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.