Sense and Sensibility (4) Chapter 41 ff and summary

The second paragraph of Chapter 41 gives an ambiguous account of Lucy’s behaviour: she is joyful and open in love, grateful but conniving, with the word “secretly” used over her intentions. Elinor’s curt: “A very simple one – to be of use to Mr Ferrars” does not stop John Dashwood’s petty, selfish and hypocritical conversation with its blatant basis in jealousy which causes Elinor to speak with some passion at last: “But why should such precautions be used?” He continues to be prurient and self-seeking and it is difficult to decide who is the worse: John Dashwood or Robert Ferrars with his dissipation, “gay unconcern” and “happy self-complacency”. Both are equally noxious: uncaring, envious and out for personal gain. The attitudes of the two elder sisters on leaving are opposites: Marianne is irrational but warm and Elinor seems cool and too controlled. At Cleveland, Marianne rejoices in solitude in Romantic fashion with her “precious, invaluable misery” and “indulgence of such solitary rambles” but the tones negates, not only the immoderation, but also the reality of her sufferings. The Palmers appear more likeable, she with the “openness and heartiness of her manner” and folly which is not “disgusting” because it is not conceited – and he is a typical male in his outlook. Elinor, through the authorial commentary of Jane Austen, makes moral judgements throughout. Marianne, in her desire to satisfy her yearnings, catches a severe chill: Romanticism is shown to have near-fatal extremes.

In Chapter 42 Marianne’s illness appears grave and Elinor seems too sanguine: sense does not prevail whilst Colonel Brandon, seeing it through the eyes of love, is more concerned. Mrs Jenning is helpful, practical and anxious for Marianne on a pragmatic and emotional level whilst Mr Palmer demonstrates feeling and solicitude. There is a foreboding amongst some of the onlookers that Marianne could die but it takes the crisis of the illness to rouse Elinor to alarm. Colonel Brandon can remain calm enough, whatever his feelings, to provide “the firmness of a collected mind”, comfort and help. Elinor now experiences guilt and depression over her earlier complacency and Mrs Jennings is “really grieved” – it is this account which brings home to the reader the potential tragedy: “The rapid decay, the early death of a girl so young, so lovely as Marianne”.  The presentation of this through Mrs Jennings dispels any note of melodrama and the chapter is genuinely moving as well as having the psychological insight to connect the malady with her earlier emotional suffering. She has been sick for a long time. When she starts to recover, Elinor is humanly and only partially rational: hope enters whilst she observes the very first small symptom of improvement. Crucially, when she regains awareness, Marianne fixes her “with a rational though languid gaze.” The words are significant and do not refer merely to a convalescent: the earlier Marianne has been transformed into someone less vital but further along the spectrum towards sense and the reader remains ambivalent about the change. At the same time, Elinor is shown to be deeply emotional with a heart full of “sensations of exquisite comfort … and fervent gratitude.” She is now agitated as never before but on behalf of others. The irony in the situation is that it took a severe illness resulting from an excess of Romanticism to modify the characters of both sisters in terms of the key words in the title of the novel.

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Re-enter Willoughby in Chapter 44, drunk, loquacious, open and vigorous. The reader might be forgiven for finding this refreshing rather than scandalous. He makes a full confession and explanation of his conduct towards Marianne (and it is racy to read), admitting “meanness, selfishness, cruelty … trying to engage her regard, without a thought of returning it.”  Yet he did come to feel affection and is candid where he could have kept quiet. He is intelligent and analytic, though somewhat wildly intent on exposing every detail, making the astute and sharp point over the other affair: “that because she was injured she was irreproachable, and because I was a libertine, she must be a saint.” He dreads poverty but so does most of the cast. The account contains some melodramatic language: “Thunderbolts and daggers!” is stereotyped but language cannot always do justice to powerful feelings, which his undoubtedly are, as evidenced by his close watching of them when in London. He acknowledges and understands Marianne’s character: “affectionate, open, artless, confiding” and blames himself for letting his wife compose the wounding letter, his attitude to her being reprehensible but welcome to the reader. Elinor is more moved than usual by his speeches, feeling “compassionate emotion” but remaining correct in her reproaches. She does allow that he now seems “much less wicked”: even though he has drawn attention to detailed faults she was unaware of previously, she is overcome by his passionate way of talking. She blames society for his conduct: “The world had made him extravagant and vain – Extravagance and vanity had made him cold-hearted and selfish – Vanity … ” We feel that she is over-rationalising as Willoughby is not a passive character.  When he declares, ” Domestic happiness is out of the question” before almost running out of the room, the note of melodrama is once more stressed and yet the chapter satisfies the reader’s requirements for excitement and clarification.

The atypical nature of her response is underlined at the start of Chapter 45 when we feel that she is influenced, improperly as she admits, by dubious qualities: “that person of uncommon attraction, that open, affectionate, and lively manner which it was no merit to possess.” At this point both Colonel Brandon and Willoughby –  he is “constantly in her thoughts” all night – seem more suited to Elinor than Edward, though her reaction shows again her movement towards greater sensibility.  The tendency to didacticism in the novel has dislocated the relationships here. At this crucial point Mrs Dashwood reveals that the Colonel has declared to her his “earnest, tender, constant affection” for Marianne; she is warm, if histrionic, in her praise where Elinor is strangely cool, perhaps because her mind still dwells on Willoughby or she doubts success on the Colonel’s part. Jane Austen has attempted throughout to make the Colonel a more likely match for Marianne and here Mrs Dashwood stresses the impulsive nature of his “involuntary confession, an irrespressible effusion to a soothing friend.” Her hopes lead us to suspect that this marriage will be the outcome in a rather forced happy ending, particularly when comical self-deception intrudes in her fancying: “There was always a something, — if you remember — in Willoughby’s eyes at times, which I did not like.” Elinor now needs solitude to think, not about Edward, but about the Colonel and mostly about Willoughby. Neither woman seems to realise that Willoughby is what he is, a rogue despite his admitting it, and Mrs Dashwood’s “had Willoughby turned out as really aimiable” reveals lack of stable basis in her attitude.

Chapter 46 shows Marianne as more thoughtful towards Mrs Jennings and more composed with “resolute firmness”, qualities which may lead again to cheerfulness. Yet Elinor smiles somewhat condescendingly at her “scheme of such rational employment and virtuous self-controul [sic]” even though it could be that Marianne’s excessive sensibility was a phase and that she will now mature. She is exaggerated in her sense of guilt over her past behaviour: “some duty neglected, or some failing indulged” and sees only her flaws, many of which she contrasts with Elinor’s “forbearance” towards others. The reader may feel that her “ungrateful contempt” towards Fanny and John Dashwood was deserved and that some other personalities stretched tolerance beyond endurance at times. She adopts a keyword associated with Elinor, “regulated”, and the old Marianne of “raptures” seems no more. This declaration encourages Elinor to tell her story which is received with emotion but no hysterics. By Chapter 47 we realise that we are very near the end of the book to be left with two disappointed romances and suspect that the situation will be resolved very soon. The three women are calmer and discuss Willoughby with consideration of the dire financial implications of his possibly marrying a poor woman such as Marianne. We now expect a quick patch-up as Colonel Brandon seems a more likely candidate for the hand of Marianne and the use of “Mr Ferrars” with no forename as the newly wed is obviously misleading, although Elinor wrongly misinterprets “the whole of Lucy in the message.” The tone is still not that of a tragic outcome.
Elinor shows herself to be not entirely rational at the start of Chapter 48: the crisis is not real but seems to be and she admits she maintained “in spite of herself” a hope Edward was still hers. Neither is the tone of her mental image of Lucy at Delafield quite fair and the reader wonders why a liberal mind would disparage, in such a mean-spirited fashion, attempts at “uniting at once a desire for smart appearance, with the utmost frugality” which is what anyone would, presumably, have to do as his wife. She, as her mother often does, finds fault with everyone else: “They were all thoughtless and indolent” and, again, this raises the question of why she has insisted on hypocritical courtesy to such unworthy people. Edward’s sudden and somewhat shocking act with the scissors is emblematic of the unnecessary repressions they have all endured as he cuts the covering in pieces. Secrets have their price and reactions may be small scale but they are significant. Emotions are too hidden and yet this is the direction in which Marianne wishes to head in future: the scene ends in uneasy and dangerous silence as Elinor seeks solitude. The ironic tone of the first two paragraphs belittles the marriage to come and detracts from its seriousness: “considering he was not altogether inexperienced in such a question” is at odds with the key word “rapturous” now used unconvincingly of Edward but we end by accepting that this union is “the triumph of accepted love.” Yet his explanation raises the questions: should he have been less passive and jilted Lucy; are we ready to feel that her present engagement is plausible; and is his escape “honourable”? Jane Austen risks our incredulity in order to save the character of Edward but tries to pre-empt our disbelief by having Elinor express similar doubts about Lucy and Robert: “To her own heart, it was a delightful affair, to her imagination it was even a ridiculous one, but to her reason, her judgment, it was completely a puzzle.”

We may find that it is Lucy’s plight we pity as she has not been as dislikeable as Elinor has found her and her brief letter compounds this judgement: it is to the point, friendly and proper and Edward’s opinion is harshly undeserved. The irony in the situation for Mrs Ferrars is underlined by Elinor with sharp wisdom: “And your mother has brought upon herself a most appropraie punishment” perhaps not the most tactful remark to make to the son, however badly he has been treated. Jane Austen withdraws from presenting the future as regards Edward and the Colonel: “What he might say on the subject a twelvemonth after, must be referred to the imagination of husbands and wives.” Over Edward’s two views of Lucy we may agree more with the discarded one: “a well-disposed, good-hearted girl” than the one that repleces it: “capable of the utmost meanness of wanton ill-nature.” Nowhere has she evinced the latter to the eyes of the reader. The chapter struggles to make Edward honourable but, in doing so, makes Lucy commendable in her readiness to share poverty with him and he is too easily led to accept the view that Lucy would have married him for respectability alone. At his admission that he had come to prefer Elinor she smiles again, possibly because her previous hope is now ratified. All the knots are starting to be untied but the question of money intrudes. Again Jane Austen calls upon the reader to fill the gap in imagining a relationship: “Their resemblance in good principles and good sense, in disposition and manner…” so that Colonel Brandon is obvious as a partner for Marianne to complete the neat rectangle. Elinor demonstrates exactly the craftiness she would have condemned in Lucy when she suggests to Edwards that he might express to his mother “concern” over his former engagement and “convenient” [proper] “humility” in acknowledging the second.  This may be necessary behaviour but it is not appealing and his passivity in agreeing does not raise him in our estimation, although the tone is lightly ironic.

The ironic tone continues into Chapter 50 with the account of the “fluctuating” family of Mrs Ferrars who is shown to be hypocritically self-interested but wise in terms of common sense. Elinor leads in the marriage arrangements and bathos contributes to a note of comedy in the view of Marianne’s future: “They had in fact nothing to wish for, but the marriage of Colonel Brandon and Marianne, and rather better pasturage for their cows.”  The endings of Jane Austen’s novels are frequently brisk but the equation of marital bliss with good grass is contrived. Lucy’s behaviour is deplored though it is comparable to Elinor’s own, wishing to find favour with Mrs Ferrars: authorial intrusion does not blind us to the fact that Elinor has already done and would have done the same as Lucy in her position in hope of “securing every advantage of fortune”.  Robert Ferrars is as noxious as ever, proud of all his nastinesses, but Mrs Ferrars comes round again but not without creating ironies in the situations of her two sons, both of whom did the same thing in becoming attached to Lucy. One achieves money and the other loses it although Robert’s contentment depends on it and Edward’s does not so that the least favoured is the happier. Many readers feel that Marianne is disposed of brusquely to a preposterous marriage and the ironic tone is uneasy: “With such a confederacy against her … what could she do?” Thus she marries red flannel waistcoats but achieves a good husband, a social life, occupation instead of a retired existence and new animation in her partner. We are informed that “her whole heart became, in time, as much devoted to her husband, as it had once been to Willoughby” but our credulity is strained. Willoughby is also treated summarily as regretting his lost love but managing “to exert, and frequently to enjoy himself.” The main two happy couples are sociable together and the note of comedy triumphs although there have been near disasters resulting, not only from misunderstandings and secrets, but from opposing philosophies of life.  The potential tragedy has sounded deeper than the usual register of comedy.


This account may seem unduly critical but the novel is flawed though profoundly interesting in being concerned with abstract ideas current at the time. The didacticism leads to some shifting of stance, rather like the movement of tectonic plates, where the qualities of sense and those of sensibilty clash and create dislocations. The main point of disturbance is between what we are told or invited to think and our direct response to character and behaviour. Verbal irony is aimed at Marianne before her folly leads to disaster whilst Elinor is subject to dramatic irony and irony of situation only. Both girls are frustrated in love and both achieve marriage but Marianne’s is far from satisfactory: Jane Austen has created a lively and sympathetic character whom she then dispatches to a barely credible union. The strains of holding the narrative together are visible throughout and almost all the characters conduct themselves differently from what we are encouraged to judge them as by the author. Yet it is all a creation: there is no “real” life behind the text and so the discrepancy lies within. It is plausible to conclude that Jane Austen was torn between the Augustan values of “regulation” represented by Elinor, Edward and Colonel Brandon and the new Romantic “raptures” connected with Marianne, her mother and Willoughby. Whatever we may deduce about the author’s inner conflict, the novel reveals the appealing side of sensibility and Romanticism as well as its dangers at the same time as demonstrating the unattractive aspect of sense even in the personality of Elinor. Romanticism was a powerful movement under the influence of which we still operate and this work brings that fact home to us in the context of the period.