Book: “Sense and Sensibility”
Publication Year: 1811
Book Description: Marianne Dashwood wears her heart on her sleeve, and when she falls in love with the dashing but unsuitable John Willoughby she ignores her sister Elinor’s warning that her impulsive behaviour leaves her open to gossip and innuendo. Meanwhile Elinor, always sensitive to social convention, is struggling to conceal her own romantic disappointment, even from those closest to her. Through their parallel experience of love—and its threatened loss—the sisters learn that sense must mix with sensibility if they are to find personal happiness in a society where status and money govern the rules of love.
Part II – Chapters 32 – End
Story – “The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.”
Elinor relates Colonel Brandon’s tale to Marianne, and while it does shine more light on Willoughby’s character, she is still greatly affected. The Willoughby’s marry and leave town and Marianne can be convinced to begin returning to the world. Around this time, the Miss Steele’s and Mr. Dashwood and Fanny all arrive in town as well, greatly expanding their social groups. While out and about, the Miss Dashwoods run across the younger Mr. Ferrars who does not recommend himself by being rather vain and full of himself; he aligns perfectly with what they know of the rest of the family (barring Edward), however.
The Middletons, Steeles, Dashwoods, and Ferrars all begin to mix and mingle forming various opinions on each other. Elinor is caught up in it all and ends up being present when Lucy Steele first meets her future (unbeknownst to her) mother-in-law. The Ferrars, however, are so busy subtly, or not so subtly, slighting Elinor, that Lucy ends up with a good deal of praise and attention. Mariannne, still out of sorts, finds this intolerable and has a few break-downs while in company.
Later, Lucy crows to Elinor over how well-received she was. Elinor makes an effort to temper her enthusiasm, but gives up eventually. Edward arrives and they are all awkward together. From there, the days continue with Elinor and Marianne being thrown routinely into the company of various Steeles and Ferrars. The younger Mr. Ferrars only further proves himself to be ridiculous and Lucy Steele takes every opportunity to throw more barbs Elinor’s way.
Eventually, the Miss Steeles recommend themselves so much to the Ferrars and Mr. Dashwood/Fanny Dashwood that they are asked to come stay with the family. While there, however, the elder Miss Steele lets it slip that her sister is engaged to Edward. The sisters are immediately banished from the premise, but Edward stands by Lucy, losing his own family fortune in the process. With this shocking truth, Marianne finally realizes what Elinor has been suffering through the last several months. Mr. Dashwood visits and drops several hints that as much as the Ferrars family might have disapproved of other prospective wives for Edward, they would have much preferred that person to Lucy Steele.
Colonel Brandon hears of Edward’s plight, and knowing him to be friend of Elinor and Marianne’s, he offers him a small estate from which Edward can go into work with the church. Elinor is tasked with delivering this news to Edward, which she does, knowing that it will be the final nail in the coffin of what could have been between her and Edward.
Finally, Marianne and Elinor begin their trip home. On the way, they stop at the Middletons and while there Marianne comes down with a bad fever. Over the next few days the fever worsens to the point that Colonel Brandon rushes off to fetch Mrs. Dashwood, in case the worst should happen. Over the night, Marianne’s fever finally breaks. And in the early morning, Elinor receives an unwelcome visitor: Mr. Willoughby. He heard of Marianne’s illness and traveled through the night to check on her. He explains his side of the story, that knowing his own selfishness and after being cut off by his wealthy aunt (after she heard of the incident with Colonel Brandon’s ward), he immediately set off to marry an heiress. He claims that his true love will always be for Marianne, however. And now that his aunt has forgiven him and restored his wealth, he lives in even more regret for not remaining faithful to her. Elinor tells him that none of this does any good for Colonel Brandon’s ward and that Marianne is lost to him forever, though Elinor does now pity him more than she had before.
Later, Mrs. Dashwood arrives and is relived to find Marianne recovering. Eventually, they make their way back home. Elinor relates what Mr. Willoughby told her, and Marianne acknowledges it all in a much more calm manner. From that point, Marianne makes a conscious effort to settle herself and try to emulate Elinor’s approach to life more fully.
One day, they hear from one of their servants that a Mrs. Lucy Ferrars has been spotted in town nearby with her husband. This seems to settle the matter until not long after, Edward himself arrives. After some confusion, it becomes clear that Lucy had broken her engagement with Edward once he lost his fortune and instead attached herself to the younger Mr. Ferrars who now, conveniently, has all of said fortune to himself. Thus, Mrs. Ferrars ends up with Lucy as a daughter-in-law either way. Edward proposes to Elinor, they marry, and move into the small estate near Colonel Brandon’s home. Marianne, eventually, comes to recognize the more important points of character in Colonel Brandon’s person, though less overtly romantic they may be, and they, too, marry.
Heroines – “I hate to hear you talk about all women as if they were fine ladies instead of rational creatures.”
The first half of this half is really torturous for poor Elinor. She first has to contend with an onslaught of jabs from Lucy, all while caring for a despondent Marianne. And then when the truth finally comes out, she’s the one tasked with delivering the news that through Colonel Brandon’s generosity, Edward and Lucy will be able to marry immediately. Marianne finally knowing the truth turns out to also not be as helpful as one would suspect, as she seems to at first think the only way Elinor could have managed to keep this all a secret was if she didn’t truly love Edward anyways, so there wasn’t much real loss. Not one of Marianne’s finer moments. It is, of course, gratifying to see Elinor rewarded in the end. However, I will say that all the traits that make her such an upstanding woman, do, unfortunately, also make her one of the less exciting Austen heroines. She reads more like a commentary from Austen on how women should behave (with Marianne serving as a not-too-subtle example of some of the worst flaws of the women of that time), than as a true character herself.
Marianne, for all of her ridiculousness, is definitely the more entertaining read of the two. Some have reviewed this book and commented that perhaps Marianne’s punishment for giving way to the full onslaught of sensibility common to teenage girls is a bit harsh. She’s smacked down fairly publicly with the Willoughby situation, and then ends up on death’s doorstep to boot. And, as I’ll discuss a bit later, her “romance” with Colonel Brandon reads more as a reward for him being a good person than as anything truly for Marianne herself. There is perhaps also some humor to be found in Marianne’s endeavors to make herself more like Elanor. With the same dogged pursuit that she gave romanticism, we see her here tackling a reading list and strictly minding her own temper. There’s not too much of the book left after her illness, and plot points are being covered quickly one after another. So there isn’t a lot of time devoted to how Marianne ultimately turns out. One can hope that she still retains some of her liveliness and wit, if a bit more evened out by a better sense of reality and calm. If given that, I think she could turn out similar to Emma Woodhouse in some ways. Both are clever and driven by extreme emotions, sometimes to the point of foolishness, but both are also clearly good women who love those in their lives fully.
Heroes – “What are men to rocks and mountains?”
I didn’t really remember this fact as well, since it had been several years since I had read this book before this re-read, but Colonel Brandon is by far the more fully fleshed out character. Not only are we given many more insights into his own history, he simply has at least twice the amount of page time as Edward. I feel like if I went back through the book, I could count on two hands the number of pages that have actual dialogue from Edward on them. I’ll have to keep my eye on it in future books, but I seem to think this is one of the only examples of a primary romantic hero suffering from “tell instead of show” writing. It’s not a common flaw on Austen’s part in general, and definitely not of her main characters. But here, Edward is less of a main character than a plot device, really. We’re simply told of many of his good qualities and, like Colonel Brandon, really, we form most of our opinion on him based on the fact that we know Elinor and she has good judgement. So if she says he’s good, then he must be good.
Colonel Brandon, on the other hand, is given much more room to shine. Not only do we have a better understanding of his character when he lays out his own history prior to meeting the Dashwoods, but we see several examples of his innate goodness. His offering of the rectory to Edward and Lucy is an act of kindness that is almost hard to believe. Again, he doesn’t know this man at all and is doing this purely based on the Dashwoods’ good opinion and his sympathy for a plight that reminds of his own early life. Beyond that, we see the devotion he had for his former love and the care he has taken of her daughter. And, of course, his extreme agitation at Marianne’s illness and how he takes it upon himself personally to fetch her mother. He is definitely deserving of happiness, and it’s gratifying to see Marianne acknowledge the true nobility of his actions.
Villains – “I do not want people to be very agreeable, as it saves me the trouble of liking them a great deal.”
The Ferrars family takes center stage in this second half, putting on full display why, while Edward may be a loss to Elinor, being part of their family more than she already is, is not. Lucy is also in rare form. She continues to gloat over Elinor and, while we’re told she has some sense, she still seems unable to grasp the bigger story going on: that her seeming easy acceptance by the Ferrars family is meant more as a dig against Elinor than as praise of herself. We’re meant to feel bad for Edward when their engagement is discovered, but I have to admit part of me always revels in Lucy’s take-down, short-lived as it is. I think the biggest tell, however, as far as her character goes, is that even after she’s married the younger Mr. Ferrars, she goes out of her way to send her good wishes to Elinor as “Mrs. Ferrars.” There is no point to this action other than being one last petty dig to a woman who was nothing but tolerant and understanding of her and who had done her no personal wrong. Lucy is a small, small woman.
Willoughy’s explanation to Elinor always read as a bit odd to me. I’m not quite sure I really see the point of his apology. Perhaps in so far as it lets Marianne better understand his character and that in his own selfish way he was in love with her at one point and thus she is able to get full closure? But as a modern reader, I’m even less sympathetic to his plight than Elinor is. She seems to come away from the conversation with some pity for him, but still firm in her censure over the way he treated Colonel Brandon’s ward. But between that action and the pure self-centeredness, lack of empathy, and flagrant pursuit of wealth at all costs, I have a hard time pitying him as Elinor and Marianne do. If he is unhappy, he has brought it on himself. There is no pity from me for someone who treated others as poorly as he did, with eyes wide open about his own actions and priorities.
Romance – “A lady’s imagination is very rapid: it jumps from admiration to love, from love to matrimony in a moment.”
Again, the romance is very muted in this last half, even when the happily-ever-afters start rolling in. Edward and Elinor’s actual proposal and acceptance aren’t included, and the story moves quickly to the facts of their new life with them moved into the rectory. Marianne’s story is even more hastily wrapped up, with her “romance” with Colonel Brandon probably reading as one of the least romantic pairings for a heroine in all of Austen’s work. Indeed, it is almost implied that she marries Colonel Brandon with the expectation of coming to love him fully, rather than actually being in love at the moment. It makes sense for the larger points about sense and sensibility that are being made in the book, but purely from a romance satisfaction stand-point, it leaves a lot to be desired. If anything, I’m more disappointed on Colonel Brandon’s part than anything. I’m sure Marianne comes to love him as he deserves, but it doesn’t quite sit right with a modern reader to think of her as “settling” for him based purely on his merits rather than actually feelings.
Comedy – “For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbors, and laugh at them in our turn?”
There is mostly dark comedy to be found in this second half, specifically in the round-about way the snobby Mrs. Ferrars ends up with Lucy as a daughter-in-law in the end anyways. Between the serious nature of Edward’s future, the continued fall-out of Willoughby’s actions, and Marianne’s life-threatening illness, it’s rather a serious second half. Mrs. Jennings, in fact, one of the primary comedic characters in the first half, really rises to her own and we the steadfast loyalty and real concern she has for the Miss Dashwoods, even if some improper comments still slip out. It’s gratifying to see Marianne finally acknowledge all that Mrs. Jennings has done for them, even if she has her moments of crassness.
Favorite quotes – “What did she say? Just what she ought, of course. A lady always does.”
“Elinor agreed to it all, for she did not think he deserved the compliment of rational opposition.”
The put-down we all wish we could think of in the moment.
“Always resignation and acceptance. Always prudence and honour and duty. Elinor, where is your heart?”
To some extent, I agree with Marianne here. This is probably why Elizabeth, Emma, and Anne stand out more to me as Austen heroines. All (with the exception of Emma at times) are respected and proper ladies of their time, but they also seem to have more heart to them. Their emotions are better understood and conveyed to the reader. Perhaps the simple fact that each in their way has a more apparent flaw than Elinor makes them read more fully as people and thus easier to become attached to and root for.
“Elinor could sit still 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.”
Finally. And we’ll see that the movies all have fun with this moment of final release for Elinor.
Final thoughts – “I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading!”
Here at the end of the first book in this re-read, I’m already thinking of some type of summary post I’ll have to do at the end of it all. Mostly because re-reading this one made me fully realize how much of my memory of some of the books has been impacted by my more frequent watching of movie adaptations. I had forgotten just how little page time was devoted to the men in this book and even more so the specifics of how Marianne/Colonel Brandon’s romance played (or didn’t play) out. That’s just one example, but I caught myself doing comparisons many times.
I’m also curious to see how my memory does with each of the heroines of the other books. I’ve re-read “Pride and Prejudice” and “Emma” more than the others, so I feel fairly confident there. But this re-read also highlighted just how little I remembered of how Elinor and Marianne are described on page. In this read through, I really found myself focusing, almost to the point of distraction, more on what Austen was trying to say through her very different depictions of Elinor and Marianne. In some ways, it made this book feel more like “Northanger Abbey” than her other books. Both that book and this seem to be making a fairly distinct commentary on a particular subject rather than reading as a simple story.
Here, Austen is really laying it on thick with her opinions on women who give way to flights of romanticism to the point that they lose sight of reality and perspective. Knowing Austen’s own life, particularly the fact that she never married, it’s easy to see how she might condemn this type of overly-sentimental approach to life. Marianne routinely makes grand pronouncements that anyone who has lived in the world would know won’t hold up. Instead, Elinor is a constant presence as a reminder of all that is good, reserved, and true. She may not be flashy, but she’s clearly Austen’s response to the type of flighty, unmitigated sentimentality that she must have been seeing around herself and that she reflected in Marianne.
I found myself stopping and thinking about passages in this book fairly often as I was reading. While the story was lacking much of the comedy and romance that I think we often expect from Austen’s work, I think this book was tackling an important topic for Austen. Much as “Northnager Abbey” was her attempt to poke fun at the type of silly Gothic romances that were so popular at the time, this was her call to arms for women to give credence to their own self-control and sense. I think it’s also fairly interesting that these were two of her earlier written books. Perhaps, in some sense, she was able to get these larger points “out of her system” (that phrase implies it was a bad thing, but that’s not really it) in these early books, and thus allowed herself more leeway to fully indulge in her storytelling in her later books. We’ll see if my memory holds more true for those when I get there!
In two weeks, I’ll review the 1995 movie of “Sense and Sensibility.”