Sense and Sensibility

Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility (1811)

What it’s about: England, the 1770s. Mr Henry Dashwood dies, leaving a widow and three daughters: Elinor, Marianne and Margaret. His estate at Norland passes to John Dashwood, the son of his first marriage. John and his wife Fanny install themselves at Norland, treating the Dashwoods as unwelcome guests. They are visited by Fanny’s brother, Edward Ferrars, who falls in love with Elinor. Fanny disapproves of the match, telling Mrs Dashwood that Edward is destined for high society, and infers that Elinor is only interested in him for his fortune. Fanny persuades John not to share his inheritance with the Dashwoods, reneging on a promise made to his father. Their income now significantly reduced, the Dashwoods move to Barton Cottage in Devonshire, near the home of their cousin, Sir John Middleton.

The Dashwoods become friendly with Sir John’s family and social circle, including Colonel Brandon, who is immediately attracted to Marianne. Mrs Jennings, Sir John’s gossipy mother-in-law, encourages the match, but Marianne considers Brandon to be too old. Marianne sprains her ankle while out walking, and is rescued by John Willoughby, a handsome and charming gentleman, and they quickly fall in love. Elinor cautions Marianne against improper behaviour, but Marianne ignores her, allowing Willoughby to keep a lock of her hair and visiting the house he expects to inherit. Willoughby is suddenly recalled to London by his aunt, to Marianne’s distress. Edward visits the Dashwoods, and his despondent mood leads Elinor to assume that he no longer has feelings for her. Sir John’s cousins Anne and Lucy Steele come to Devonshire, repelling Elinor with their sycophantic and vulgar behaviour. Lucy tells Elinor that she is secretly engaged to Edward, and swears her to secrecy. Elinor concludes that Lucy has trapped Edward into a promise of marriage, and is trying to warn her off as a potential rival. Now understanding the reasons behind Edward’s sadness, Elinor resolves to keep the news secret for his sake.

Mrs Jennings invites Elinor and Marianne to accompany her to London. Marianne writes several letters to Willoughby which go unanswered. The sisters meet Willoughby at a party: Marianne greets him but his response is cold and distance. Marianne writes to him again, and he responds with a curt letter, returning her letters and lock of hair. A devastated Marianne confesses to Elinor that she and Willoughby were never formally engaged, but that she believed he loved her. Willoughby becomes engaged to Miss Grey, a woman of large fortune. Colonel Brandon reveals to Elinor that Willoughby seduced a ward of Brandon’s family who has since borne his illegitimate child. Disinherited by his aunt and heavily in debt, Willoughby then chose to marry Miss Grey for her money. Elinor tells Marianne the news, hoping that knowledge of Willoughby’s true character will console her, but Marianne continues to grieve, growing thin and pale. The Miss Steeles come to London, ingratiating themselves with the Ferrars, and are invited to stay with John and Fanny. Anne indiscreetly reveals Lucy and Edward’s secret engagement, and an enraged Fanny throws them out of the house. Edward’s mother demands that he breaks off the engagement; he refuses, and is promptly disinherited. Colonel Brandon tells Elinor that he can offer Edward a curacy on his estate, thus giving him a home and an income and allowing him to marry Lucy. Brandon asks Elinor to ask Edward on his behalf, which she does reluctantly. Edward accepts the offer, and Elinor tries to accept the loss of her own happiness.

Elinor and Marianne leave London with Mrs Jennings, her daughter Charlotte and son-in-law Mr Palmer, and stay at the Palmers’ estate in Somerset, thirty miles from Willoughby’s home. Marianne catches a cold while walking in the rain, and becomes gravely ill. Elinor asks Colonel Brandon to fetch Mrs Dashwood, and continues to nurse Marianne. Willoughby appears unexpectedly, distraught at the news that Marianne might be dying. He asks Elinor to forgive him his bad behaviour and confesses that he has always loved Marianne and is unhappy in his marriage. Elinor forgives him and waits until Marianne is recovered before telling her. Mrs Dashwood arrives with Colonel Brandon, who has told her on the journey that he loves Marianne. The Dashwoods return to Barton Cottage, and learn that Mr Ferrars is married to Lucy. Marianne apologises to Elinor for her selfishness, and she and Mrs Dashwood realise that they have both neglected Elinor’s suffering. Edward pays a visit, explaining that Lucy broke off their engagement and has married Robert, who is now the heir to the Ferrars estate. Elinor cries with happiness, and accepts Edward’s proposal of marriage. Elinor encourages Edward to reconcile with his mother, who consents to the marriage and gives them a modest inheritance. Elinor and Edward are married and move into the parsonage. Robert and Lucy also marry and reconcile with the Ferrars. Marianne finally agrees to marry Colonel Brandon. Willoughby finds happiness in his marriage, though always regrets the loss of Marianne. The novel concludes with the sisters “living almost within sight of each other… without disagreement between themselves, or producing coolness between their husbands.”

Why it’s a classic: Sense and Sensibility was Austen’s first published novel, begun in 1795 when she was just 20, and revised over many years, eventually published (anonymously, “by a Lady”) in 1811. It became a commercial success, and was the first of her novels to be reprinted in her lifetime, following the popularity of Pride and Prejudice and Mansfield Park. Contemporary reviews praised Sense and Sensibility as a wholesome morality tale that would be suitable reading for young women, ignoring or failing to grasp Austen’s ironic narrative voice and often biting social satire. The novel presents what were to become recurring themes in Austen’s later works: an intense interest in family life, particularly in the experiences of women and the relationships between mothers, daughters and sisters; a focus on the economic realities of women, and a corresponding critique of patriarchal inheritance laws that left widows and unmarried women destitute; a trenchant satire of fashionable Regency-era society and the pretensions of social climbers; and a materialist, often cynical view of marriage as an economic necessity that seldom guarantees happiness.

Austen is widely credited with popularising female-driven narrative fiction, and creating the genre now known as romantic comedy, combining the satisfaction of Cinderella stories where well-born but impoverished women have their fortunes lifted and find true love, with rollicking social comedy about the difference between our expectations and the vagaries of real life. Sense and Sensibility was thrust to the top of the bestseller lists in the mid 1990s, with a hugely successful film version adapted by and starring Emma Thompson, and directed by Taiwanese filmmaker Ang Lee. Following successful TV and film adaptations of Pride & Prejudice, Emma and Persuasion, the film of Sense and Sensibility re-established Austen as one of the world’s most popular, enduring and profitable storytellers – which one senses she would have been pleased with.

Bouquet or Brickbat: A huge bouquet, interwoven with a lock of hair. I’m slightly ashamed to say I never got around to reading Sense and Sensibility, despite being at university during the 1990s Austen revival, and seeing the Thompson/Lee adaptation over 300 times.

In literary terms, Sense and Sensibility isn’t the easiest of Austen’s novels to tackle, especially if you’re a first-timer. Her sentence structure is overlong, her syntax is complicated, and her tendency to name nearly every male character John (while it is an excellent name) can be confusing. By modern standards, her plot can meander a bit: the men turn up for very short periods and then disappear to London; much of the book involves Elinor and Marianne sitting around waiting for something to happen; key plot points are delivered second-hand via conversations between characters; and there are long diversions about characters we never meet, including the two generations of fallen women cared for by Colonel Brandon. Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion, by contrast, are much more pacy reads, with a leaner prose style and a more assured handling of narrative and dialogue.

What is remarkable about Sense and Sensibility (and was largely unprecedented in English literature until then) is Austen’s creation of not one but two heroines, who are neither tragic figures nor saintly paragons of virtue, but fully realised women with their own thoughts, desires and critical appreciation of the world. Elinor and Marianne represent the two opposing moral forces that gives Austen’s writing its prickly energy: the wish to be a good person and behave properly, which might require the sublimation of our own desires, as represented by Elinor; versus the wish to fulfil our desires and live by the tenets of our own beliefs, as represented by Marianne. Austen’s early reviewers were partially correct – Sense and Sensibility is a morality tale, in which Elinor’s good sense, caution and determination to behave properly is rewarded via a happy marriage to Edward. Her heroism comes not from being a saint, but a woman with a complex inner life who chooses to be good following a wrestling match between her desires and her internal moral code. By contrast, Marianne’s impulsive romanticism leads her nearly to her death; her reward only comes after she acknowledges her own selfishness and determines to become more measured, allowing her to see Willoughby’s faults and appreciate the steadfastness of Colonel Brandon.

While this should feel didactic, it doesn’t, largely due to Austen’s ability to create complex, interesting characters, who experience doubt, disappointment and resentment. Elinor and Marianne in some ways feel very far away from us, as they’re under social constraints that largely no longer exist. It’s difficult in our libertarian age to understand why Elinor’s code of honour would bind her to keep Lucy’s engagement a secret from her own family, or why Edward would feel similarly bound to keep up his unwanted engagement. But what Austen understands, in a way that transcends time and place, is that no one lives wholly unconnected from their society. Even her heroines who find husbands and true love still have to endure the disappointments of lost opportunity, the prying attention of family and the pressures of social duty. As her famously acidic final line suggests, Elinor and Marianne’s happiness in their respective marriages is largely a result of hard work and good fortune, and more the exception than the rule. Bolstering this rather jaded view of marriage, the novel features a number of unhappy marriages: Sir John, who feels the need to fill his house with company to compensate for the dullness of Lady Middleton; Mr Palmer, whose sarcastic comments about his vacuous wife Charlotte go blithely unnoticed; Willoughby, who expresses contempt for a woman whom he has only married for her money; and Lucy Steele and Robert Ferrars, who we are told have “frequent domestic disagreements“.

Ultimately, though, what makes Sense and Sensibility such delicious fun is Austen’s deft knack for social satire, and her pithy, sometimes searing comic portraits of supporting characters. Elinor is the prototype for all Austen’s heroines is a sensible woman surrounded by idiots, and there’s great fun to be had as Elinor navigates the multiple idiocy on display, her critiques politely hidden behind a smokescreen of feminine respectability. When Elinor meets the insipid Robert Ferrars, she agrees with his criticism of Edward, “for she did not think he deserved the compliment of rational opposition.” Austen is a connoisseur of a particular type of well-meaning stupidity, whether it’s Sir John assessing merit by acreage and dogs, Charlotte who is unable to comprehend her husband’s insults, or the hapless John Dashwood who allows himself to be talked out of financially supporting the Dashwoods and still feels good about himself. She’s also satisfyingly mean about spoiled children – one of Mrs Middleton’s brats gets accidentally stabbed by a hairpin while being coddled: the schadenfreude of this scene is immensely comforting to anyone who’s had to listen to friends raving about their exceptional offspring.

Some of Austen’s harshest judgments are saved for her female characters, including Fanny, who clings onto her husband’s inheritance by any means necessary, and the insipid Mrs Middleton. When these two characters meet, Austen observes “[t]here was a kind of cold hearted selfishness on both sides, which mutually attracted them; and they sympathised with each other in an insipid propriety of demeanor, and a general want of understanding.” Of Edward and Robert’s mother, Mrs Ferrars, we are told that “she was not a woman of many words; for, unlike people in general, she proportioned them to the number of her ideas.” Then there’s the moral, scheming Lucy Steele, who latches onto a wealthy man, removes her rival Elinor by posing as a friend, and then switches horses to follow the money. Lucy’s role is critical to the moral framework of Sense and Sensibility, since she represents the antithesis of Elinor and Marianne’s approach to romance and marriage. Austen’s final summation of Lucy is scathing, but possibly also admiring of her character’s ruthlessness: “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, however its progress may be apparently obstructed, will do in securing every advantage of fortune, with no other sacrifice than that of time and conscience.”

Austen’s novels are to some extent wish-fulfilment fantasies, in which her heroines get to keep their fine moral principles and get the wealthy guy at the end. However, Austen also understands that real life doesn’t always allow for such a clean trajectory, which is why women like Fanny and Lucy must become hustlers, defending their corner in a harsh, patriarchal society. It’s this glimmering of insight into even the most selfish of her characters that makes Austen feel decidedly modern, and a very good fit for our money-and-status obsessed capitalist world.

Quotable Quote: “Marianne Dashwood was born to an extraordinary fate. She was born to discover the falsehood of her own opinions, and to counteract, by her conduct, her most favourite maxims. She was born to overcome an affection formed so late in life as at seventeen, and with no sentiment superior to strong esteem and lively friendship, voluntarily to give her hand to another!… Marianne could never love by halves; and her whole heart became, in time, as much devoted to her husband, as it had once been to Willoughby.”

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