Is it all about self-control?
“The family of Dashwood had long been settled in Sussex.” Thus begins the story of two sisters Elinor and Marianne Dashwood with an emphasis on family, sense of place and society. Forced into reduced circumstances by the sudden death of their father, the Dashwood sisters and their mother move from their home in Sussex to Barton Cottage in Devonshire. Before leaving Sussex, an attachment has been formed between Elinor, the eldest, and Edward Ferrars, her sister-in-law’s brother. In Devonshire, the youngest sister Marianne meets and falls in love with the handsome Willoughby. Both relationships encounter problems: Edward Ferrars has been engaged for years to Lucy Steele whom he feels bound to marry out of a sense of duty, and Willoughby mysteriously disappears. Upon learning of Willoughby’s checkered past and his recent marriage to an heiress, Marianne becomes gravely ill. Things work out in the end: Edward, released from his engagement is free to marry Elinor, and Marianne recovered from her illness, realizes the error of her infatuation and eventually marries the much older Colonel Brandon.
Just as easily as I sketched the story line of Sense and Sensibility, critics from the start have been quick to reduce the theme of the novel to a polar opposition: head versus heart. In its contemporary and original review The British Critic wrote: “The object of the work is to represent the effects on the conduct of life, of discreet, quiet good sense on one hand, and an over-refined and excessive susceptibility on the other. ” I hope to show that things are not so simple. The two words of the title are not there by chance: they represent a literary tradition which Jane Austen was very much aware of. In the seventeenth century, philosophers had become preoccupied with the problem of whether man is a wholly self-centered and self-seeking being. Thomas Hobbes believed man was naturally bad. His pessimistic view of human nature held that if man was self-seeking and depraved, enlightened despotism was needed to curb men’s passions. Contrarily, Anthony Ashley Cooper Shaftesbury and his followers held that man was naturally good, possessed an innate moral sense, and that consequently it was society which was at fault (an idea which lead to Rousseau and the French Revolution.) In the realm of literature such ideas would lead to Romanticism and its attendant emphasis on sensibility and imagination as well as its valuing of human impulses expressed freely. In light of this, we could say that today’s society believes Shaftesbury rather than Hobbes.
But what of Jane Austen and her society? In Jane Austen and the War of Ideas, Professor Butler argues that by the end of the seventeenth century (i.e.: Jane Austen’s formative years) both world views were battling it out and were in favor alternatively. Shaftesbury’s ideas gave rise to the Sentimentalists (1760’s -1770’s) a group of writers identified as individualistic, libertarian and anti-social. Their novels were seen by many as dangerous because they were vehicles for moral relativism. Samuel Johnson and the conservative critics regarded them with great suspicion because, as Marilyn Butler points out, the sentimental tendency “is indeed to work against the exercise of the ethical sense, and actively to enlist the reader, by half conscious and almost subliminal means, in the party of unlimited toleration.”
A glimpse at William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft will help us get a sense of the war of ideas being waged about the time Jane Austen began to write. Professor Butler characterizes Godwin, political essayist and novelist, in the following terms: “Instead of the sentimentalist’s benevolent intuition or fellow-feeling, he believes in the conscious, willed understanding as the essentially human thing, the guarantee of man’s dignity and his sole hope for improvement. He minimizes those aspects of man’s nature which limit the freedom of his mind, such as the pleasures of the senses, tastes and ‘involuntary affections’, which include emotional attachments to family and friends.” As for Mary Wollstonecraft, she writes, in A Vindication of the Rights of Man: “Sensibility is the mania of the day, and compassion the virtue which is to cover a multitude of vices, whilst justice is left to mourn in sullen silence, and balance truth in vain…”
In such a philosophical and literary climate, how does Jane Austen give shape to her characters? Does she truly view reason as being more important than feeling in female affairs? Yes– but not cold Cartesian reason but rather understanding, observation, reflection and poise. The importance of reason in the novel seems to be borne out by the obvious fact that Elinor, the sensible one, is the privileged focus and that the narrative voice, though seemingly objective, is on her side. This is apparent immediately beginning with chapter 1:
|“Elinor, this eldest daughter whose advice was so effectual, possessed a strength of understanding and coolness of judgment which qualified her, though only nineteen, to be the counselor of her mother, and enabled her frequently to counteract, to the advantage of them all, that eagerness of mind in Mrs. Dashwood which must generally have led to imprudence. She had an excellent heart; her disposition was affectionate, and her feelings were strong; but she knew how to govern them: it was a knowledge which her mother had yet to learn, and which one of her sisters had resolved never to be taught. Marianne’s abilities were in many respects quite equal to Elinor’s. She was sensible and clever, but eager in everything; her sorrows, her joys, could have no moderation. She was generous, amiable, interesting: she was everything but prudent. The resemblance between her and her mother was strikingly great. Elinor saw with concern the excess of her sister’s sensibility, but by Mrs. Dashwood it was 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 that could afford it, and resolved against ever admitting consolation in future. Elinor, too, was deeply afflicted; but still she could struggle, she could exert herself. She could consult with her brother, could receive her sister-in-law on her arrival, and treat her with proper attention; and could strive to rouse her mother to similar exertion, and encourage her to similar forbearance.”What seems significant in this description of the sisters and mother is the accumulation of words such as understanding, judgment, govern, sensible, moderation, prudent, struggle, exert, strive and forbearance: words seeking to express the degree of effort these women are willing or unwilling to put forth to control the feelings they all have (including Elinor). As a quintessential romantic, of course Marianne deems such efforts as un-natural. Why deny one’s good and true nature simply to please or fit into society? Such are the values in conflict in this “didactic” novel: self versus society. Elinor (and Jane Austen) are on the side of society and politeness. This is what Elinor, who is only nineteen, desires for her sister when she deplores: “Her systems have all the unfortunate tendency of setting propriety at nought; and a better acquaintance with the world is what I look forward to as her greatest possible advantage.” (Chapter 11). Upon learning of the pleasant outing Marianne had visiting Mrs. Smith’s house, Elinor repeats her lesson: “…the pleasantness of an employment does not always evince its propriety.” (Chapter 13). Oddly, Elinor will consent to lie when politeness requires it. (Chapter 21).Besides civility it is understanding, the power of observation and goodness which are valued when Elinor admires Edward with a bit of Marianne-like enthusiasm: “…he has an innate propriety and simplicity of taste, which in general direct him perfectly right […] The excellence of his understanding and his principles can be concealed only by that shyness which too often keeps him silent […] I venture to pronounce that his mind is well-informed, his enjoyment of books exceedingly great, his imagination lively, his observation just and correct, and his taste delicate and pure.” (Chapter 4). She also esteems Colonel Brandon because he is “a sensible man, well-bred, well-informed, of gentle address, and I believe possessing an amiable heart.” (Chapter 10). Her intelligence and method guarantee that she will first think and then hope.
Reflecting upon the probability of Marianne and Willoughby being engaged secretly, Elinor does not jump to conclusions: “…and Elinor was then at liberty to think over the representation of her mother, to acknowledge the probability of many, and hope for the justice of all.” (Chapter 15). Her self-control and concern for others also allow her to be the comforter of others in their distress. Most importantly for her, reflection leads to happiness: “She who had seen her week after week so constantly suffering, oppressed by anguish of heart which she had neither courage to speak of nor fortitude to conceal, now saw with a joy which no other could equally share an apparent composure of mind, which, in being the result as she trusted of serious reflection, must eventually lead her to contentment and cheerfulness.” (Vol. 3, Chapter 10). The young woman who seemed so much older than her age can indeed feel joy. She is not cold or devoid of feelings. She betrays warmth when she speaks of Edward: “I do not attempt to deny,’said she,’that I think very highly of him –that I greatly esteem, that I like him.” And when Marianne bursts with indignation at her expression of lukewarm feelings, Elinor responds: “…be assured that I meant no offence to you by speaking in so quiet a way of my own feelings. Believe them to be stronger than I have declared; believe them, in short, to be such as his merit and the suspicion — the hope of his affection for me may warrant without imprudence or folly.” (Chapter 4).
Here and throughout the novel we witness a softening of the opposition between sense and sensibility, as Ian Watt has remarked. Elinor has feelings and emotions but they are kept in check. Upon meeting Edward at Barton: “His coldness and reserve mortified her severely; she was vexed and half angry; but resolving to regulate her behaviour to him by the past rather than the present, she avoided every appearance of resentment or displeasure and treated him as she thought he ought to be treated from the family connection.” (Chapter 16). Elinor is aware of the temptation to self-righteousness. To follow reason does not mean she will impose her “correct”” view on others: “I will not raise any objections against anyone’s conduct on so illiberal a foundation as a difference in judgment from myself for a deviation from what I may think right and consistent.” (Chapter 15). Elinor can even feel momentary regrets at not being more like her sister: “…and Elinor, in spite of every occasional doubt of Willoughby’s constancy, could not witness the rapture of delightful expectations which filled the whole soul and beamed in the eyes of Marianne without feeling how blank was her own prospect, how cheerless her own state of mind in the comparison, and how gladly she would engage in the solicitude of Marianne’s situation to have the same animating object in view, the same possibility of hope.” (Vol. 2, Chapter 4).
The reader has access to Elinor’s consciousness and knows of her constant struggle to remain the voice of reason in the household. After reading Willoughby’s and Marianne’s correspondence “she was silently grieving over the imprudence which had hazarded such unsolicited proofs of tenderness, not warranted by anything preceding, and most severely condemned by the event…” (Vol. 2, Chapter 7). Her efforts at sparing her family all are finally revealed when she declares to Marianne: “You do not suppose that I have ever felt much. For four months, Marianne, I have had all this hanging on my mind without being at liberty to speak of it to a single creature, knowing that it would make you and my mother most unhappy whenever it were explained to you, yet unable to prepare you for it in the least […] If you can think me capable of ever feeling, surely you may suppose that I have suffered now.” (Vol. 3, Chapter 1).
It is, however, without doubt, in the scene where she hears Willoughby’s confession that the sensible Elinor allows herself to listen to her heart: “Willoughby, he whom only half an hour ago she had abhorred as the most worthless of men, Willoughby, in spite of all his faults, excited a degree of commiseration for the sufferings produced by them, which made her think of him as now separated forever from her family with a tenderness, a regret, rather in proportion, as she soon acknowledged within herself, to his wishes than to his merits. She felt that his influence over her mind was heightened by circumstances which ought not in reason to have weight: by that person of uncommon attraction, that open, affectionate, and lively manner which it was no merit to possess; and by that still ardent love for Marianne, which it was not even innocent to indulge. But she felt that it was so, long, long before she could feel his influence less.” (Vol. 3, Chapter 9). Such a scene contributes in no small part to increasing the reader’s sympathy for Elinor who is, at times, in danger of appearing too insensitive and even boring to us readers who have read the Brontes and other assorted Romantics.
I have focused on Elinor, showing how she displays both sense and feelings, but there are also a few passages describing Marianne as “sensible and clever” as quoted above in chapter 1. Reason and sense are good things, it seems, but they do not preclude feelings as long as those feelings are examined prudently, kept in check, and not allowed to cloud the judgment of a person or to shock or offend society. Both Elinor and Marianne have a bit of both: sense and sensibility. The fact that Marianne elicits our sympathy in spite of her seeming foolishness would tend to show that Jane Austen valued both sense and sensibility, the latter perhaps in spite of herself. I will end with the wonderful scene at the end of the novel where we see Elinor overwhelmed by feelings as she discovers that Lucy and Robert Ferrars are newly married and that Edward is free: “Elinor could sit it no longer. She almost ran out of the room, and as soon as the door was closed, burst into tears of joy, which at first she thought would never cease.” Her joy is intense, yes, but as a young lady always aware of decorum, she remembers not to run and to shut the door. (Vol. 3, Chapter 12).
Françoise Coulont-Henderson teaches French language and literature in a small liberal arts university in the US. She has discovered Jane Austen late in life.
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