303)
Marianne seems automatically to blame herself here. Guilt arises not so much from what she has done as from her nature. In Foucault's terms, her illness could be said to be "the psychological effect of a moral fault."24 That her guilt stems from an unconscious fear of her sexuality is implicit in the terms of her rejection of her earlier self25
If Marianne seems trapped in a response that at first puts her at odds with her own sexuality, we must consider, as Foucault explains in The History of Sexuality, that such a process was one of the "strategic unities which, beginning in the eighteenth century, formed specific mechanisms of knowledge and power centering on sex." The "nervous woman" is for him the "anchorage point" for the "hysterization of women's bodies":
a threefold process whereby the feminine body was analyzed … as being thoroughly saturated with sexuality; whereby it was integrated into the sphere of medical practices, by reason of a pathology intrinsic to it; whereby, finally, it was placed in organic communication with the social body (whose regulated fecundity it was supposed to ensure), the family space (of which it had to be a substantial and functional element), and the life of children.26
He sees this process as a further step in the direction of psychoanalysis, a process that in his view emerges inevitably as institutionalization of the familial deployment of sexuality. Marianne's confession is in this sense a proto-case history.
Like a case history as well is Marianne's willingness to inscribe the signs of her guilt in language, not in the form of the fantastic dreamscapes of her earlier rhapsodies, but in careful and deliberate reflection on the social implications of her private desire. In terms of Elinor's rehabilitative program, that is, Marianne has begun the all-important process of self-regulation. Surely we can notice a basic change in the nature of Marianne's use of language here. This speech is the longest and most coherent that she has uttered up to this point in the novel. If she seems at first tentative, centering as she does on self-accusation, she at last becomes calmly assertive of the terms of self-judgment. "I saw that my own feelings had prepared my sufferings": Marianne's ecstatic impressions have given way to careful self-assessment. Her perceptions of her own behavior are as astute as Elinor's would be. She is able to distinguish between emotion and judgment in Elinor's response, and she applies those distinctions to herself: "My illness has made me think" (my italics). Marianne's physical collapse has forced her from her impressionistic response to the world and caused her to look at herself objectively. The self-abhorrence that results, we are meant to understand, is a necessary corrective to earlier indulgence. Marianne seems to have succumbed to the dictates of self-knowledge and to have accepted "ideas" as a corrective substitute for "impressions." She seems also to have settled for a linguistic compromise that sacrifices private meaning to public context in language.
What happens, then, is that Marianne becomes more and more sane as well as more suited to public position to the degree that she is willing to reject her earlier self. Indeed, Nina Auerbach sees in this novel a "pervasive philosophical awareness of the self's potential for self-betrayal."27 But is it an act of self-betrayal for Marianne to escape the death that her sensibility had so clearly prepared her for? Do we really wish to see her sacrificed to her own spontaneity? Austen, in any case, does not. Marianne survives and Austen grudgingly celebrates that survival, not only for what it tells us about Marianne and the self, but also for what it tells us about novelistic language.
Just as Marianne tends to disrupt language with her excessive feeling, Elinor finds it natural to subvert private desire with the objectifying power of linguistic structures. We all remember the passage early in the novel when the sisters meet Edward Ferrars in the lanes near Barton Cottage:
"Have you been lately in Sussex?" said Elinor.
"I was at Norland about a month ago."
"And how does dear, dear Norland look?" cried Marianne.
"Dear, dear Norland," said Elinor, "probably looks much as it always does at this time of year. The woods and walks are thickly covered with dead leaves."
"Oh!" cried Marianne, "with what transporting sensations have I formerly seen them fall! How have I delighted, as I walked, to see them driven in showers about me by the wind! What feelings have they, the season, the air altogether inspired! Now there is no one to regard them. They are seen only as a nuisance, swept hastily off, and driven as much as possible from the sight."
"It is not everyone," said Elinor, "who has your passion for dead leaves." (pp. 75–76)
What Elinor gently ridicules as "a passion for dead leaves" is of course nothing of the kind. For Marianne, the leaves themselves are only the vehicle for a metaphor whose tenor remains finally unexpressed. Marianne is thinking about the air, to be sure, but she is also thinking about love and freedom and the possibility of defying the very limits of selfhood, which her current situation circumscribes. Metaphor for Marianne is a means of escape. But it is also a rejection of the means of effecting that escape.
Elinor seems almost brutal in her literalization of Marianne's metaphor, but her literal-mindedness represents an effort to liberate herself from the threat of Marianne's imagination. At the same time her aggressiveness on this occasion suggests a failure of her imagination, an inability to see beyond the literal. Elinor's response must also be understood in terms of Edward's presence. She is attempting to censure Marianne's enthusiasm as publicly unbecoming. She wants to compartmentalize and de-romanticize the past as well. All these activities are in the interest of creating a smooth surface and of controlling feeling so that it does not disrupt decorum.28
In a sense, Marianne and Elinor begin the novel trapped in linguistic patterns that veer toward the kind of "aphasic disturbances" that Jakobson describes in his now classic study, Fundamentals of Language.29 Marianne has problems with contiguous relations (and relationships), inhabiting, as she does, a world of constant and ultimately debilitating metaphor. Elinor, on the other hand, if she errs, errs in the direction of an overemphasis on metonymical relations as she attempts to internalize the context and put flight to private desire. We have seen that Marianne's dependence on metaphor and imagination leads to self-consuming madness and that she begins to emerge from instability when she can order her linguistic structures so as to include a sense of a world beyond her private vision. Elinor, too, must discover that her rejection of private desire in favor of screens and surfaces and the maintenance of decorum will lead her to a desolate future.
Elinor comes early to understand that the public world will forever impinge on the indulgences of privacy. When at Barton, for instance, as Elinor thinks about Edward in the seclusion of her own drawing room, she finds herself burst in upon, not in the usual manner but as follows:
From a reverie of this kind, as she sat at her drawing-table, she was roused one morning … by the arrival of company. She happened to be quite alone. The closing of the little gate, at the entrance of the green court in front of the house, drew her eyes to the window, and she saw a large party walking up to the door…. She was sitting near the window, and as soon as Sir John perceived her, he left the rest of the party to the ceremony of knocking at the door, and stepping across the turf, obliged her to open the casement to speak to him, though the space was so short between the door and the window, as to make it hardly possible to speak at one without being heard at the other. (p. 90)
Nowhere in the novel are the demands of social intercourse so vividly dramatized, and nowhere do we have so clear an indication of what Austen considered the limits of privacy to be. Elinor can have no private thoughts but the press of the social world breaks in upon them, as it does here literally in the person of Sir John. If Elinor is to have private thoughts at all, it must be within such situations and between such intrusions. Elinor's wariness, then, seems an admirable defense in a world of intrusive and malicious society. She uses metonymical forms not just to create public relations, but also to protect herself from the potentially devastating revelation of her privacy, barely acknowledged as it is. Her dependence on public forms, however, and on truth as opposed to speculation, leads her into the trap that Lucy Steele's manipulation of those forms makes inevitable.
It takes Lucy's malicious confidence regarding Edward Ferrars to put Elinor through an ordeal as trying as that of Marianne. Only through a conscious assertion of will can Elinor keep herself from expressing the indignation she feels:
"I gave him a lock of my hair [Lucy says] set in a ring when he was at Longstaple last, and that was some comfort to him, he said, but not equal to a picture. Perhaps you might notice the ring when you saw him?"
"I did;" said Elinor, with a composure of voice, under which was concealed an emotion and distress beyond any thing she had ever felt before. She was mortified, shocked, confounded, (pp. 116–17)
Elinor is confounded because she has been undone even in her caution. When, a short time earlier, she saw this ring on Edward's finger, she allowed emotion to overcome reason: "That the hair was her own, she instantaneously felt as well satisfied as Marianne" (p. 84, my italics).
Certainly we witness here the failure of Elinor's epistemological technique.30 She has been looking for concrete proof of Edward's love, and now she feels she has found it. Her metonymical approach to experience fails her—it does not allow her to place herself in the relationship she desires—and she abandons it in favor of an interpretation more in keeping with her own fantasy. At the moment when keenest observation is required, in other words, Elinor sees only what she wants to see. Her response is to give the ring the meaning she wants it to have: to make it a metaphor for her desire. Exposing the secret of her sexuality and confronting the implications of her mistake, as she does, puts Elinor in a position to "think and be wretched" (p. 117). Like Marianne, Elinor feels self-reproach at the danger her sexuality has occasioned, and it seems possible that she will succumb to guilty self-loathing as stunningly as Marianne.
Instead, Elinor works through her sexual disappointment intellectually and in doing so finds a way of resolving sexual desire and personal responsibility. Austen enables her to do this by devising a language that is poised between the extremes of private (metaphorical) and public (metonymical) speech. In Sense and Sensibility, Austen works out this resolution not just thematically but linguistically and formally as well. In exploring the implications of "sensibility" and moving from the pathetically tragic potential of that world into the "light and bright and sparkling" world of comedy, Austen is liberating herself from the threat of madness (and silence) that sensibility finally represents.
It is necessary for the novelist herself to find a language that can mediate the intensity of private vision and the complexity of public scope. We can tell that Austen is experimenting with such inner/outer language in moments like these:
Had Edward been intentionally deceiving her? Had he feigned a regard for her which he did not feel? Was his engagement to Lucy, an engagement of the heart? No; whatever it might once have been, she could not believe it such at present. His affection was all her own. She could not be deceived in that. Her mother, sisters, Fanny, all had been conscious of his regard for her at Norland; it was not an illusion of her own vanity. He certainly loved her. What a softener of the heart was this persuasion! (pp. 119–20)
In the first place, of course, we are witnessing narrative exploration of Elinor's thoughts and feelings. The opening questions represent a challenge to earlier assumptions, assumptions that Elinor held close to her heart. Austen deftly represents this self-examination in a type of public speech that has been crafted to reflect mental processes. The rush of emotional uneasiness is mirrored in the choppiness of the prose here, and the self-assurances, timid and prolix at first, become stronger and more direct as this process of reflection continues.
The technique of Elinor's self-assurance is perhaps even more subtle. She first searches her own emotions for the truth of Edward's attachment to her; then she tests that private assurance rationally. To do so involves testing the responses of the public world, in this case, her mother, sisters, and Fanny. When she has thereby assured herself of emotional security, she can state to herself what now has value as objective fact: "He certainly loved her." After that has been articulated, she returns to the "heart" and its malleability. Rational persuasion "softens" the heart, which in its pain may have hardened, and allows human feeling to animate her response without causing her to give way to excessive emotion. Elinor finds a way to think and feel, without allowing one mode of response to compromise the other.
What Austen has accomplished, then, is manifold. She has developed a technique for representing mental processes in her prose while suggesting the terms whereby the tension between public and private experience is to be resolved. She introduces public, objective language into the privacy of inner emotion as a way of dispelling the ghosts that haunt inarticulate emotional response, like that of Marianne. She demonstrates how such a crisis as Marianne's can be resolved by realigning public and private value.
Marianne's illness becomes for both sisters the test of their feelings for one another and the proof that language can be a bond rather than a barrier separating them from their inmost selves. Throughout the illness, as Marianne's pulse races and she cries out in delirium, Elinor is all watchfulness and apprehension. After her interview with Willoughby, however, Elinor has something to communicate. The moment for such communication comes when Marianne has finally accepted the limitations of sensibility and expressed the self-deprecations quoted above. Now Elinor offers her communication not as a lesson to Marianne but as a way of consoling her sister and convincing her that she had been loved:
[Elinor] managed the recital, as she hoped, with address; prepared her anxious listener with caution; related simply and honestly the chief points on which Willoughby grounded his apology; did justice to his repentance, and softened only his protestations of present regard. Marianne said not a word.—She trembled, her eyes were fixed on the ground, and her lips became whiter than even sickness had left them. A thousand inquiries sprung up from her heart, but she dared not urge one. She caught every syllable with panting eagerness; her hand, unknowingly to herself, closely pressed her sister's, and tears covered her cheeks, (p. 305)
Notice how much attention Austen pays to the manner of Elinor's presentation. We hear much more about how she addresses Marianne than about what precisely she says. The emphasis is on the act itself. Yet this simple act of communication and response quells much of the sisterly uneasiness that the novel has dramatized. Metaphor and metonym are here combined once again to suggest that each sister has come closer to understanding the relations between public and private speech. Elinor uses tact and concern to enter Marianne's world, and she is welcomed there with a squeeze of the hand to suggest that the barriers of language have at last been broken down. Feeling is still paramount for Marianne—she presses Elinor's hand "unknowingly"—but now her feeling seems directed toward others. She edits the "inquiries sprung up from her heart" and produces instead a thoughtful request: "Tell mama," she urges Elinor (p. 305). Surely this is a Marianne who is moving beyond the incapacitating limitations of entirely private metaphor into a world in which language means communication as well. Many of the early conflicts of the novel are resolved in this scene. Marianne's recovery seems assured, and a new basis for self-affirmation seems guaranteed.
If this resolution is so affirmative, however, why has there been such dissatisfaction with the ending of the novel? Even a contemporary reader, Lady Bessborough, could write to a friend, "Have you read Sense and Sensibility? It is a clever novel. They were full of it at Althorpe, and tho' it ends stupidly, I was much amused by it."31 The marriages at the close of the novel, both happy and unhappy, sit uneasily with our sense of Elinor's new self-awareness and Marianne's new self-possession. Marianne's marriage to Brandon, as peremptory as it is, comes close to parody. We might well agree with Tanner, who sees Austen's handling of Marianne as "harshly curt."32 Gilbert and Gubar attribute this harshness to an inner conflict in Austen: "Sense and Sensibility is an especially painful novel to read because Austen herself seems caught between her attraction to Marianne's sincerity and spontaneity while at the same [time] identifying with the civil falsehoods and the polite silences of Elinor" (p. 177).33
Rather than identifying with either of these characters, however, Austen seems to be working out the claims of each for herself as a novelist. Deborah Kaplan suggests that "Austen was able to achieve authority not in assertions but in the modification, the correction of such assertions."34 Austen also achieves authority by reformulating the configuration of thought and feeling dramatized by the sisters. She forces Elinor to come to terms with the fact of her own sexuality as a means of liberating herself from the confines of bitterness, and she establishes authority over Marianne and over such impulses toward sensibility as she sensed in herself, as a way of distancing the appalling threat of speechless emotionalism.35 She relies on the force of a comic resolution to celebrate her discovery and to give it form.
But still for many readers the comic ending seems anything but comic. Earlier Marianne had rejected Brandon as dull and uninspiring: "his understanding has no brilliancy, his feelings no ardour, and his voice no expression" (p. 44). Now she gives him her hand out of "strong esteem and lively friendship" (p. 333). Because this is a pale reflection of her active passion for Willoughby, readers feel that Marianne has had to settle for much less than she deserved. But perhaps she was mistaken in imagining what she deserved. Once she has learned to control her passion and distrust herself, Marianne earns her position in a different kind of resolution from the one she imagined earlier. Released from the privacy of her emotions, she becomes party to the deployment of sexual power on a larger scale:
Instead of falling a sacrifice to an irresistible passion, as once she had fondly flattered herself with expecting,—instead of remaining even for ever with her mother, and finding her only pleasures in retirement and study, as afterwards in her more calm and sober judgment she had determined on,—she found herself at nineteen, submitting to new attachments, entering on new duties, placed in a new home, a wife, the mistress of a family, and the patroness of a village, (p. 333)
Foucault has perhaps offered us the terms whereby such a realignment of public and private reality can be explained. He asserts that the hysterization of women was part of "a new distribution of pleasures, discourses, truths, and powers" on the part of the bourgeoisie: "a defense, a protection, a strengthening, and an exaltation … as a means of social control and political subjugation."36 Marianne is "saved" from her hysteria in order to be swept into a social resolution at the expense, of course, of her seemingly aberrant private desire. Once her sexuality has been harnessed, she fits more readily into a position of social influence and public power. We feel the sting of what has been sacrificed to achieve this resolution, for Marianne plays her role in a power structure that excludes her as effectively as it celebrates her reconstituted self. Social relations replace the private aspirations of sensibility and establish an unfamiliar public role for the heroine. What private value is not lost is redirected toward "new attachments."
This ending represents the failure of sensibility. If the novel "ends stupidly," I think we understand this stupidity as the first harbinger of Victorian insistence on brutalizing resolutions. If the Age of Sensibility celebrated the primacy of private feeling, the resolution here works skillfully to suppress it.
What can Austen have felt she was achieving? How could so sensitive a novelist allow her work to come to so disconcerting a conclusion? The answer, it seems to me, lies in her need to find the proper novelistic voice. If Marianne is sacrificed, it is to Austen's own desire to find a language that can resolve the two extremes of linguistic behavior represented by Marianne and Elinor. For a novelist must achieve a public voice that remains sensitive to private desire, and a great novelist must realize metonymical as well as metaphorical patterns of reference. Marianne's personal loss is therefore a gain for the "novel," and the Bennet sisters and Emma Woodhouse emerge from this new standard of novelistic discourse. If the Age of Sensibility is at an end, the Age of the Female Novelist is only just beginning. Marianne is sacrificed, in other words, in order to liberate Austen and her successors from the inarticulate emotional world that the Age of Sensibility had created for them. Words are no longer to be distrusted in the English novel; rather they will come more and more to offer the only context for self-realization in heroines throughout the century. Language becomes the arena in which thought and emotion meet, and self-expression takes the place of self-assertion. Public and private are resolved in a novelistic discourse that masters the intricacies of selfhood and achieves a version of social stature. Sense and Sensibility carries us, then, beyond the dichotomy of the title to a resolution, painful and peremptory as it is, that signals growth. The personal intensity of the Age of Sensibility is lost, and in its place we have a new kind of self-control, capable of preserving the heroine and earning her a place in the world. Marianne learns the meaning of public responsibility at the expense of her soul. But souls are awkward in a society that is moving toward the communal benefits of a comic vision.
1 For a discussion of the problematical novels in the Austen canon, see Susan Morgan, In the Meantime: Character and Perception in Jane Austen's Fiction (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1980), pp. 1–5; also see Ruth apRoberts, "Sense and Sensibility, or Growing Up Dichotomous," Nineteenth-Century Fiction, 30 (1975), 351–65; apRoberts addresses the issue of Austen's dichotomy more imaginatively and with more useful results than most critics. For a discussion of the problematic resolution, see the chapter on Sense and Sensibility in Tony Tanner, Jane Austen (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986), pp. 75–102. For even more persuasive accounts of the violence done Marianne, see Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1979), p. 157; and Nina Auerbach, Romantic Imprisonment: Women and Other Glorified Outcasts (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985), pp. 11–15.
2 Claudia Johnson, "The 'Twilight of Probability': Uncertainty and Hope in Sense and Sensibility," Philological Quarterly, 62 (1983), 171–86; also see Morgan, In the Meantime, pp. 109–31.
3 Johnson, p. 172.
4 Auerbach, pp. 14–15.
5 Mary Poovey suggests in The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer: Ideology as Style in the Works of Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley, and Jane Austen (Chicago and London: Chicago University Press, 1984) that "between these antimonies [of sense and sensibility] there is no easy choice but rather myriads of possible combinations, each understood in terms of costs and benefits, sacrifices and opportunities" (p. 44).
6 Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility, ed. James Kinsley and Claire Lamont (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1970), p. 105. All subsequent parenthetical references are to this edition.
7 Critics have argued that Elinor is not without feeling early in the novel. See, for instance, Jean H. Hagstrum, Sex and Sensibility: Ideal and Erotic Love from Milton to Mozart (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1980), pp. 271–72.
8 Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason, trans. Richard Howard (1965; rpt. New York: Vintage-Random House, 1973), p. 157.
9 Poovey says that "feeling was one significant theater of experience that could not be completely denied to women" (p. 37); she goes on to say that "although women found in the sentimental novel a subject and even a genre, these works … helped to drive further underground the aggressive, perhaps sexual, energies that men feared in women" (p. 38). See also Jane Spencer, The Rise of the Woman Novelist, From Aphra Behn to Jane Austen (Oxford: Blackwell, 1986); Spencer distinguishes "didactic" and "fantastic" strains in women's fiction in the late eighteenth century, pp. 140–213. Wollstonecraft illustrates some of the limitations of the first alternative and Radcliffe of the second.
10 Gila P. Reinstein, "Moral Priorities in Sense and Sensibility," Renascence, 35 (1983), 272.
11 In The Romantic Sublime: Studies in the Structure and Psychology of Transcendence (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976), Thomas Weiskel suggests that Locke's theory of the self led him to a theory of "uneasiness," in which "anxiety will always exceed its occasion because the soul can never be entirely filled by the sensations and reflections which arise from an object 'out there'—an object whose essential absence is presupposed by perception" (p. 18). Weiskel cites Tuveson as suggesting that the revisions in Locke's fourth edition anticipate the modern notion of the unconscious (p. 206, n. 35); see Ernest Tuveson, "Locke and the 'Dissolution of the Ego,'" Modern Philology, 52 (1955), 159–74.
12 Laurence Sterne, A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy, ed. Gardner D. Stout (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1967), pp. 277–78; see John A. Dussinger, "The Sensorium in the World of A Sentimental Journey," Ariel, 13 (1982), 3–16.
13 See Tanner, pp. 90–93; Edward Joseph Shoben, Jr., talks about the "unbridled expression of emotion" as a danger for Austen in "Impulse and Virtue in Jane Austen: Sense and Sensibility in Two Centuries," Hudson Review, 35 (1982–83), 338; Morgan suggests that Marianne "collaps[es] the distinction between feeling and expression, thus making expression spontaneous and inevitable" (p. 121). Later, Morgan calls this Marianne's "personal integrity in language" (p. 123).
14 David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, ed. P. H. Nidditch (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978), pp. 1–2.
15 Hume, p. 86.
16 Morgan, p. 123.
17 See John A. Dussinger, The Discourse of the Mind in Eighteenth-Century Fiction (The Hague: Mouton, 1974), pp. 37–39; Dussinger uses Hume's version of the "self" as an imaginary construct of continuous perceptions—"merely a habit of thinking, and the fiction of the perceiving ego"—to suggest that much of the literature of sensibility addresses the resulting uneasiness about permanence of selfhood by means of the moment to moment expression that Northrop Frye implies in his term "literature of process." See Frye, "Towards Defining an Age of Sensibility," Fables of Identity: Studies in Poetic Mythology (New York: Harcourt, 1963), pp. 130–31. Dussinger says further that "some of the most 'characteristic' works of fiction in this period portray the mind restless to the end and ever in doubt about the self" (p. 39).
18 George Cheyne, The English Malady, ed. Eric T. Carlson, M.D. (Delmar, N.Y.: Scholar's Facsimiles and Reprints, 1976), pp. 71–72.
19 See Tanner, pp. 109–11; see also Poovey, who demonstrates as a "paradox of propriety" the fear of sexuality implicit in the praise of a woman's "sensibility of heart" in the eighteenth century, pp. 18–19.
20 Cheyne, p. 127.
21 Foucault, pp. 146–50; I am indebted to Tanner's useful discussion of Foucault's analysis of madness and sensibility, pp. 82–85; see also Richard Blackmore, Treatise of the Spleen and Vapours, or Hypochondriacal and Hysterical Affections (London: J. Pemberton, 1725); and Robert James, "Hysteria," in Medicinal Dictionary (London: T. Osborne, 1743).
22 Foucault, p. 158.
23 Foucault, p. 220; see Tanner, p. 83.
24 Foucault, p. 158.
25 Poovey argues that "given the voraciousness that female desire was assumed to have, the surest safeguard against overindulgence was not to allow or admit to appetites of any kind. Thus women were encouraged to display no vanity, no passion, no assertive 'self' at all" (p. 21).
26 Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality: Volume I, An Introduction, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Vintage-Random House, 1980), pp. 103–05.
27 Auerbach, p. 15.
28 See Tanner, pp. 86–88; also see Morgan, who says that "decorum … is a public avowal of continued feelings and thoughts, a way of behaving which sustains the potential in experience for active and changing relations between others and ourselves" (p. 129).
29 Roman Jakobson, "Two Aspects of Language and Two Types of Aphasic Disturbances," in Roman Jakobson and Morris Halle, Fundamentals of Language, Janua Linguarum, Series Minor, 1 (1956; rpt. The Hague: Mouton, 1971), pp. 67–96.
30 Johnson, p. 176.
31 Quoted in Margharita Laski, Jane Austen and Her World (London: Thames and Hudson, 1969), p. 82.
32 Tanner, p. 100.
33 Gilbert and Gubar, p. 157.
34 Deborah Kaplan, "Achieving Authority: Jane Austen's First Published Novel," Nineteenth-Century Fiction, 37 (1983), 537; Poovey writes, "in Sense and Sensibility … the most fundamental conflict is between Austen's own imaginative engagement with her self-assertive characters and the moral code necessary to control their anarchic desires" (p. 183).
35 In his Memoir of Jane Austen (1871; rpt. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1951), James Edward Austen-Leigh, her nephew, tells us that when "Sense and Sensibility came out, some persons, who knew the family slightly, surmised that the two elder Miss Dashwoods were intended by the author for her sister and herself (p. 17).
36 Foucault, The History of Sexuality, p. 123.
Barbara M. Benedict (essay date 1990)
SOURCE: "Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility: The Politics of Point of View," in Philological Quarterly, Vol. 69, No. 4, Fall, 1990, pp. 453–70.
[In the following essay, Benedict explains how Austen negotiates between epistolary (sentimental) and objective (detached) narration in Sense and Sensibility.]
Sense and Sensibility usually leaves modern readers cold, even irritated. They indict the book for a schematic structure which seems to segregate intelligence and warmth; for a tonal instability which seems to sneer while soliciting sympathy; and for a merciless ending which awards a crushed Marianne Dashwood "by general consent" to the flannel-waistcoated Colonel Brandon.1 By condemning Austen's moral organization, these complaints address a general problem of interpretation: the problem of identifying the narrative attitude. This problem is epitomized by the contradiction between the sympathetic portrayal of Marianne, and the unflagging praise for her opposite, the "sensible" sister Elinor. Such a contradiction seems to weaken the authority of the narrative voice, and thus to shake the reader's faith in Austen's narrative control.
This contradiction stems from the conflict, evident in contemporary fiction, between two modes of narrative, each claiming the authority to tell human experience: the epistolary and the objective mode. While Sense and Sensibility does possess an authoritative narrative voice, Austen also admits into the novel another kind of perspective that challenges the dominance of the narrator's perspective: the epistolary point of view. These two perspectives differ in style, tone and topic: the epistolary viewpoint typically includes immediate feelings, impressions and reactions, even if multiple and contradictory, while the objective viewpoint typically delivers considered, univocal judgments after ranking the available information, excluding irrelevancies and weighing the real situation against an ideal standard.
By including both perspectives, Austen recasts the eighteenth-century opposition crystallized in the novel's title. As the novel progresses, this opposition no longer lies between behavioral models of restraint and release, between Elinor's "sense" and Marianne's "sensibility"; instead, it is shown to be an opposition between both sisters' points of view and the viewpoint of the narrative. Austen pits the sources and authority of the epistolary mode transferred to style indirect libre against those of objective narration. By permitting both modes expression in her novel, Austen challenges the authority of narrative control itself, predicated as this control is upon the convention of a single, coherent mode.
This contrast has political ramifications. In juxtaposing perspectives founded on literary conventions, Austen questions the very concept of a single, true vision of social relations—a concept itself indebted to the same sources as the idealized perspective of objective narration. Currently, critics are debating whether Jane Austen believes this vision by asking whether she rehearses or revises eighteenth-century conservatism. While Claudia L. Johnson finds Austen attacking the politics of personal life, Marilyn Butler sees her defending traditional political stability. While Tony Tanner reads her novels as involuntary indictments of social styles, Michael Williams locates in Sense and Sensibility an analysis of contemporary conceptions of taste.2 These critical views address two relationships. One is the relationship between domestic life and "politics," i.e., the apportionment of power in the social world; the other is the relationship between Austen's fictions and their contemporary sources. Although critics have divided these relationships, in fact they are intertwined. Austen's fiction represents social relations by means of conventional, imaginative models: any flaws in the social relations she depicts reflect flaws in the literary models she uses since these models endorse specific ways of viewing relationships. By exposing the impossibility of a heroine judging with ideal impartiality, Sense and Sensibility shows that social politics and literary politics mirror each other in the question of the "authority" of perception.
This essay will explore the way Austen negotiates the politics of literary conventions in Sense and Sensibility. Originally composed as an epistolary fiction, Sense and Sensibility opposes the perspectives of the "sentimental," erstwhile epistolary heroines with that of the detached narrator. By granting the heroine Elinor the objective perspective conventionally accorded only to a detached narrator, Austen challenges the authority of objective narration to tell a heroine's tale. Austen, however, condemns epistolary perspectives as self-indulgent even while recognizing them as the traditional voice of female experience. It is the voice of detached narration, "objective" and hence virtuous, that translates experience into the general moral lesson didactic fiction requires. Epistolary techniques thus obstruct the narrative authority of Austen's novel by endorsing feeling when disinterest is expected. As Elinor and Marianne grow more similar, both heroines represent a source of authority and a kind of expression which opposes the values represented by the narrative voice. When Austen finally locates authority in objective narration, she eschews the point of view of "female" fiction with its value for multiplicity and feeling in favor of an ideal perspective whose organization of information into hierarchy derives from conservative literary traditions. Nevertheless, through the narrative strategy of contrasting conventions of style and topic, Austen reveals that contrast motivates moral ranking, and that this contrast is itself a matter of the conventions of literary and social perspective, conventions which favor abstract ideals and "masculine" view points.3Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen's novel contrasting control and expression, in fact challenges the very power of contrast, even the power to contrast, by questioning the authority of the source of such contrast: monovocal, conventional narrative itself.
In her juvenilia, Austen explores the limits of epistolary authority. Parodying sentimental literature for selfishness and insincerity, these works indict an hypocrisy both social and literary. In the early satire "The Three Sisters," Austen conceives this hypocrisy through contrasting the moral and literary styles of two sisters: Mary Stanhope who describes her own feelings; and Georgiana who records the plot as a spectator. Writes Mary to her friend Fanny,
I am the happiest creature in the World, for I have received an offer of marriage from Mr. Watts…. He is extremely disagreeable & I hate him more than any body else in the world…. If I refuse him he as good as told me he should offer himself to Sophia and if she refused him to Georgiana, & I could not bear to have either of them married before me. If I accept him I know I shall be miserable all the rest of my Life … He told me he should mention the affair to Mama, but I insisted upon it that he did not for very likely she would make me marry him whether I would or no; however probably he has before now, for he never does anything he is desired to do. I believe I shall have him.40
Mary's letter describes the psychology of decision, the Johnsonian vacillations between competing hopes and fears, and the impotence of the fearful will tossed between obdurate and powerful others. By eighteenth-century convention, it is typically a woman's letter: it reflects women's concerns—marriage, sexual competition, social compulsion—in a woman's style which circles ever around the subject self with its tumbling, unordered phrases and imprecise language. Whereas Austen's favorite epistolary novelists Samuel Richardson and Fanny Burney use this style to dramatize the seriousness of female interior experience, Austen mocks feminine triviality by rooting Mary's anxiety in social and material matters.5 While proclaiming the letter authentic, this style also implies that women's thoughts and feelings are unordered. Mary's style and subject cohere as she describes the interior, female, emotional experience of a world she does not control.6
Mary's sister Georgiana, however, writes to her friend Anne with the detached perspective which allows the perception of contrast:
It was in vain that Mama represented to [Mary] the impropriety she was guilty of in disliking him who was to be her Husband, for she persisted in declaring her aversion to him & hoping she might never see him again. What a Wedding will this be! Adeiu my dear Anne. (p. 67)
Signed "Yr faithfully Sincere Georgiana Stanhope," this letter opens with an impersonal syntactical formulation, "It was," employs a Latinate vocabulary—"represented," "persisted," "aversion"—and evokes an absent ideal standard of morality through negatives—"in vain," "impropriety." This abstract and conventionally learned style accredits Georgiana as a social critic by signalling the authority of detachment: Georgiana implies that she can judge Mary's conduct against an absolute and impersonal standard. The language of contrast thus becomes the language of moral perception.7
This perception, however, remains an intellectual activity, without social consequences. "What a Wedding will this be!" exclaims Georgiana, but she takes no steps to prevent it. Such authority as she exercizes to judge behavior, moral authority, derives from and remains in the sphere of observation. Both Mary's mother and her sister vaunt abstract ideals which must be "represented" to the emotional subject, Mary. In conjoining the traditional social authority of the mother with the traditional moral authority of "propriety" of feeling and behavior, this letter isolates the epistolary subject from the moral context perceived through detachment.
Sense and Sensibility explores this moral ambiguity by its "objective" narrative which describes both the internal and the external action. As scholars have remarked, the narrative style resembles "the eighteenth-century sermon or moral disquisition," partly because it "invites us to join an argument about how sense and sensibility can be combined, how they can be separated."8 By describing the action through a narrative perspective that remains separate from, and superior to, the perspectives of either heroine, Austen dramatizes the literary authority of objectivity: the disinterested stance of the general spectator debating a public issue, a stance valorized by the eighteenth-century essay and by such narrators as Fielding uses. On the other hand, through the emotional and partisan viewpoints of the heroines, Austen describes a world of emotion modelled on epistolary fictions, and with its own kind of authority.
Elinor Dashwood, usually representing the "sense" of the novel, resembles the mediating narrator in style and function. Silent observer or attendant of others' stories, she negotiates between her sister and the repentant Willoughby; between her mother and the rude Fanny Dashwood; between Colonel Brandon and the grateful Edward. Moderating her mother's ambition for a large house by her "prudence" and "steadier judgment," she hides her own wounded feelings in order to save her family pain: she sacrifices personal relief for the general good of her society (pp. 24, 14). Although she indeed acts on her convictions, she apparently judges with detachment, supplying "inside views," as John Odmark observes, but from a distant perspective (p. 58).
Elinor's detached stance is apparent by her language. In dialogue, she uses balanced, periodical phrases which resemble those of the essayists Austen admired: Addison and Steele, and Samuel Johnson.9 By weighing one clause against another, and by impersonal predications, this rhetorical style contrasts with Marianne's unconsidered expressions to suggest a disinterested view of characters and opinions. At the same time, however, Elinor's deliberate phrasing cumulatively results in a tautological solemnity which echoes the parodies of Austen's juvenilia. When, for example, she describes the man she loves to her sister in an early passage that must be quoted at length, she pronounces:
"Of [Edward's] sense and his goodness … no one can, I think, be in doubt, who has seen him often enough to engage him in unreserved conversation. The excellence of his understanding and his principles can be concealed only by that shyness which too often keeps him silent. You know enough of him to do justice to his solid worth. But of his minuter propensities as you call them you have from peculiar circumstances been kept more ignorant than myself. He and I have been at times thrown a good deal together, while you have been wholly engrossed on the most affectionate principle by my mother. I have seen a great deal of him, have studied his sentiments, and heard his opinion on subjects of literature and taste; and, upon the whole, I venture to pronounce that his mind is well-informed, his enjoyment of books exceedingly great, his imagination lively, his observation just and correct, and his taste delicate and pure." (p. 20)
Elinor's assumption of the role of objective description highlights the function and style of the narrative, which is authorized to judge disinterestedly where a heroine is not. Her mannered parallelisms, abstract diction, and passive phrasing suggest an impartiality at comic variance with her motive in this speech: she is defending her love to her sister. With a self-consciousness reminis-cent of the bookish Mary Bennet, Elinor reiterates cliches to validate her own judgment: she adopts the language of authoritative detachment.
Elinor's phrasing thus pulls in two directions. While it identifies her with the narrative and thus with the authority of detachment, it also serves to characterize her, since her functional ignorance as a heroine is part of what drives the plot. Parted from narrative authority, this phrasing bespeaks excessive caution. Elinor's interjection of irrelevant modifiers and clauses—"I think," "concealed only by that shyness which keeps him silent," "At present"—separate her agency from its object, cloaking her motive in the linguistic veil of objectivity. She confesses that she has seen "a great deal of him" from "peculiar circumstances" which she then proceeds to explain as her mother's intention; she "ventures to pronounce" on his character, and belies this pomposity by what amounts to a panegyric on "minutely" dissected qualities. The objectivity of her stance thus underscores the subjectivity of her reactions, reactions so favorable to Edward that she even finds him physically handsome:
"His abilities in every respect improve as much upon acquaintance as his manners and person. At first sight his address is certainly not striking; and his person can hardly be called handsome, till the expression of his eyes, which are uncommonly good, and the general sweetness of his countenance, is perceived. At present, I know him so well, that I think him really handsome; or, at least, almost so. What say you, Marianne?"
Elinor is attracted to Edward, yet even this most personal of responses she first expresses through passives as an objective judgment: the "expression" of his "uncommonly good" eyes and his "general sweetness," she claims, "is perceived." This aesthetic language applauds the expressive, the rare and the good-natured, concealed from the public eye. Ironically, it is this same aesthetic which characterizes the heroine opposed to "sensible" Elinor, Marianne. Whereas Marianne, however, both sees and is seen as a sentimental heroine, Elinor projects her aesthetic onto the object of her desire.10
By comic reversal and dramatic dialogue, this passage exposes the gender of impartiality. Just as, in the sentimental vignettes of The Spectator, the male speaker judges women in abstractly pictorial terms, so an infatuated Darcy admires Elizabeth's eyes in Pride and Prejudice, and Captain Wentworth mourns Anne's lost bloom in Persuasion.11 Here, however, it is a woman who describes her lover through the sentimental aesthetic. Marianne, however, ignoring Elinor's assumption of an impartial authority, reads Elinor's description aright as a declaration of desire. When Elinor's confidence in her own impartiality breaks down, and she asks her sister's opinion, Marianne unblushingly admits that her view of Edward will follow her desires rather than a disinterested aesthetic: '"I shall very soon think him handsome, Elinor, if I do not now. When you tell me to love him as a brother, I shall no more see imperfection in his face, than I now do in his heart'" (pp. 20–21). This rhetorical shift—from Elinor to Marianne, from description to declaration, from impartial evaluation to open partiality—dramatizes the rift between the "masculine" authority of distance and the "feminine" authority of feeling. Elinor speaks now in the "female" language of hesitation and emotion, translated from an epistolary exchange into conversation itself.
In order to determine how the reader should "see" and so judge Elinor, the narrative supplies a context, or a set of terms with which to construct a contrast between Elinor's view and an objective view. This is done through describing Elinor's internal thoughts. By echoing Elinor's impersonal style, this language paradoxically reveals the self-interest in Elinor's analyses, for the narrative language is ideally disinterested whereas Elinor cannot be. After Elinor reproves Marianne's hope that Elinor will marry Edward, the narrative continues:
Elinor had given her real opinion to her sister. She could not consider her partiality for Edward in so prosperous a state as Marianne had believed it. There was, at times, a want of spirits about him which, if it did not denote indifference, spoke a something almost as unpromising. A doubt of her regard, supposing him to feel it, need not give him more than inquietude. It would not be likely to produce that dejection of mind which frequently attended him. A more reasonable cause might be found in the dependent situation which forbad the indulgence of his affection. She knew that his mother neither behaved to him so as to make his home comfortable at present, nor to give him any assurance that he might form a home for himself, without strictly attending to her views for his aggrandizement. With such a knowledge as this, it was impossible for Elinor to feel easy on the subject. She was far from depending on that result of his preference of her, which her mother and sister still considered as certain. Nay, the longer they were together the more doubtful seemed the nature of his regard; and sometimes, for a few painful minutes, she believed it to be no more than friendship, (p. 22)
This passage imitates Elinor's speech to Marianne in moving from observations impersonally reported, through a weighing of possibilities, to a final tumbling confession of doubt, but this passage appears not in Elinor's but in the narrative voice. The contrast between impersonal narrative and emotional language centers on the ambiguous term "real." Although Elinor's internal conflict arises from the contradiction between what she sees and what she wants, the entire passage is predicated on the difference between what Elinor has said, and what she "considers," "knows," and "believes." The "real opinion" appears in the style and voice of the narrative. It is not Elinor's sincerity, nor her feelings, that are judged as "real": it is her detached observation.
This definition of "real" underscores the difference between conversation and narration, between the languages of exchange and of information. Interpreting Edward's behavior by means of comparisons—"no more than inquietude," "A more reasonable cause," "no more than friendship"—the narrative evokes an absent context, "a something" which "speaks" to the observer. When Elinor sees Edward rather than contemplating this absent standard, she experiences "painful" doubt. The narrative thus polarizes the function of contrast, prerogative of a disinterested perspective, and the experience of emotion.
The diction of the passage underscores the polarization of point of view. The mercantile language in which "prosperity" translates as "gain" rather than as "growth" illustrates the narrative predication on static contrast. This predication creates a strain between the narrative evaluation of present conditions, and Elinor's anxiety about what will happen. The impersonal "there was," and the syntactical delay of the interjected phrase "at times" mimics Elinor's careful restraint. Her authority derives from the narrative language of impersonal description, yet this conflicts with the "female" language of emotion.
The narrative reveals the limitations of Elinor's point of view through her considered opinions of other characters. Although more suspicious of Willoughby than either Mrs. Dashwood or Marianne, Elinor nevertheless does not recognize the main danger he poses.
Elinor saw nothing to censure in him but a propensity, in which he strongly resembled and peculiarly delighted her sister, of saying too much what he thought on every occasion, without attention to persons or circumstances. In hastily forming and giving his opinion of other people, in sacrificing general politeness to the enjoyment of undivided attention where his heart was engaged, and in slighting too easily the forms of worldly propriety, he displayed a want of caution which Elinor could not approve, in spite of all that he and Marianne could say in its support, (p. 48–49).
Although she condemns Willoughby here for his "want of caution," Elinor forgives him because of it when he tells her the tale of his love of Marianne and his marriage. While Elinor rightly perceives the danger of his disregard of "persons and circumstances," his main flaw is certainly not "want of caution," but, on the contrary, a rigid adherence to a purpose his feelings oppose: marrying for money. Because of her position as a woman and a character implicated in the action, she is unable to see enough to judge with ultimate authority.
The narrative juxtaposes Elinor's evaluation of Willoughby with her similarly cautious analysis of Colonel Brandon.
Colonel Brandon's partiality for Marianne, which had so early been discovered by her friends, now first became perceptible to Elinor, when it had ceased be noticed by them…. Elinor was obliged, though unwillingly, to believe that the sentiments which Mrs. Jennings had assigned him for her own satisfaction, were now actually excited by her sister…. She liked him—in spite of his gravity and reserve, she beheld in him an object of interest. His manners, though serious, were mild; and his reserve appeared rather the result of some oppression of spirits than of any natural gloominess of temper. Sir John had dropt hints of past injuries and disappointments, which justified her belief of his being an unfortunate man, and she regarded him with respect and compassion, (pp. 49–50)
The careful opposition of Elinor's perception, derived from quiet distance, to those of the other characters underscores the opposition between a long and fine sight, and selfish vision. In contrast to the vulgar crowd—Mrs. Jennings—Elinor perceives "unwillingly," and with detachment, for the Colonel to her is "an object of interest," not a subject of gossip. Elinor, moreover, likes Colonel Brandon for many of the same reasons she appears to like Edward, who strikes neither Marianne nor the reader as particularly charming, unless in contrast to Willoughby. The Colonel is reserved and silent, mild-mannered and grave, like Edward; like Edward, as we learn, he conceals a past emotional attachment. Elinor perceives here from a position of disinterest, and perceives accurately, but, by virtue of her gender and her place, she can only exercize this authoritative perspective in telling the tales of others, not in judging her own story.
As a heroine like Marianne, Elinor does not possess the ultimate privilege of detachment. It is the narrative which will make this unique tale a moral example to the reader by tracing the general in the particular; when Elinor does so, or applies conventional motives to unconventional behavior, she is almost always wrong. In her attempt to explain why Marianne and Willoughby have not announced their engagement, she ignores her knowledge of her sister's character for a reasonable explanation that echoes her own beliefs and views of the general motivations of society. She attributes their silence to Willoughby's relative poverty. Since Elinor's "fortune" resembles Marianne's "competence," what she estimates as Willoughby's "independence" would appear to Marianne as poverty, as it does to Willoughby himself. Yet nothing in Marianne's character suggests that she would permit this to prevent her marriage, and indeed we learn that she never thinks of it. Elinor applies her own values to her sister's different character, and deduces the same argument to explain Marianne's situation as her own with Edward. Similarly, Elinor "sees" Edward's hair ring as her own hair, her own wedding-band, although in fact it is his engagement ring from Lucy Steele. Ironically, both men have other entanglements, other emotional claims, just as their actions would suggest. As elsewhere in the novel, here Elinor applies pragmatic categories to sentimental tropes. The confusion between money and feeling derives from the sentimental equation of benevolence and charity, pity and alms. Like Marianne, Elinor assumes that it is the means, not the will, that is wanting: the heart is in the right place, if the purse is not. This assumption essentially qualifies her perspective and outlines the distinction between narrative authority and the point of view of a character.
Marianne sees consistently with the spontaneity of an epistolary heroine. Her judgment of people and circumstances rests on her own emotional reactions to them. The narrative demonstrates the contrast between perception quickened by emotion in Marianne, and perception retarded by detachment in Elinor in the description of their encounter with Edward. Margaret, the youngest Dashwood sister, Marianne, and Elinor are walking in the country around their cottage, and see a man in the distance riding toward their home. It is a familiar landscape scene in which distance opens possibility: Marianne, perceiving as her desires dictate, believes the man to be Willoughby while Elinor, skeptical of desire and imagination, knows only that it is not.
[Marianne] walked eagerly on … and Elinor, to screen Marianne from particularity, as she felt almost certain of its not being Willoughby, quickened her pace and kept up with her. They were soon within thirty yards of the gentleman. Marianne looked again; her heart sunk within her; and abruptly turning around, she was hurrying back, when the voices of both her sisters were raised to detain her, a third, almost as well known as Willoughby's, joined them in begging her to stop, and she turned round with surprise to see and welcome Edward Ferrars. (p. 86)
The narrative begins by distinguishing Marianne's motives for her hasty action from Elinor's motives for what looks like exactly the same action, and underscores the difference by drawing a parallel literally but not metaphorically true. Whereas Elinor "keeps up with her sister" in pace, her desires lag behind her sister's. The narrative continues from Marianne's perspective: as soon as she sees that the man is not the one she desires, she sees nothing, although to her Edward's voice is "almost as well known as Willoughby's," for she perceives the two men in parallel ways, as suitors for her sister and herself. This connection points up the difference between her point of view and Elinor's. Had Elinor indeed "kept pace with her sister," she would have anticipated seeing Edward; that she only suspects the man is not Willoughby underscores the limitations of her perceptions. Although Marianne errs in permitting sensation to blind and deafen her, to govern her sight, Elinor errs in forbidding it to color her view at all. Most importantly, however, both sisters misperceive. The initial narrative distinction between them collapses. While the sisters strive to identify the particular figure on horseback, moreover, the narrative presents a conventional picture of figures meeting in a landscape, a picture accessible only to the structurally detached narrator and reader.
As the plot progresses, Elinor's role grows more active, and her observational distance gives way to an experiential perspective. After Marianne has fallen ill, and all of Elinor's fears have burst forth, Elinor rushes forward pursuing her hopes at the expense of reasoned "caution" in precisely the way she refuses to do in the above passage.
The clock struck eight. Had it been ten, Elinor would have been convinced that at that moment she heard a carriage driving up to the house; and so strong was the persuasion that she did, in spite of the almost impossibility of [Colonel Brandon's and her mother's] being already come, that she moved into the adjoining dressing-closet and opened a window-shutter, to be satisfied of the truth. She instantly saw that her ears had not deceived her. The flaring lamps of a carriage were immediately in view. By their uncertain light, she thought she could discern it to be drawn by four horses; and this, while it told the excess of her poor mother's alarm, gave some explanation to such unexpected rapidity.
Never in her life had Elinor found it so difficult to be calm, as at that moment. The knowledge of what her mother must be feeling as the carriage stopt at the door,—of her doubt—her dread—perhaps her despair!—and of what she had to tell!—with such knowledge it was impossible to be calm. All that remained to be done, was to be speedy; and therefore staying only till she could leave Mrs, Jennings's maid with her sister, she hurried down stairs.
The bustle in the vestible, as she passed along an inner lobby, assured her that they were already in the house. She rushed forward towards the drawingroom,—she entered it,—and saw only Willoughby. (p. 316)
Using the same techniques of violated expectation, delay, and suspense as in the passage describing the sister's encounter with Edward, the narrative here also employs the punctuation and syntax of sentimental impressionism: exclamation points, fragmented sentences, italicized words. The description also pursues sensual impressions of sight, hearing, and feeling to recount Elinor's actions. Elinor doubts time but trusts her confused senses, the pre-requisite to moving from a world of externals to a sphere governed by internal feeling. She becomes a sentimental heroine.
In the following paragraph, moreover, the narrative moves from describing Elinor's internal, sensual responses to depicting her actions in the visually vivid detail of eighteenth-century literary sentimentalism. After Elinor has started back, a theatrical movement, and "obeyed the first impulse of her heart," we watch the movement of her hand, its symbolic power accentuated by the carefully designed contrast between Elinor's heightened expectations of emotional release with her mother, and her instant "horror" at beholding her sister's betrayer.
Elinor, starting back with a look of horror at the sight of him, obeyed the first impulse of her heart in turning instantly to quit the room, and her hand was already on the lock, when its action was suspended by his hastily advancing, and saying, in a voice rather of command than supplication, "Miss Dashwood, for half an hour—for ten minutes—I entreat you to stay."
Elinor enacts her feelings as she "looks" at the dramatic "sight" of Marianne's betrayer. As her "passion" turns to action, Elinor has changed from witness to participant, from a disinterested judge to a sentimental heroine.
The values of detached observation, moderation and self-control that characterize Elinor derive from the literary tradition of the moral essay. These values, however, appear fully realized not in the characters, but in the narrative. By the end of the novel, the sisters speak only through tears. When Elinor learns of her mistake in thinking Edward married to Lucy, she "burst into tears of joy, which at first she thought would never cease" (p. 360). When Marianne learns of it, she reacts in almost exactly the same way: "Marianne could speak her happiness only by tears." (p. 363) The narrative now adopts the language of epistolary spontaneity to describe Elinor's feelings:
But Elinor—How are her feelings to be described?—From the moment of learning that Lucy was married to another, that Edward was free, to the moment of his justifying the hopes which had so instantly followed, she was everything by turns but tranquil. But when the second moment had passed, when she found every doubt, every solicitude removed, compared her situation with what so lately it had been,—saw him honorably released from his former engagement, saw him instantly profiting by the release, to address herself and declare an affection as tender, as constant as she had ever supposed it to be,—she was oppressed, she was overcome by her own felicity;—and happily disposed as is the human mind to be easily familiarized with any change for the better, it required several hours to give sedateness to her spirits, or any degree of tranquillity to her heart. (p. 363)
After the opening rhetorical question on method which announces the distinction between feeling and describing, the narrative through a series of anaphoric and hasty clauses expresses Elinor's confused considerations and emotions as she witnesses and compares her situation with her fears. The narrative orders and explains this confusion by an aesthetic principle: the effect of violent contrast. The reader, with the narrator, observes the effects of the sublime on the human heart. The narrative thus frames the particular emotions Elinor experiences within a broader context that presents universal tendencies, not individuals. The narrative hence controls the sentimental particularity of the tale.
In Sense and Sensibility, Austen employs the stylistic patterns of literary sentimentalism within an authoritative narrative structure. Sentimental scenes appear within a discourse criticizing sentimental excess; a detached observation distinguishes a right view, yet sensation also allows a kind of truth. In Sense and Sensibility, Austen turns emotion into spectacle. The tensions of Sense and Sensibility thus do not lie between the heroines. They lie between both heroines, muffled voices of experience, and the narrative, authorized to speak by virtue of detachment. By a structure which recapitulates the literary division between "female" epistolary works narrating "authentic," internal experience, and essayistic accounts of the general truth, Austen's novel exposes the political implications of narrative authority. A language endorsing contrast, impersonality and abstract ideals opposes the language of sensation, impression, experience; consensus expressed through detachment thus rules individual experience.
Authority in Austen's world derives from detachment, the capacity (or privilege) to perceive without partiality, with what Matthew Arnold just over fifty years later would call "disinterestedness." Such a source of authority denies heroines, defined by their capacity to feel, all but the power of their feelings. This creates a paradox: how can a heroine be valued for her detachment yet also for her "feeling"? In her later novels, Austen experiments with two solutions to this paradox, both of which challenge the conventions of fiction. Her "sentimental" novels use a structure which at least partially reverses the conventional sources of narrative authority. The heroines of both Mansfield Park and Persuasion, still more marginalized than Elinor by social neglect, judge society more accurately, at least until they attempt to judge their own place in it. In these novels, furthermore, the narrative voice defends the heroine's qualifications for heroism, so that often it is the narrator who speaks with feeling and the heroines with detachment. Austen thus reveals that the creation of a heroine is itself a political act, an act in which self-interest appears dressed as ideal disinterest.
In her "satirical" novels, however, Austen creates plots dramatizing the consequences of this dilemma whereby the heroine's authority is undermined by the abstract standards of the narrative voice as it articulates social authority. Elizabeth Bennet is taught that when she judges Darcy against her ideal of a gentleman, she misjudges him: her ideals are faulty, her powers of detached observation limited and her exercise of them an exercise of vanity. Emma learns that she sees rightly only when she sees with her heart. Indeed, these heroines go astray when they usurp the disinterested viewpoint of narrative authority, and attempt comparison in place of complacency. At the same time, by mimicing the objective perspective of narrative these heroines undermine the authority of the very structure which indicts them. Again, if they dress their self-interest as disinterest, doesn't the narrator also?
Austen's attack on the politics of literary convention reflects the conflicts, structural and political, in the works of the very authors she admired. Both Samuel Richardson and Henry Fielding attempt in their final novels to blend "female" and "male" forms of narrative authority, but both encounter difficulties similar to those that Austen explores. In his epistolary novels, Richardson presents the vacillations of female sentiment as the very process of morality, but Richardson's heroines lack social power just as the letter conventionally conjures a private audience. Austen's favorite novel, Sir Charles Grandison, comes closest to according a woman the power of objective judgment, for Harriet acts both as objective narrator, describing Sir Charles, and as epistolary heroine, describing her love for him. The very detachment that defines her as a heroine and qualifies her for Sir Charles, however, suggests narrative omniscience, and drives the dynamic of female vacillation out of her character to leave only structured sentiment, stagnant feelings and static letters.12
On the other hand, although Henry Fielding includes in his fiction inset tales as letters or stories, he subordinates these in his earlier novels entirely to an authoritative narration that presents morality as consistent feeling. Joseph Andrews parodies Richardson's account of moral experience in Pamela by dividing Pamela's virtue from her vacillations and according the former to a man and the latter to a caricatured woman. Related by an objective narrator, Lady B's hesitations—indeed female confusions—seem merely hypocrisy, as they are in Shamela. Moreover, although Fielding advocates "mixed" characters, Tom Jones, a sentimental hero, experiences virtually only those feelings which consistently reflect his good nature. When in his final novel Fielding attempts to combine the authority of narrative detachment with an endorsement of female interior experience, the result, Amelia, suffers from a structural and tonal instability similar to that of Sense and Sensibility. In protesting injustice through a narrative voice which is detached but not impartial, Fielding compromises his authority and control over Amelia; lengthy, defensive confessions by women characters further undermine the possibility of narrative objectivity by revealing that characters see their own stories in their own ways. Despite this ideological implication, however, Fielding repeats the values supported by traditional, objective narrative: the weak "hero" Booth vacillates between feelings in a fashion conventionally "female" while the titular heroine models unvarying and virtuous sentiment. Thus Fielding devalues both "female" literary forms and multiple reactions.
The methodological conflict between presenting a story from the perspective of a detached spectator, and presenting it as experienced by the character carries implications for the form of later eighteenth-century fiction. By portraying experience from the inside, novels present models of how to feel instead of proclaiming standards of how to act, a shift in emphasis with a corresponding shift in form. This shift in narrative viewpoint may contribute to what Nancy Armstrong has identified as the "feminization" of fiction: the rise of feminine authority in the novel.13 Sentimental "autobiographies" like Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy or Henry Mackenzie's Man of Feeling partly represent an attempt to accord male spectators internal, quasiepistolary expression without compromising the ideal of authoritative detachment. These fictions deliberately fragment their narratives in order to concentrate on interpreting sensation, rather than on defining moral action; however, they also mock the sentimentalism of their own heroes who lose track of their purposes in the wash of emotion. These fictions thus parody female literary conventions even while incorporating them, and hence preserve the possibility of telling the tale from an objective perspective. The supposed deletions in fact testify to the existence of a "whole" story which a detached narrator could tell.
Thus, the point of view from which judgment is delivered testifies to the authority, indeed to the author, of that judgment. Eighteenth-century fiction accords detachment moral power, the right to decide who and what is valuable. This detachment, however, is conventionally prohibited to women because it is structured by a narrative point of view founded on models of masculine writing which are informed by a neoclassical preference for generality. This viewpoint, moreover, is opposed in contemporary satire to the claims of individual feeling, portrayed in the later eighteenth century through fictions of women's experience. Austen's early challenge to this division of perspective, Sense and Sensibility, demonstrates that the language of judgment in eighteenth-century literature is the language of comparison, and that comparisons empower the judge to construct an ideal moral standard which muffles the expression and the authority of female experience. These are the politics of perspective in Austen's novel.
1 Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility, ed. R. W. Chapman (Oxford U. Press, 1923), p. 378. All citations from the novel refer to this edition. For a recent summary of critical opinions, see LeRoy W. Smith, Jane Austen and the Drama of Woman (London: Macmillan, 1983), p. 69. Laura G. Mooneyham indicts the novel as a "brilliant failure" because of its rhetorical contrast of two women in Romance, Language and Education in Jane Austen's Novels (London: MacMillan, 1988), pp. 31–32.
2 I am especially indebted to these studies: Claudia L. Johnson, Jane Austen: Women, Politics and the Novel (U. of Chicago Press, 1988), esp. pp. 49–72; Marilyn Butler, Jane Austen and the War of Ideas (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1975); Tony Tanner, Jane Austen (London: MacMillan, 1986); Michael Williams, Jane Austen: Six Novels and Their Methods (London: MacMillan, 1986), esp. pp. 31–52. Two other recent studies associate Austen's politics and her style: Margaret Kirkham's Jane Austen: Feminism and Fiction places Austen's work in the context of a new "female" species of writing, the novel, which exposes the "dubious moral assumptions" of familial and sexual relationships (Sussex and New Jersey: Harvester Press, and Barnes & Noble, 1983), pp. 13–14; and Mary Evans' Jane Austen & the State defines Austen's "feminism" as her condemnation of moral and sexual double standards, her value for women's domestic and familial role, and her portrayal of women as acting independently of men and "patriarchal interests" (London and New York: Tavistock Publications, 1987), p. 44. Recently, Julia Prewitt Brown has offered a compromise, between conventional and feminist interpretations of Austen in "Austen's Feminist Detractors," Novel 23, no. 3 (Spring, 1990): 300–13.
3 The stylistic debt to epistolary fiction is noted by A. Walton Litz who argues that the language of the novel is falsified by the action in Jane Austen: A Study of her Artistic Development (New York: Oxford U. Press, 1965); and by Margaret Kirkham, Jane Austen: Feminism and Fiction (New Jersey: Barnes & Noble, 1983), pp. 86–87. For theroetical analyses of multivocal structures in fiction, see Mikhail Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination, ed. Michael Holquist (U. of Texas Press, 1981).
4 Jane Austen, Minor Works, ed. R. W. Chapman (Oxford U. Press, 1954), p. 58. All citations from the juvenilia refer to this edition. For a still useful discussion of the parody in Austen's juvenilia, see Mary Lascelles, Jane Austen and Her Art (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1939). I examine this text as part of a broader argument on conflicting viewpoints in the eighteenth-century novel in my unpublished dissertation "The Tensions of Realism: Oppositions of Perception in Some Novels of Fielding and Austen" (U. of California, Berkeley, 1985).
5 In The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer: Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley, and Jane Austen, Mary Poovey argues that the manipulative letters of Lady Susan dramatize the woman's conflict between the desire for power and for propriety, a conflict also structuring Austen's indirection in Sense and Sensibility (U. of Chicago Press, 1984). Lady Susan, however, represents an alternative version of the juvenilia: both play with stereotypes of women's styles. For an outline the these "types" of women's writing, see Felicity Nussbaum, The Autobiographical Subject: Gender and Ideology in Eighteenth-Century England (Johns Hopkins U. Press, 1989), pp. 154–77.
6 For analyses of "female" stylistics, see Ruth Perry, Women, Letters, and the Novel (AMS Studies in the Eighteenth Century 4. New York: AMS, 1980) and Patricia Meyer Spacks, Imagining a Self: Autobiography and Novel in Eighteenth-Century England (Harvard U. Press, 1976).
7 In Jane Austen's Novels: The Fabric of Dialogue, Howard S. Babb lists Austen's stylistic techniques to argue that abstracts, conceptual terms and generalized statements convey authority in Austen's rhetoric (Ohio State U. Press, 1961).
8 John Odmark, An Understanding of Jane Austen's Novels: Character, Value and Ironic Perspective (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1981), p. 58. All citations to this author will refer to this text. Michael Williams, Jane Austen: Six Novels and Their Methods, p. 37.
9 Frank Bradbrook examines Austen's debt to, and ambivalence toward, Addison and Steele and Samuel Johnson in Jane Austen and Her Predecessors (Cambridge U. Press, 1966), pp. 3–17; J. F. Burrows defends Austen's careful stylistics and suggests that they recapitulate stereotypical gender distinctions in Computation into Criticism: A Study of Jane Austen's Novels and an Experiment in Method (Oxford U. Press, 1987). For a study of Austen's shifting viewpoint, see also Howard S. Babb, Jane Austen's Novels: The Fabric of Dialogue (Ohio State U. Press, 1962).
10 In examining the critique of sensibility in the novel, Kenneth L. Moler argues that Austen intends us to view Elinor's "sense" skeptically in Jane Austen's Art of Allusion (U. of Nebraska Press, 1968), p. 44. In The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer, Mary Poovey suggests that Elinor experiences a conflict between feeling and control (U. of Chicago Press, 1984), pp. 185–87.
11 John Barrell analyzes the eighteenth-century value for a detached, disinterested, comprehensive viewpoint in English Literature in History, 1730–80: An Equal, Wide Survey (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1983), pp. 33–40. Many of the sentimental fictions which Austen read, moreover, like Frances Moore Brooke's The History of Lady Julia Mandeville (1763), signal their sentimental ethic by pictorial descriptions of the heroines.
12 Another of Austen's favorite writers, Fanny Burney, provides a variation of this solution in Evelina in which the heroine recounts her own social humiliation in letters, and thus to some degree experiences both feeling and transcendent judgment. Burney, however, also consigns Evelina—and her epistolary perspective—to social subordination.
13 Nancy Armstrong, "The Rise of Feminine Authority in the Novel," Novel: A Forum on Fiction 15, no. 2 (Winter, 1982): 127–45.
David Kaufinann (essay date 1992)
SOURCE: "Law and Propriety, Sense and Sensibility: Austen on the Cusp of Modernity," in ELH, Vol. 59, No. 2, Summer, 1992, pp. 385–408.
[In the following essay, Kaufmann discusses the language of law and the language of propriety as they apply to Sense and Sensibility.]
The term "propriety," with its etymological links to property and the notion of the proper, smacks of oppression and ideological obfuscation, of outmoded ideals and outdated restraints. Accordingly, as a piece of collateral damage, Sense and Sensibility seems deeply, if not at times desperately, conservative. Hence perhaps the indifference and discomfort that critics have shown towards this text since Marvin Mudrick's dispeptic dismissal of its apparently unsatisfying end.1 A few recent commentators, most notably Julia Prewitt Brown, Susan Morgan and Claudia Johnson, have tried to redeem Sense and Sensibility, but they have tended to emphasize knowledge, not ethics.2 Propriety in their discussions has constituted a sideshow, a derivative of the epistemology which comes to serve as the main attraction. In this essay I will try to recast the question. I want to ask why it is that Austen's fiction can and does make a claim on its readers. I will offer an account of propriety in Austen's first published novel in the hope of recuperating both its discursive context and its emancipatory potential.
To write about Sense and Sensibility entails wrangling with the problematic centrality of Elinor Dashwood. To take the novel seriously means that one should not follow Mudrick and champion Marianne at Elinor's expense. To get purchase on this text, I will begin by scrutinizing Elinor at what critics have found to be her most vulnerable moment, that fateful interview with John Willoughby.3 Elinor, who has mistrusted Willoughby for most of the novel and loathed him since his rejection of her sister, softens towards him when, in the middle of his rake's confession, she realizes that he in fact loves Marianne.4 She hardens her heart again when Willoughby mentions the sad story of Eliza Williams, the girl he has seduced and abandoned (316), but her cold resolve weakens anew a few pages later. That we should know how Elinor feels during this interview is significant, for the chapter is almost exclusively given over to the call-and-response of dialogue. Austen goes out of her way to chart Elinor's shifting reactions and allegiances, to show us how her emotions waver "in the course of this extraordinary conversation" (319).
Elinor is faced with a dilemma. One can see her difficulty when she says to Willoughby: "You have proved yourself, on the whole, less faulty that I had believed you. You have proved your heart less wicked, much less wicked. But I hardly know—the misery that you have inflicted—I hardly know what could have made it worse" (323). Her repetitions and the emotions signaled by her broken syntax show that she is torn between her respect for his sentiments and her distaste for the unhappiness he has caused. When Willoughby finally leaves and Elinor falls into meditation, she realizes that her regard for his emotions is based on causes that "ought not in reason to have weight" (326). And yet she pities him. She calls him "poor Willoughby" and taxes herself for the harshness of her previous thoughts about him: "[She] now blamed, now acquitted herself for having judged him so harshly before" (327; emphasis added). We should pay special attention to the use of the language of the law here. Her sense of justice comes into direct conflict with her feelings of benevolence.
That Elinor should fall prey to such a conflict is no surprise, for Austen establishes at the beginning of the novel that she has both an excellent heart and strong feelings (42). Nor should it be a surprise that Elinor is more than just a tad judgmental. In an argument about Willoughby early in the book, Mrs. Dashwood berates Elinor for being too suspicious. Mrs. Dashwood speaks in the young man's "defence," and hopes that Willoughby is "acquitted." (106–7). According to Mrs. Dashwood, then, Elinor wants to put Willoughby on trial. Her daughter's propensity "to doubt where [she] can" (105) makes "judgment"—usually meant as the power of discrimination—a quasi-legal faculty of mind. For Elinor, it signals a call before a tribunal of informal social justice. Such a view of Elinor is not unwarranted. After all, she constantly surveys and condemns those around her. Lady Middleton, Mrs. John Dashwood and Lucy Steele are all arraigned, tried and found guilty.
Elinor serves as the novel's sentinel of propriety. While this is an undoubtedly true if unsurprising statement, it does not tell us why Elinor and her mother choose to describe what are essentially private judgements in terms that come from the public realm of law. What then is the relation between propriety—the domain of manners—and the law?
John Brewer has maintained that in the eighteenth century, "Englishmen experienced government and understood politics through their dealings with the law."5 There is more complexity to this claim than might first appear. The eighteenth-century jurisprudential consensus—an odd site where both Whigs and Tories agreed—had it that the purpose of government was to protect property and to insure justice.6 Here is a short florilegium. For Sir William Blackstone, the solid Establishment Whig, civil society—the conjunction of individual families who join together in order to fulfill the physical needs they cannot meet on their own—institutes government "to preserve and to keep that society in order."7 Government's duty according to Blackstone is to make law.8 Hume, as conservative as Blackstone in some respects, but perhaps more skeptical, concurs: "We are, therefore, to look upon all the vast apparatus of government, as having ultimately no other object or purpose but the distribution of justice."9 And finally, that radical Whig Tom Paine maintains (with characteristic clarity) that "society is produced by our wants, and government by our wickedness; the former promotes our happiness positively by uniting our affections, the latter negatively by restraining our vices."10 In short, then, society comes first to meet our needs and government follows quickly to protect our rights, specifically our rights to property.
Thus what I am calling the eighteenth-century jurisprudential consensus argued for a fairly strict demarcation between civil society and government, between the realm of sociability and the sphere of justice.11 The public realm provides protection for civil society: it patrols and protects the limits of the private. But even this "private" sphere of civil society, newly freed from the trammels of government, needs regulation. Many tensions and abrasions in civil society cannot be reduced to disputes over real property. If the role of government is generally limited to the protection of goods, land and life, then what—or who—will regulate the other interactions that distinguish civil society? Hume is quite explicit on this score:
As the mutual shocks in society, and the oppositions of interest and self-love have constrained mankind to establish the laws of justice, in order to preserve the advantages of mutual assistance and protection: in like manner, the eternal contrarieties, in company, of men's pride and self-conceit, have introduced the rules of Good Manners or Politeness, in order to facilitate the intercourse of minds, and an undisturbed commerce and conversation.12
Just as men institute justice to oversee the workings of society as a whole, so they establish good manners in the smaller spheres of friendship that Hume calls company. Note that for Hume manners are analogous to justice: they perform a similar function in a similar way for similar ends. It makes perfect sense, therefore, that Elinor Dashwood should use the language of law when she meditates on propriety: manners are the form that frontier justice takes when it enters the drawing room. We can thus qualify Brewer's point about the relation between law and politics in the eighteenth century. English men and women understood government in terms of law because justice was the primary care of government. But they also understood manners in terms of law because in the division between society and government they needed an analogy that explained how society, freed from external incursion, could regulate itself. Law became the governing metaphor for social relations: both the mandatory ones of government and the voluntary ones of society.
Manners, then, are the laws that govern the face-to-face interactions that constitute civil society. They are a necessary social lubricant that allow, as Hume says, "the intercourse of minds, and an undisturbed commerce and conversation." But if we insist that propriety was modeled on property and manners on law, we should also note that for some eighteenth-century social theorists, manners act as an origin, supplement, and corrective to the law. Burke, who, comes from the common law tradition, has a richer and more organic conception of manners than Hume, for whom law is a necessary, formal convention that has nothing to do with equity.13 For Burke law has a definite content and so do manners, as he argues here, towards the end of his life:
Manners are of more importance than laws. Upon them, in a great measure, the laws depend. The law touches us but here and there, and now and then. Manners are what vex or soothe, corrupt or purify, exalt or debase, barbarize or refine us, by a constant, steady, uniform insensible operation, like that of the air we breathe in. They give their whole form and color to our lives.14
Law depends on manners, not because civil society precedes government either historically or logically but because, for the tradition in which Burke is writing, all the law in England is really common law that, in turn, is "common custom, originating in the usages of the people and declared, interpreted and applied in the courts."15 The law, then, articulates custom in and over time: it is nothing more or less than the formal codification of manners. But the law does not encompass all manners, for manners cast a wider net than law, and, in the end, are more inclusive.
We can get a sense of the deep importance of manners for Burke in his somewhat lurid (and often parodied) encomium to the "mixed system of opinion and sentiment" of chivalry in his Reflections on the Revolution in France:
It was this, which, without confounding ranks, had produced a noble equality, and handed it down through all the gradations of social life. It was this opinion which mitigated kings into companions, and raised private men to be fellows with kings. Without force or opposition, it subdued the fierceness of pride and power; it obliged sovereigns to submit to the soft collar of social esteem, compelled stern authority to submit to elegance, and gave a domination, vanquisher of laws, to be subdued by manners.16
Burke is here, of course, discussing the importance for politics of this settled system of manners. Chivalry—with its emphasis on "social esteem"—effects a number of important chiastic reversals in everyday life. The psychological effects of oppression are lessened, if not overcome, when lords can become companions of their vassals. Under chivalry, social differentiation does not disappear. Rather, the sting that comes from subordination is salved by chivalry's stress on honor. Manners supplement the constitution and make it work: they locate power less in actual domination than in mutual regard.
We can say, therefore, that Burke's notion of manners engages both conservative and radical energies: it is a prescription for social stability that masks real relations of power with the filigree-work of good behavior. By the same token, it enjoins recognition of every subject's needs. It promises not an equality of goods or of power but is a demand made on the enfranchised by the disenfranchised for an equality of respect. Furthermore, it serves as a protection for the poor and the powerless. If honor demands the regard of the poor, then the poor are rendered strong by virtue of their ability to refuse to give that regard. Thus the powerful are dependent on the poor and must serve them in their turn. While Burke's concept is conservative, it serves the interests of the disempowered, if in an apparently limited way.
We can draw several conclusions from the two passages from Burke I have just cited, conclusions that can be supported by reference to other moments in Burke's writings.17 Manners precede law and correct its severities by restoring equity to precedence.18 In so doing, manners attempt to mediate the apparently mutual exclusion that separates justice and benevolence in the civic jurisprudential tradition."19 Manners are negative in that they repress, socialize, and mark mine off from thine. But they are also positive: they shape and refine the self, and render selves equal before the bar of mutual regard. They oversee aesthetic education, supervise self-creation and act to protect the powerless against the depredations of their masters.20
Hume and Burke come from different legal traditions and so construct the law from different premises. But we can adduce a concurrence between them and thus demarcate a field for the late eighteenth-century conception of manners: the law stands over and above civil society; it protects property and rights, and thus ensures peace in voluntary commercial associations. Manners, which resemble laws, are the rules that govern social interactions not covered by the law. They allow society to exist, free from the intervention of government. They protect the individual within "company" and from it, and in so doing they allow that company to work comfortably.
If what I have said is an accurate reconstruction of a certain complex of ideas, we can see that Elinor's reaction to John Willoughby's confession, her discomfort when she is caught between his debatable merit and his call for her sympathy, marks the residual tension within the notion of manners between the principles of justice and benevolence, between the language of rights and the demands of sympathy. Just as the law determines what is each person's right, so propriety makes sure that every person gets his due. For example: when Edward comes to Devonshire the first time, Elinor decides to temper her annoyance at his coldness. She resolves "to regulate her behaviour to him by the past rather than the present" and treats him as she thinks "he ought to be treated from the family connection" (115). This connection determines what she owes him: he deserves deference and care because he is the brother of Elinor's sister-in-law. What Edward calls Elinor's "plan of general civility" is, as Elinor points out to her sister, a way of preserving one's own opinions and feelings, while making sure that others' needs and deserts are accounted for (119). When Marianne, sickened and depressed by Willoughby's apparent dismissal, wants to leave London immediately, Elinor replies that it is impossible to quit the capital so soon: "We owe Mrs Jennings much more than civility; and civility of the commonest kind must prevent such a hasty removal as that" (202). The barest good manners insist that the Dashwood sisters take Mrs. Jennings's plans and feelings seriously. But the young women are in a position that demands more than just bare good manners: they owe her a debt. And manners, like the law, command that debts be respected.
Of course, with the fullness of time Marianne comes to recognize the values that Elinor represents. When she finally recants and agrees to practice "the civilities, the lesser duties of life, with gentleness and forebearance" (338), Marianne acknowledges that "to every common acquaintance even, [she] had been insolent and unjust; with an heart hardened against their merits" (337). Marianne, in her selfishness, has not granted others their due.
If propriety entails attention to others, a close and sometimes conflicting calculus of their needs and their deserts, it also guards with a deep jealousy the needs and deserts of the self. When, early in the novel, Elinor censures Willoughby's tendency to slight "too easily the forms of worldly propriety," she is in fact criticizing him for his "want of caution" (80). Similarly, when Elinor suggests "the propriety of some self-command" to Marianne in her attachment to Willoughby, she is not telling her younger sister to feel differently. She only wishes her feelings were "less openly shown" (84).
Circumspection is doubly necessary in Sense and Sensibility. It militates against the more harmful effects of gossip. As Jane Nardin has argued, propriety is needed in a social whirl that is constituted by selfish, stupid or unmannerly people.21 Furthermore, it is important in a world where we have no immediate access to the souls of other people: we do not know what they are thinking nor what they have done. Claudia Johnson has noted that both Marianne and Elinor make mistakes about Willoughby and Edward Ferrars, not because the young women misconstrue the data they have before them, but because they do not have sufficient data.22 Marianne does not know that Willoughby is a rake and Elinor does not know that Edward is secretly engaged.
The soul's opacity to the gaze of other people creates a space in which hypocrisy, that great bugbear of eighteenth-century thought, can flourish. An unprotected sincerity, such as Marianne's, leaves one vulnerable to the machinations of others. So, propriety allows for a protective secrecy. Elinor lies to Lucy Steele in order to protect her dignity, in order to circumvent Lucy's protracted assault on her feelings. Elinor is practicing a form of emotional aikido: she deflects Lucy's attacks by protecting the privacy of her affections. Just as law maintains the private realm of choice—allowing one to dispose of one's property as one wishes—so propriety allows one the privacy of sentiment.23
I would like to make the implications of my argument as clear as possible. For all Austen's stress on the social aspects of life, she starts from the premise that we begin as and remain individuals with feelings, needs and desires that are essentially personal. Individuality entails a danger and a challenge: we cannot know what goes on inside other people's heads and hearts. We must begin, as Elinor does, with doubt. Such radical individuality makes social interactions a minefield of conflicting interests and requires what I have called the protective secrecy of privacy. By the same token, the essentially private nature of the individual makes certain forms of candor absolutely necessary. It makes public admissions imperative. If we cannot read others' minds, we have to be able to trust their words and their actions. Hence the importance in Sense and Sensibility of acknowledgment.
Mrs. Dashwood makes an important mistake when she takes Willoughby's actions as a sign of his engagement. She says, "I have not wanted syllables where actions have spoken so plainly" (107). But Elinor is not so easily convinced—and rightly so, as it turns out. She says, "I confess … that every circumstance except one is in favor of their engagement; but that one is the total silence of both on the subject, and with me it almost outweighs every other" (107). Silence about attachment is one thing, but about commitment in an event of such public importance as marriage, is something else entirely. Austen depicts a society in which women's identity is determined by familial and marital connection. She presents a world whose organization and reproduction depend on connections maintained by marriage. In such a world, promises made by men to women are of deep social interest. Propriety, in this light, upholds the social order and individual dignity: it shields vulnerable emotion from public scrutiny and makes public what is of greatest note for social coherence. To put the matter plainly: those elegant decorums of Elinor's plan of general civility make sure that every individual possesses the knowledge necessary for that odd conjunction of emotional attachment and social commitment that is marriage. They also protect the individual if that knowledge is, for whatever reason, not forthcoming. Civility shows people how they should behave. It also provides a means of protecting themselves against others who do not conduct themselves as they should.
If Elinor presents a program for negotiating a world constituted by essentially obscure individuals, then we can begin to understand the contrast between the two sisters. Marianne feels that the congruence of taste that binds her to Willoughby gives her an immediate access to knowledge about him. She assumes that his heart is transparent to her. She seeks him out because they are, she feels, similar and, as any reader of the novel knows, she disdains those who are different from her. She feels she knows such people—especially Colonel Brandon—well enough to disregard them. She thus belongs to that rich tradition of eighteenth-century thought that we call sentimentalism, which sought to overcome the atomistic and rationalist reductions of social life in post-Hobbesian philosophy by positing an unmediated intersubjectivity based on feeling and sympathy. Elinor, on the other hand, doubts. But her often priggish skepticism also means that she pays attention to the differences between individuals—hence her re-evaluation of Mrs. Jennings, whose heart wins her over even though her manners are lacking. Elinor is thus a fine proof of Adorno's aperçu that tact "is the discrimination of differences."24
Differences is not just a norm in and for itself. It is the ground and guard of happiness. Austen is involved in an argument, mediated and disseminated by the literary marketplace, about the nature of other minds, of propriety and ultimately, of the possibilities for happiness in this sublunary world. Such an argument is overtly thematized within the novel itself. If the reader gets too involved in character analysis, he or she is likely to forget that happiness is an obsession in this book. Chapter 17 contains a lively discussion of the relation between wealth and happiness: what constitutes female felicity; how much does a household need? Chapter 19 begins with a conversation about Edward's need for a profession. Mrs. Dashwood avers that he "would be a happier man if [he] had any profession to engage [his] time and give an interest to [his] plans and actions" (127). In the odd Horatianism of this book, male happiness, be it Edward's, Willoughby's or Sir John Middleton's, depends not on the otium of independence and country pursuits, but on the negotium of commerce (in all its designations) and professional activity. But let us not seem to claim that male happiness is without its domestic element. The last chapter of the novel provides us with a somewhat surreal spectacle of felicity: everyone ends up happy in their marriages, even Lucy Ferrars and John Willoughby.
Happiness is a topic of conversation in this book because its definition is up for grabs and still needs to be determined. On the risk of idealizing conversation in this novel and in Austen's other works, I want to disagree with Franco Moretti who sees in Austen not "discussion" (by which he seems to mean "rational public debate") but the desire to make oneself agreeable in company, as Hume might say.25Sense and Sensibility does not avoid revolutionary fractures any more than the confrontations between Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy avoid unpleasant social distinctions: both novels write from within overt conflict and try to make sense of the world these conflicts leave. And the discussions of happiness—of what the characters can hope for—are located in daily conversation, not, as in Voltaire or Johnson, in the abstracted forms of the conte philosophique or the Eastern Tale. Reasoning on happiness is not abstruse or abstract: it is the very stuff of the everyday.
If female happiness (the main subject of the novel, it seems) can be located in domesticity and can be debated in everyday life—if its boundaries and its content can be derived from common conversation and can be achieved in the prosecution of "common" activities—then happiness is resolutely secular on the one hand and fiercely apolitical on the other. Twenty years ago Gilbert Ryle noted that Austen was in essence a secular novelist.26 For all her religious conviction, her novels do not ground their action in the will of the Allmighty. Previous novelists equate virtue and happiness, but always with a nod towards heaven, either in terms of explicit theology or providential plot-devices. Sense and Sensibility might contain odd coincidences, but they are never referred back to God. The norms she derives are this-worldly and depend for their determination on human experience, not divine revelation.
The location of hope in this world and in the social sphere—that is, in the realm of economic and sexual reproduction—has its own history, whose trace can be found in what I earlier called Austen's "odd Horatianism." The Horatianism of her forebears, the Augustans, is firmly aligned with that tradition of thought, excavated with such brilliance by J. G. A. Pocock, called "civic republicanism." In response to the growth of a commercial Whig order in the first decades of the eighteenth century, neo-Harringtonian political theory renewed "the ideal of the citizen, virtuous in his devotion to the public good and his engagement in relations of equality, … but virtuous also in his independence of any relation that might render him corrupt."27 Corruption in this branch of thought is the result of dependence. If the citizen gets involved in exchange or patronage relations that make him vulnerable to the vagaries of others or if he hires mercenaries to fight his wars, he will inevitably fall into corruption. English Machiavellianism marks a protest against the Whig order that succeeded the Glorious Revolution. But civic republicanism, though strong, is only one voice in the debate over politics after 1688 and is marred by a serious conceptual weakness. Though it had great normative force and persuasive power in England and America, its analysis is by nature completely negative.28 Whig modernity, with its mercenaries, standing armies, debts and placemen, could signal nothing more than the complete corruption of the state. Commerce could only reek of moral decay.
We can account for the rise of a counter-discourse to civic republicanism, then, in two ways. Whiggism needed an ideology, one that could find an adequate normative substitute for virtue.29 But a discursive shift was necessary as well because civic republican ideology had a limited descriptive power. It could only condemn temporal change in Polybian terms, but could not discuss the new except as moral degradation. The counter-discourse that arose in the face of this deficiency, comes from the language of natural jurisprudence and that area of study that we have come to call economics.30 This new-fangled civic jurisprudence developed a historical sociology that legitimized the radical novelty of the commercial order.31 The legitimation of Whig modernity depended on a change of emphasis. The telos of the human no longer resided in political virtue (as it does in the language of the republicans) but in social manners; it moved from commitment to the public good to the pursuit of private happiness.32
I have shown above how jurisprudential thought divided the social from the political, the realm of society from the sphere of government. The notion of rights helped determine the proper limits of both domains. The civic jurisprudential project attempted to prove that the commercial order contained within it real Utopian potential and not just moral degradation. This meant reversing the republican valorization of the public. It also meant that new attention had to be paid to civil society in all its divisions and determinations. There had to be a science of the everyday. It is not just chance then that makes the development of civic jurisprudence in the middle decades of the eighteenth century coincide nicely with the rise of female conduct literature. The ideology of domesticity could easily be accommodated to the ideology of the new order. In fact, domesticity was necessary for the new order. The emphasis on domestic and private happiness served as the basis for the legitimacy of commerce, and the legitimation of commerce would necessarily entail the lionization of the domestic. I would thus like to add a wrinkle to Nancy Armstrong's recent discussion of the significance of domestic ideology. She argues that conduct books schematized gender differentiation in order to launch an attack on established status hierarchies, and the revolutionary bourgeoisie then organized itself around these gender divisions.33
There is a slight discomfort in Armstrong's account: the middle classes are constituted by a discourse that they have originated. Such a claim is less a theoretical tautology than it first may seem, but it lacks a certain force, because, as is often the case in such accounts, the bourgeoisie is its own cause. Pocock, with his usual anti-Marxist fervor, has argued on the other hand that the supposedly bourgeois ideology of possessive individualism was not, in fact, bourgeois at all, but rather the expression of the interests of the Whig magnates after the Glorious Revolution.34 We can turn this claim to marxisant ends by maintaining that the hegemonizing task of defending commercial capitalism was taken over by the aristocracy. In the name of this aristocracy a discourse developed that, by exfoliating, defending and regulating the spheres of economic and sexual reproduction, could construct the gender definitions necessary for the interpellation of the middle classes. If one uses the slightly more humanistic language of "appropriation," one can see that domestic ideology—like happiness—was up for grabs: its language could be adopted by the bourgeoisie, by the gentry, or by the aristocracy.
It therefore makes perfect sense that Austen, a scion of the gentry, whose reception would make her the spokesperson for a middle class to which she most probably did not belong, should invoke manners and a secular notion of happiness that is firmly located in civil society and the domestic sphere. Hers is the logic of the civic jurisprudential tradition. Her location of happiness within civil society takes on an added historical dimension, for in the wake of the French Revolution, such a placement stands in polemical opposition to the call for political reform: hope, Austen seems to indicate, is located not in politics, but in the home.
I have therefore argued that in Sense and Sensibility Austen presents propriety as a contemporary norm, derived from law by analogy, as one way of protecting a secular notion of domestic happiness against the stresses of a society that is marked by selfishness, profit, and vulgarity. She thus turns manners, the telos presented by civic jurisprudence, against the profit-oriented behavior that civic jurisprudence was developed to defend. But Austen's position is not self-defeating: she is not attacking a money economy per se, but certain forms of action that arise in such an economy. One could argue that, like Burke, Austen understands that a certain civility is necessary if capitalism is to work.35
If we can thus place Austen in a certain discursive field and can see her language as the crossing point between aristocratic ideology and middle-class hegemony, we can also see her ethics as the product of a similar conjunction. Adorno's discussion of the history of tact can help us understand the sociohistorical shift that makes the contrast between Marianne and Elinor so compelling to Austen. According to Adorno, the bourgeois individual frees himself at the end of the eighteenth century from "the absolutist compulsion," that in England could be more accurately described as "aristocratic compulsion." In this brave new world, however, the social conventions tied to hierarchical divisions do not disappear: they become democratized, or rather, spread out to a more inclusive sphere of privilege. "The precondition of tact," Adorno writes, "is convention that is broken within itself yet still present."36 This emancipated tact, no longer the acknowledgement of aristocratic privilege, tries to reconcile the claims of an assertive individuality and the demands of the social totality. It should be quite clear, then, that what Adorno means by tact, Elinor Dashwood means by civility. But this civility only has a positive normative content—the recognition of a substantive individuality—at one moment in history. It soon dissolves into either an empty formality or an intrusive intimacy.37 Tact, that all-important moment within propriety, contains a kernel of utopian promise, a promise that is made explicit in Burke's defense of chivalry. Tact entails a vision of society in which the individual is protected and recognized within and by the whole. The utopian space created by tact is fragile and historically contingent. To us it might seem to cost too much, might seem like the product of a vicious repression. To Austen, as to Goethe, it seems like the guarantor of freedom. It not only signals the emancipation of classes but it also represents the liberation of the individual. Tact protects the mediations between the newly-derived subject and the totality that both includes and stands over it.
We can take this argument even further. The apparent repression to which Elinor submits with such tenacity can be seen as an odd form of autonomy—that is, of self-regulation. Let us take the example of her refusal to tell her family of the disappointment she has been handed by Lucy Steele: Edward Ferrars is secretly engaged to that unworthy girl. Elinor explains her prolonged silence by expounding on her duties:
My promise to Lucy, obliged me to be secret. I owed it to her, therefore, to avoid giving any hint of the truth; and I owed it to my family and friends, not to create in them a solicitude about me, which it could not be in my power to satisfy. (263)
She has no power to satisfy their solicitude because she cannot actively intervene in or subvert the odd triangle in which she finds herself. She can only be passive because her attachment to Edward does not constitute any legitimate claim against his prior engagement. Given her powerlessness in relation to Edward and Lucy, she can only exert control over herself.
Such self-regulation seems deeply masochistic to our late twentieth-century notions of emancipation, as well it might. But it also constitutes the only autonomy readily open to the disenfranchised. One could compare Austen to Kant without doing vicious damage to either. For our purposes, however, it is worth comparing Elinor to Goethe's Werther. In an early letter, Werther expatiates on the deep restrictions which inhibit and overcome "the active, and inquiring powers of Man." In the face of a recalcitrant world, only two forms of happiness and freedom are possible: retreat into the imagination and suicide.38 When imagination fails him and both social and emotional restraints forbid him the "active" life he seeks, Werther can only find autonomy in self-destruction.
Such an odd notion of self-regulation could be written off to the peculiarities of Werther's overheated mind (and Goethe, of course, would like us to do just this), but to do so would be to ignore the strong current of stoicism that runs through European thought in the eighteenth century. Let me offer, as another instance, this passage from Schiller:
The highest ideal to which we aspire is to remain on good terms with the physical world as the executrix of our happiness, without thereby being obliged to fall out with the moral world that determines our dignity. Now it is well known how rarely one can succeed in serving two masters…. Let him be happy if he has learned to bear what he cannot alter, and to surrender with dignity what he cannot save! cases can occur in which fate surmounts all the ramparts upon which man bases his security and nothing else remains but for him to flee into the sacred freedom of the spirit—cases in which there is no other recourse in order to placate the lust for life than to will that fate … and by a free renunciation of all sensuous interest to kill oneself morally.39
Schiller is writing within a Kantian model where the subject is caught between the imperative promise of moral autonomy and the actual heteronomy imposed by the phenomenal, time-ridden world. Schiller, who published these words in 1801, lists the shipwreck of history and of revolutionary expectation as a sign of the tyranny of the physical. We might well be selfregulating subjects, he claims, but we are also subject to the vagaries of an environment we cannot control. We must therefore learn to will what we are unable to avoid. That is, we must learn to kill ourselves when necessary.
This version of amor fati signals a historical dilemma. On the one hand, it registers the desire for autonomy and the strength of self-determination as a norm. On the other, it admits that such autonomy is not possible, either (as Schiller would argue) because we are caught ineluctably between the noumenal and the phenomenal, or (as we might care to maintain) because the demand for autonomy has not yet found its historical outlet. Thus amor fati expresses both a protest against a historical situation and a sign of the subject's weakness in relation to it: it rebels against an unavoidable heteronomy that it must also accept. That Elinor, Werther and Schiller extol a self-destructive masochism is without a doubt. But this masochism is itself the last instance of power open to the powerless, be they the representatives of a revolutionary bourgeoisie or the disinherited daughters of the country gentry. Self-abnegation is the shadow of their self-assertion.
We can say then that the insistence on propriety in Sense and Sensibility expresses a Utopian hope and a historical fear. The hope is for recognition and a kingdom of ends.40 The fear rises from the sense that a major disjunction has taken place and that the norms that have determined behavior in the past no longer hold. It has become a commonplace that Austen's novels narrate a crisis in authority, both paternal—which is seen as inadequate—and feminine—which is dangerous and must be hidden.41 The genealogical precision of the first pages of Sense and Sensibility can blind us to their thematic significance: paternal authority can no longer provide for the female Dashwoods because its norms cannot direct the selfish behavior of John Dashwood, the heir. John Dashwood is precisely one of those sophisters and economists that Burke inveighs against in his Reflections, a man who, once free from the manners of the past, will be guided by a purely self-seeking rationality. It is against such men that Burke invokes "the spirit of a gentleman" and the legacy of chivalry. But it is worth considering that Elinor does not use the past as her authority: she, unlike Burke, does not appeal to precedent. Her mores, her plan of general civility, have no model within the book. In fact, Sense and Sensibility is remarkable for the venality or impropriety of its characters, especially its older ones. Jane Nardin has pointed out that propriety is necessary in this novel because it protects the intelligent individual against a society that is blisteringly mediocre.42 But it is also worth noting that while civility is an antidote for that society, the norms civility presents seem to arise precisely from the needs of that society. In short, propriety is not figured here (as it is perhaps in Mansfield Park) as the precious because fragile inheritance of the past, but as the product of that past's inability to reproduce itself.
I want, therefore, to make a strong claim: propriety in Sense and Sensibility is not the atavistic outcropping of tradition but the expression of an experience of radical change. Propriety is invoked to protect the newly self-conscious subject against the anti-social interpersonal manifestations of the socioeconomic shifts that created that subject in the first place.43 To discuss Sense and Sensibility in these terms (and thus to sidestep the usual questions about Austen's conservatism and her subversiveness) is to try to see her as a writer of and about modernity.
A caveat is necessary here: I do not want to engage the question of when modernity actually begins. A structural description and delineation of the modern is not what is at stake. Having outlined above how Austen's novel is determined by the discursive changes that occur with the advent of commercial capitalism and how the ideology of tact arises from a shift in social power that accompanies that advent, I would like now to stress the way that Austen registers the experience of modernity.
Following the work of Koselleck and others, I would like to suggest that beginning in the early eighteenth century, modernity (as we saw in our discussion of the derivation of the discourse of civic jurisprudence) is experienced as a qualitative break from the past.44 Blasted out of the repetitive continuum that had marked the self-presentation of history up to that point, the modern finds itself, for better or for worse, freed from the trammels of traditional authority and example.45 Modernity marks an openness to a future that is itself open in that it is freed from eschatalogy.46 It signals a present moment that is conscious of itself as such but, paradoxically enough, sees itself as empty, transitory and potentially meaningless. Modernity is thus attended by both fear and Utopian hope. Its orientation toward the future, the sense, born in the Enlightenment, that human institutions are historically derived and therefore susceptible to reform, and the concommitant possibility of secular progress all mean that, for the first time, Utopian hope could be anchored in the sublunary world without need of divine sanction.47 This utopianism is also made necessary by the fear that the potential meaninglessness of an apparently normless present produce. Hence the fear, the free-floating anxiety that modernity inspires requires as its antidotes hope and predictability. The shock of the new, the experience of suddenness that marks modernity, renders necessary both the collective orientation of Utopia and a science of probability—that is, a sociological prognostic that can foreclose against the unpredictability of the future.48 I have tried to show how Austen's text registers thematically the experience of modernity. Sense and Sensibility bodies forth the discomfort that arises from the break with authority and the past, locates a new-found horizon of hope in civil society (using the language of civic jurisprudence which is itself a theory of the modern) and gives voice to a rugged and skeptical empiricism, a tenacious lack of faith in things not actually seen.
But modernity is inscribed in the structure of the novel as well, in its play of affect. Moderate Whig writers of the 1790s used empiricism to redirect the Utopian energies unleashed by the French Revolution toward reformist ends. The same could be argued for Sense and Sensibility. The novel uses as a pedagogical device the disappointment dealt to hope by the sheer recalcitrance of the external world. It teaches the reader to indulge in a mobile and moderate hope. It signals this teaching in Marianne's painful conversion to civility. Similarly, Elinor's plot line moves from hope to disappointment to hope fulfilled. But disappointment is not merely thematic. It recurs in visceral reactions to the text. Most critics have complained about the book's ending, about Austen's apparently cavalier treatment of Marianne. But the reader's lack of satisfaction in this marriage seems to be the whole point: the world will not allow us to have what precisely it is we want, especially when what we want—a union with Willoughby perhaps?—is marked by the dream of an all-too-easy and improbable, Rousseauistic (and therefore "Jacobin") transparency. Marianne's marriage to Brandon, this union of second loves, has not felt like much of a consolation for the inevitable disappointments that "reality" as it is constituted by Austen's novels doles out with such regularity. If we move away from the usual discussions of the epistemology of Austen's works (in which the moral worth of a character is determined by how correctly that character can understand his/her present and predict his/her future) we can see the important effect that the reader's unavoidable mistakes have. The reader, like Marianne and Elinor, is kept in the dark. And many of the hopes raised, the book is then careful to dash. We are tendered back to a limited and limiting world.
It is thus tempting to see Austen as an antiutopian, as a clear-eyed empiricist waging war against the seductions of an emancipatory imagination. Indeed, Sense and Sensibility is assiduous in its redirection of Utopian energies away from revolutionary upheaval. The Utopian concentration on the new, the cathexis onto a qualitative break with the past is not directed against an obdurate physical world. Rather the desire to break with a repressive past finds its outlet in the shifts within the notion of identity, within character itself. Marianne's swift and complete conversion (like Darcy's) is a novum that the text unleashes. The pathos of reform is located not in the image of a redeemed world but in a chastened heart. The comic marriage plot requires the characters to change. The plot can thus appear to serve as the agent of a stiff-necked world which cannot be transformed. But the plot also argues that the world does not need to be changed, that the fault lies with our hearts, not our stars. The comic plot structure bears within it the prognostication, the predictability of happiness. To rail against the constitution of society, then, is to mistake it, to miss the opportunities it contains. The recalcitrant world, seen as external to the characters, is presented as containing within it the proper ingredients for happiness, for proper hope. Happiness does not demand revolution, but individual moral repair.
And yet, such a deeply conservative message, such a resolutely counterrevolutionary pedagogy, only tells half the story, for the apparent victory of the world over the individual as played out by the plot does not sacrifice the individual's claim against that world. While the scrutiny enacted by the use of style indirecte libre indicates the novel's submission of its main characters to that mediocre piece of society that it tropes as the social totality, Austen's style also deploys the full force of its ironies against the follies of that totality.
One of the most famous set pieces of Sense and Sensibility is, of course, its second chapter where Mrs. John Dashwood talks her husband out of offering financial help to "the widow and children of his father" (47). She does so by invoking the very generosity she means to strangle in its crib ("What brother on earth would do half so much for his sisters, even if really his sisters! And as it is—only half blood!—But you have such a generous spirit!" ). And John Dashwood buys it. He forgoes his original intention completely:
This argument was irresistible. It gave to his intentions whatever of decision was wanting before; and he finally resolved, that it would be absolutely unnecessary, if not highly indecorous, to do more for the widow and children of his father, than such kind of neighbourly acts as his own wife pointed out. (47)
The irony of this passage lies in its assumption that the reader will recognize the bad faith of John Dashwood's conclusions. What could be less decorous than not helping his father's relatively impoverished family? John Dashwood, we are told earlier on, "conducted himself with propriety in the discharge of his ordinary duties" (41). The unvoiced criticism here is that he does not behave properly in the discharge of extraordinary duties. He would be more worthy of respect, Austen tells the reader, if he had married a more amiable woman. But the woman he has married is "a strong caricature of himself;—more narrow-minded and selfish" (41). She is an imperfect copy—a literally more humorous version—of her husband, and thus she reduces him to a poor copy of herself, or rather, of himself. The mirroring relation between the two turns John into the mere outline of a respectable man. Their respectability is vitiated by their selfishness, but they are unable to see themselves in these terms; instead they cloak their self-seeking in the garb of benevolence and decorum. The wit of John Dashwood's capitulation to his wife's version of his own worst instincts thus lies in the distance between accepted norm and actual behavior. One of the novel's great rhetorical strengths is its ability to deploy these norms tacitly as well as discuss them explicitly: it preempts the reader's disagreement by aligning the reader against characters who subscribe to but cannot live according to ideals of good manners, that is, of decorum and propriety. Following the lead Adorno has given us, we can say that Austen's irony is both the cry of an angry individuality and the negative image of that Utopia whose traces we can make out in the concept and practice of propriety. This irony thus carries a radical critique which modifies the apparent conservatism of her plot.
To take Austen's vision of propriety seriously, then, would be to see her as a rather difficult writer about classical liberalism.49 Concentrating on the promise of happiness located in civil society, she works from the premise of a radical individuality and uses a domesticated notion of rights (here troped as propriety) to mediate between the claims of the assertive subject and the social totality. The centrality of women (who are not and cannot be economic actors) in her plots underscores the implicit universality that the notion of rights entails (even in Burke's account, though Burke would limit the universe to the nation) and underlines the necessity of this global notion of rights for the orderly functioning of capitalist society. Her plots show the conflicts that seem inevitably to arise when the economic conditions which bring the language of rights to the forefront come into conflict with basic respect for these rights.
She is perhaps the first novelist of classical liberalism because she has metabolized the situation of postrevolutionary modernity and has thematized it while trying to tame its more disruptive energies. We can speculate that her canonization had to wait for several decades after her death because it was only then that the problem she sought to solve could be recognized. But by then, it seems, it was too late, for the Utopian promise of tact—the interpersonal reconciliation of a fiercely-guarded autonomy with the exigencies of social existence in a market economy—was no longer a sufficient program for what had developed into a fully, self-conscious class society.50
The emancipatory moment of tact and propriety has therefore most probably passed, and Austen can only appear to us as a conservative. But she can still shock us with the unexpected astringencies of her tone. I would like to contend that there is still great critical power in Austen's novel. Sense and Sensibility confronts us with the as-yet unsolved project of our modernity. It presents us with the demand that we reconcile our behavior with our norms, our actions with the minimal Utopian hope for respect and autonomy. To read Austen nostalgically is therefore a temptation we should resist, for to do so is to misunderstand the fractures that mark the temporality of her texts. It is to mistake her irony and to see it aimed at the past, when in fact the insistent disjunctions between tenor and vehicle that scar Sense and Sensibility can only be healed in the future, if they are to be healed at all.51
1 Here is Mudrick's summation: "Marianne, the life and center of the novel, has been betrayed; and not by Willoughby" (Marvin Mudrick, Irony as Defence and Discovery [Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1968], 72.) Mudrick's condemnation has had a long half-life. Its traces can be found in A. Walton Litz, Jane Austen: A Study of Her Development (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1965), 81–82; Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1979), 146–57; and Mary Poovey, The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1988), 172–94.
2 Julia Prewitt Brown, Jane Austen's Novels: Social Change and Literary Form (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1979), 56–60; Susan Morgan, In the Meantime (Chicago: Chicago Univ. Press, 1980), 109–31; Claudia Johnson, "The Twilight of Probability: Uncertainty and Hope in Sense and Sensibility," Philological Quarterly 62 (1983): 171–86, and Jane Austen: Women, Politics and the Novel (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1988), 49–72.
3 See Mudrick (note 1), 83–84; Marilyn Butler, Jane Austen and the War of Ideas (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1975), 191–92, D. A. Miller, Narrative and Its Discontents (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1981), 66–77.
4 Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility, ed. Tony Tanner (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1969), 315. All further references will be included parenthetically in the text.
5 John Brewer, "The Wilkites and the Law, 1763–74," in An Ungovernable People, ed. John Brewer and John Styles (New Brunswick: Rutgers Univ. Press, 1980), 133.
6 H. T. Dickinson, Liberty and Property (New York: Holmes and Meier, 1977), 123–60. This Whig-Tory consensus defines itself in opposition to the Court-Country controversy, where it tends to take the Court side. Thus what I am calling a consensus here marks the survival into the eighteenth century of jurisprudence and not the civic republican tradition. The theory of civic republican virtue did not have to account for the foundation of government: the republic was the ground and medium of virtue. The republic was its own reward. The natural law tradition, however, had in the seventeenth century developed its own historical sociology and authropology. It sought to account for the minimum developmental conditions for the the creation of the state. The historical contingency of government presents a different problem for the civic republicans than it does for the jurists: history, which threatens the republican constitution with corruption, is the very ground of the jurisprudential derivation of the state. Jurisprudential arguments about government could provide a descriptive model for the foundation of society whereas the republicans could only find a normative one. In short, jurists could show how government comes about; republicans could only show why it should.
7 Sir William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England (Philadelphia, 1803), 1:2:47, 48.
8 Blackstone, 1:2:48, 53.
9 For Hume's politics, see Duncan Forbes, Hume's Philosophical Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1975), 125–230. David Hume, "Of the Origin of Government," in Essays Moral, Political and Literary, ed. Eugene F. Miller (Indianapolis: Liberty Press, 1987), 37.
10 Tom Paine, "Common Sense," in The Thomas Paine Reader, ed. Isaac Kramnick and Michael Foot (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1987), 66.
11 In David Hume's Enquiries Concerning Human Understanding and Concerning the Principles of Morals, ed. L. A. Selby-Bigge (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1975), 183–83, justice and benevolence seem to complement each other. Justice—the protection of property—is born of the apparently natural scarcity of goods and seems to substitute for that care for others which we call benevolence. Following the same logic, a completely benevolent race would have no need for justice even in conditions of scarcity. Justice compensates for a lack of benevolence: benevolence renders justice unnecessary. But justice and benevolence can also be seen to conflict. In Hume's description of a state of pure benevolence, property circulates according to need and there is no division of wealth. Justice, on the other hand, being a "cautious, jealous virtue," prevents this circulation by making right take precedence over need. Benevolence is centrifugal; justice, centripetal. The Whig discourse of humanist jurisprudence and the political economics that it spawned can be said to develop out of the tension between the demands of property and the claims of benevolence, out of the conflicting languages of individual right and social good.
12 Hume (note 11), 261.
13 For an elegant description of Hume's theory of justice, see Knud Haakonssen, The Science of a Legislator (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1981), 4–41.
14 Edmund Burke, "Letters on a Regicide Peace," in The Works of the Right Honorable Edmund Burke, 12 vols. (Boston: Little Brown, 1871), 5:310.
15 J. G. A. Pocock, "Burke and the Ancient Constitution," in Politics, Language and Time (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1989), 209.
16 Burke (note 14), 3:332.
17 See, for instance, Burke, 7:320–40.
18 For the relation of equity to precedence in eighteenth-century common jurisprudence, see David Lieberman, The Province of Legislation Determined (New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1989), 75–87, 131–32, 135–36.
19 For the conflict between justice and benevolence in Hume (note 11), see paragraphs 145–63. For Adam Smith, see The Theory of Moral Sentiments, ed. A. L. MacFie and D. D. Raphael (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1979), 79–82. See also Haakonssen (note 13), 10–11, 85–86.
20 Thus Pocock can see the ideology of manners put forward by the civic jurisprudential tradition as an answer to the civic republican notion of virtue. Where the republicans see corruption in commerce and virtue only in an active public life, the Whig jurists locate virtue in manners and derive manners from le doux commerce of social and financial interaction. Where Pocock is excellent at seeing the positive goal of self-refinement that manners are given by the apologists of Whig modernity, he seems to ignore the regulatory, "negative" freedom that manners also entail. See J. G. A. Pocock, "Virtues, Rights and Manners," in Virtue, Commerce, and History (New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1985), 37–50, see especially 48–50.
21 Jane Nardin, Those Elegant Decorums (Albany: State Univ. of New York Press, 1973), 24–25.
22 Johnson, "Twilight of Probability" (note 2), 172–80.
23 This privacy of sentiment should not be confused with Willoughby's and Edward Ferrars's insistent secrecy about their previous attachments. Their previous commitments have a social as well as an emotional impact: their actions are, in effect, promises that change the world in which they live. They have contracted obligations and debts that do not allow them the freedom that they seem to profess they have. To put it bluntly, the two men get secrecy wrong and invert propriety.
24 Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia, trans. E. F. N. Jephcott (London: Verso, 1974), 37.
25 Franco Moretti, The Way of the World (London: Verso, 1987), 48–52.
26 Gilbert Ryle, "Jane Austen and the Moralists," in Critical Essays on Jane Austen, ed. Judith O'Neill (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1970), 117.
27 Pocock, Virtue (note 20), 48.
28 See J. G. A. Pocock, The Machiavellian Moment (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1976), 423–552.
29 Pocock, Virtue (note 20), 48–50.
30 See Richard Tuck, "The 'modern' theory of natural law," and Istvan Hont, "The language of sociability and commerce: Samuel Pufendorf and the theoretical foundations of the 'Four-Stages Theory,'" in The Languages of Political Theory in Early-Modern Europe, ed. Anthony Pagden (New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1987), 99–122, 253–76.
31 See Pocock, "The Mobility of Property and the Rise of Eighteenth-Century Sociology," in Virtue (note 20), 103–24, and "Cambridge Paradigms and Scotch Philosophers, in Wealth and Virtue, ed. Istvan Hont and Michael Ignatieff (Cambridge: Univ. Press, 1983), 235–52.
32 Pocock, Virtue, 48; M. M. Goldsmith, "Liberty, luxury and the pursuit of happiness," in Pagden (note 30), 251.
33 Nancy Armstrong, Desire and Domestic Fiction (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1987), 3–95.
34 Pocock, "Authority and Property," in Virtue, 51–72.
35 Pocock, "The Political Economy of Burke's Analysis of the French Revolution," in Virtue, 198–211; C. B. Macpherson, Burke (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1984), 39–49, 66–69.
36 Adorno (note 24), 36. I have modified Jephcott's translation here: he has added a pun that Adorno would have liked but which the German does not authorize.
37 Adorno, 37.
38 "But he who perceives in all humility where this is leading, who sees how prettily the happy burgher makes a Paradise of his little garden and how even the unhappy man pursues his way willingly under his burden … yes, he is quiet and constructs his world from within himself and is also happy, because he is human. And then, no matter how confined he might be, he always maintains the sweet feeling of freedom, and that he can leave this prison, when he wants to" (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Werke, 14 vols. [Munich: C. H. Beck, 1981], 6:13–14; my translation).
39 Friedrich von Schiller, Naive and Sentimental Poetry and On the Sublime, trans. Julius Elias (New York: Frederick Ungar, 1966), 208. I have modified this translation.
40 The Kantian echo might well seem a presumption here, an overburdening of Austen's text with the heaviness of German philosophy. In my defense I will juxtapose two quotations. The first is Austen's. Robert Ferrars has just married Lucy Steele and as far as the self-seeking and self-important John Dashwood is concerned, one brother is as good as the other: "Certainly, there can be no difference; for Robert will now to all intents and purposes be considered as the eldest son;—and as to any thing else, they are both very agreeable young men, I do not know that one is superior to the other" (294). Elinor holds her peace, but we may guess that the irony of John's statement rests on the reader's knowledge (a knowledge that we supposedly share with Elinor) that one brother is superior to the other, that even wealth cannot make them equal or exchangeable. Here, now, is Kant:
"In the realm of ends everything has either a price [Preis] or a dignity [Würde]. Whatever has a price can be replaced by something else as its equivalent; on the other hand, whatever is above all price, and therefore admits of no equivalent, has a dignity….
Now morality is the condition under which alone a rational being can be an end in itself…. Thus morality and humanity, so far as it is capable of morality, alone have dignity. Skill and diligence in work have a market value; wit, lively imagination, and humor have an affective price; but fidelity in promises and benevolence … have intrinsic worth" (immanuel Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, trans. Lewis White Beck [Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1959], 53).
Of course, John Dashwood is not a moral man: he views people as means, not ends, and cannot envision a world that consists of true dignity, that is, a world in which the worth of a person cannot be reduced to a market value. That Edward Ferrars has dignity and should command respect because he, like Elinor, is faithful in promises and benevolent from principle, is an intuition that John Dashwood is constitutionally incapable of feeling and is a conclusion that the reader, we must assume, is supposed to reach. Like Kant (and like Adorno), Austen's morality is based on the categorical distinction between dignity and price, between respect (Acht/Achtung) and the reduction of the truly human to mere returnable goods.
41 Gilbert and Gubar (note 1), 154; Poovey (note 1), 204, 208, 237–40; Deborah Kaplan, "Achieving Authority: Jane Austen's First Published Novel," Nineteenth-Century Fiction 37 (1983): 203–18.
42 Nardin (note 21), 24–25.
43 Tact and propriety in Austen's case serve not as a demand that social relations should change but rather as a recognition that they already have. Propriety is meant to protect the daughters of a gentry that has fallen on hard times. But to reduce Austen to her class position is to misunderstand her appeal. Though Austen might well be the spokesperson for a beleaguered country gentry, she has come to speak a language that is comprehensible to other classes whose interests are not necessarily the same as those of gentry. In other words, a class on the way down might express itself in a way that makes sense to a class on the way up. But we can go even further. Perhaps we can see in the apparent anxieties expressed in Austen's novels, a more universalizable interest which is "propped" on that of the Regency gentry. For the notion of propping, see Jean Laplanche, Life and Death in Psychoanalysis (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1976), 15–18.
44 Reinhart Koselleck, Futures Past, trans. Keith Tribe (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1985); Jürgen Habermas, The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity, trans. Frederick Lawrence (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1987); Hannah Arendt, "The Concept of History," in Between Past and Future (New York: Penguin, 1968), 41–90; Ernst Bloch, Natural Law and Human Dignity, trans. Dennis J. Schmidt (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1986). In a more complicated way, my comments owe a debt to Paul de Man, "Literary History and Literary Modernity" and "Lyric and Modernity," Blindness and Insight (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1983), 142–65, 166–86.
45 Koselleck (note 44), "Historia Magistra Vitae," 21–38; Habermas (note 44), 7.
46 Koselleck, "Modernity and the Planes of Historicity," 3–20; "Historical Criteria of the Modern Concept of Revolution," 21–38; "Neuzeit," 231–266.
47 Koselleck, 17–18.
48 Arendt (note 44), 76–86, Koselleck, "On the Relation of Past and Future," 14–15, "Neuzeit," 262–66.
49 Mary Evans makes a similar point using a different argument in Jane Austen and the State (London: Tavistock, 1987), 2, 69–70.
50 Austen's belated Victorian canonization indicates the complexity of her texts. Her acceptance smacks of nostalgia. As Andrew Lang writes in 1886: "Ah, madam, what a relief it is to come back to your witty volumes, and forget the follies of today in those of Mr Collins and Mrs Bennet!" To forget the unspecified but apparently overbearing lunacies of the present for the limited humors of individual characters seems to entail dreaming anachronistically of a society whose problems can be located in personal relations with easily identifiable character-types. It marks a yearning for the universality of a certain class and gender position once the validity of that universality is seen to have been eliminated by history. It is to want to live in the parsonage when in fact one lives in the city, to tend the souls of one's cure when one is an engineer or a businessman. Austen thus represents an easier past to which it is always pleasant to return. In a similar vein, Nancy Armstrong (note 33) writes of Austen: "It was not this particular segment of society that she idealized, then, but rather the language that constituted the nuances of emotion and the ethical refinements that seemed to arise from within to modify the political meaning of signs, a new language of kinship relations capable of reproducing this privileged community on a personal scale within society at large" (160). One should perhaps read this claim (or rather this set of related claims) in juxtaposition to Raymond Williams's critique of Austen's omission of classes other than the lower aristocracy and middle gentry from her works. The ideological moment in Austen's work then is a complex one: her fascination with one class seems to give that class position a universal validity while stressing the personal aspects of social reproduction. To put it bluntly, the appeal of Austen's fiction to the Victorians might have rested on its substitution of humor and personality for the larger and more intransigent structures of class conflict. See Raymond Williams, The Country and the City (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1973), 112–19.
51 Thanks are due to the Jane Austen Society of North America and the Washington Area Romanticists' Group, which both lent a generous and critical eye to earlier versions of the work. I would also like to express my gratitude to Patricia Meyer Spacks, Deborah Kaplan, Neil Fraistat, Orrin Wang and Adrienne Donald for their insights.
Tara Ghoshal Wallace (essay date 1992)
SOURCE: "Sense and Sensibility and the Problem of Feminine Authority," in Eighteenth-Century Fiction, Vol. 4, No. 2, January, 1992, pp. 149–63.
[In the following essay, Wallace posits that Sense and Sensibility is Austen's most antifeminist book because of its ambiguous position on feminine authority and power.]
For almost two hundred years, readers of Sense and Sensibility have questioned Jane Austen's ambivalence towards the values of proper conduct as opposed to those of inner-directed behaviour; but this question has tended to obscure another ideological issue in the novel—the issue of feminine authority and power.1 While readers debate whether the narrator is drawing rigid lines between sense and feeling, they may overlook the book's attitude towards female power, an attitude which is negative, cautionary, devaluing. In this essay I argue that Sense and Sensibility betrays Austen's anxieties about female authority; seen from this perspective the novel reveals struggles and tensions rather than ideological serenity.
The most straightforward way to begin is to assert that Sense and Sensibility is an account of Austen's failure to legitimate feminine authority. It is Austen's most antifeminist book, a book inhabited by monstrous women and victimized men, a book which seems to deny all possibility of sisterhood, articulated in its equivocal last words—"and among the merits and the happiness of Elinor and Marianne, let it not be ranked as the least considerable, that though sisters, and living almost within sight of each other, they could live without disagreement between themselves."2 At the same time, feminist critics such as Patricia Meyer Spacks and Deborah Kaplan have shown that Sense and Sensibility criticizes patriarchal values and practices.3 The dichotomy between fear of feminine authority and desire for it occupies Austen's novelistic imagination and informs her narrative strategies in Sense and Sensibility.
One antifeminist strategy that Austen consistently uses is the diversionary tactic. The sins of a man, while not ignored or excused, are overshadowed by an emphasis on the despicable behaviour of a woman. Manifested in nearly every male/female relationship in the novel, the device is pervasive. For example, although Elinor ceases to blame Charlotte Palmer for her husband's rudeness (p. 112), the dialogue that follows her re-evaluation demonstrates not the husband's ill breeding, but the wife's foolishness. What the reader experiences, through Elinor's conversation with Mrs Palmer, is the difficulty of responding politely to vulgarity and mindless chatter. No comparable experience of Mr Palmer is offered; instead, we are told about Elinor's mixed feelings:
She found him, however, perfectly the gentleman in his behaviour to all visitors, and only occasionally rude to his wife and her mother; she found him very capable of being a pleasant companion, and only prevented from being so always, by too great an aptitude to fancy himself as much superior to people in general, as he must feel himself to be to Mrs. Jennings and Charlotte, (p. 304)
This evaluation not only suggests women's inadequacies, but also problematizes Elinor's judgment. We learn that her mild resistance to Mr Palmer is connected to her "remembrance of Edward's generous temper" (p. 305), and this fact personalizes and renders her evaluation less authoritative; Mr Palmer emerges more or less unscathed by the criticisms of Elinor, and Austen seems to accept his behaviour as perfectly normal.4
More significantly, the actions of John Dashwood and his great-uncle are allowed to become peripheral. The famous dialogue between John Dashwood and his wife obscures the patriarchal insensitivity of the old man and shades the cold selfishness of the young one. What remains prominent in the reader's mind is Fanny Dashwood's aggressive manipulation of her husband's irresolute desires. John himself describes his decision in words that give Fanny credit for it: "I believe you are perfectly right. My father certainly could mean nothing more by his request to me than what you say. I clearly understand it now, and I will strictly fulfill my engagement by such acts of assistance and kindness to them as you have described" (p. 12). He cedes agency to her, and thereby abrogates responsibility for his conduct to his sisters. Fanny wins; but so does John, for his meanness is projected onto his wife.
Another small example helps establish the pattern. When Sir John Middleton's unrestrained hospitality leads him to invite the Steele sisters to his home, "Lady Middleton was thrown into no little alarm … by hearing that she was very soon to receive a visit from two girls whom she had never seen in her life" (p. 118). But rather than let the reader dwell on the sensitivity and sense of a man who would so casually foist house-guests on his wife, the narrative quickly jumps to the punishment Sir John must suffer: "As it was impossible however now to prevent their coming Lady Middleton resigned herself to the idea of it, with all the philosophy of a well-bred woman, contenting herself with merely giving her husband a gentle reprimand on the subject five or six times every day" (p. 118). Male insensitivity is overshadowed by female anger, and Sir John is made to seem the victim of a nagging, unreasonable wife.
Edward Ferrars and John Willoughby are the primary beneficiaries of Austen's diversionary tactics. Edward, from the beginning, is presented as the passive victim of monstrous women—his mother, his sister, and Lucy Steele. The cold ambition of his family not only presses him towards a mercenary marriage but also prevents him from doing anything with his life. Their preference for "great men or barouches" is opposed to his desire for "domestic comfort and the quiet of a private life" (p. 16), and in such a dichotomy there is no question about the right side. Edward's participation in his aimless life and his willingness to blame his mother and sister for it, however, are muted. Although he admits to being unable to "resist the solicitations of his friends to do nothing" (p. 103), his passivity seems entirely admirable compared to their aggressive exhortations to be "smart," "genteel," "dashing and expensive" (pp. 102–3). Even his entanglement with Lucy he ascribes to his family. He falls in love with her because "instead of having anything to do, instead of having any profession chosen for me, or being allowed to chuse any myself, I returned home to be completely idle"—to a home, moreover, that "my mother did not make … in every respect comfortable" (p. 362). Edward's lack of energy and agency is to be explained away by the aggressive manipulations of others—of women.
Elinor's acceptance of Edward's view is a crucial moment in the tension in the novel. Elinor, like others, blames Mrs Ferrars for all that is mysterious or disappointing in Edward (just as in Emma the inhabitants of Highbury are eager to blame Mrs Churchill for Frank's inconsiderateness). She ascribes his coldness "to his mother's account; and it was happy for her that he had a mother whose character was so imperfectly known to her, as to be the general excuse for every thing strange on the part of her son" (p. 101). Such conviction allows her to absolve Edward and "to turn for comfort to the renewal of her confidence in Edward's affection" (p. 102), just as later she can be "consoled by the belief that Edward had done nothing to forfeit her esteem" in becoming engaged to Lucy Steele (p. 141). Actually, Elinor offers more than forgiveness; she turns away from her own sense of injury and betrayal and concentrates on Edward's misery: "if he had injured her, how much more had he injured himself; if her case were pitiable, his was hopeless…. She wept for him, more than for herself" (p. 140). She constructs, in effect, a hierarchy of victims and villains: Edward's "imprudence" has hurt him more than it has her, and his is a venial sin compared to the evil machinations of Mrs Ferrars and Lucy Steele.5
It seems to me clear that Austen does not expect the reader to accept Elinor's reading as the definitive one. Indeed, there is sufficient irony in the passages I have quoted to alert us to Elinor's evasions. But the discovery and discussion of Elinor's disingenuousness is, in fact, yet another red herring, more subtle and more successful than Elinor's own wishful excuses. If we expend sufficient energy and acuity in analysing and exposing Elinor's self-deluding justifications, we are the more likely to be diverted from remembering that Edward has in fact contracted an engagement which he is too weak to fulfil or to repudiate, and that he has, while thus encumbered, raised expectations in another woman. If Austen can shift the emphasis from the man's external inconsistencies to the woman's internal contradictions, she can avoid the condemnation or at least the profound doubts that his behaviour might elicit.6
Rather than examining Elinor's blind spot about Edward or her eventual sympathy for Willoughby, both of which have attracted the attention of others,7 I want to look at some connections between Edward and Willoughby less frequently discussed, and the ways in which Austen evades commentary on crucial aspects of Willoughby's confessional narrative.
Mrs Dashwood, it turns out, was partially correct in ascribing Willoughby's precipitate departure from Barton to Mrs Smith. She has indeed "exercised the privilege of riches upon a poor dependant cousin" (p. 75). But, as we learn later, this is not because of a suspected engagement with Marianne but rather because of his seduction and abandonment of Eliza Williams. While moral Mrs Smith is no mercenary Mrs Ferrars, the profound distinction is blurred in the text, left without comment.8 Willoughby's own account of the confrontation reveals a great deal about him. He tells Elinor:
The purity of her life, the formality of her notions, her ignorance of the world—every thing was against me…. She was previously disposed, I believe, to doubt the morality of my conduct in general, and was moreover discontented with the very little attention, the very little portion of my time that I had bestowed upon her, in my present visit…. By one measure I might have saved myself. In the height of her morality, good woman! she offered to forgive the past, if I would marry Eliza. That could not be—(p. 323)
The pejorative tone he uses to describe Mrs Smith's morality is left unchallenged by both Elinor and narrator, made irrelevant by the wonder of this man's willingness to speak openly and emotionally, to reveal "my whole heart to you" (p. 319). Such a spectacle of male candour and introspection clearly seems to deserve some reward—the reward of glossing over his actual behaviour and its effect on others. Both Elinor and Austen seem to replicate the response of Sir John Middleton, that "good-natured, honest, stupid soul" whose "heart was softened in seeing mine [Willoughby's] suffer" (p. 330). Willoughby is granted the same dispensation that Edward gets: because he is visibly miserable, the misery he causes others is less harshly judged. Marianne, on the other hand, earns no such grace; her overpowering grief is perceived as self-indulgent in part because she makes others aware of it.
Oddly, the text never questions why Willoughby's marrying Eliza "could not be." Presumably, Mrs Smith's forgiveness would include continued financial support, so the hindrance cannot be fear of poverty. Eliza's illegitimacy is certainly a factor, but her situation, unlike Harriet Smith's, seems not to be generally known (Brandon's story tells us that there is speculation, but no certainty about her), and Mrs Smith's support is a step towards general acceptance. In the absence of other compelling justifications, one is forced back to the notion that a fallen woman is no proper match for a gentleman. Elinor, though she condemns Willoughby's "indifference" and "cruel neglect" of Eliza (p. 322), at no time endorses Mrs Smith's position. Even Colonel Brandon, who fights a duel with Willoughby, does not suggest that Willoughby make reparation by marrying Eliza. Eliza's sin excludes her from society forever, and Austen's silence about her fate assumes that her expulsion is necessary and appropriate.
Such absolute exclusion contrasts with Austen's later treatment of fallen women. Her contempt for Lydia Bennet, for example, does not prevent her from allowing Lydia back into society—in fact, the narrative explicitly rejects Mr Collins's ungenerous view of "Christian forgiveness."9 In Mansfield Park Maria Rushworth is exiled, but her adultery ranks higher in the hierarchy of sexual crimes than Eliza's unchastity. Moreover, Austen marks the contrast between Maria's "retirement and reproach, which could allow no second spring of hope or character"10 and Crawford's "vexation": "That punishment, the public punishment of disgrace, should in a just measure attend his share of the offence, is, we know, not one of the barriers, which society gives to virtue. In this world, the penalty is less equal than could be wished."11
Willoughby, like Edward, wants to shift responsibility from himself to others—specifically, to the women who actively manipulate him. He urges Elinor to remember that Eliza is not without guilt, that he is in part victimized by "the violence of her passions" (p. 322). He blames the "unlucky circumstance" (p. 321) of exposure and the unreasonable morality of Mrs Smith for his failure to propose to Marianne. Finally, he is able to slough off responsibility for what Elinor considers his cruellest act—the "infamous letter" to Marianne (p. 325). The vulgar cruelty of the letter turns out to be his wife's. As Willoughby tells Elinor, "I had only the credit of servilely copying such sentiments as I was ashamed to put my name to. The original was all her own—her own happy thoughts and gentle diction" (p. 328). Poor Willoughby! So reduced, so unmanned by a shrewish woman that even the capacity to write his own story is taken away. Sophia Grey's "passion—her malice … must be appeased" (p. 321), and appeased by Willoughby's complete capitulation to her will; she will write a character for him, will be like a novelist creating a villain. Willoughby is so powerless in the face of Sophia's "ingratiating virulence" that he must cede both words and memories—he is "forced" to give up "the last relics of Marianne. Her three notes … the lock of hair … all, every memento was torn from me" (p. 329). The towering potency of Sophia extenuates Willoughby's behaviour and saves him from identification as a villain.
To some extent, Marianne joins this trio of powerful women who manipulate Willoughby. In order to rehabilitate him (even partially), the narrative must censure her. She is chastised by Elinor, by the narrator, and by some readers for creating a false relationship and a false image of Willoughby.12 Like Emma, she has tried to be a controlling artist-figure, and we are allowed to feel that Willoughby has merely gone along with her authoritative characterization of their romance. He is led by her taste and her emphatic opinions—"If any difference appeared … it lasted no longer than till the force of her arguments and the brightness of her eyes could be displayed" (p. 47). Even their intimacy derives from Marianne's agency: as Willoughby tells Elinor, "To have resisted such attractions, to have withstood such tenderness!—Is there a man on earth who could have done it!—Yes, I found myself, by insensible degrees, sincerely fond of her" (p. 321). Willoughby's language here describes his sense of being a passive, even resisting, partner (who generalizes in order to distance himself—"Is there a man on earth"), and the narrative allows his language to stand without challenge. (In Pride and Prejudice, Darcy's similar sense of being trapped by Elizabeth's attractions is, on the contrary, explicitly criticized.)13 There are so many women who inscribe their desires on Willoughby, who assert authority over him, that his own desire, his very self, becomes muted and blurred.
In Sense and Sensibility women try to bend others to their will—and often succeed. From Fanny Dashwood's manipulation of John to Lucy Steele's seduction of Robert Ferrars, we see women exerting power, sometimes directly and sometimes covertly. This novel seems to belie Spacks's contention that in eighteenth-century fiction "Women who openly express aggression, who make apparent their desire to control the behavior of others, occasionally achieve short-term success, but always fail in the long run."14 Those who succeed in this narrative are, however, punished by the narrator. No other novel by Austen is so replete with demonic, wilful women. The destructive egoism of Fanny Dashwood, Lady Middleton, Lucy Steele, Mrs Ferrars, and Sophia Grey makes abundantly clear what sort of woman seeks authority and tries to make the world conform to her image of it. No woman in her right mind would take as a model the imperious or designing women who achieve success in Sense and Sensibility; if feminine power is linked to these characteristics, women and men do right to keep women unempowered, marginal, silent.
But this position presents a problem for Austen the writer: how can she, in novel after novel, keep inscribing her own desires? How can she manipulate characters and readers if to do so connects her with the monstrous women she has depicted? I do not think Austen finds a solution in Sense and Sensibility; rather, it seems to me that she constructs a careful vindication and criticism of the right-thinking authoritative woman by projecting authorial anxieties onto the figure of Elinor Dashwood.
Adrienne Rich has argued that a woman who succeeds in a patriarchal society is often appropriated by its values, so that she becomes caught up in her own specialness and thereby becomes indifferent to the lives of women who have not joined the fraternity.15 Among such chosen women there occurs a loss of imagination, an inability to conceptualize and problematize the lives of their less fortunate sisters. In Sense and Sensibility this phenomenon declares itself in the narrator's silence about a number of lives: the loneliness of Mrs Smith who grants "voluntary forgiveness" (p. 367) to Willoughby, or of Mrs Ferrars to whom Lucy becomes "as necessary … as either Robert or Fanny" (p. 365); the disappointment of Sophia Willoughby, married to a man who values her only for her money and who abandons her shortly after marriage in order to seek Marianne's forgiveness; the helpless anger of Lucy Steele, always on the watch to improve her social position, always required to be servile and insincere in order to be accepted.16 It may seem irrelevant or even stubbornly wrongheaded to demand interiority in relatively minor characters (this is not, after all, Middle-march), but such consistent suppression of the inner lives of aggressive women argues an urgent desire to distance narrative authority from the authority claimed by aggressive female characters.
A much safer place to situate feminine authority is in the figure of Elinor, who seems to have the narrator's unqualified sympathy. The sympathy derives in part from her role as victim—as Kaplan puts it, "For Austen, authority belongs to the self-consciously powerless."17 Moreover, Elinor's claims to authority are similar to those of her creator—a clear eye and a lively sense of the realities of life. But Austen finds ways to subvert the authority of this admirable heroine. She shows that Elinor's propriety sometimes veils sarcasm and contempt for others, and that what lurks behind her sarcasm is painful resentment at feeling marginalized. If Elinor's pain and frustration save her from being a prig, they also make her susceptible to diagnostic readings, which in turn undermine her authority.
Elinor reserves most of her sarcasm for Marianne and Willoughby, taking pleasure in deflating their romantic excesses. When, for example, Willoughby waxes sentimental about the perfections of Barton Cottage, Elinor replies "I flatter myself … that even under the disadvantage of better rooms and a broader staircase, you will hereafter find your own house as faultless as you now do this" (p. 73). And when Marianne is transported by a vision of Norland in autumn, Elinor drily comments: "It is not every one … who has your passion for dead leaves" (p. 88). Now certainly the self-indulgence and measure of hypocrisy in Willoughby and Marianne's rhapsodizing are irritating, but they hardly seem to call for such blighting ripostes. In Elinor's swift critical responses we see a version of the hasty, unvarnished irritation of "large fat sighings."18 The novelist's own impatience with unseemly displays of sentimentality, treated with self-conscious lightness in Northanger Abbey, is here projected onto Elinor.
If Marianne replicates novelistic activity in her construction of a romance hero, Elinor exhibits a different kind of authorial practice: observation and analysis. Like her creator, she is better at dissecting behaviour than at contriving an exciting plot. Moreover, like a novelist she shares her observations, sometimes in ways that defy propriety. Inserting herself into a conversation between Marianne and Edward, she takes pleasure in showing how Marianne's stated indifference to wealth masks expectations of a high income. When Edward seems to approve of Marianne's gaiety, Elinor leaps in with a corrective version: "I should hardly call her a lively girl—she is very earnest, very eager in all she does—sometimes talks a great deal and always with animation—but she is not often really merry" (p. 93). To Colonel Brandon's appreciation of Marianne's "amiable prejudices," Elinor opposes a critical view: "There are inconveniences attending such feelings as Marianne's, which all the charms of enthusiasm and ignorance of the world cannot atone for. Her systems have all the unfortunate tendency of setting propriety at naught" (p. 56). The reader, in spite of the narrator's silence here, might question the propriety of Elinor's propensity to provide hostile analysis of her sister. It may be appropriate to note the errors and deficiencies in those around us; it is a much more problematic, even dangerous proposition to make them the subject of public discourse—in conversations or in novels. The risk that Elinor takes in making public her observations and evaluations neatly replicates the danger facing the female writer: the reader may find her accurate, perceptive, even witty, but at the same time consider her crabbed, unlikeable, unfeminine.19
To rescue Elinor from this precarious place, the narrative turns not to an indisputable system of ethics but to the typically novelistic strategy of examining motivation and feeling. Austen knows, to use Bakhtin's phrase, that "images of official-authoritative truth … have never been successful in the novel."20 She therefore moves to the discourse of psychology and invites us to locate the source of Elinor's desire for authority; and we discover that Elinor's calm superiority conceals a profound sense of frustration. Her amused contempt for the behaviour of Mrs Ferrars and Fanny, her claim that "it was not in Mrs. Ferrars's power to distress her," masks the double pain of losing Edward and being "pointedly slighted" by his family (pp. 232–33). Her anger and disappointment express themselves indirectly, in a hostile (albeit accurate) assessment of Mrs Ferrars and a grim determination to depress Lucy's sense of triumph. (Even some of Elinor's repressive sarcasm towards Marianne can be ascribed to her disappointment in Edward. Willoughby and Marianne's open devotion to each other throws into higher relief Edward's "coldness and reserve" [p. 89], and the pain of such a contrast can find consolation in censorious judgments about the propriety of public displays of affection.)
Balked expectations regarding Edward merely add to a well-established sense of frustration. The demon that drives Elinor, that leads her to embrace rigid self-control and to judge others, is the knowledge that in her own family her superiority is generally unacknowledged and her authority consistently denied. Painfully aware that Marianne will brook no interference or even inquiry from her, she resorts to indirect supervision—spying on Marianne and urging Mrs Dashwood to exert the authority denied to herself. But Marianne insists on a "privacy which eluded all her watchfulness" (p. 167) and Mrs Dashwood refuses to follow Elinor's sensible advice, so Elinor can only pass judgment: "common sense, common care, common prudence, were all sunk in Mrs. Dashwood's romantic delicacy" (p. 85). Elinor's irritability here expresses more than specific disappointment; it results from a long experience of being marginalized in her own family. Elinor may prevail in the matter of deciding upon the number of servants to take to Barton, but in more important areas, she is ignored. Mrs Dashwood, valuing Marianne's "young and ardent mind" (p. 54) more than Elinor's prudence and propensity to "doubt where you can" (p. 78), does not disguise her preference; as Elinor knows, "Whatever Marianne was desirous of, her mother would be eager to promote—she could not expect to influence the latter" (p. 155). Maternal energies in the Dashwood family are firmly centred on Marianne, to the extent that Elinor seems absent from her mother's consciousness. There is something undeniably pathetic in Elinor's early sense of exclusion from shared family grief; she tells Marianne that Edward "and I have been at times thrown a good deal together, while you have been wholly engrossed on the most affectionate principle by my mother" (p. 20). There is pathos as well as bitterness when she later witnesses Mrs Dashwood's identification with Marianne:
Marianne continued to mend every day, and the brilliant cheerfulness of Mrs Dashwood's looks and spirits proved her to be, as she repeatedly declared herself, one of the happiest women in the world. Elinor could not hear the declaration, nor witness its proofs without sometimes wondering whether her mother ever recollected Edward. But Mrs Dashwood, trusting to the temperate account of her own disappointment which Elinor had sent her, was led away by the exuberance of her joy to think only of what would increase it. (p. 335)
This passage precisely describes Elinor's dilemma. Because she does not express her grief, she is denied the consolation, the attention that she deserves. Instead of being admired for her fortitude, instead of having others look beneath the placid surface, she is ignored. Her continuing composure in the face of such indifference can be interpreted in the context of an absolute system of ethics, as Elinor herself wants to see it—in explaining her calmness, she uses unemotional, legalistic language: "duty," "owed," "betraying," "acquit" (pp. 262–63).21 But it is a defence and a punishment. It allows Elinor to retreat from her own pain to a position of judgment on others. At times the gains are direct and obvious; confronted with Elinor's stoicism, Marianne can only "hate myself for ever," enabling Elinor to obtain "from her whatever promise she required" (p. 264). At other times Elinor wins a much more indirect and painful victory. Right after the paragraph quoted above, she finds herself alone with her mother, who promptly embarks on a recital of Marianne's happy prospects. Balked of an opportunity to discuss her own situation, and denied commendation for having had doubts about Willoughby, she can take comfort in noting her mother's foolishness. When Mrs Dashwood describes Colonel Brandon's feelings, "Elinor perceived,—not the language, not the professions of Colonel Brandon, but the natural embellishments of her mother's active fancy, which fashioned every thing delightful to her, as it chose" (p. 336). In this dialogue Mrs Dashwood seems much more foolish and selfcentred than she has before; her claim that "There was always a something,—if you remember,—in Willoughby's eyes at times, which I did not like" (p. 338) is a piece of egregious self-deception worthy of Mrs Bennet. Elinor's silent criticism of her mother is her revenge for the way in which her feelings and opinions have been discounted. Dialogue and evaluation work together, one to alter a previously sympathetic character, the other to reject the belittled version.
However justified Elinor may be in her opinions, however much evidence the narrator gives us on her behalf, we cannot overlook the painful feelings that precede the judgments. To be right in one's judgments is not to be free of anguish or even of prejudice. Nor is judging a particularly enabling activity. Rather, the process of judging at all, of situating oneself in a place of authority, is open to critical scrutiny. In Elinor Dashwood, Austen seems to have inscribed a set of doubtful motives and strategies that undermine her right to authority. Elinor is subjected to a diagnostic reading: there are so many clues about her disappointments, her thwarted desire for influence, her anger at those who ignore or trivialize her pain, that the reader must interpret rather than accept her view of the world. This is not to claim that Austen does not agree with Elinor's assessments, does not identify with her values and evaluations. On the contrary, she is only too self-consciously aware that Elinor's problems mirror her own. The lack of imaginative empathy for aggressive women, the tendency to be critically observant and censorious, the desire to voice opinions and have them taken seriously are problems that confront the author as well as the heroine of Sense and Sensibility. The "doublevoiced discourse" in this novel is not a device to distance character from author but rather to encode a female author's difficulties about her own desire for authority. Far from showing how "the writing subject cancels out the signs of his particular individuality,"22Sense and Sensibility displays the writing subject's struggles with authorship. These struggles can have no happy ending, which is perhaps why so many readers have detected a note of dysphoria at the conclusion of the novel. If female desire for a voice can be expressed only pathologically—by enslaving men or by adhering to rigid codes that perpetuate patriarchal power while they repress pain—then it is forever trapped. The best a woman writer can do is to describe her dilemma in a work that offers no solutions. In an act of courage as well as of despair, that is what Jane Austen does in Sense and Sensibility.
1 Critics both sympathetic and hostile to the code of propriety agree to locate the issue at the centre of the novel. Marilyn Butler, for whom Elinor is "an active, struggling Christian in a difficult world," says of Sense and Sensibility that "The entire action is organized to represent Elinor and Marianne in terms of rival value systems" (Jane Austen and the War of Ideas [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975], pp. 192, 184). Marvin Mudrick sees Austen marshalling her defences against "an insurgent sympathetic committing character like Marianne" (Jane Austen: Irony as Defense and Discovery [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1952], p. 91). Angela Leighton, providing a feminist revision of Mudrick, notes that "Elinor's Silences have Austen's approval; they signify heroic reticence and control, and are contained by the language of Sense. Marianne's Silences signify emotions which have escaped control, and which are therefore in opposition to Austen's art" ("Sense and Silences: Reading Jane Austen Again" in Jane Austen: New Perspectives, ed. Janet Todd, Women and Literature, n.s. 3 [New York: Holmes and Meier, 1983], 132). Those who blur or reverse the conventional identifications remain convinced of the centrality of this issue. Howard S. Babb, pointing to rhetorical evidence of overlapping, finds that "The argument remains utterly conventional, and Jane Austen's pursuit of it by tracing what might be called the double allegiance of each sister makes the novel none the less rigid" (Jane Austen's Novels: The Fabric of Dialogue [Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1962], p. 56); and Jan Fergus, reversing the dichotomy, argues that "One of Austen's major interests in the novel is to define feeling and sensitive behaviour … This behaviour is what Elinor exhibits and Marianne violates throughout the novel. It is Marianne who must learn to behave feelingly, not Elinor" (Jane Austen and the Didactic Novel: "Northanger Abbey," "Sense and Sensibility" and "Pride and Prejudice " [Totowa, NJ: Barnes and Noble, 1983], pp. 40–41). Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, in The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979), detect a tension in the novel "because Austen herself seems caught between her attraction to Marianne's sincerity and spontaneity, while at the same time identifying with the civil falsehoods and the reserved, polite silences of Elinor, whose art is fittingly portrayed as the painting of screens" (p. 157). I believe that what Austen screens in this novel is her discomfort with her own view of the role and authority of women.
2The Novels of Jane Austen, ed. R. W. Chapman, 5 vols, 3rd edition (London: Oxford University Press, 1932), I, 380. References are to this edition.
3 Spacks points to "the varieties of female submission" in Sense and Sensibility and shows how the novel exhibits the limited, constricted life of women ("The Difference It Makes," Soundings 64 , 356–57). Kaplan, whose aim, like mine, is to examine Austen's "particular accommodation of femininity and authority," finds that Austen locates feminine authority in "a trope not of reproduction and resemblance but of revision and difference" ("Achieving Authority: Jane Austen's First Published Novel," Nineteenth-Century Fiction 37 , 535–37). See also Mary Poovey, The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer: Ideology as Style in the Works of Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley, and Jane Austen (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), p. 193.
4 Michael Williams and T. B. Tomlinson comment on Elinor's assessment of Mr Palmer. Williams sees it as both a manifestation of Elinor's growth and proof that Elinor is not always Austen's surrogate (Jane Austen: Six Novels and Their Methods [Houndmills, Basing-stoke: Macmillan, 1986], pp. 41–42); Tomlinson connects it to the dark vision of the novel, a vision which sees negative traits "permanently embedded in human nature" (The English Middle-Class Novel [London: Macmillan, 1976], p. 44). While I do not disagree with these views, they omit what I believe Austen wants readers to omit: an awareness of the way in which men escape castigation in this novel.
5 Critics have been understandably uncertain and unhelpful in their assessments of Edward Ferrars. Howard Babb is one of the more sympathetic readers when he says that Edward exhibits "only his self-distrust, not any doubts about the virtues he holds in view" (p. 64). W. A. Craik notes that Austen has to "keep him in the background" because a "man situated between two women as he is situated between Lucy and Elinor can hardly avoid looking ineffectual, if not ridiculous" (Jane Austen: The Six Novels [London: Methuen, 1965], p. 42), but she does not examine Austen's reasons for putting Edward in such a situation. Mudrick's language shows his distrust of Austen's strategy: "The shadow of Mrs. Ferrars falls early … the ogress herself does not appear until her malevolence has been well established. When she appears at last, she is ready in all her ill-nature to devour Elinor for her presumptuous attitude toward Edward" (pp. 69–70). He does not, however, make explicit that his language criticizes a paranoid, almost hysterical attitude toward a powerful woman. Martin Price links strategy and ideology when he says, "Mrs. Ferrars' fantasies are recognized as her reality … since her will is almost matched by her power; and the narrative quietly accepts her vision, by a method that is akin to free indirect discourse" (Forms of Life: Character and Moral Imagination in the Novel [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983], p. 71), and he too does not question the reasons for such quiet acceptance.
6 Austen is generally successful in her attempt to deflect attention away from Edward. See, for example, Zelda Boyd's "The Language of Supposing: Modal Auxiliaries in Sense and Sensibility" in Jane Austen: New Perspectives (p. 147). One of the few readers who returns agency and focus to Edward is Jane Miller, who says "He can let himself be manipulated by his rich mother and he can tell lies. He is still acceptable to Elinor" (Women Writing about Men [New York: Pantheon Books, 1986], p. 63). Her insight, coded in her syntax ("he can let himself), slips past Austen's double defence—Edward's passivity and Elinor's difficulties.
7 See, for example, Susan Morgan on Elinor's imaginative sympathy for Willoughby (In the Meantime: Character and Perception in Jane Austen 's Fiction [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980], p. 131), and Price on Elinor's "reflux of pity" (p. 83). Among those who focus on the contradictions in the scene are Mudrick (p. 85); Kenneth Moler (Jane Austen 's Art of Allusion [Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1968], p. 72); and Poovey (pp. 186–87). Babb is a notable exception, and, significantly, is strongly anti-Willoughby.
8 Michael Williams seems to endorse Willoughby's version of his situation when he says that in some ways Edward and Willoughby are "bluntly and consistently matched, right down to the fact that both depend for their fortunes on the whim of an elderly and irascible female relative" (p. 32). This kind of collapsing of distinction is due, I believe, to Austen's deliberate omission of narrative commentary.
9The Novels of Jane Austen, II, 364.
10The Novels of Jane Austen, III, 449.
11 III, 468. Mary Lascelles has said that there is a "failure of power" when Austen has to deal with Eliza's story, and that this failure has to do with Austen's decision to "keep out of reach of Eliza" (Jane Austen and Her Art [London: Oxford University Press, 1963, reissue of 1934 edition], p. 73). Spacks, too, notes the distance between the main plot and the Eliza narratives (p. 353). I believe that such distance has less to do with narrative skill than with Austen's uncomfortable acceptance and perpetuation of an ideology that unequally punishes male and female misconduct.
12 See Stuart M. Tave, Some Words of Jane Austen (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973), p. 84. Cf. Kaplan, p. 543.
13The Novels of Jane Austen, II, 190. Judith Wilt picks up Willoughby's language when she says: "The genuine love of a woman who believes herself to be genuinely loved is irresistible, and creates its counterpart. This is a kind of tentative 'embodiment' for Willougby and he values it. Tearing Marianne out of his heart to go back to his plan to marry wealth and station is exquisite pain for him" ("Jane Austen's Men: Inside/Outside 'the Mystery'" in Men by Women, ed. Janet Todd, Women and Literature, n.s. 2 [New York: Holmes and Meier, 1981], 69). Wilt replicates Willoughby's own interpretation of his experience: loving Marianne was a passive act, leaving her an active one.
14 "Sisters" in Fetter'd or Free? British Women Novelists 1670–1815, ed. Mary Anne Schofield and Cecilia Macheski (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1986) p. 139.
15 "The Antifeminist Woman" in On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose 1966–1978 (New York: W. W. Norton, 1979) pp. 82–83. Echoing Rich, Gloria Steinem confesses her own pride in cracking the male code: "This is the most tragic punishment that society inflicts on any second-class group. Ultimately the brainwashing works, and we ourselves come to believe our group is inferior. Even if we achieve a little success in the world and think of ourselves as 'different,' we don't want to associate with our group. We want to identify up, not down" ("Sisterhood" in Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions [New York: New American Library, 1986], p. 131).
16 Babb astutely sums up the conflict in Lucy, who "is convinced in her heart that she is the equal of anyone and jealously guards her success with Edward as a token of her value. But she also recognizes that society regards her as an inferior" (p. 70). But such interiority has to be teased out of a text which wants to keep Lucy ideologically functional. As Poovey points out, "The harshness with which Austen disposes of Lucy Steele exceeds the necessities of the plot, but it is perfectly in keeping with her moral design…. Austen wants to convince the reader that female nature is simply inexplicable and that propriety must restrain this natural, amoral force" (p. 190).
17 Kaplan, p. 547.
18Persuasion (The Novels of Jane Austen, V), p. 68.
19 In his recent biography Park Honan accurately characterizes the dilemma facing the fledgling writer: "Nobody on record has risked more than Jane Austen when she sought a 'voice' with which to address the public. She simply had to trust that the Austens would find her agreeable and sisterly despite her polished jokes and knowing airs" (Jane Austen: Her Life [New York: St Martin's Press, 1987], p. 94). Some of her troubled hopes are unmistakably inscribed in the character of Elinor.
20 M.M. Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist, ed. Michael Holquist (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981), p. 344.
21 Jan Fergus endorses the ideological absolute when she says that "Austen insists … that the consideration and self-command Elinor shows are not any the less required of her for being invariably misunderstood and unrewarded. They remain, absolutely and imperatively, an obligation" (p. 41). Such a view matches the confidence of Elinor's pronouncements, but it disallows discussion of motivation or even of psychic satisfactions gained by proper behaviour.
22 Michel Foucault, The Foucault Reader, ed. Paul Ribinow (New York: Pantheon Books, 1984) pp. 102–3. Austen's problematic relationship to her text resembles that of earlier woman writers. Janet Todd in The Sign of Angellica: Women, Writing, and Fiction, 1660–1800 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1989) points out that "In the story of women's fiction, the relation of author to authorial image and to creations will vary extremely but it will never achieve the clarity of men's relation to their ideas and creations, patented, signed and alienated from themselves" (p. 9). Austen anticipates what Margaret Homans describes as the strategy of nineteenth-century women writers: "by writing novels that represent the position of women in societies that do not accommodate their needs, these authors thematize the position of women's language in a culture that does not admit it" (Bearing the Word: Language and Female Experience in Nineteenth-Century Women's Writing [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986], p. 20). For a discussion of Austen's sense of marginality in her family, see John Halperin, The Life of Jane Austen (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984), especially pp. 218–19 and 237–38.
Alastair Duckworth (essay date 1994)
SOURCE: "Improving on Sensibility," in New Casebooks: Sense and Sensibility and Pride Prejudice, edited by Robert Clark, St. Martin's Press, 1994, pp. 26–37.
[In the following essay, Duckworth examines Sense and Sensibility's two heroines and argues that Austen did not intend for the novel's conclusion to be merely a "happy ending, " but one in which the marriages are grounded in a moral society.]
As many scholars have shown, Jane Austen works within inherited terms of aesthetic and ethical debate. Mrs Inchbald's Art and Nature (1796) and Maria Edgeworth's Letters of Julia and Caroline (1795) are only two of many novels, in the decade in which Sense and Sensibility had its genesis as Elinor and Marianne, to anticipate Jane Austen's treatment of familiar dualities of prudence and benevolence, reason and passion, discipline and freedom. While Mrs Inchbald is Godwinian in her dislike of institutions and Rousseauesque in her affirmation of the natural virtues, Maria Edgeworth is nearer the norm of the genre and Jane Austen's own position in recognising the potential excesses of sensibility and the need for the temporising effect of reason. Another novel, Mme d'Arblay's Camilla (1796), suggests in its description of the heroine a common view of the 'wayward' faculty:
[Her] every propensity was pure, and, when reflection came to her aid, her conduct was as exemplary as her wishes. But the ardour of her imagination, acted upon by every passing idea, shook her Judgment from its yet unsteady seat, and left her at the mercy of wayward Sensibility—that delicate, but irregular power, which now impels to all that is most disinterested for others, now forgets all mankind, to watch the pulsations of its own fancies.1
Jane Austen is listed among the subscribers to the first edition of Camilla, and she would, on the whole, subscribe to these reflections.
Her achievement in Sense and Sensibility is not, however, to be assessed merely in terms of her ability to reveal the dangers of excessive sensibility, or, for that matter, to modify a strictly rational outlook. Given her awareness of the widespread corruption of traditional moral assumptions, more than a mere accommodation of her inherited—almost hackneyed—terms was needed. The resolution of the novel was intended, I believe, not merely to discover the private happiness of the central characters, but to reconstitute around these unions the grounds of a moral society. It cannot be said that this intention is convincingly achieved—Marianne's marriage to the rheumatic Colonel Brandon is a gross over-compensation for her misguided sensibility—but it is wrong to imply, as Marvin Mudrick does, that the novel's failure reveals bad faith on Jane Austen's part, that Marianne's vitality and enthusiasm are betrayed not by Willoughby, but by an author who has here substituted for a personal commitment to feeling a dull conformity to social conventions.2
Marianne is one of the most interesting characters in Jane Austen's fiction. More than Emma even, she anticipates the tragically Quixotic heroines of the nineteenth-century novel, whose visions of existence can find no fulfilment within the limitations of their societies. But while Jane Austen permits Marianne's quixotism to act as an implicit criticism of what is limited and pedestrian in her society, she also, quite convincingly, reveals the deficiencies of her idealism.
Nothing is clearer initially than that we are to view Marianne with a good deal of sympathy: she has 'a life, a spirit, an eagerness which could hardly be seen without delight' (p. 46). At first it seems she is to exhibit 'heroic' qualities, conspicuous by their absence in the young Catherine Morland. Like her mother, she 'can feel no sentiment of approbation inferior to love' (p. 16); she is passionately fond of music and drawing; she objects to Elinor's friend, Edward Ferrars, because 'he has no real taste' (p. 17); and when they leave Norland, she sheds tears for a 'place so much beloved' (p. 27). But although her enthusiasms are occasionally those of the romantic heroines Jane Austen had delighted in burlesquing in her juvenilia, the parodic satire here is not harsh. What vindicates Marianne in the early scenes is the sincerity behind her enthusiasms, the personal quality present even when her sensibility is mediated through her reading. That she is not merely fashionable is shown in her dislike of Gilpinesque 'jargon', indeed of 'jargon of every kind' (p. 97). During her conversation with Edward about landscape scenery she observes: 'sometimes I have kept my feelings to myself, because I could find no language to describe them in but what was worn and hackneyed out of all sense and meaning' (p. 97). And when Sir John Middleton suggests that she 'will be setting [her] cap' at Willoughby, her caustic reply, though somewhat outspoken from a seventeen-year-old, is no less than his use of cliche deserves (p. 45).
Strongly individualistic, Marianne's attitudes are often without egoism, and her disregard of 'every common-place notion of decorum' (p. 48) is on occasions magnificent. When Mrs Ferrars, in the drawing room of her home in Harley Street, ignores the painted screens of Elinor to praise the absent art of the absent Miss Morton, Marianne's reaction is superb:
'This is admiration of a very particular kind—what is Miss Morton to us?—who knows, or who cares, for her?—it is Elinor of whom we think and speak.'
And so saying, she took the screens out of her sisterin-law's hands, to admire them herself as they ought to be admired.
Mrs Ferrars looked exceedingly angry, and drawing herself up more stiffly than ever, pronounced in retort this bitter phillippic: 'Miss Morton is Lord Morton's daughter.' (pp. 235–6)
Given the mercenary and mediocre world in which she lives, Marianne's responses are often admirable, and one can understand why Mudrick sees in her a 'passionate, discriminating, instantaneous sympathy for worthy people and beautiful things', a 'basic opposition to lying and the forms of lying'.3 But if one sees Marianne not only as an aspect of her author (which she is, I think) but also as a representative of sensibility, then her outlook is not so unequivocally to be affirmed nor her subsequent chastening wholly deplored. Rather than unconsciously destroying what is authentic in her nature, I would argue that Jane Austen is consciously rejecting a tendency, in herself as in her time, which she sees to be mistaken and, when taken to an extreme, immoral.
Marianne is the legatee of a philosophy of sentiment, which, wherever its roots are exactly to be located, was generally considered to have begun in the Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times (1711) of the third Earl of Shaftesbury.4 Happiness for the sentimental philosopher, in opposition to the Calvinist view of man's innate depravity and necessarily troubled life in this world, is possible for the individual who recognises the promptings of virtue and exercises his innate benevolence. Morality is discoverable in the 'heart' rather than the 'head', in feelings rather than in conformity with received precepts. Shaftesbury's thought did not deny a rational access to truth, but his emphasis on an innate moral sense tended in later writers to become a full-fledged sentimentalism, and when his views were joined with the sensationalist epistemology of the empiricists, who were reducing the function of the mind to that of passive receptor of external impressions, ethical rationalism was frequently discredited. In Hume's moral philosophy, for example, morality is 'more properly felt than judged of.5 The tendency toward ethical sentimentalism did not go unchallenged; Bishop Butler, for example, opposed it, arguing that any theory of ethics must include judgement as a primary component;6 but when the rapprochement of Shaftesburian rationalism and Humean empiricism was aided by Adam Smith's theory of sympathy and Rousseau's immense influence as a philosopher of 'natural' goodness, not only was a rational access to moral truth frequently denied, but the validity of all external structures was called into question.
Jane Austen sets herself against these tendencies in Sense and Sensibility, insisting on the necessary aid of judgement in the process of moral decision, and requiring, as she will elsewhere in her fiction, that the individual respect and support his cultural heritage. The major limitations of Marianne's sensibility, adequately dramatised as we will see, are that it places excessive faith in the self's inner ability to reach moral decisions intuitively and rejects entirely the need for living within conventional limits.
The dangerous tendencies of Marianne's individualism only become apparent in her relationship with Willoughby, who is, like Anna Karenina's Vronsky, to a large degree an invention of the imaginative mind. This is not to deny that he is handsome and possessed of 'ardour', 'talents', and 'spirit', which put Ferrars and Brandon in the shade, merely to note that from the moment he becomes her 'preserver' (p. 46), Willoughby is defined, and is willing to be defined, in terms of 'the hero of a favourite story' (p. 43). Hearing of his indefatigable dancing powers, Marianne cries: 'That is what I like; that is what a young man ought to be. Whatever be his pursuits, his eagerness in them should know no moderation, and leave him no sense of fatigue' (p. 45)—and his expressed passion for dancing on their first meeting is sufficient to earn him from Marianne 'such a look of approbation' (p. 46). Thereafter, the 'general conformity of judgement' that is discovered between them is not a little due to her enthusiasm and his compliance. It is she who brings forward and rapturously describes her favourite authors, while Willoughby 'acquiesced in all her decisions, caught all her enthusiasm' (p. 47).
In company with Willoughby, Marianne is drawn into increasingly serious acts of impropriety. She accepts from Willoughby the gift of a horse, forgetting that the expense of keeping it will be a burden to the family's reduced income. Faced with the additional charge that it may be improper to accept a gift of this kind from a man so lately known to her, Marianne answers with spirit that 'it is not time or opportunity that is to determine intimacy;—it is disposition alone' (p. 59). Though Marianne is persuaded by Elinor to give up the horse, Willoughby is heard to promise that 'when you leave Barton to form your own establishment in a more lasting home, Queen Mab shall receive you' (p. 59), and this hint, together with his use of Marianne's Christian name, is sufficient to convince Elinor of their being engaged.
Such instances of their disregard of decorum culminate in their unchaperoned visit to Allenham, the home of Mrs Smith, the elderly relative and benefactress of Willoughby. This trip is not only indecorous, it more seriously shows an entire lack of concern for the feelings of others. From the point of view of the present owner, the unannounced visit of her heir and a young female companion can only indicate barely concealed impatience for her death. In her Shaftesburian defence of her conduct on this occasion the weakness of Marianne's position is evident: 'If there had been any real impropriety in what I did, I should have been sensible of it at the time, for we always know when we are acting wrong, and with such a conviction I could have had no pleasure' (p. 68).
In keeping with the tenets of the tradition she represents, propriety and morality in Marianne's definition are innate qualities of the self and not conformity to any set of social rules. She has responded to her experience of seemingly universal selfishness by retiring into a subjective world into which she will allow only a few privileged and manifestly worthy people. When Willoughby comes dramatically into view, Marianne looks to him for the limits of her happiness, and, like Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter, argues that what she and her lover do together has 'a consecration of its own'. Like Hawthorne, however, Jane Austen refuses to sanction the spiritual autonomy of a relationship.
In rejecting the forms of this world in her passion for Willoughby, Marianne has substituted emotional laws for social laws: 'I felt myself … to be as solemnly engaged to him, as if the strictest legal covenant had bound us to each other' (p. 188). Willoughby, however is unwilling to obey the unwritten laws of Marianne's private world, and instead prudently adheres to the propriety of society for his own selfish ends. Thus it is that in the climactic scene of their meeting in London, the sincerity of her sensibility is noticeable in her manner of speech and salutation, while the falsity of his sensibility (and its prudent content) is seen in the reserved manner of his response. Marianne, on sighting him across the room,
started up, and pronouncing his name in a tone of affection, held out her hand to him. He approached, and addressing himself rather to Elinor than Marianne, as if wishing to avoid her eye, and determined not to observe her attitude, inquired in a hurried manner after Mrs Dashwood, and asked how long they had been in town. Elinor was robbed of all presence of mind by such an address, and was unable to say a word. But the feelings of her sister were instantly expressed. Her face was crimsoned over, and she exclaimed in a voice of the greatest emotion, 'Good God! Willoughby, what is the meaning of this? Have you not received my letters? Will you not shake hands with me? (p. 176)
Whereas at Barton the ancillary features of sensibility—extravagant language, the shaking of hands—had been found in both Willoughby and Marianne, in the London assembly Willoughby is aloof, 'her touch seemed painful to him, and he held her hand only for a moment' (p. 177).
Her relationship to Willoughby has been for Marianne the constitution of a society of two, and when this is lost through the defection of one of its members, Marianne has no rule for living, no motive for action, no 'ground' on which to stand. Misery like hers, she admits, has no pride, and in keeping with the anti-stoical strain of the sentimental philosophy in which tears are considered the evidence of feeling, Marianne's subsequent behaviour is an active soliciting of grief. Her illness at Cleveland is spiritual, and the death to which it might easily have led would have been suicide. We should not discount the solemnity of Marianne's retrospections on her recovery. Recognising that, 'Had I died—it would have been self-destruction' (p. 345), she wonders that she has been allowed to live, 'to have time for atonement to my God' (p. 346).
In Marianne's subjective attitudes Jane Austen has revealed how the self, unaided by the forms of culture and the administration of self-discipline, finds itself alienated from society and friends. By considering her internal inclinations sufficient arbiters of moral action, Marianne has denied external sources of obligation in family, society, and religion. The inevitably negative effects of her extreme, individualistic response are sufficiently clear, but even if they were not so, Elinor's contrasting behaviour in regard to personal grief, no less than in regard to the maintenance of a decorous politeness even in the company of fools, would indicate her author's requirement for a positive and social response. When Elinor discovers that Edward is engaged to Lucy Steele, 'she wept for him, more than for herself' (p. 140), yet when she joins Mrs Jennings and Marianne at dinner, 'no one would have supposed … that Elinor was mourning in secret over obstacles which must divide her for ever from the object of her love' (p. 141).
Elinor's characterisation in Sense and Sensibility is more successful than has generally been recognised in critical discussion. She starts off with the disadvantage of being the single normative representative of 'sense' in the novel. Other characters—the John Dashwoods, Lady Middleton, Mrs Ferrars, Lucy Steele—exhibit 'sense', as well as 'prudence' and 'reserve', only in debased and 'economic' meanings. Added to this, the two possible male representatives of the term fail entirely to provide an effective counterbalance to the selfishness and expedient behaviour everywhere evident. (In later novels, Darcy and Knightley will successfully provide such counterbalance.) Elinor's task of upholding the true moral conception of the word is, therefore, large—too large for her to achieve unaided. Yet Elinor is not quite the bloodless figure of sense she has been considered. It is clear, for example, that Marianne's vital and central position in the novel is in part accounted for by the fact that she is the object of Elinor's observation. If the first volume describes the rise of Marianne's hopes and their temporary disappointment on Willoughby's departure from Devonshire, the second volume her renewed hopes in London and their cruel destruction, and the third volume her near fatal illness and gradual recovery, they describe these events often through Elinor's consciousness. Consequently, while it is Marianne's acts that are described, they are frequently filtered through Elinor's subjective experience of them. Edmund Wilson was perhaps the first to understand the importance of this when he commented upon the scene in which Marianne meets Willoughby in London (the scene which for George Moore revealed the 'burning human heart in English prose fiction for the first and alas the last time'). 'Isn't it rather', Wilson asks, 'the emotion of Elinor as she witnesses her sister's disaster than Marianne's emotion over Willoughby of which the poignancy is communicated to the reader?'7
In this partial internalisation of the debate in Elinor's consciousness—as Marianne's actions and Elinor's perception of these actions merge—Jane Austen's technical advance over Northanger Abbey, and her movement in the direction of Pride and Prejudice, are evident. Elinor may seem to others to be reserved, rational, and cold, but the reader is given access to her continued inner struggle, not only with respect to her own love affair, but vicariously, as she watches Marianne impetuously fall in love, and, her love slighted, no less passionately give way to melancholy. Elinor, much more than Catherine Morland, though less than Emma, has become a centre of consciousness. She is the only character (apart from Mrs Jennings on one occasion ([III, iii] which must be judged a technical lapse) whose mind the reader is allowed to enter. Opaque to the other characters, Elinor is transparent to the reader. By allowing us frequent access to Elinor's observing mind, the narrator reveals that 'sense' need not be cold, nor introspection selfish.
Elinor's sense is neither a Mandevillian self-interest nor an emotionless calculation. In its affirmation of social principles it resembles, rather, the 'early received and uniformly continued sense of mankind',8 which Burke considered had not only built up the 'august fabric of states' but had continued to preserve it from ruin. Like her lover Edward, Elinor accepts the validity of social institutions and acts within received principles of ethical and social conduct. Against the private instinct of her sister, as against the selfish motivations of those around her, Elinor opposes a stoical fidelity to traditional and basically Christian values. Her withdrawal into a personal reserve is a committed withdrawal.
The theme of profession, so central to Mansfield Park, and found in all the mature novels, is relevant here. In the moment of social discontinuity, the responsible individual can only look conscientiously to his duty and actively profess his role. Unlike Willoughby, who is 'of no profession at all' (p. 61), or Mr Palmer, who 'idled away the mornings at billiards, which ought to have been devoted to business' (p. 305), or John Dashwood, who is always 'thinking about writing a letter to his steward in the country' (p. 259), but never does, the responsible characters of the novel, Ferrars and Brandon, are characterised by their commitment to their roles. Edward, indeed, agrees with Mrs Dashwood when she suggests that he would 'be a happier man if [he] had any profession' to engage his time (p. 102). He admits, 'It has been, and is, and probably will always be a heavy misfortune to me, that I have no necessary business to engage me, no profession to give me employment' (p. 102). And, later, looking back on the foolish infatuation which caused him to engage himself to Lucy, he recognises that his error sprang from his ignorance of the world, his 'want of employment', and his lack of an 'active profession' (p. 362). Yet, having made the betrothal, Edward has proved himself willing to take responsibility for his actions, as Willoughby for all his superior appearance and talents has not.
The need for 'employment', 'duty', 'responsibility', is sounded again and again in Jane Austen's novels, as her heroines all learn that the act of living itself is a profession. After Edward has left the Barton cottage, his melancholy over his commitment to Lucy having communicated itself to Elinor, her reaction may be taken as the positive response that is to be affirmed: she 'busily employed herself the whole day' and addressed herself to the 'business of self-command' (p. 104; my italics). In comparison with this self-discipline, Marianne's 'indulgence of feeling' and 'nourishment of grief' (p. 83) are hardly admirable.
Only when Marianne's recovery is assured by the attentions of Elinor and the much maligned Mrs Jennings may Elinor's self-discipline be relaxed. At the end of the novel we are given explicit indications of Elinor's sensibility. First she feels for Marianne, who, 'restored to life, health, friends … was an idea to fill her heart with sensations of exquisite comfort, and expand it in fervent gratitude' (p. 315). Then she responds sympathetically to Willoughby's tempestuous arrival and self-pitying tale, and for a time, 'Willoughby, "poor Willoughby", as she now allowed herself to call him, was constantly in her thoughts' (p. 334). Finally with Edward's arrival the question becomes, 'How are [Elinor's] feelings to be described?' (p. 363), and on news of Edward's freedom from the duty of his engagement to Lucy, we are given the answer:
Elinor could sit it no longer. She almost ran out of the room, and as soon as the door was closed, burst into tears of joy, which at first she thought would never cease. Edward, who had till then looked any where, rather than at her, saw her hurry away, and perhaps saw—or even heard, her emotion…. (p. 360)
Marianne's danger over, her morality now properly directed, Elinor may release the emotional tension thus far contained, and herself give way to a temporary display of feeling. By choosing sense as her point of view over sensibility, Jane Austen has made a statement about the priority of discipline to freedom, and of social principles to individual propensities; but, that statement made, she has also recognised in Elinor's emotion the necessary presence of feeling in the ethical constitution of the individual, if rationality is not to become cold and inhuman.
The novel ends with a union of terms similar to that which will be more successfully achieved in Pride and Prejudice. Marianne, like Elizabeth Bennet, comes to the recognition of the need for self-discipline. She promises that '[her] feelings shall be governed and [her] temper improved' (p. 347), and instead of further indulging her grief, she exercises a 'reasonable exertion' (p. 342). Coming to a gradual awareness of Willoughby's false sensibility, his prudent core of self, she compares her conduct to 'what it ought to have been' (p. 345). Her language is characterised now by its ethical vocabulary, and while her sister may show that the individual emotion is a component part of the social response, Marianne determines that, though Willoughby can never be forgotten, his remembrance 'shall be regulated, it shall be checked by religion, by reason, by constant employment' (p. 347). Although her marriage to Colonel Brandon fails to convince, it at least demonstrates the imprudence of her previous arguments that wealth had nothing to do with happiness, for with Brandon's £2,000 a year Marianne gains for herself the 'competence' which Elinor earlier had laughingly considered her own idea of 'wealth' (p. 91).
There is no doubt that the decision to portray two heroines, and the selection of the 'sensible' sister as point of view, led Jane Austen into aesthetic difficulties from which she could not entirely escape. Given the vivacity of Marianne, Elinor's explicitly normative function can only seem didactic on occasions, though this is less often so than is sometimes charged. By looking through the eyes of one of the heroines, Jane Austen has escaped the narrative problem of North-anger Abbey without discovering the solutions of Pride and Prejudice and Emma. She has to some degree dramatised her standards in the psychology of Elinor (as she failed to do in either Henry Tilney or Catherine [in Northanger Abbey]) and has thus escaped the problems that arise when judgements remain at the level of the presiding and anonymous narrative consciousness, but she has still left herself with a task of persuasion, of making art and morality coincident. The reader must be made to accept the priority of one sister's moral vision, and the task is complicated by the author's refusal in any way to limit the attractive individualism of the other sister. In Pride and Prejudice and Emma this problem is successfully avoided by making the individualistic heroines also the central intelligences of their novels, and by allowing these heroines to come to a gradual internal awareness of the insufficiency of their outlooks. Whereas in Sense and Sensibility there is a bifurcation of action and reflection, in the later novels the two modes are one in the actions and retrospective reflections of the heroine. In Sense and Sensibility, Marianne's moral growth can only be seen externally in her words and actions, frequently as they are observed through Elinor's consciousness of them. Elinor herself does not so much evince a moral growth as a constant internal moral struggle. In Pride and Prejudice and Emma (though in ways to be distinguished), the movement from an individualistic to a social morality is followed within the psyche of a single heroine.
[Duckworth sees Marianne as the representative of sensibility, a movement in thought, manners and opinion in the late eighteenth century which seemed superior to the mercenary values of many of Austen's contemporaries, yet also dangerously immoral because prioritising individual subjective feelings over objective social conventions. Duckworth notices that rather than Elinor being a rather dull and repressive foil to Marianne's transgressive liveliness, she stands for a very complex and discriminating kind of sense when she is compared with characters whose minds are narrowly concerned with their own economic betterment. Her tendency to self-repression is born of a responsible Christian appreciation of her place in society and of the needs of others. Duckworth's account appears to be a very perceptive reading along the grain of Austen's world view and illuminates the sophisticated discriminations to which the contemporary reader of Austen might have been attuned.
References to Jane Austen's work are to The Works of Jane Austen, ed. R. W. Chapman, 3rd edn, 5 vols (London, 1933), and vol. 6, Minor Works, ed. R. W. Chapman (London, 1954). References to Austen's letters are to Jane Austen's Letters to her Sister Cassandra and Others, ed. R. W. Chapman, 2 vols (Oxford, 1932), cited as Letters. Ed.]
1Camilla (London, 1796), IV, 399. For studies treating the literary background to Sense and Sensibility, see the relevant portions of Henrietta Ten Harmsel, Jane Austen: A Study in Fictional Conventions (The Hague, 1934); A. Walton Litz, Jane Austen: A Study of her Artistic Development (London, 1965); Kenneth Moler, Jane Austen's Art of Allusion (Lincoln, 1968); also Alan D. McKillop, 'The Context of Sense and Sensibility', The Rice Institute Pamphlet, 44 (April 1957), 65–78. J. M. S. Tompkins, '"Elinor and Marianne": A Note on Jane Austen', The Review of English Studies, 16 (1940), 33–43, suggests Jane West's A Gossip's Story (London, 1796) as a single model of Sense and Sensibility, but Kenneth Moler, while not denying Jane West's influence, is one of several critics to see affinities with a number of other sentimental novels.
2 For an excellent brief rebuttal to Mudrick's view contained in Jane Austen: Irony as Defense and Discovery (Princeton, 1952), see A. Walton Litz, Artistic Development, pp. 81–3. Litz argues that 'the alternative to Willoughby is Colonel Brandon not because this was Jane Austen's heritage from life, but because it was her heritage from the broad antitheses of moralistic fiction', and that Jane Austen in Sense and Sensibility was 'the victim of conventions, but these were primarily artistic, not social'.
3 Mudrick, Irony as Defense, pp. 75, 74.
4 Ronald Crane, 'Suggestions Toward a Genealogy of the "Man of Feeling'", Journal of English Literary History, 1 (1934), 205–30, argues for an earlier expression of the sentimental outlook in the latitudinarian preachers of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Other critical studies which consider the philosophy of sentiment and its development in the eighteenth century are: A. S. P. Woodhouse, 'Romanticism and the History of Ideas', English Studies Today (Oxford, 1951), pp. 120–41, and Walter Jackson Bate, 'The Premise of Feeling', in From Classic to Romantic: Premises of Taste in Eighteenth Century England (1946; rpt New York, 1961), pp. 129–60. Perhaps the best treatment of the idea in Jane Austen's novel is found in Ian Watt's Introduction to Sense and Sensibility (New York, 1961), reprinted in Jane Austen: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Ian Watt (Englewood Cliff, N J, 1963).
5Treatise on Human Nature, ed. T. H. Green and T. H. Grose (London, 1874), p. 235.
6The Works of Joseph Butler, ed. W. E. Gladstone (Oxford, 1896), vol. 2, pp. 14–15.
7 'A Long Talk About Jane Austen', Classics and Commercials: A Literary Chronicle of the Forties (New York, 1950), p. 203.
8 Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, ed. William B. Todd (New York, 1959), p. 111.
Moreland Perkins (essay date 1998)
SOURCE: "Elinor Dashwood: The Heroine as Intellectual," in Reshaping the Sexes in Sense and Sensibility, University Press of Virginia, 1998, pp. 11–36.
[In the following essay, Perkins advances the theory that Sense and Sensibility is Elinor Dashwood's story, not Marianne's, and argues that her special interest lies in her position as a female intellectual.]
Because many first-time readers of Sense and Sensibility find Marianne the more appealing of the two elder Dashwood sisters, they may think of her as the primary heroine. For those readers, Marianne's early disappointment, long suffering, and ultimate fade-out can figure as a major disincentive for rereading the novel. However, once we start to understand how much there is in Austin's rendering of Elinor Dashwood that is not only appealing but politically significant, the realization that the novel is written as her story may awaken in us a desire to return to it and read her closely. No one has more cogently made the case for the novel's being Elinor's story than Stuart Tave:
Sense and Sensibility is the story of Elinor Dashwood…. The whole of Marianne's story is included within Elinor's: Marianne's begins later and it ends earlier…. The whole of the story comes to us through Elinor…. There may be things that Elinor doesn't know [about Marianne] … but if Elinor doesn't know … we don't know…. Marianne's story could not be resolved except for what Elinor does, advising her, protecting her, providing her an example … ; even the two men in Marianne's life are understood by the reader, and by Marianne, as they speak to and are interpreted by Elinor. There is no part of Marianne's story that is not a part of Elinor's, but there are large and important parts of Elinor's story that are not part of Marianne's.1
Professor Tave's perception of Elinor's centrality perfectly coheres with my own experience of the novel. However, neither he nor any other critic I have read finds quite the elements of her characterization that I believe account for her special interest. These features can all, I think, be tied to Austen's intention to reshape gender in this early novel. And the most fecund characteristic is the following. In depicting Elinor Dashwood, Jane Austen achieved something uncommon in our major ficiton: the rendering of an intellectual. Even more unheard of, a female intellectual. In her first morally ambitious drafting of a heroine, Jane Austen accorded herself the political freedom, not to be indulged again, of creating one who is nearly as gender dissonant, because nearly as accomplished an intellectual, as Austen herself would have been when precociously composing the first version of this novel, probably in 1795 at about Elinor's age of nineteen.2
To judge from the absence of acknowledgment by critics, even today an intellectual is not easy to recognize if she is female, and both her experience and her immediate subject matter are chiefly found in domestic, personal, and small-scale social life, especially if it is known that she was born and raised in the eighteenth century. This block has somewhat blurred critical perception of both Elinor and Jane Austen. Critics' resistance is not explained by the fact that our current understanding of the phrase "an intellectual" has come so much later than those times. Austen's peers never spoke of the ruling class's ideology either, but that doesn't mean they didn't have one. Part of the point of Julia Prewitt Brown's remark, that "Jane Austen was not an intellectual in the sense in which George Eliot was" (try to picture Austen translating Spinoza, as Eliot did), is that Austen was of course an intellectual.3
My thesis about Elinor Dashwood is that Austen endowed her with enough of the habits and powers of thought belonging to Austen herself to qualify Elinor also as an intellectual, to wit: unrelenting, dispassionate, analytical inquiry into the causes, contents, contexts, and outcomes of individual persons' conduct and experience, all conceived as ineluctably social; and the habit of taking pleasure in the pure play of ideas over her subject matter. If we acknowledge, as we do, that today a rigorously thoughtful but nonpublishing psychoanalyst or art critic or urban anthropologist may be an intellectual, then we must allow the same stature to a talented analyst of human conduct, character, and convention who is equally dedicated to concretely applied reason—although we imagine her functioning this way long before the phrase "an intellectual" was put to its current use.
The (apparently unwitting) disciple of Austen whose moral sensibility was possibly closest to hers, Henry James, never, I think, created as protagonist that rare creature in major English fiction, a convincing intellectual; but James's own disciple Ford Madox Ford gave us, in Christopher Tietjens, an intellectual who makes in several respects an interesting contrast with Elinor Dashwood. Tietjens, younger son of an ancient Yorkshire landed family, is a brilliant mathematician working with precocious distinction in "the Imperial Department of Statistics." He is also endowed with an encyclopedic curiosity and memory. By quick brush strokes the first novel of Ford's four-volume work, Parade's End, succeeds, with Tietjens, in painting a charismatic portrait of an intellectual. Because Tietjens' intellectuality operates in his romantic life not discernibly at all or else in ways that are largely either irrelevant to important concerns or just plain eccentric, Ford is left free to make Tietjens sometimes impulsive or moody or irrational in personal action without ceasing to seem an intellectual.
Tietjens' versatility of temperament means that Ford's fabrication of this intellectual was in two respects less demanding than Austen's creation of her fictional intellectual. First, because Tietjens' intellectuality only occasionally manifests itself in his romantic life, he can be rendered as a man of dramatically opposing aspects, hence fascinating in his variety and unpredictability. Second, Tietjens' eccentricity and suppressed yet evident emotionality can quickly endear him to many readers. On the other hand, because Elinor is not, could not then be, a professional person and is the heroine of one troubled love story and the anxious monitor of another, the domain of application for her intellect is almost entirely the actions, circumstances, and feelings that figure in affairs of the heart. Because of this limitation, Elinor's intellect must be steadily—hence for some readers dauntingly—on display; and for the same reasons, her orientation to her own emotions will be more rational than many readers can find attractive. Permeating all this is Elinor's gender dissonance: many readers then and now will experience intellectual display in a man 's informal conversation, and rational self-control in his conduct, as more natural and attractive than they find either in a woman. For immediate reader appeal, Ford's fictional intellectual has a head start over Austen's.
Austen spent the first twenty-five years of her life in the rectory of her Oxford-educated father, who was both a scholarly minister and a teacher. Two of her older brothers, also Oxford graduates, became ministers, and the eldest, ten years her senior, had strong literary interests and showed some poetic skill as a young man. Had she wished to, she could have created a scholar-clergyman whom we today would call (though she wouldn't) a professional intellectual. (To be sure, she would need to expend some ingenuity to conform to her self-injunction never to write of men talking only with men.)
In her next novel she will make a gesture toward a male intellectual, secular Mr. Bennet. But at the start, if she wanted an intellectual, she wanted a fictional translation of her own disproof of patriarchy's gender paradigm: it would be a woman. This could gratify her.
Elinor's being an intellectual but not a professional one has the effect that she will be "at work" full-time: there will be no holidays from intellectual work while away from office, lab, or study. No matter how strongly Elinor's own interest is affected or her desire engaged or her emotions aroused, in almost every emotionally potent situation her chief expense of energy will go first toward understanding and next to bringing her action and her feeling into accord with reason. No more for Elinor than for Jane Austen is the habit of dispassionate analysis a matter of choice: it composes the very texture of Elinor's temperament.
As narrator of her fictions, Jane Austen had an intimate relationship to her heroines. This intimacy has several interesting aspects. Just now I attend to only one of them: the harmony she creates between the habits of thought—especially the analytical wit and irony—of herself as narrator and Elinor. This is a two-way street: the narrator's thought patterns are as much colored by her heroine's as the latter's are borrowed from the author's.
For example, the narrator of Sense and Sensibility is more inclined to an abstruse, mock-metaphysical wit than is the narrator of Pride and Prejudice. The same contrast holds between Elinor Dashwood and Elizabeth Bennet. Although bright, Elizabeth is not an intellectual. She falls short of Elinor in this way despite the fact that she is witty in a way Elinor is not; for Elinor's wit is scarcely social and never sociable, whereas Elizabeth's is always part of her gaiety and sometimes part of her sexuality. The mock-metaphysical wit of Elinor and her narrator reinforce each other in helping render Elinor's portrait as an intellectual; the narrator's higher flights raise the altitude of her heroine's by a kind of attraction or osmosis.
Consider the private meditation below in which Austen shares with Elinor the narrator's disposition to a witty abstruseness in condemning Edward's disagreeable mother: they (she) imagine(s), as (a) mock-philosopher(s), a uselessly hypothetical because utterly imaginary duty of Elinor's to rejoice! Elinor has at last met Mrs. Ferrars, but only after her love for Edward has been thwarted by her learning of his secret engagement to Lucy Steele:
Elinor's curiosity to see Mrs Ferrars was satisfied.—she had found in her every thing that could tend to make a farther connection between the families, undesirable.—She had seen enough of her pride, her meanness, and her determined prejudice against herself, to comprehend all the difficulties that must have perplexed the engagement, and retarded the marriage, of Edward and herself, had he been otherwise free;—and she had seen almost enough to be thankful for her own sake, that one greater obstacle preserved her from suffering under any other of Mrs Ferrars's creation, preserved her from all dependence upon her caprice, or any solicitude for her good opinion. Or at least, if she did not bring herself quite to rejoice in Edward's being fettered to Lucy, she determined, that had Lucy been more amiable, she ought to have rejoiced, (ch. 41:293)
With the climactic "she determined," the narrator makes conclusive the transfer to Elinor of the most abstruse element in this reflection. Jane Austen does not assign to Elizabeth Bennet such an intricate mental construction by displaying, for example, Elizabeth's dismay over an encounter with Lady Catherine de Bourgh. What pleases us in Elizabeth is a very different sort of wit. Lady Catherine pays her meddling visit to Elizabeth and asks her whether she knows that a report is being spread with the news she will marry Lady Catherine's nephew, Mr. Darcy:
"I never heard that it was."
"And can you likewise declare, that there is no foundation for it?"
"I do not pretend to possess equal frankness with your ladyship. You may ask questions which I shall not choose to answer."
"…Has he, has my nephew, made you an offer of marriage?"
"Your ladyship has declared it to be impossible."
"… You may have drawn him in."
"If I had, I shall be the last person to confess it."
"… Your alliance will be a disgrace; your name will never even be mentioned by any of us."
"These are heavy misfortunes…. But the wife of Mr. Darcy must have such extraordinary sources of happiness necessarily attached to her situation, that she could, upon the whole, have no cause to repine." (PP, ch. 56: 363–65)
Elizabeth does here display an exceptionally nimble wit. In its context, "I do not pretend to possess equal frankness with your ladyship" is an almost-polite parry that turns her opponent's blow against herself. And "Your ladyship has declared it to be impossible"—also fired off fast—is enough, one would think, to make Lady Catherine feel she is defeating herself. Amazingly, "If I have, I shall be the last person to confess it" maintains the wickedly creative trick of making Lady de Bourgh's words come back at her like boomerangs. Elizabeth Bennet's intellect here functions like that of a nimble defense attorney. Elinor Dashwood's works more like a philosopher's.
In a moment we'll contemplate Elinor being openly aggressive, though at second-hand, toward Mrs. Ferrars, but first let us enjoy an example of the author-narrator's aggression toward the same woman, so that we may notice the kinship between the narrator's attack and Elinor's. One way that Edward Ferrars's mother is depicted as something of a monster is through Austen's ironically mock-metaphysical account of Mrs. Ferrars's habit of disowning a son from time to time. In the last chapter of the book, Austen goes after this favorite target in a way that, when we reread the book, affects our experience of an earlier attack on the same woman by Elinor. (Remember, Edward is the eldest son.) Thus the narrator on Mrs. Ferrars:
Her family had of late been exceedingly fluctuating. For many years of her life she had had two sons; but the crime and annihilation of Edward a few weeks ago, had robbed her of one; the similar annihilation of Robert had left her for a fortnight without any; and now, by the resuscitation of Edward, she had one again.
In spite of his being allowed once more to live, however, he did not feel the continuance of his existence secure, till he had revealed his present engagement; for the publication of that circumstance, he feared, might give a sudden turn to his constitution, and carry him off as rapidly as before. With apprehensive caution therefore it was revealed, and he was listened to with unexpected calmness….
What she would engage to do towards augmenting their income, was next to be considered; and here it plainly appeared, that though Edward was now her only son, he was by no means her eldest; for while Robert was inevitably endowed with a thousand pounds a-year, not the smallest objection was made against Edward's taking orders for the sake of two hundred and fifty at the utmost. (ch. 50:362–63)
Now look at Elinor's way of openly deriding Mrs. Ferrars to her brother, John Dashwood, the older woman's son-in-law. John has just queried his sister about Colonel Brandon's motive in bestowing a rector's living upon Edward Ferrars. Edward had been disowned by his mother for refusing to break his engagement to Lucy Steele. Now John assumes the living from Brandon will enable Edward and Lucy to marry. Rereading this exchange from chapter 41, one remembers the just quoted, more brilliant development in chapter 50 of the same theme by the narrator, and Elinor as intellectual benefits by a kind of fusion of the narrator's developed metaphor with Elinor's embryonic one. John is speaking of Brandon's gift of a living to Edward:
"Mrs Ferrars," added he, lowering his voice to the tone becoming so important a subject, "knows nothing about it at present, and I believe it will be best to keep it entirely concealed from her as long as may be.—When the marriage takes place, I fear she must hear of it all."
"But why should such precaution be used?—Though it is not to be supposed that Mrs Ferrars can have the smallest satisfaction in knowing that her son has money enough to live upon,—for that must be quite out of the question; yet why, after her late behaviour, is she supposed to feel at all?—she has done with her son, she has cast him off for ever, and has made all those over whom she had any influence, cast him off likewise. Surely, after doing so, she cannot be imagined liable to any impression of sorrow or of joy on his account—she cannot be interested in any thing that befalls him.—She would not be so weak as to throw away the comfort of a child, and yet retain the anxiety of a parent!" (ch. 41:293)
One has to do no more than compare this attack with any to be found in another Austen heroine to realize that nowhere else will so much intellectual energy be given over to the meticulous development of an ironic metaphor in order merely to register contempt. Only an intellectual would spontaneously express her abhorrence of such conduct by presenting it as a mock-logical scandal created by the mock-paradox of Mrs. Ferrars's expected maternal distress from the news of good fortune befalling a son who is no longer a son. It is as if Elinor can enjoy her personal aggression only if she can embed it within—and offer to her proxy target, John Dashwood—the purer pleasure of the play of ideas. When Elizabeth Bennet tells her sister Jane the story from Wickham that alleges dastardly behavior on the part of Bingley's best friend, Darcy, Jane—who habitually thinks the best of everyone—seeks a way to believe neither man dishonorable:
"They have both," she said, "been deceived, I dare say, in some way or other, of which we can form no idea. Interested people have perhaps misrepresented each to the other…. "
"Very true, indeed; and now, my dear Jane, what have you got to say in behalf of the interested people who have probably been concerned in the business? Do clear them too, or we shall be obliged to think ill of somebody." (PP, ch. 17:128)
Here as always Elizabeth's repartee adds a small piece to the picture of a very bright person. But neither here nor elsewhere does it suggest that Elizabeth takes the kind of pleasure Elinor does in the play of ideas for its own sake. And yet it is not that Elinor ever ascends into the realm of pure theory. On the contrary, she indulges in her intellectual pleasures only when the play of ideas is embedded within pursuit of a practical end she deems worthy, or anyhow necessary.
Examples of Elinor's (and her narrator's) mockmetaphysical wit add color, scope, and a larger coherence to the central element in Austen's portrait of Elinor as intellectual, that is, to Elinor's analyses of character, conduct, and human causality. Surely exemplary here and proving the value, for appreciating Elinor, of having read to the end of the novel in reading its beginning, are Elinor's explanations of Willoughby, late in the story, after his visit with her when Marianne is ill. I pick three passages, in order of ascending level of abstraction. First, Elinor to Marianne on how a marriage to Willoughby would have faltered:
"Your marriage must have involved you in many certain troubles and disappointments, in which you would have been poorly supported by an affection, on his side, much less certain. Had you married, you must have been always poor. His expensiveness is acknowledged even by himself, and his whole conduct declares that self-denial is a word hardly understood by him. His demands and your inexperience together on a small, very small income, must have brought on distresses which would not be the less grievous to you, from having been entirely unknown and unthought of before. Your sense of honour and honesty would have led you, I know, when aware of your situation, to attempt all the economy that would appear to you possible; and perhaps, as long as your frugality retrenched only on your own comfort, you might have been suffered to practise it, but beyond that—and how little could the utmost of your single management do to stop the ruin which had begun before your marriage?—Beyond that, had you endeavoured, however reasonably, to abridge his enjoyments, is it not to be feared, that instead of prevailing on feelings so selfish to consent to it, you would have lessened your own influence on his heart, and made him regret the connection which had involved him in such difficulties?" (ch. 47:341–42)
This is dense causal reasoning that packs into a very short passage a multitude of factors figuring in several different causal chains that convincingly converge on a single result, the alienation of Willoughby's affections from Marianne. I have made no survey to warrant saying that the single sentence beginning "Your sense of honour," which makes up the entire second half of this passage, is the longest assigned to an Austen heroine, but I suspect it is the most complex bit of causal reasoning to be found in a single sentence so assigned. Compare the whole passage with a rejoinder in Emma by Emma Woodhouse to Mr. Knightley, who has been arguing that Harriet Smith can do no better than to marry Robert Martin, farmer, because of the limits set by Harriet's origins, upbringing, present circumstances, and abilities:
"You are a very warm friend to Mr Martin; but, as I said before, are unjust to Harriet. Harriet's claims to marry well are not so contemptible as you represent them. She is not a clever girl, but she has better sense than you are aware of, and does not deserve to have her understanding spoken of so slightingly. Waving that point, however, and supposing her to be, as you describe her, only pretty and good-natured, let me tell you, that in the degree she possesses them, they are not trivial recommendations to the world in general, for she is, in fact, a beautiful girl, and must be thought so by ninety-nine people out of an hundred; and till it appears that men are much more philosophic on the subject of beauty than they are generally supposed, till they do fall in love with well-informed minds instead of handsome faces, a girl, with such loveliness as Harriet, has a certainty of being admired and sought after, of having the power of choosing from among many, consequently a claim to be nice. Her good-nature, too, is not so very slight a claim, comprehending as it does, real, thorough sweetness of temper and manner, a very humble opinion of herself, and a great readiness to be pleased with other people. I am very much mistaken if your sex in general would not think such beauty, and such temper, the highest claims a woman could possess." (E, ch. 8:89–90)
If in comparison with Elinor's temperament of an intellectual Elizabeth Bennet appears no more than bright, it may be fair to say Emma, with respect to analytical and argumentative bent, seems merely clever.
Like a true intellectual, Elinor can go over much the same ground a second time and give an explanation that coheres with the first yet is fresh:
"At present," continued Elinor, "he regrets what he has done. And why does he regret it?—Because he finds it has not answered towards himself. It has not made him happy. His circumstances are now unembarrassed—he suffers from no evil of that kind; and he thinks only that he has married a woman of a less amiable temper than yourself. But does it thence follow that had he married you, he would have been happy?—The inconveniences would have been different. He would then have suffered under the pecuniary distresses which, because they are removed he now reckons as nothing. He would have had a wife of whose temper he could make no complaint, but he would have been always necessitous—always poor; and probably would soon have learnt to rank the innumerable comforts of a clear estate and good income as of far more importance, even to domestic happiness, than the mere temper of a wife." (ch. 47:342)
By now a student of the eighteenth century may be perceiving—or recalling—that Elinor Dashwood's modes of thought resemble, possibly more than those of any other of her author's creations do, those of Samuel Johnson, one of the intellectuals of that century most admired by Jane Austen. Not only the lucidity, the balanced symmetry in explanatory structure, but also the fluid movement of the argument, the centrality of familiar abstractions, and the extended reach of a single sentence's thought remind us of Elinor's affinity to the great Johnson. Moreover, a similarity of moral sensibility emerges when we consider, on the one hand, the dispassionate objectivity with which, near the end of the novel, Elinor appraises Willoughby's character, given her sympathy for him after their dramatic late interview, and on the other, that sympathy itself, given the horrors in her family life for which she justly blames Willoughby. All this shows most vividly in the analysis Elinor meditates within herself when Willoughby has concluded his explanation of his behavior toward Marianne with, "Now you know all."
Elinor made no answer. Her thoughts were silently fixed on the irreparable injury which too early an independence and its consequent habits of idleness, dissipation, and luxury, had made in the mind, the character, the happiness, of a man who, to every advantage of person and talents, united a disposition naturally open and honest, and a feeling, affectionate temper. The world had made him extravagant and vain—Extravagance and vanity had made him cold-hearted and selfish. Vanity, while seeking its own guilty triumph at the expense of another, had involved him in a real attachment, which extravagance, or at least its offspring, necessity, had required to be sacrificed. Each faulty propensity in leading him to evil, had led him likewise to punishment. The attachment, from which against honour, against feeling, against every better interest he had outwardly torn himself, now, when no longer allowable, governed every thought; and the connection, for the sake of which he had, with little scruple, left her sister to misery, was likely to prove a source of unhappiness to himself of a far more incurable nature. (ch. 44:324)
In somewhat the way Elinor needed to filter her hostility toward Mrs. Ferrars through the metaphor of a mock-paradox, here her charity for Willoughby reaches him from almost the height of a Platonic Realm of Universals to which the misfortune of his depravity is ascribed: independence generated in him idleness, dissipation, and luxury; the world introduced into his disposition extravagance and vanity, which in turn brought on coldheartedness and selfishness; for vanity (personified) sought its triumph, accidentally leading him—because of his openness and affectionate temper—into an attachment which … and so on and so on. Both Willoughby and his environment have been analyzed into causally determining "propensities." Under the explanatory projects of the theorizing intellect, all individuals tend to become, for the moment, intersections of causally effective abstractions. In this abstractionism Elinor surpasses Samuel Johnson.
Reading the following representative passage of similar analysis by Johnson, one perceives the affinity but also notes that Johnson makes less frequent use of abstractions as the subjects of verbs than Elinor did. The passage is taken from the last six or seven paragraphs of Johnson's life of Richard Savage, in his Lives of the English Poets:
It cannot be said that he made use of his abilities for the direction of his own conduct: an irregular and dissipated manner of life had made him the slave of every passion that happened to be excited by the presence of its object, and that slavery to his passions reciprocally produced a life irregular and dissipated. He was not master of his own motions, nor could promise anything for the next day….
His friendship was … of little value; for … it was always dangerous to trust him, because he considered himself as discharged by the first quarrel from all ties of honour or gratitude … he could not bear to conceive himself in a state of dependence, his pride being equally powerful with his other passions, and appearing in the form of insolence at one time, and of vanity at another.
Quite possibly Elinor's revaluation of Willoughby on the occasion of his late visit to her reminds a reader of Elizabeth Bennet's revaluation of Wickham, in Pride and Prejudice, when she read the explanatory letter Darcy wrote her after she refused him in marriage. Of course there are similarities. But to return to Elizabeth's mind at work on a project that is somewhat similar to the one we just examined is to become convinced that Austen had no intention of making Elizabeth an intellectual, and to be made more sure of one's impression of Elinor as just that. Elizabeth is passionate, variable, swiftly moving in both thought and feeling, the two always interlocked. Sustained independent analysis is not her way. From Elinor's analysis of a complex personality and its rich societal context we feel we receive illumination; by contrast, Elizabeth merely absorbs an explicitly told story we already know, and connects it with her experience.
She read, with an eagerness which hardly left her power of comprehension, and from impatience of knowing what the next sentence might bring, was incapable of attending to the sense of the one before her eyes. His belief of her sister's insensibility, she instantly resolved to be false, and his account of the real, the worst objections to the match, made her too angry to have any wish of doing him justice. He expressed no regret for what he had done which satisfied her; his style was not penitent, but haughty. It was all pride and insolence.
But when this subject was succeeded by his account of Mr Wickham, when she read with somewhat clearer attention, a relation of events, which, if true, must overthrow every cherished opinion of his worth, and which bore so alarming an affinity to his own history of himself, her feelings were yet more acutely painful and more difficult of definition. Astonishment, apprehension, and even horror, oppressed her. She wished to discredit it entirely, repeatedly exclaiming, "This must be false! This cannot be! This must be the grossest falsehood!"—and when she had gone through the whole letter, though scarcely knowing any thing of the last page or two, put it hastily away, protesting that she would not regard it, that she would never look in it again.
In this perturbed state of mind, with thoughts that could rest on nothing, she walked on; but it would not do; in half a minute the letter was unfolded again, and collecting herself as well as she could, she again began the mortifying perusal of all that related to Wickham, and commanded herself so far as to examine the meaning of every sentence…. She put down the letter, weighed every circumstance with what she meant to be impartiality—deliberated on the probability of each statement—but with little success. On both sides it was only assertion. Again she read on. But every line proved more clearly that the affair, which she had believed it impossible that any contrivance could so represent, as to render Mr Darcy's conduct it less than infamous, was capable of a turn which must make him entirely blameless throughout the whole. (PP, ch. 36:233–34)
Against my use of this contrast between Elinor and Elizabeth it might be objected that Willoughby is merely the lover of Elinor's sister whereas Darcy and Wickham belong to Elizabeth's own amorous adventures; so Elinor should be more dispassionate than Elizabeth. But this is the closest Elizabeth comes to the kind of analysis Austen assigns to Elinor. If for Elizabeth personal engagement alone will generate even this much mental work, this too contributes to the difference in nature that Austen has rendered in her two portraits.
However, we do have presented to us Elinor's mind in play when her own romantic life is smashed by Lucy Steele's revelation of her engagement to Edward Ferrars. It is, I think, only if we conceive Elinor as uniquely invested by Austen with the private vocation of the lay intellectual that her response in this crisis can seem credible, natural, true. Here it is:
However small Elinor's general dependance on Lucy's veracity might be, it was impossible for her on serious reflection to suspect it in the present case, where no temptation could be answerable to the folly of inventing a falsehood of such a description. What Lucy had asserted to be true, therefore, Elinor could not, dared not longer doubt; supported as it was too on every side by such probabilities and proofs, and contradicted by nothing but her own wishes. Their opportunity of acquaintance in the house of Mr Pratt was a foundation for the rest, at once indisputable and alarming; and Edward's visit near Plymouth, his melancholy state of mind, his dissatisfaction at his own prospects, his uncertain behaviour towards herself, the intimate knowledge of the Miss Steeles as to Norland and their family connections, which had often surprised her, the picture, the letter, the ring, formed altogether such a body of evidence, as overcame every fear of condemning him unfairly, and established as a fact, which no partiality could set aside, his ill-treatment of herself.—Her resentment of such behaviour, her indignation at having been its dupe, for a short time made her feel only for herself; but other ideas, other considerations soon arose. Had Edward been intentionally deceiving her? Had he feigned a regard for her which he did not feel? Was his engagement to Lucy, an engagement of the heart? No; whatever it might once have been, she could not believe it such at present. His affection was all her own. She could not be deceived in that. Her mother, sisters, Fanny, all had been conscious of his regard for her at Norland; it was not an illusion of her own vanity. He certainly loved her. What a softener of the heart was this persuasion! How much could it not tempt her to forgive! He had been blameable, highly blameable, in remaining at Norland after he first felt her influence over him to be more than it ought to be. In that, he could not be defended; but if he had injured her, how much more had he injured himself; if her case were pitiable, his was hopeless. His imprudence had made her miserable for a while; but it seemed to have deprived himself of all chance of ever being otherwise. She might in time regain tranquillity, but he, what had he to look forward to? Could he ever be tolerably happy with Lucy Steele; could he, were his affection for herself out of the question, with his integrity, his delicacy, and well-informed mind, be satisfied with a wife like her—illiterate, artful, and selfish?
The youthful infatuation of nineteen would naturally blind him to every thing but her beauty and good nature; but the four succeeding years—years, which if rationally spent, give such improvement to the understanding, must have opened his eyes to her defects of education, while the same period of time, spent on her side in inferior society and more frivolous pursuits, had perhaps robbed her of that simplicity, which might once have given an interesting character to her beauty.
If in the supposition of his seeking to marry herself, his difficulties from his mother had seemed great, how much greater were they now likely to be, when the object of his engagement was undoubtedly inferior in connections, and probably inferior in fortune to herself. These difficulties, indeed, with an heart so alienated from Lucy, might not press very hard upon his patience; but melancholy was the state of the person, by whom the expectation of family opposition and unkindness, could be felt as a relief!
As these considerations occurred to her in painful succession, she wept for him, more than for herself. Supported by the conviction of having done nothing to merit her present unhappiness, and consoled by the belief that Edward had done nothing to forfeit her esteem, she thought she could even now, under the first smart of the heavy blow, command herself enough to guard every suspicion of the truth from her mother and sisters….
The necessity of concealing from her mother and Marianne, what had been entrusted in confidence to herself, though it obliged her to unceasing exertion, was no aggravation of Elinor's distress….
From their counsel, or their conversation she knew she could receive to assistance, their tenderness and sorrow must add to her distress, while her self-command would neither receive encouragement from their example nor from their praise. She was stronger alone, and her own good sense so well supported her, that her firmness was as unshaken, her appearance of cheerfulness as invariable, as with regrets so poignant and so fresh, it was possible for them to be. (ch. 23:157–59)
If we have read the whole novel—especially through to the end of chapter 48, when Elinor learns Edward is unmarried, unengaged, and free to marry her—we now read this passage believing Elinor does love Edward because we have "seen" that she does. However, we also believe that for months before this revelation she had, from prudence based on Edward's inconsistent behavior toward her, suppressed the feeling of love. Her mental control had showed itself clearly in an early exchange with Marianne, who complained because Elinor refused to acknowledge her feelings of love for Edward, referring to them instead as (mere) "esteem" and "liking." Provoked by this evasion, Marianne says, "Use those words again and I will leave the room this moment." Elinor replies, "Till his sentiments are fully known, you cannot wonder at my wishing to avoid any encouragement of my own partiality by believing or calling it more than it is" (ch. 4:55). Surely this was reasonable—and even more provident than she knew. But now, with Lucy's news of her engagement to Edward, something is needed other than prudence, which has little application to this sudden "extinction of all her dearest hopes" (ch. 23:158). Intellectually and morally—here these two are one—her response is imaginative and creative. It is guided in part by a conservative principle of moral appraisal, that is, a principle that says: in any trying situation, conserve the highest goods that can be conserved consistent with the truth. She finds that Edward loves her, a conclusion needing a clear head and some courage in these unfavoring circumstances. She finds that Edward's injury to her is redeemed by its source in love of her. She concludes Edward "had done nothing to forfeit her esteem." And that she herself has "done nothing to merit her present unhappiness": the only part of the world she can control she has managed responsibly. Also she helps herself conserve, in her appraisal, not only justice but her own feeling for Edward by finding that his conduct of his affairs of the heart has far more seriously injured himself than her. This judgment is just, but it causes her to weep for him more than for herself—thus it helps conserve her feeling of love for him. Along the way she explains Edward's early infatuation with Lucy and subsequent disaffection in a manner both insightful and conservative of Edward's character and his mature taste and judgment. It is a tribute to Austen's own imagination that she invented for Elinor, in a situation so poignant with loss, an analysis that is so creatively useful to Elinor's emotional equilibrium yet does not depart from the truth. For a woman to be moved to forgive an offense because the offender has softened her heart by loving her is to abandon neither the truth nor high moral ground, although in itself it appeals to neither of these: it is simply an impeccable movement of the heart. The head has not surrendered to the heart, nothing is more evident; but neither has it suppressed the heart, which in Elinor is not something readers may feel they can always count on.
The integration in Elinor of analytical intellect, affective imagination, a disciplined will governed by a sensitive conscience, and a habit of conserving the good is in these circumstances so exceptional that we may now for the first time recognize Austen's intention to achieve in Elinor this difficult outcome: a credible idealization…. Perhaps in order quickly to improve the balance in Elinor's portrait by bringing into our view baser elements of her temperament, in the very next chapter of the novel Austen lowers Elinor into her nasty battle with Lucy Steele. The next occasion of Elinor's analyzing the unhappy triangle comes four months later, when she has to tell Marianne of its existence because Edward's engagement to Lucy is about to become public knowledge. At this point the reader may feel Elinor does fall into distortion of the truth:
"Now, I can think and speak of it with little emotion. I would not have you suffer on my account; for I assure you I no longer suffer materially myself. I have many things to support me. I am not conscious of having provoked the disappointment by any imprudence of my own, and I have borne it as much as possible without spreading it further. I acquit Edward of all essential misconduct. I wish him very happy; and I am so sure of his always doing his duty, that though now he may harbour some regret, in the end he must become so. Lucy does not want sense, and that is the foundation on which every thing good may be built.—And after all, Marianne, after all that is bewitching in the idea of a single and constant attachment, and all that can be said of one's happiness depending entirely on any particular person, it is not meant—it is not fit—it is not possible that it should be so.—Edward will marry Lucy; he will marry a woman superior in person and understanding to half her sex; and time and habit will teach him to forget that he ever thought another superior to her." (ch. 37:264)
Does Elinor by now believe Edward and Lucy will somehow marry? Possibly, for when, a short time later, Edward leaves her after she has extended to him Colonel Brandon's offer of a living, we have this: '"When I see him again,' said Elinor to herself, as the door shut him out, 'I shall see him the husband of Lucy'" (ch. 40:289). On the other hand, not quite; for when she is (mis)informed that Edward and Lucy have married, near the end of the book, we read this:
Elinor now found the difference between the expectation of an unpleasant event, however certain the mind may be told to consider it, and certainty itself. She now found, that in spite of herself, she had always admitted a hope, while Edward remained single, that something would occur to prevent his marrying Lucy; that some resolution of his own, some mediation of friends, or some more eligible opportunity of establishment for the lady, would arise to assist the happiness of all. But he was now married, and she condemned her heart for the lurking flattery, which so much heightened the pain of the intelligence, (ch. 48:347)
To complete this picture of Elinor's frail normality under the utter certainty of her loss, the passage continues, a little further on:
She saw them in an instant in their parsonage-house; saw in Lucy, the active, contriving manager, uniting at once a desire of smart appearance, with the utmost frugality, and ashamed to be suspected of half her economical practices;—pursuing her own interest in every thought, courting the favour of Colonel Brandon, of Mrs. Jennings, and of every wealthy friend. In Edward—she knew not what she saw, nor what she wished to see;—happy or unhappy,—nothing pleased her; she turned away her head from every sketch of him. (ch. 48:347)
We may believe, then, that when Elinor expounded the Edward-Lucy-Elinor situation for her sister, her spirits were still being severely tried by it.
I think we must admit the intellectual in Elinor somewhat flounders here. We remember that at the end of her constrained battle with Lucy, an ending "to which both of them submitted without any reluctance," Elinor had "sat down to the card table with the melancholy persuasion that Edward … had not even the chance of being tolerably happy in marriage, which sincere affection on [Lucy's] side would have given" (ch. 24:168). Elinor is nonetheless entitled upon cooler reflection to revise an opinion formed immediately after an unpleasant verbal duel, without being read as dishonest with Marianne. The two grounds on which she founds her belief in Edward's prospective happiness with Lucy may manifest more the rationalist in Elinor than the rationalizer. First is the view, of ancient and respectable lineage, that a man who always does his duty must in the long run be happy. Second, and perhaps more surprising in Elinor, is the view that "sense … is the foundation upon which every thing good may be built." (She puts sense before character?) Nevertheless, if we allow "sense" to mean here being thoroughly sensible in the ordinary affairs of life, this is, though somewhat pagan, surely a respectable view. Did she believe Lucy had this sort of intelligence? Yes. That is how one reads Elinor's early observation that "Lucy was naturally clever; her remarks were often just and amusing … but her powers had received no aid from education…. Elinor saw, and pitied her for, the neglect of abilities which education might have rendered respectable" (ch. 22:149). However, Elinor is now simply discounting, without justification offered, what she is also reported as seeing in Lucy: her "thorough want of delicacy, of rectitude, and integrity of mind," not to mention her being "illiterate, artful, and selfish," while Edward is so much the opposite (ch. 22:149, 23:158). Of course the fact that Elinor picks out only sense in Lucy as the basis for being hopeful shows that she has not forgotten Lucy's failings. But in reassuring Marianne she discounts these failings, without offering an explanation for doing so.
As to the antiromantic arrow she lets loose at Marianne in favor of the possible ending of one love and growth of another, there is no doubt Elinor does believe in this, for it came up in an earlier discussion with Colonel Brandon, who remarked:
"Your sister, I understand, does not approve of second attachments."
"No," replied Elinor, "her opinions are all romantic."
"Or rather, as I believe, she considers them impossible to exist."
"I believe she does. But how she contrives it without reflecting on the character of her own father, who had himself two wives, I know not." (ch. 12:86)
This is eminently reasonable. Its application to Edward and his two loves, however, is less so. In short, Elinor as intellectual is human enough: I cannot make out her hopeful prognosis for Edward as a calculated effort merely to mislead Marianne; rather, in her own interest Elinor seems to succumb to some contortion of her thought—at least for the moment.
Having read Elinor's explanation with Marianne that way, I have to admit that an alternative interpretation is not implausible: this reading takes Elinor's contortional moves to be more strongly motivated by her desire to keep Marianne's emotional temperature down than I find them to be, so that Elinor is not deceiving herself, only Marianne. My own belief is that Austen would have given us some explicit sign if she had meant Elinor to be here disingenuous with Marianne; but I find none.
I end my focus on Elinor Dashwood as an intellectual with a rather striking instance of what Alison Sulloway calls Austen's "techniques of simultaneous revelation and concealment" of her feminist sorties.4 The "concealment" on this occasion consists in a largely indirect manifestation of Elinor's life as an intellectual; the "revelation" occurs through her mother's mimicking the logician's skeptical questioning she anticipates from conversation with Elinor when matters of moment are in hand. In this camouflaged maneuver, the gender reform embodied in Elinor is nonetheless revealed by the paradigmatically patriarchal role the mother assigns to her daughter: Elinor is enacted by her mother as an analytical intellect dashing with cold logic the romantic hope dear to a more "feminine" heart.
Indeed by returning all the way to the first chapter, we find Elinor there portrayed in a role clearly far more "standard" for the husband of a mother of marriageable daughters than for either a daughter or even the mother herself. There Elinor is said to have the "strength of understanding, and coolness of judgment … to be the counselor of her mother and … frequently to counteract … that eagerness of mind in Mrs. Dashwood which must generally have led to imprudence" (ch. 1:42).
Much later, in chapter 15, Elinor and her mother try to understand the shocking manner of Willoughby's departure from their neighborhood. The "simultaneous revelation and concealment" of Austen's gender reform works here in this way: the style of skeptical logician shows itself not directly in Elinor's conversation but in emotionally romantic Mrs. Dashwood, who is presented as shaping at least the rhetorical form of her reasoning discourse with Elinor into a structure not natural to her but learned by her from long experience of Elinor's critical, even skeptical habits of thought. Mrs. Dashwood begins a reassuring explanation of Willoughby's behavior with unnatural awareness of her own fallibility: "You, Elinor, who love to doubt where you can—it will not satisfy you, I know." She ends her hopeful interpretation of Willoughby's conduct with an equally uncharacteristic acknowledgment of alternative explanations:
"You will tell me, I know, that this may, or may not have happened; but I will listen to no cavil, unless you can point out any other method of understanding the affair as satisfactory as this. And now, Elinor, what have you to say?"
"Nothing, for you have anticipated my answer."
"Then you would have told me that it might or might not have happened. Oh! Elinor, how incomprehensible are your feelings! You had rather take evil upon credit than good. You had rather look out for misery for Marianne and guilt for poor Willoughby, than an apology for the latter…. Are no probabilities to be accepted, merely because they are not certainties? Is nothing due to the man whom we have all so much reason to love, and no reason in the world to think ill of?" (ch. 15:105–6)
Of course clearheaded Elinor's problem with this last remark is that they now have one reason to think ill of Willoughby, his sudden, strange departure. Of the role of another piece of disconfirming evidence, Elinor has this to say: "I confess … that every circumstance except one is in favour of their engagement; but that one is the total silence of both on the subject, and with me it almost outweighs every other" (ch. 15:107). Mrs. Dashwood exemplifies a common confusion of skepticism with both cynicism and pessimism when she upbraids Elinor with "You had rather take evil upon credit than good." The outlook of the cynic is itself a failing considered so stereotypically masculine that it is more or less tolerated in men but abhorred in women. In fact, Elinor has no inclination toward either cynicism or pessimism; her principled skepticism is nonetheless both a common mark of the intellectual, hence of the male in her era, and an excluded ingredient of the socially constructed concept of genteel feminine gender.
Austen has been careful, however, to make Elinor's skepticism subject to lapses where love enters. When Edward sprang on them his own milder version of an unexpected and incomprehensibly early departure from them,
Elinor placed all that was astonishing in this way of acting to his mother's account; and it was happy for her that he had a mother whose character was so imperfectly known to her, as to be the general excuse for everything strange on the part of her son…. She was very well disposed … to regard his actions with all the … generous qualifications, which had been rather more painfully extorted from her, for Willoughby's service, by her mother. (ch. 19:126)
This is all very well, but the cases of Edward and Willoughby are so different that Austen's conflating them must be taken as only half serious. Perhaps, too, on behalf of Elinor's larger generosity, we should not let pass unnoticed how tender her earliest response to Willoughby had been. When Elinor's mother rhetorically asked about Willoughby, "Can he be deceitful?" Elinor replied: "I hope not, I believe not…. I love Willoughby, sincerely love him; and suspicion of his integrity cannot be more painful to yourself than to me" (ch. 15:108). The novel as a whole confirms as truthful this spontaneous expression of her early—and renewable—affection for Willoughby. We shall find occasion, two chapters further on, to take a closer look at Elinor's emotional life. She is an intellectual. She is not a cold one.
1 Stuart Tave, Some Words of Jane Austen (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1973), 96–97.
2 Since Austen was born in December 1775, she would not have been twenty until the last month of 1795. She rewrote the novel in 1797 and revised it again in her mid-thirties before submitting it to the public in 1811.
3 Julia Prewitt Brown, Jane Austen's Novels: Social Change and Literary Form, (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1979), 45. My epigraph for the present book can be found on p. 155.
4 [Alison G.] Sulloway, Jane Austen and the Province of Womanhood [(Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 1989),] 167.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 532
Easton, Celia A. "Sense and Sensibility and Joke of Substitution." The Journal of Narrative Technique 23, No. 2 (Spring 1993): 114–26.
Discusses how Austen's use of the ironic "stand-in effect" keeps the reader and the novel's characters in suspenseful delusion.
Harding, D. W. "The Supposed Letter Form of Sense and Sensibility." Notes and Queries n.s. 40, No. 4 (December 1993): 464–66.
Disputes the notion that Sense and Sensibility was originally in letter form and proposes that Pride and Prejudice was the far likelier candidate.
Kaplan, Deborah. "Achieving Authority: Jane Austen's First Published Novel." Nineteenth-Century Literature 37, No. 4 (March 1983): 531–51.
Examines Sense and Sensibility to discover Austen's accommodation of femininity and authority.
Lock, F. P. "The Geology of Sense and Sensibility." In The Yearbook of English Studies. Theatrical Literature Special Number, Vol. 9. Edited by G. K. Hunter and C. J. Rawson, pp. 246–55. Modern Humanities Research Association, 1979.
Discusses various critics' interpretations of the origins and shaping of Sense and Sensibility.
Meyersohn, Marylea. "Jane Austen's Garrulous Speakers: Social Criticism in Sense and Sensibility, Emma, and Persuasion." In Reading and Writing Women's Lives: A Study of the Novel of Manners, edited by Bege K. Bowers and Barbara Brothers, pp. 35–48. Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1990.
Demonstrates how the dialogues of Austen's characters in her "novels of manners" offer insights into her beliefs about the social function of rational discourse.
Moler, Kenneth L. "Sense and Sensibility and the 'Sensible Sister.'" In Jane Austen's Art of Illusion, by Kenneth L. Moler, pp. 43–74. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1968.
Refutes the common perception by readers that Austen favors Elinor over Marianne.
Monaghan, David, ed. Jane Austen in a Social Context. London: Macmillan, 1981, 199 p.
Collection of eleven essays on various aspects of Austen's novels.
Nollen, Elizabeth. "Ann Radcliffe's A Sicilian Romance: A New Source for Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility." English Language Notes 22, No. 2 (December 1984): 30–37.
Briefly discusses the similarities between the two novels, focusing on each pair of sisters.
Schaffer, Julie A. "The Ideological Intervention of Ambiguities in the Marriage Plot: Who Fails Marianne in Austen's Sense and Sensibility?," pp. 128–51. In A Dialogue of Voices: Feminist Literary Theory and Bakhtin, edited by Karen Hohne and Helen Wussow, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994.
Argues that uniting the interests of feminist criticism with a Bakhtinian view of novels as dialogic discourse makes possible the likeability of Marianne and her view of life and makes it meaningful to the novel's overall project.
Shoben, Edward Joseph, Jr. "Impulse and Virtue in Jane Austen: Sense and Sensibility in Two Centuries." The Hudson Review 35, No. 4 (Winter 1982–83): 521–39.
Uses the two primary characters to illustrate the "complexity and depth of Jane Austen's psychological insights."
Smith, Phoebe A. "Sense and Sensibility and 'The Lady's Law': The Failure of Benevolent Paternalism." The CEA Critic 55, No. 3 (Spring/Summer 1993): 3–25.
Shows how the legal situation of women in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries affects the narrative movement and participates in the construction of character in the novel.
Spacks, Patricia Meyer. "The Difference It Makes." Soundings 64, No. 4 (Winter 1981): 343–60.
Overview of how feminist criticism offers new "ways of seeing" and valuing female experience, using Austen's novels as examples.
Additional coverage of Austen's life and career is contained in the following source published by The Gale Group: World Literature Criticism, 1500 to the Present.
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