Sense and Sensibility Questions and Answers

Jane Austen

Read real teacher answers to our most interesting Sense and Sensibility questions.

What are some examples of subtlety in Sense and Sensibility?

The subtleties of Austen's words and ideas in Sense and Sensibility build a social and cultural picture peopled by authentic characters, all of which could be overlooked when the subtleties are given less than close, sensitive, and careful readings. Let's look at a close reading of some points with subtleties that may be misconstrued without an in-depth reading.

Willoughby's Feelings for Marianne

There is some confusion as to Willoughby's true feelings for Marianne. As readers, we are confused along with Elinor, as she is the main character, whose thoughts we have the most access to. Austen explains Willoughby’s feelings first through hints, and then through Willoughby's explanatory speech. It can be difficult to follow the unknotting from intentional confusion to deliberate revelation.

"When I first became intimate in your family, I had no other intention, no other view in the acquaintance than to pass my time pleasantly while I was obliged to remain in Devonshire [with Mrs. Smith] [...] I found myself, by insensible degrees, sincerely fond of her; and the happiest hours of my life were what I spent with her when I felt my intentions were strictly honourable, and my feelings blameless. [...] I had determined, as soon as I could engage her alone, to justify the attentions I had so invariably paid her…” (Ch 44)

Willoughby's speech to Elinor confirms what Marianne had told her. Then, to defend Willoughby's honor and intentions, Marianne protested that, though unspoken, Willoughby's love and heart had been hers:

"He DID feel the same, Elinor—for weeks and weeks he felt it. I know he did. Whatever may have changed him now, (and nothing but the blackest art employed against me can have done it), I was once as dear to him as my own soul could wish. This lock of hair, which now he can so readily give up, was begged of me with the most earnest supplication.” (Ch 29)

As the story progresses, it becomes clear that Willoughby was not the fortune hunter he appears. Marianne and Willoughby’s accounts of their relationship match up, and in the end we must join with Marianne in saying:

"[Willoughby] is not so unworthy as you believe him. ... I was once as dear to him as my own soul could wish." (Ch 29)

Colonel Brandon in London

Colonel Brandon remains the confidant of Elinor and supporter of Marianne. It is not until after Colonel Brandon tells the story of Eliza and her daughter, Miss Williams, that Marianne can even countenance speaking to Brandon: "It is Colonel Brandon!" said [Marianne], with vexation. "We are never safe from HIM." (Ch 31)

Brandon begins in Chapter 27 to confide in and support Elinor when he inadvertently reveals to Elinor that talk of Marianne's engagement to Willoughby is general knowledge in their extended social circle:

[Colonel Brandon said,] "as they openly correspond, and their marriage is universally talked of. ... By many—by some of whom you know nothing, by others with whom you are most intimate,..." (Ch 27)

Brandon reveals to Elinor, since "on [her] prudence [he has] the strongest dependence," that his heart is devoted to Marianne, although Marianne openly dislikes him. Brandon asks Elinor if he has any hope besides that of concealing his ardent feelings: "Tell me that it is all absolutely resolved on, that any attempt, that in short concealment, if concealment be possible, is all that remains" (Ch 27).

Only after Elinor relates to Marianne Brandon's tragic story of first lost, then devastated love, does Marianne yield in her disdain and occasionally speak to or look kindly upon Brandon.

Colonel Brandon's delicate, unobtrusive enquiries were never unwelcome to Miss Dashwood. He had abundantly earned the privilege of intimate discussion of her sister's disappointment, by the friendly zeal with which he had endeavoured to soften it, and they always conversed with confidence. His chief reward for the painful exertion of disclosing past sorrows and present humiliations, was given in the pitying eye with which Marianne sometimes observed him, and the gentleness of her voice whenever (though it did not often happen) she was obliged, or could oblige herself to speak to him. (Ch 32)

Marianne, Brandon, and Willoughby at Cleveland, Somersetshire

"Cleveland!"—she cried, with great agitation. "No, I cannot go to Cleveland."—
"You forget," said Elinor gently, "that its situation is not...that it is not in the neighbourhood of..."
"But it is in Somersetshire.—I cannot go into Somersetshire.—There, where I looked forward to going...No, Elinor, you cannot expect me to go there." (Ch 39)

The most dramatic plot development, the climactic hinge upon which the plot turns, happens when Elinor and Marianne arrive at Cleveland--the Palmers' country estate, just a few mile from Combe Magna, the Willoughbys' country estate--as the guest of Mr. and Mrs. Palmer (Mrs. Jennings' daughter, Charlotte) and in company with Mrs. Jennings and Colonel Brandon. Even though Marianne's first response was a violent rejection of the idea of traveling to Cleveland, Elinor's presentation of the nearness of Barton Cottage and home swayed her agitated feelings in favor of reaching her mother sooner.

Marianne's unstrung emotions receive a fresh agitation by being so near to Willoughby's estate, a place she was to make home and of which she was to be mistress, until the truth of Willoughby's need for a wealthy wife--after being cut off completely by Miss Smith for his infamous abandonment of Brandon's ward Miss Williams--dashed all Marianne's expectations to dust. It was a bittersweet discovery that a walk through the far reaches of the Cleveland estate, near the Grecian temple, allowed her to gaze to the southeast and, in her imagination, "fancy that from their summits Combe Magna might be seen" (Ch 42).

Several days of continual rain prevented Marianne from her determination to walk to the temple and the "distant eminence" to let her gaze "fondly rest on the farthest ridge of the hills" to imagine, though far distant, "Combe Magna might be seen."

In the "twilight" of the third and fourth evenings Marianne did wander on her desired path to fulfill the bitter sorrow of her emotional, yearning heart even though the grasses were the tallest and wettest of all the estate following the rains. To add a sense of destitution to deepen her emotional churnings, she neglected herself so far as to sit about after her walks in wet shoes and wet stockings. She further neglected her well-being by ignoring the "feeling, in her head and throat, the beginning of a heavy cold" that Colonel Brandon did not fail to notice.

[Marianne said,] "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."

The next day convinced her to take medications and rest in bed, while the following day, feeling "restless and feverish," convinced her to accept the attentions of an apothecary, who diagnosed an infection. All but Mrs. Jennings and Colonel Brandon abandoned Cleveland in order to protect Charlotte's baby from illness.

Three days after they all left, Marianne took a violent turn for the worse. She was roused from another feverish sleep with delirious ramblings about her mother being coming from Barton and about how Mrs. Dashwood must not go through London or be lost:

[Elinor was] almost wishing to rouse her from so painful a slumber, when Marianne, suddenly awakened by some accidental noise in the house, started hastily up, and, with feverish wildness, cried out,—
"Is mama coming?—"
"Not yet," cried the other, concealing her terror, and assisting Marianne to lie down again, "but she will be here, I hope, before it is long. It is a great way, you know, from hence to Barton."
"But she must not go round by London," cried Marianne, in the same hurried manner. "I shall never see her, if she goes by London."

With these scenes firmly in mind, it is clear that the time at Cleveland is critical to plot development. It is also clear that Marianne has done far more than to catch a violent cold: Marianne has courted a violent cold by indulging in melancholy romantic sentimentality and maudlin neglect of common sense in the most rudimentary care of herself.

While it is true that at Cleveland Marianne comes down with a severe cold, it is worse than severe--it is life threatening--and she actively pursues the cold as a result of indulging her heightened sensibilities. This is one of Austen's greatest points, and the meaning of Sense and Sensibility is missed if this critical element is overlooked or glossed over as a mere incidental.

Willoughby at Cleveland

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 vestibule, as she passed along an inner lobby, assured her that they were already in the house. She rushed to the drawing-room,—she entered it,—and saw only Willoughby. (Ch 43)

Though Marianne is unwell, Willoughby’s appearance is unexpected and unwelcome. In a beautiful arrangement of syntax and vocabulary, Austen builds a tension and urgency that yields the impression of Willoughby bursting into the room as urgently as Elinor herself bursts in: "She rushed to the drawing-room,—she entered it,—and saw only Willoughby." Willoughby was well aware that he was not at all welcome: "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,...."

To disregard Willoughby risking considerable social censure for dashing the 30 miles from Combe Magna to Cleveland, while knowing he was an unwelcome guest, is to discount and underplay a vital part of Austen's carefully worked plot element. Willoughby's demanding urgency is confirmed in that his first remark is to ask if Marianne is truly going to live: "Your sister," said he, with abruptness, ... "is out of danger. ...-But is it true? is it really true?"

Austen weaves so many minute, yet vital, pieces of information within each sentence and throughout the entire plot, that we risk missing the fine points of her story, themes, emotion, wit and talent if we err by giving Sense and Sensibility quick or less than careful readings.

How does the relationship between Elinor and Marianne change over the course of the novel?

Elinor and Marianne, London

Elinor and Marianne are invited to London by Mrs. Jennings. Elinor expects that Marianne, despising Mrs. Jennings, will reject the offer out of hand. Yet Elinor did not take into account the effect upon Marianne of Willoughby's sudden departure, and the lengths to which Marianne will go to see Willoughby.

Marianne, no matter the company she must keep (Mrs. Jennings, Lady Middleton, Lucy and Anne), suddenly must get to London--which is where Willoughby has gone to for the purpose, as we learn later, of securing an engagement to the wealthy Miss Grey. Marianne must see Willoughby again at any cost, even the cost of accepting the invitation of a woman she loathes, the kindhearted though somewhat vulgar Mrs. Jennings.

To say that Elinor and Marianne go to London to visit friends is a misreading a critical element that sets up complications in Marianne's conflict leading to her eventual epiphany: Marianne pursues the object of her sensibilities despite the claims of sense by reducing herself to misusing people she loathes to attain her desired ends. Marianne accepts an invitation from people who are decidedly not friends.

Plot Versus Subplot

Elinor comprises the plot while Marianne comprises the subplot because Austen focalizes the story through Elinor's perception, comment and experience. To explain, Elinor comments on virtually everything that happens: she comments on Marianne and Willoughby's unfortunate excursion to Allenham; she comments on Marianne's treatment of Brandon; she comments on Lucy; etc. In contrast, Marianne comments on only that which she experiences directly or that which Elinor tells to her, as when Elinor communicates to Marianne both Brandon's and Willoughby's confessions to her.

Elinor is also directly involved in almost every event, with the exception of events like the excursion to Allenham; Brandon's trips to and experiences in London and Barton Cottage; Lucy's engagement to Edward; Lucy's visit with and revelation to Fanny. Still these events are related through the consciousness of Elinor.

Elinor's conflict is that of the quest. Elinor has heroic qualities and is in quest of a goal: Edward's love. In the end, Elinor succeeds in her quest and attains her goal by being true to what she knows to be good and right. Elinor does not undergo character change: she has no epiphany nor any change of heart, nor any lesson learned. Marianne, on the other hand, has a main conflict within herself: her central conflict is her belief system against the outcome of her life. In the end, Marianne experiences an epiphany; has a significant change of heart; learns a lesson; undergoes dramatic character change in the face of a life-threatening event.

Marianne's Tragedy

What is Elinor's role in Marianne's tragedy that begins at the ball and escalates with Willoughby's cold letter the following morning? Is Elinor Marianne's chief support, her source of comfort and strength? How does Marianne react toward and think of Elinor during their time in London, both before and after the ball?

Before the ball, Marianne takes the imprudent step of corresponding with Willoughby, and Elinor is alarmed and uses the fact of correspondence to confirm to herself the existence of a secret engagement between her sister and Willoughby. Elinor is concerned enough about this secret that she writes their mother to require that she insist Marianne explain herself:

They reached town by three o'clock the third day, [...] Elinor determined to employ the interval in writing to her mother, and sat down for that purpose. In a few moments Marianne did the same. "I am writing home, Marianne," said Elinor; "had not you better defer your letter for a day or two?"
"I am NOT going to write to my mother," replied Marianne, hastily, and as if wishing to avoid any farther inquiry. Elinor said no more; it immediately struck her that she must then be writing to Willoughby;....
Elinor resolved to write the next morning to her mother ... and she was still more eagerly bent on this measure by perceiving after breakfast on the morrow, that Marianne was again writing to Willoughby ....

Why is corresponding with Willoughby so imprudent that Elinor and Brandon are concerned and that Elinor presses her mother to "demand from Marianne an account of her real situation with respect to [Willoughby]"? In the Georgian era of Jane Austen (1775-1817), which extended from 1714 to 1830 and included the Regency period of 1811 to 1820, social norms governing relationships between unmarried women and men were strict.

For unmarried men and women to avoid being or even appearing to be vulgar, strict social norms were adhered to. In view of the fact that private conversations and physical contact were chaperoned and prohibited outside rigid social situations, e.g., dancing at balls or supervised parties, one of these norms was that unmarried men and women did not correspond unless they had a definite, publicly known and acknowledged engagement to be married.

For Marianne to correspond with Willoughby exposed her (and him) to accusations of vulgarity if not engaged, and of secrecy and lack of propriety if engaged. Engagements needed to be public and acknowledged in order for honor and reputation to be upheld (it is interesting to consider Lucy's long secret engagement to Edward in this light).

Elinor's concern for Marianne's welfare was awakened from their first day in London when Marianne immediately undertook to write to Willoughby whom she supposed to be still in London, rather than having returned from London to his estate at Combe Magna in Somersetshire.

How does Marianne respond to Elinor's concern? Is she accepting of Elinor's comfort, support or counsel? Might we say that Elinor was Marianne's "mainstay"?

Marianne's first reaction is to snap at Elinor--in such a way as to forestall further inquiry--that she is not writing their mother; she does this without volunteering the name of the person she is writing to: "'I am NOT going to write to my mother,' replied Marianne, hastily, and as if wishing to avoid any farther inquiry." Not many days after, Marianne dashes to grasp a letter that is delivered even though told by Mrs. Jennings' servant that it was addressed to Mrs. Jennings herself. When Elinor compassionately attempts to gain Marianne's confidence regarding Willoughby, Marianne's response is one that is not only intended to put Elinor off but also to give Elinor an affront:

[Said] 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 do not communicate, and I, because I conceal nothing."
Elinor, distressed by this charge of reserve in herself, ... knew not how, under such circumstances, to press for greater openness in Marianne. (Ch 22)

Thus far, there is no indication of Marianne deriving or looking for any comfort or support from Elinor. What about at and after the ball? Does Marianne lean on Elinor as her chief support? Indeed, she does not. When Elinor counsels Marianne to be composed and await Willoughby's notice, Marianne has neither the ability nor the wish to follow her counsel; she has no desire to be supported by Elinor.

Marianne, wholly dispirited, careless of her appearance, and seeming equally indifferent whether she went or staid, prepared, without one look of hope or one expression of pleasure. She sat by the drawing-room fire ... without once stirring from her seat, or altering her attitude, lost in her own thoughts, and insensible of her sister's presence ... They arrived in due time at the place of destination, ... and as Marianne was not in spirits for moving about, she and Elinor luckily succeeding to chairs, ... Elinor perceived Willoughby, standing within a few yards of them, in earnest conversation with a very fashionable looking young woman ... Elinor turned involuntarily to Marianne, to see whether it could be unobserved by her. At that moment she first perceived him, and her whole countenance glowing with sudden delight, she would have moved towards him instantly, had not her sister caught hold of her. ...
"Pray, pray be composed," cried Elinor, "and do not betray what you feel to every body present. Perhaps he has not observed you yet."
[To] be composed at such a moment was not only beyond the reach of Marianne, it was beyond her wish. She sat in an agony of impatience which affected every feature. (Ch 28)

After the encounter with Willoughby, Marianne was in such a state of complete discomposure that Elinor requested Lady Middleton to return them to Mrs. Jennings' home. There, Marianne, in a state of "silent agony, too much oppressed even for tears," went straight to bed without turning to Elinor for support or comfort. The morning found Marianne, without the benefit of either fire or sunlight, struggling to write a letter in dawn's dim light. Elinor was awakened by her violent sobs and rebuffed when she tried to speak to Marianne. It is clear here again that Marianne had no idea of turning to Elinor for or of accepting from Elinor comfort or support in any degree.

Elinor [was] roused from sleep by [Marianne's] agitation and sobs ... [and] after observing her for a few moments with silent anxiety, said, in a tone of the most considerate gentleness,

"Marianne, may I ask-?"
"No, Elinor," she replied, "ask nothing; you will soon know all."
The sort of desperate calmness with which this was said, lasted no longer than while she spoke, and was immediately followed by a return of the same excessive affliction. [...]
Elinor paid her every quiet and unobtrusive attention in her power; and she would have tried to sooth and tranquilize her still more, had not Marianne entreated her ... not to speak to her for the world. In such circumstances, it was better for both that they should not be long together.... (Ch 29)

When Willoughby's last correspondence is read and wept over by Marianne, we see some sign that Marianne recognizes in Elinor a friend and compassionate well-wisher rather than an antagonist of some sort to be resisted. After breakfast with Mrs. Jennings that morning, during which Elinor tried to distract Mrs. Jennings' attention away from the absent Marianne, Elinor dashed back to their room to see if Marianne had received a letter from Willoughby by the early post. When she saw Marianne prostrate upon her bed and nearly "choked by grief" but grasping a letter and surrounded by others, she sat beside her, kissed her hand affectionately, then burst into sympathetic tears and wept along with Marianne. It is here that Marianne shows some sign of seeing a support and comforter in Elinor:

[Elinor] saw Marianne stretched on the bed, almost choked by grief, one letter in her hand, and two or three others laying by her. Elinor drew near, but without saying a word; and seating herself on the bed, took her hand, kissed her affectionately several times, and then gave way to a burst of tears, which at first was scarcely less violent than Marianne's. The latter, though unable to speak, seemed to feel all the tenderness of this behaviour, and after some time thus spent in joint affliction, she put all the letters into Elinor's hands; and then covering her face with her handkerchief, almost screamed with agony.

It is clear from these textual excerpts that Marianne did not think of Elinor as her mainstay; she did not think of Elinor as her comfort and support. On the contrary, she pushed Elinor away as often as Elinor tried to approach with comfort or support. Marianne's reason--although immaterial to understanding her actions--must have been that she knew Elinor would press the claim of sensible behavior against that of behavior of sensibility, and Marianne rejected--just as she did when their father died and when they left Norland--the claim of sense over sensibility.

"Exert yourself, dear Marianne," [Elinor] cried, "if you would not kill yourself and all who love you. ... 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."

By her own admission, Marianne's attitude toward Elinor—an attitude that lies at the heart of the conflict between them and at the heart of the principle theme of the story—doesn't change until after Marianne is recovered from her brush with death and both are back at Barton Cottage and she is perceived to be strong enough to physically withstand hearing Willoughby's confession. It is here that Marianne confesses her own faults, particularly her transgressions against Elinor, in whom she did not see a comforter nor a supporter, and acknowledges what Elinor has been and continues to be to her.

But you,—you above all,... had been wronged by me. I, and only I, knew your heart and its sorrows; yet to what did it influence me?—not to any compassion that could benefit you or myself.—Your example was before me; but to what avail?—... Did I imitate your forbearance, or lessen your restraints, ...—No;—not less when I knew you to be unhappy, than when I had believed you at ease, did I turn away from every exertion of duty or friendship; scarcely allowing sorrow to exist but with me, ...
The future must be my proof ... my feelings shall be governed and my temper improved. They shall no longer worry others, nor torture myself. I shall now live solely for my family. You, my mother, and Margaret, must henceforth be all the world to me; you will share my affections entirely between you." (Ch 46)

Marianne's Love for Willoughby: Is It Altered?

Marianne herself gives us the answer to the question of whether she still loves Willoughby after his marriage to Miss Grey, thus there is no need for speculation on this point. However, understanding Marianne depends in part upon applying an understanding of the social norms of Georgian culture to what Marianne says.

Remembering that eschewing even the appearance of vulgarity and impropriety was the driving motivation behind Georgian social norms, we can understand that Marianne would not be able to apply the word "love" to Willoughby after he had married Miss Grey.

She would no longer be able to echo Mrs. Dashwood's protest that to esteem is to love (Ch 4). To do so would be to violate a very serious norm that honored marriage and love within marriage. This is also why Elinor would not tell Marianne the full detail of Willoughby's continued affection (Austen's narrator would not even apply the word "love" here) for Marianne.

When Elinor and Marianne are walking in view of the hill near the cottage—the hill, as Marianne points out, where she first met Willoughby—Marianne reveals the contents of her feelings for Willoughby. We know from social norms and her reactions as well as her words that, though she sees the error—and even the horror—of his behavior, she cannot remove from her heart her fond "remembrance" of him. She only needs to know that he intended from the outset no villainy toward her, that she was not deliberately to be his next Miss Williams, for her heart to rest easy in its continued "remembrance."

We know that while she cannot give up what he meant to her, she asserts she will govern her feelings and check them "by religion, by reason, by constant employment." She will govern her sensibilities. That her feelings for Willoughby are not turned away from love--though she may never speak that word in relation to him, a married man--is confirmed by her final statement that if she "could but know HIS heart," then she would feel easy in her mind.

"There, exactly there,"—pointing with one hand, "on that projecting mound,—there I fell; and there I first saw Willoughby. [...] I am thankful to find that I can look with so little pain on the spot!—shall we ever talk on that subject, Elinor?"—hesitatingly it was said.—"Or will it be wrong?—I can talk of it now, I hope, as I ought to do. ... I do not mean to talk to you of what my feelings have been for him, but what they are NOW.—At present, if I could be ... allowed to think that he was not ALWAYS acting a part, not ALWAYS deceiving me;... how gladly would I suppose him, only fickle, very, very fickle.
"As for Willoughby—to say that I shall soon or that I shall ever forget him, would be idle. His remembrance can be overcome by no change of circumstances or opinions. But it shall be regulated, it shall be checked by religion, by reason, by constant employment."
She paused—and added in a low voice, "If I could but know HIS heart, everything would become easy."
[Elinor] 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. ... She caught every syllable with panting eagerness; her hand, unknowingly to herself, closely pressed her sister's, and tears covered her cheeks.

In conclusion, to say that Marianne no longer loved Willoughby would be a statement that Elinor might wish to be true but with which she would be forced to disagree: Marianne sees Willoughby's faults and relinquishes her proclivity to torture herself with regret over not being his wife—regret being a sure sign of continued love—but in her heart and mind, "[h]is remembrance can be overcome by no change of circumstances or opinions."

Why do Elinor and Edward act with such restraint toward each other?

While it is correct to say that both Elinor and Edward are calm and decorous in their expressions of esteem and fondness and that their level of emotional display stands in contrast to the heightened display of Marianne and Willoughby, it is not correct to suggest that Elinor's reason is modesty and that Edward's reason--that Edward's sole reason--is his secret engagement. In regard to his secret engagement to Lucy, it is a error to suggest that Edward's mother, Mrs. Ferrars, approves of or favors Lucy, whom she has never met and of whose engagement to Edward she has no idea.


What is true to say is that Elinor governs her emotions and her expectations through sense—half of the principle theme of the novel—that is borne of a strong, self-confident, capable personality and social interactions, which are not based in modesty (to have modesty: to have a moderate or humble estimate of one's worth and importance to self and society) but in a sound and reasonable psychological nature in which sense is embedded. When considering sense versus sensibility and the differences or similarities between Mrs. Dashwood, Elinor, and Marianne, one must note Austen's foray into the discussion now known as "nurture versus nature": while Elinor and Marianne are raised in the same environment by the same persons, they have exceedingly different personalities and expressions of sense and sensibility.


What is true to say about Edward is that he is restrained in his display of emotion for three reasons. The first, of course, is his secret engagement, but the second and third are that it is Edward who is modest, as revealed by the narrator who conveys Elinor's thoughts, "... charity with the modesty and worth of the other [Edward compared to Robert] (Ch 36)," and that he received an inferior private education rather than public education; he received "the misfortune of a private education (Ch 36)."

Edward's education was, by his own and Robert's accounts, inferior in that it was "private" rather than "public." It left Edward without the depth of education that would rendered him skilled and without practice in the social interactions that might compensate for his natural modesty and diffidence. He might have still preferred the quiet life of the clergy, yet he would not have been so inexperienced with society as he is had he had a public education.

English Public and Private Education

It is important to understand the difference between public and private English education. English public education is for the elite and wealthy (or for those on scholarship, which is how Geoffrey Chaucer, Edmund Spenser, and William Shakespeare were educated: at public school on scholarship) and is conducted for "public" groups at boarding schools, such as Eaton, which England's Princes William and Henry attended.

English private education is the placement of a student with a master or tutor, often a clergyman or some other scholar, in their private residence—sometimes with a small group of other private students and sometimes as the sole student—for an entire education or for a specialized part of an education. English scholar, Christian apologist, and novelist C. S. Lewis discusses his private education for maths in his autobiography Surprised by Joy. He was struggling with maths, so he was placed with a private tutor for the year preceding his entrance exams for Oxford.

The disadvantages of private and public education (each of which has its individual strengths as well) are seen in the experiences of Robert and Edward: a private education can foster natural tendencies to reclusiveness and false modesty, as with Edward, while a public education can foster proclivities toward arrogance and false pride, as with Robert. This idea of nurturing through education is, of course, one of the themes which is explored by Austen in Sense and Sensibility and which was advanced by John Locke (1632-1734) in the 1700s (Austen, 1775-1817).

Edward, Lucy, and Mrs. Ferrars

The premise by which Lucy introduces the interesting topic of Edward to Elinor is the question of whether Elinor can tell Lucy about the characteristics of Mrs. Ferrars, Edward's mother: "are you personally acquainted with your sister-in-law's mother, Mrs. Ferrars? ... perhaps, you cannot tell me what sort of a woman she is?" Elinor, in shock and surprise, says she didn't know Lucy was connected with the Ferrars. Lucy replies that she is not but that her hope is that she will soon be: "Mrs. Ferrars is certainly nothing to me at present—but the time MAY come—how soon it will come must depend upon herself—when we may be very intimately connected."

Elinor understands this veiled social reference to an engagement but supposes Lucy must mean Robert Ferrars: "'No,' replied Lucy, 'not to Mr. ROBERT Ferrars ... but,' fixing her eyes upon Elinor, 'to his eldest brother.'" When Elinor presses the point by saying that she has never heard Edward "even mention" her name, Lucy responds by saying that the engagement "was always meant to be a great secret" and that their secret engagement must never "reach his mother; for she would never approve of it," because Lucy will "have no fortune," and Mrs. Ferrars "is an exceedingly proud woman."

Thus it is clear that it is quite an error to say that Edward is restrained in his emotional expressions because of a secret engagement that his mother favors. There is a potential engagement to a Miss Morton, "the Hon. Miss Morton, only daughter of the late Lord Morton, with thirty thousand pounds," that Mrs. Ferrars favors and, indeed, advances, although to no avail.

The reason Edward's secret engagement restrains his display of emotional feeling is a much more generic one that Austen explored to good effect in Emma; consider Knightley's accusations aimed at Churchill's behavior toward Emma. In Georgian society (of which the Regency period was a part), attentions given by an eligible young man to a marriageable young woman were expected to result in a proposal of marriage, as was illustrated so clearly by Austen in Pride and Prejudice; consider the community's and the Bennets' expectations of marriage between Jane and Bingley. It was dishonorable for eligible and marriageable persons to behave frivolously; it was dishonorable for a young man to raise expectations through his prolonged or exclusive attentions to a young woman.

Consequently, when a secret engagement exists, an interested person cannot know that eligibility does not exist; therefore unrestrained attentions will be understood as the prelude to a proposal of marriage. Edward was restrained toward Elinor because he knew that, being secretly engaged to Lucy--with or without Mrs. Ferrars' favor of Lucy and happily or unhappily engaged--he could never follow through with a proposal to Elinor.

Elinor's security sunk; but her self-command did not sink with it.  "Four years you have been engaged," said she with a firm voice.  "Yes; and heaven knows how much longer we may have to wait. Poor Edward! It puts him quite out of heart." Then taking a small miniature from her pocket, she added, "To prevent the possibility of mistake, be so good as to look at this face. It does not do him justice, to be sure, but yet I think you cannot be deceived as to the person it was drew for.—I have had it above these three years."  She put it into her hands as she spoke; and when Elinor saw the painting, whatever other doubts her fear of a too hasty decision, or her wish of detecting falsehood might suffer to linger in her mind, she could have none of its being Edward's face. She returned it almost instantly, acknowledging the likeness. (Ch 22)

After Edward's and Lucy's engagement becomes a matter of public scandal, Colonel Brandon offers the Delaford living (living: clergical position and income awarded for life) to Edward so that he and Lucy might advance their intention of marrying. This plan of Edward taking the Delaford lining is motivated by two things. Firstly, Edward has always preferred the profession of clergyman above all options his family proffered. Secondly, having already taken a degree at Oxford, he only required a short "two or three months [to] complete his ordination" into the clergy.

[Brandon said,] "I understand that he intends to take orders. Will you be so good as to tell him that the living of Delaford, now just vacant, as I am informed by this day's post, is his, if he think it worth his acceptance."  Elinor, "I know so little of these kind of forms, that I can hardly even conjecture as to the time, or the preparation necessary; but I suppose two or three months will complete his ordination."

In the happy twist of the resolution, the Delaford living and Edward's ordination will benefit Elinor and Edward instead of Lucy and Edward.

How does the relationship between Marianne and Colonel Brandon change over the course of the novel?

While it is true to say that Marianne has no attraction toward Colonel Brandon because he is too old and wears "flannel" waistcoats, it is not true to say that, as a consequence, she rejects his suit: Colonel Brandon makes no suit for her love--thus no suit can be rejected--until well after Edward and Elinor are married and settled in the parsonage at Brandon's estate of Delaford. It is equally untrue to say that at any point Brandon continues a courtship of Marianne: Colonel Brandon never has the heart to initiate a courtship until Marianne spends considerable time in visits to Elinor and Edward at Delaford, and then only with Mrs. Dashwood's assistance and encouragement.

Marianne Meets Brandon

How does Marianne meet Colonel Brandon and on what is her long-lasting first impression formed? Marianne and all the Dashwoods are invited to take dinner at Barton Manor. It is at this dinner that Marianne meets Colonel Brandon. Her first assessment of him is that he, at thirty-five, is "old," "infirm" and in "declining life." She finds a modicum of respect for him because he is attentive, although not rapturous, about the music she sings and plays. She considers him an unfortunate man of "advanced years" in a "forlorn condition as an old bachelor." So, had he been, in her opinion, pretentious enough to advance a suit of marriage, she indeed would have rejected it. Yet pursuing a courtship of Marianne was not a possibility Brandon even contemplated because of Marianne's decided disinterest in him.

Second Attachments and Flannel

Although, as Mrs. Jennings and Sir John noticed, Colonel Brandon had an immediate "partiality" for Marianne (we later learn the immediate nature of his partiality was due to her striking resemblance to Eliza), Marianne has, as shown above, an immediate disdain for Brandon: Marianne was "prejudiced against him." On top of this dislike for thirty-five-year-old Brandon, Marianne was completely enamored of twenty-five-year-old Willoughby: "what could a silent man of five and thirty hope, when opposed to a very lively one of five and twenty?" In view of Marianne's sensibilities, it would take a bold and audacious man to pursue Marianne's affection, which we know Brandon was not; he was grave and "reserved."

In addition, Marianne's "romantic" ideas about love and attachments prohibit the existence of "second attachments," second loves in life. As Brandon's conversation with Marianne brings out, even if Brandon had overcome his gravity and reserve and had summoned the fortitude to dare to approach Marianne while her thoughts and affections were absorbed by Willoughby, he would have thwarted because of Marianne's rejection of second loves, especially second loves in "old" and "infirm" men who dare to wear flannel.

[Marianne said,] "[Colonel Brandon] may live twenty years longer. But thirty-five has nothing to do with matrimony."

Marianne's Opinion on Brandon

On the day of the group outing to the "very fine place about twelve miles from Barton," when Brandon is so suddenly called away to attend to urgent business that "cannot afford to lose ONE hour," Marianne agrees with Willoughby's diminishing pronouncement that Brandon probably invented the urgency as a rouse to avoid the "party of pleasure." Before Brandon mounted his horse to leave, he "bid [Elinor] farewell for a longer time than [he] should wish to do" but "merely bowed" to Marianne "and said nothing."

Brandon's behavior throughout this time does not bespeak the behavior of a man who is pursuing a romantic suit for Marianne's love. He doesn't see her again until they are all in London and Marianne is first desperate to hear from Willoughby and then desperate because she has heard cold and unloving things from him. It is highly unlikely that Brandon would even contemplate pursuing Marianne's affection in such an atmosphere of sensibilities. Marianne leaves London to go to Cleveland only to fall into dangerous illness--caused by her own neglect and melancholy dejection--that brings her to the brink of death. It is Brandon who, at word of Elinor's fears, volunteers to go to Barton to bring Mrs. Dashwood to Marianne's side.

Brandon Confides in Mrs. Dashwood

It is during the carriage drive back to Cleveland that Brandon pours his heart out to Mrs. Dashwood, telling her of his deep and earnest love for Marianne and sharing all the trials of his ill-fated love for Eliza. Mrs. Dashwood is deeply by her responsive sensibilities and grants Brandon her blessing in attempting to gain Marianne's love as his own, although both have realistic doubts as to Marianne's ability to respond or reciprocate. It is during Marianne's convalescence that Brandon is invited to call at Barton cottage to inquire from Marianne about her continued improvement. Even later, Mrs. Dahwood continues to encourage Brandon to make himself a guest at their home:

"I ... rather expect to see, than to hear from [Colonel Brandon] again. I earnestly pressed his coming to us, and should not be surprised to see him walk in today or tomorrow, or any day."

Mrs. Dashwood Helps Brandon

Brandon's hours at his home at Delaford were spent in repining over the disparity and "disproportion between thirty-six and seventeen." His gloomy mood upon arriving again at Barton cottage could only be lifted by Marianne's improved health and kind welcome and by Mrs. Dashwood's encouraging words.

[Brandon] had little to do but to calculate the disproportion between thirty-six and seventeen, ... [and was] in a temper of mind which needed all the improvement in Marianne's looks, all the kindness of her welcome, and all the encouragement of her mother's language, to make it cheerful. Among such friends, however, and such flattery, he did revive.

A man in this condition of sorrowful despair could not be described as a man who was engaged in continuing a gentle suit for the love of Marianne. So when does Brandon actually initiate an active suit for Marianne's love? It is doubtful that we can truly say that he ever actually does initiate an active suit for her love. It is more correct to say that proximity and Mrs. Dashwood's good efforts cause a blooming of regard in Marianne that Brandon finally plucks by proposing marriage.

Mrs. Dashwood was acting on motives of policy as well as pleasure in the frequency of her visits at Delaford; for her wish of bringing Marianne and Colonel Brandon together was hardly less earnest, ... It was now her darling object. Precious as was the company of her daughter to her, she desired nothing so much as to ... see Marianne settled at the mansion-house ... [Marianne] was born to overcome an affection ... [and] voluntarily to give her hand to another!—and THAT other, a man who had suffered no less than herself ... [who] she had considered too old to be married,—and who still sought the constitutional safeguard of a flannel waistcoat!

What are the roles of social class and money in Sense and Sensibility?

In order to understand Sense and Sensibility (indeed, any of Austen's works), it is critical to understand Georgian society and culture (1714-1830, includes Georgian Regency 1811-1820), especially relationships within and between classes, and to understand the laws governing the transfer of wealth, especially through marriage.

The Austen Family

It is useful to look at Jane Austen's own family’s class. Jane Austen (1775-1817) and her family were in the second class (the middle of the three upper classes, according to the 1814 "Map of English society"). Reverend Austen was an Oxford proctor, an official responsible for discipline and examinations at the university.

Rev. Austen was a gentleman, part of the gentry class, even though he owned no property. After marriage he accepted the rectorship of a large parish and opened his home to tutoring private students, like Edwards Ferrars' tutor did. His rectorship bestowed lands upon him with a "life interest" only, so he did not own the rectory land. Rev. Austen's cousin, a landed country gentleman, like Mr. Knightley or Mr. Darcy, bestowed the rectorship and rectory lands upon Rev. Austen in the same way that Colonel Brandon bestowed the clergy's "living" (income from clerical duties performed) upon Edward Ferrars.

Mrs. Austen met Rev. Austen, Proctor of Oxford's St. John's College, while visiting her uncle, Master of Oxford's Balliol College. She was related to a Duke and a Lord. Thus Jane grew up in social circles that exposed her, in the same way that Elizabeth Bennet of Pride and Prejudice was exposed, to society and culture in the two highest classes while allowing her knowledge of the third and fourth classes.

First Class / Highest Orders

  • Royalty, hereditary lords, like archbishops or Dukes, highest officers of the Crown, titled nobility above the level of baronet.

Second Class / Upper Class

  • The class of landed country gentlemen, prominent clergymen (like Rev. Austen), any with great fortunes and annual incomes, and lesser title holders (i.e., baronet, knight), who represent the highest level of commoners.

Third Class / Upper Class

  • Clergymen, prominent doctors, judges, bankers of wealth, manufacturers and merchants with large enterprises.

Fourth Class / Lower Class

  • Lesser clergymen, professionals (i.e., lesser doctors, lawyers, teachers), lesser merchants and manufacturers, builders, shopkeepers, artists, mechanics, any with lesser incomes.

Class rankings are as described in the "Map of English Society in 1814" from Colquhoun's A Treatise on the Wealth, Power, and Resources of the British Empire, 1814, available on under "Social Classes in England."

Since Jane was in the second class, she, like Elizabeth Bennet, would have been eligible to marry someone like Mr. Darcy, Colonel Brandon or Willoughby. Lucy and Anne Steele are below the upper classes. They are in the fourth class, or lower class, as is made evident by their incorrect language and manners. Although we don't know about their home life, their uncle, Mr. Pratt, is a tutor who takes in private students, such as Edward Ferrars.

Jane Austen makes her most significant heroines part of the second class, although she has one heroine who is the daughter of a clergyman, and one who is the daughter of a Naval captain, both of whom were in the fourth class.

Class, Lucy, and Edward

In Sense and Sensibility, though Elinor is socially eligible to marry Edward Ferrars and Marianne to marry Willoughby, Lucy is not socially or culturally eligible to marry Edward, nor is she eligible to marry Robert Ferrars. The difference between the Steele's lower class and the Ferrars' second level upper class is too great; in strict Georgian society eligibility could not exist. This is one reason Elinor is so reluctant to believe the story when Lucy first forces her confidence upon her.

The youthful infatuation of nineteen would naturally blind [Edward] to everything but [Lucy's] 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.

Money, Women, and Marriage

Wealth, be it property or money, is transferred in marriage in two ways: dowry and settlement. The settlement is really part of the dowry but is protected by law as set forth in the marriage contract. Marriage contracts specified the material particulars of the financial side of marriage.

Contracts included the amount the woman would bring to the husband's family's fortune and even included stipulations for such things as numbers of servants and locations of one or more houses. For example, a woman and her family might add to the marriage contract a stipulation for a house in London to accompany the man's country estate.


The dowry is the amount of wealth in terms of cash and property that the woman brings to the man's family fortune by marriage. The financial goal of marriage in the upper classes was to expand or revitalize the man's family fortune, to provide adequately or amply for the woman's personal needs and to provide a larger inheritance for all the children of the marriage.

The husband's fortune would most often be passed on to the eldest son so the landed properties would stay intact and not be broken up to various small holdings, which would radically reduce the power of the family.

The wife's settlement could be divided amongst the several children so none found themselves dependent upon the eldest son's generosity to survive.


The settlement was a portion of the overall dowry, not an additional amount. It was protected by law and set apart for the purpose of the woman's independent annual income from which to make personal purchases and for the purpose of keeping her from poverty after her husband's death when all his wealth would most likely be bequeathed to the eldest son. While the settlement interest was intended for living expenses, the capital was available to be given as an inheritance to the woman's children, especially to younger sons and any daughters.

A good example, and one often misunderstood, occurs in Sense and Sensibility. Mr. John Dashwood, Elinor and Marianne's half-brother through their father's first marriage, has a large fortune from his mother's marriage settlement bestowed upon him at the time of her death. Mrs. John Dashwood, Fanny, has a large settlement contractually set aside for her from her large dowry. While Fanny has independent access to the money settled on her in the marriage contract, it cannot be said that she is independently wealthy because all her wealth is owned by John Dashwood, and it is probable that her ample settlement still would not be enough to support her accustomed lifestyle.

Upon marriage, everything the woman brings to the marriage becomes part of the husband's family fortune: He gains full ownership over all the dowry including the part settled on the wife. Consequently, although Fanny has adequate means settled on her, she is not independently wealthy. Still, she is quite comfortable in meeting her personal needs and has a large capital to pass on to her son. This is the same way that John received his initial fortune: from the dowry amount settled on his mother by the terms of her marriage contract.  

The son [John Dashwood], a steady respectable young man, was amply provided for by the fortune of his mother, which had been large, and half of which devolved on him on his coming of age. By his own marriage [to Fanny Ferrars], likewise, which happened soon afterwards, he added to his wealth.

What is the role of education in Sense and Sensibility?

Lucy was naturally clever; her remarks were often just and amusing; and as a companion for half an hour Elinor frequently found her agreeable; but her powers had received no aid from education: she was ignorant and illiterate; and her deficiency of all mental improvement, her want of information in the most common particulars, could not be concealed from Miss Dashwood, in spite of her constant endeavor to appear to advantage. Elinor saw, and pitied her for, the neglect of abilities which education might have rendered so respectable; but she saw, with less tenderness of feeling, [Lucy's] thorough want of delicacy, of rectitude, and integrity of mind ...

Jane Austen's Education

Biographies point out that Jane was sent away from home to be educated, although it was not for an extended number of years. Jane's own education was begun at home. Her father was a scholar and her mother was educated. With her father's extensive library, Jane could expand her formal education through her own readings. It is true that Jane, along with most women of her day, did not learn the classical languages of Greek and Latin, so even as the daughter of an eighteenth century Oxford proctor, her education was limited.

Education in the 1700s

The first thing that it is important to grasp is that prior to the eighteenth century (1700s), the number and variety of English dialects made a uniform language and, as a consequence, a uniform education impossible. It was only during the seventeenth century (1600s) that a "received English" with uniformity of grammar and vocabulary began to unite the multitude of dialects across the country; at least this was true in the upper classes where education was already somewhat prevalent. Although standardized English was shifting a standard grammar and vocabulary had come into existence. In addition, a standard for uniform education had come into existence. This is seen in the changes to public opinion evident toward education for both boys and girls that came to the fore in the eighteenth century (1700s).

Development of Education 1500–1800

With the closure of Catholic convent and church schools in the 1500s, grammar schools, funded by privately contributed endowments, were opened. The 1700s saw the beginning of charity schools where girls and boys were taught the needed skills to conduct themselves and to engage in productive work.

The changes in England in the 1500s in educational philosophy and practice because of the support given by humanists to higher education, meant education was evolving rapidly. Protestant reformers and Elizabeth I advocated for education for all children. Despite the slowing of educational enthusiasm as Puritanism grew more popular, the changes to educational philosophy and practice continued to gain ground through the 1600s and 1700s, with the greatest advances coming in the 1800s but occurring after Jane's death.

Upper Class Education

Throughout the 1700s, the children of the three levels of the upper classes began their educations by being tutored at home by private tutors for the boys and private governesses for the girls: The girls most often continued their entire educations with their governesses, as Emma did in Austen's Emma, while the boys went into professional apprenticeships or university. In Pride and Prejudice, Lady Catherine de Bourgh reinforces this idea when she, in shock, chastises Elizabeth because Mrs. Bennet had kept no governess for her five daughters.

The major differences between how boys and girls were educated were two: boys, but not girls, studied the Classical languages of Greek and Latin, which opened all avenues of study since most academic and scholarly texts had been and still were written in or translated into Greek and Latin; boys learned skills that could translate into earnings and spanned fields from the law to farming, depending upon the social class of the boy studying; girls were educated in subjects that did not require classical languages, like geography, history and maths, while learning the arts or domestic skills, depending on the girl's social class.

For girls in the upper classes, their education was significant enough that their logical thought, creative insights and communication powers were excellent, especially if you take writers like Jane Austen, Elizabeth Barret Browning and the Bronte sisters as educational trend indicators.

Girls' Education in Sense and Sensibility

Austen herself offers a very good implied example of what a girl's education might have been in the 1700s through her own fiction, voice and logic. She also presents very good comparative examples in Sense and Sensibility of what a girl's education might have been in this era through the juxtaposition of Elinor and Marianne; Elinor and Lucy; Mrs. Dashwood and Fanny Dashwood; Mrs. Dashwood and Lady Middleton; Mrs. Jennings and Mrs. Ferrars. Lucy is of the lower class, the fourth rank of class structure, and her language and thought patterns reflect this.

[H]er powers had received no aid from education: she was ignorant and illiterate; and her deficiency of all mental improvement, her want of information in the most common particulars, could not be concealed...

A sound education for girls was a real possibility for girls in the upper classes, although such a possibility decreased as the class rank decreased. Education in the upper classes could yield women with admirable minds like Elinor and Jane Austen herself.

Boys' Education in Sense and Sensibility

Edward's education is directly contrasted to Robert's when Robert and Edward, both, discuss the demerits of private tutelage, such as Edward received, and the merits of public education, such as Robert received.

The results of the educations of Sir John Middleton and John Dashwood are contrasted against the results of education shown in Colonel Brandon, while those of Mr. Palmer and Willoughby are contrasted against those of Colonel Brandon also. Austen thus illustrates the thematic point that even among men, the educations are varied and produce varied results, notwithstanding the learning of Greek and Latin.

Does Sense and Sensibility contain any sociocultural commentary?

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

Sense and Sensibility

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

Pride and Prejudice (originally First Impressions)

  • Written in 1798 (Georgian)
  • Published in 1813

Northanger Abbey

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

Mansfield Park

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How does Austen explore the theme of nature versus nurture?

Austen made her central characters sets of siblings who have opposing characteristics and even opposing educations. This choice permits her to explore the ideas of human nature and environmental nurturing, as put forth by John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Both Locke and Rousseau built their theories of education on the relationship between the forces that shape individuals, such as family, education, sociocultural environment, and the natural propensities of personality, intellect and temperament. Locke emphasized the importance of nurture, while Rousseau depended on nature.

John Locke:

"The well educating of their children is so much the duty and concern of parents, and the welfare and prosperity of the nation so much depends on [education], that I would have everyone lay it seriously to heart ... [to promote] the easiest, shortest, and likeliest [means of education] to produce virtuous, useful, and able men in their distinct callings."

Jean-Jacques Rouseau:

"Everything is good as it comes from the hands of the Maker of the world but degenerates once it gets into the hands of man."

These sets of siblings represent different positions in the nature versus nurture discussion.

  • Elinor and Marianne represent the nature side of the discussion.
  • Lucy Steele and elder sister Anne represent both faulty nature and faulty nurture.
  • Edward and Robert represent the nurture side of the discussion.
  • Charlotte Palmer and sister Lady Middleton, like Lucy and Anne, represent both nurture and nature, illustrating flawed, although not faulty, nurture and opposite natures.

Throughout the story, Marianne's nature is pitted against Elinor's. Marianne criticizes Elinor for not being in raptures in her praises for Edward. Marianne is unable to understand how Elinor can control her grief over the loss of their father and the later loss of Norland. Though nurtured in the same environment, with a mother whose nature matched Marianne's, their natures are very different.

Lucy and Anne both have faulty natures: Lucy is manipulative and grasping while Anne is silly and foolish. They also suffer from faulty nurturing: The narrator makes a point of saying that Lucy did not have the benefit of an education that might have turned her mind to a more prosperous direction: "her powers had received no aid from education: she was ignorant and illiterate...." The same lack of education is more apparent in Anne's mentality.

Both Edward and Robert make a case for Edward's personal deficiencies being caused by inadequate nurturing in his education. Robert posits that had Edward received a public instead of private education like he himself did, Edward would fully equipped to take his place in politics [private education at the home of a private tutor; public education in one of the elite schools, like Eton].

Charlotte and Lady Middleton have natures that are as unlike as possible. Both have natural flaws in their natures: Lady Middleton is vain and shallow while Charlotte is affectionate and giddy. Though Mrs. Jennings attempted to provide good nurturing at home and in their educations, her resources, personal and financial, were limited thus the nurturing provided was limited, thus flawed.

There are also trios of siblings:

  • Edward, Robert and their sister Fanny (Ferrars) Dashwood.
  • Elinor, Marianne and their younger sister Margaret.

We engage but little with Margaret but are told that while she tends towards Marianne's romanticism, she has not the sense of her older sisters, thus does not present as bright a prospect for adulthood as her sisters do. Margaret reinforces the nature side of the discussion, which is best represented in Elinor and Marianne.

Margaret, the other sister, was a good-humored, well-disposed girl; but as she had already imbibed a good deal of Marianne's romance, without having much of her sense, she did not, at thirteen, bid fair to equal her sisters at a more advanced period of life.

Another example is the trio of Edward, Robert and Fanny. Mrs. Ferrars, representing a consistent (assuming she treated her children about the same) nurturing environment, is the mother of a humble, self-diffident man; a proud, vain, arrogant man, who is nonetheless gregarious; and an arrogant, selfish, cold-hearted woman. With this trio, the influence of nurture--whether a negative or a positive one--is shown to be inadequate to superseding the forces of nature. We see that in a consistent home environment, Mrs. Ferrars raises one child who is humble, one who is gregarious (although vain) and one who is also cold-hearted. Austen makes her exploration of this theme, a recurring one for her, more complex because she introduces the influence of educational environment into the discussion: Edward was educated with a private tutor, Robert at a public school, and Fanny at home and possibly also, although we are not told so, at a school like the one Austen herself attended for a time.

Austen's conclusion seems to be that strong natures can withstand the impact of nurturing influences when they are detrimental, but individuals with weaker natures will yield to the strongest, most compelling influence that nurtures and that the strongest external influences are often, if not generally, of a negative sort. Thus our conclusion must be that Austen sides with Locke over and against Rousseau: She agrees that nurturing of the best sort, as in education, is required to shape individuals, men and women, into wise, thinking, moral citizens who make right choices for their lives and the lives of those they influence.

Is Elinor unemotional?

[Elinor] had an excellent heart;—her disposition was affectionate, and her feelings were strong [...] Elinor, too, was deeply afflicted; but still she could struggle, she could exert herself.

Readers sometimes envision Elinor as an unemotional, unfeeling character since she seems overshadowed by Marianne's effervescent, emotional personality. However, Austen makes it clear through the narration that Elinor feels as deeply as Marianne.

Elinor, starting back with a look of horror at the sight of [Willoughby], obeyed the first impulse of her heart in turning instantly to quit the room,...

The difference between them is that Elinor has not succumbed, like Marianne has, to the popular cultural conception born of romanticism that extravagance in emotion is laudable. Elinor holds to her belief that what is truly laudable is to govern grief, joy, love and rapture, to not yield to ungoverned emotionalism. Austen explores the question of whether Elinor is right or wrong and presents the answer when Marianne's, somewhat willful, neglect of her health nearly costs her life.

[Marianne said,] "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."

Elinor's ability to govern her strong emotions allows her save herself from similar calamity and, perhaps more importantly, allows her to help nurse Marianne back to health when she grows very ill. Elinor's feelings are only governed, not absent or, worse yet, repressed. When Edward reports that he is single and that Robert is married to Lucy, not him,Elinor yields to her emotions with less restraint.

[Elinor] 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 ... saw her hurry away, and perhaps saw—or even heard, her emotion...

The greatest character difference between Elinor and Marianne, the element that allows for some to envision Elinor as tranquil and unemotional (which is how some actresses portray her in film adaptations), is that while Austen often displays Marianne's emotionality in her words and actions, Elinor's is most often commented upon by the narrator. Here are their different reactions to leaving their childhood home:

[Marianne]: "Dear, dear Norland!" said Marianne, as she wandered alone before the house, on the last evening of their being there; "when shall I cease to regret you!—when learn to feel a home elsewhere!—Oh! happy house, could you know what I suffer in now viewing you from this spot, from whence perhaps I may view you no more!—And you, ye well-known trees!—but you will continue the same.—No leaf will decay because we are removed, nor any branch become motionless although we can observe you no longer!—No; you will continue the same; unconscious of the pleasure or the regret you occasion, and insensible of any change in those who walk under your shade!—But who will remain to enjoy you?"
[Elinor]: What felt Elinor at that moment? Astonishment, that would have been as painful as it was strong, had not an immediate disbelief of the assertion attended it. She turned towards Lucy in silent amazement, unable to divine the reason or object of such a declaration; and though her complexion varied, she stood firm in incredulity, and felt in no danger of an hysterical fit, or a swoon.

In addition, while Marianne is often exasperated with less emotional people and accusatory of Elinor reserve, Elinor attempts to think things through from the other's perspective and to find explanations for their behavior.

[Marianne to Elinor]: "Esteem him! Like him! Cold-hearted Elinor! Oh! worse than cold-hearted! Ashamed of being otherwise. Use those words again, and I will leave the room this moment."
[Elinor about Marianne's remarks]: Elinor started at this declaration, and was sorry for the warmth she had been betrayed into, in speaking of him. She felt that Edward stood very high in her opinion. She believed the regard to be mutual; but she required greater certainty of it to make Marianne's conviction of their attachment agreeable to her.

Elinor is a deeply emotional woman who puts the demands of sensible life over the urges of unrestrained sensibility.

Did Jane Austen disapprove of people like Marianne?

Sense and Sensibility was the second novel Jane Austen (1775-1817) undertook as an adult. She wrote it in 1797 when she was twenty-two years of age and rewrote it until its publication in 1811. In her juvenilia, written during her teen years, she inaugurated the persona of Marianne in sketch form in her short works like "Love & Freindship [sic]" and "Frederic and Elfrida."

While Austen's adult satire matured along with her ability to understand other people's propensities and temperaments, the early satire in her juvenilia was more directly scathing and made it clear that she discredited women taken up in the extravagant emotionalism of romanticism, as is evident in this sample of indirect characterization of Laura, writing to Marianne, in "Love & Freindship."

"Oh! Heavens, (exclaimed I) is it possible that I should so unexpectedly be surrounded by my nearest Relations and Connections?" These words roused the rest of the Party, and every eye was directed to the corner in which I sat. "Oh! my Isabel (continued I throwing myself across Lady Dorothea into her arms) receive once more to your Bosom the unfortunate Laura. Alas! when we last parted in the Vale of Usk, I was happy in being united to the best of Edwards; I had then a Father and a Mother, and had never known misfortunes—But now deprived of every freind but you—" ("Love & Freindship [sic]")

While Austen's satire matured, her disapproval of the extravagances of romanticism remained constant. Though she developed Marianne as an authentic, complex character with an intricately wrought psychological make-up, she uses Marianne's remarks, opinions and actions to illustrate the dangers of the romanticism she embraced:

Before the house-maid had lit their fire the next day, or the sun gained any power over a cold, gloomy morning in January, Marianne, only half dressed, was kneeling against one of the window-seats for the sake of all the little light she could command from it, and writing as fast as a continual flow of tears would permit her. ... [S]he put all the letters into Elinor's hands; and then covering her face with her handkerchief, almost screamed with agony. Elinor, who knew that such grief, shocking as it was to witness it, must have its course ...

After Marianne's near-fatal illness at the Palmer's estate of Cleveland, Austen uses Marianne's conversation with Elinor to impugn Marianne's previous position. Marianne's own words—now that we have traced her life and witnessed the folly originated in her false beliefs rooted in romanticism—attest to the falseness of her position.

"I cannot express my own abhorrence of myself. Whenever I looked towards the past, I saw some duty neglected, or some failing indulged. Every body seemed injured by me. [...] I have nothing to regret—nothing but my own folly."

The conclusion to be drawn is that, while Marianne is a very vibrant character, Austen disapproves of the sort of life choices, and philosophical and ethical grounds that make her up. Austen disapproves of people like Marianne because of their dependence on the persuasions of romanticism.

How are Mrs. Dashwood and Marianne alike? How are Mrs. Dashwood and Elinor different?

One of the two most interesting things about Mrs. Dashwood is that she has the same emotional romanticism as Marianne does. The two of them long and violently grieve the death of Mr. Dashwood.

[The] excess of [Marianne's] sensibility ... [was] by Mrs. Dashwood ... valued and cherished. They encouraged each other now in the violence of their affliction. The agony of grief which overpowered them at first, was voluntarily renewed, was sought for, was created again and again. They gave themselves up wholly to their sorrow, seeking increase of wretchedness in every reflection ...

The second interesting aspect is that Mrs. Dashwood does not support Elinor's sense in responding to emotional or practical situations. While she accepts Elinor's counsel on occasion, such as when choosing a new place to live, she accepts the counsel with if not negativity, remarks that show the difference in her own thinking from her daughter's.

 But [Mrs. Dashwood] could hear of no situation that at once answered her notions of comfort and ease, and suited the prudence of her eldest daughter, whose steadier judgment rejected several houses as too large for their income, which her mother would have approved.
 "And what," said Mrs. Dashwood, "is my dear prudent Elinor going to suggest? What formidable obstacle is she now to bring forward?"

Mrs. Dashwood adds a source of approval to Marianne's emotional propensities while adding an impediment to Elinor's steadfastness in sense. Elinor's character is presented as having exceptional personal strength in that she does not falter even in the face of her mother's criticisms.