SENSE AND SENSIBILITY Chapter 11 – 30

In Chapter 11 Marianne defends her behaviour against Elinor’s criticism of its openness and lack of propriety: the paragraph has a didactic tone in which self-control is set against display of emotion and the reader is invited to respond to the debate by deciding between the two opinions.  Certainly Marianne is guilty of merely showing her feelings, flouting conventional forms of conduct and disliking concealment: since secrets are a major theme in the novel because they cause genuine problems, we have sympathy with this attitude “where no real disgrace could attend unreserve”. It is worth noting the number of times synonyms for “secret” are used in the book and, at the same time, estimate how they affect the lives of others, “screen” being a leitmotif throughout and frequently connected with Elinor. Willoughby is presented as taking freedom dangerously too far in cheating at cards and the word “season”, used of Marianne’s happiness, warns us that it may not last. Colonel Brandon, a voice of reason as well as feeling for Marianne, finds something appealing in “the prejudices of a young mind” and would be sorry “to see them give way to the reception of more general opinions” but Elinor is harsher.  This is ironic as Elinor will soon be hurt by the secretive behaviour of Edward. There is an attempt at the end of the chapter to add a little mystery to Colonel Brandon’s character but it is too vague and is also undermined by the mocking suggestion that Marianne’s fancy would have built it up to the “most melancholy order of disastrous love.” In the next chapter Margaret has the function of revealing how the couple’s conduct has moved beyond the limits imposed by society on an unengaged pair: not only has Willoughby openly offered an inappropriate gift of a horse but he has cut off a lock of Marianne’s hair. Margaret’s naive comments about Elinor’s attachment awaken us to how many hidden relationships there are already in the book: that between Elinor and Edward, if any; Marianne’s possible engagement to Willoughby; Colonel Brandon’s earlier experience and his present unrequited affection for Marianne.

In Chapter 13 the characters of the sisters, Willoughby and Colonel Brandon are thrown into relief: Elinor at first appears anti-life in her gloomy apprehension about the proposed expedition: the Colonel does not show himself very concerned for anyone else about the cancelled outing as he is clearly distressed at his secret news: Willoughby is snide about the Colonel’s motives and rash in taking Marianne to see the house; she is imprudent and arrogant about the visit, claiming that, if there were any impropriety, she would have known it and not gone. Her own sensitivity becomes the moral basis for her actions.  Mrs Jennings is openly curious about the Colonel (Chapter 14) and, whilst she is satirised for it, her interest is very human and not unlike that of Elinor about the possibility of Marianne’s engagement. Where there is secrecy there will be curiosity, except that in Marianne’s cae there is no engagement. She has, ironically, been so open in her behaviour that it is wrongly construed. His attitude to their cottage demonstrates a false Romanticism with its impractical veneration of the picturesque and yet Elinor does appear cynical in her repudiation: “With dark, narrow stairs, and a kitchen that smokes” shows little gratitude towards the kindness of Sir John who offered them the place. Willoughby’s declarations of fondness for the cottage could, by metonymy, be taken as affection for Marianne and she is not foolish to believe he is in love with her: she has more reason to credit it than Elinor has to think Edward loves her and society agrees with Marianne.

Part of the geometry of the plot is the contrasting running parallel between Willoughby and Colonel Brandon and, in Chapter 15, the younger man announces a similar departure which seems brusque and unreasonable. The cold tone of the account (which seems to represent both Elinor’s and Jane Austen’s judgements) of Marianne’s distress strikes as unjustified: she may have a tendency towards “feeding and encouraging as a duty” such passion but she is in love, had grounds for believing herself loved in return and neither sense nor sensibility had foreseen such an event. The mother’s strictures have a basis: “you Elinor, who love to doubt where you can … You had rather take evil upon credit than good.” Yet Elinor’s doubts are correct when she stresses that it would be more typical of Willoughby “to acknowledge them at once.” Secrets may be necessary in Elinor’s view but they are not within his usual compass and she is also right to suspect there is no engagement whilst the more passionate woman is sure there is one, both by inner conviction but also by rational observation of behaviour. Marianne is desolated by the departure and what it implies and Elinor is not without feeling as well as reason although her mother finds her cold and suspicious: “I love Willoughby … a plain and open avowal of his difficulties would have been more to his honour I think, as well as more consistent with his general character.”

Chapter 16 opens with an uneasy paragraph where the irony seems inappropriate when Marianne’s sufferings are genuine: the words “indulging” and “indulgence” are then repeated and her addiction to her memories of Willoughby is satirised when they are natural in one so young. Didacticism has taken over the writing at this point. Now Elinor urges her mother towards openness with the question: “Why do you not ask Marianne at once … ?” and, when her mother refuses to find out if there has been an engagement, we agree with the criticism: “common sense, common care, common prudence were all sunk in Mrs Dashwood’s romantic delicacy.”  Marianne finds solace in seclusion, a Romantic trait, and Elinor disapproves yet finds she needs to “screen” her from disappointment when they meet a male figure. The error when it turns out to be Edward Ferrars reminds us of another parallel: both sisters are unsure of the love of the man in their lives. Marianne can displace her own sorrow to be happy for Elinor and yet Edward’s manner has a “deficiency of all that a lover ought to look and say on such an occasion.” The account is so well delivered that we come to share Marianne’s near dislike of him, a lack of sympathy soon tempered by the comic turn in the discussion of dead leaves where Marianne’s second-hand love of the dismal picturesque is set against the sturdy yet uninspired common sense of the other two. Whereas Marianne has, she claims, undergone “transporting sensations” over the leaves, Elinor is obliged to “regulate” her own behaviour though experiencing mortification over Edward’s manner towards her. She has no more means of understanding it than Marianne has of decoding Willoughby’s and, in the structure of the plot, the conduct of both men will eventually have similar explanations. By inviting contrasts and comparisons between Willoughby, Edward and Colonel Brandon, Jane Austen is underlining the serious difficulties a young, impoverished woman has in reading and responding to the signals given by eligible and secretive men when she has moral choices to make if life is to made tolerable by marriage.

In Chapter 17 Mrs Dashwood is admirably warm, lively and hospitable to Edward and almost restores him to full conviviality, Margaret is banal and Marianne shows herself to feel the need for more money than Elinor, whilst denying that it matters. Edward attempts some gentle teasing of the girls’ cultural side and enters into a barely polite discussion of Marianne  with Elinor, reproving her for lack of manners: none of them seems very happy or in spirits and Elinor is forced to defend her view: ” My doctrine has never aimed at the subjection of the understanding” which makes us wonder why Marianne should take notice of people whom she does not respect. Their comments are unfair to her as she does usually try to be civil and her openness does not lead to such severe difficulties as their tendency to secretiveness: Edward sits “silent and dull” because he does have something cruical to hide.

Central to a novel of ideas, Chapter 18 has a didactic tone as they discuss aesthetics in nature: Edward is the mouthpiece for the ideal of “beauty with utility” and declares he knows “nothing of the picturesque” whilst Marianne acknowledges that some admiration of Nature has become “mere jargon” and that this leads to an impossibilty of expressing feeling as there is “no language to describe them in but what was worn and hackneyed of all sense and meaning.”  She has a valid point and Elinor is obliged to explain away Edward’s indiffernce and pragmatism. When a ring is observed on Edward’s finger, Elinor assumes it contains her own hair although there is no evidence to support this: when it is a question of romance, she is as irrationally optimistic or even more so than Marianne.  All the signals suggest that she is not foremost in his heart (it depended on Mrs Dashwood to cheer him up) whereas all Willoughby’s behaviour implied love of Marianne. Most readers feel cool towards Edward for his lack of charisma and undue reticence; at the end of the chapter he shows no insight into Marianne’s character when he claims, tactlessly, that there could be a “something or nothing” between her and Willoughby as her heart would always be fully engaged in any relationship.

His behaviour at the start of Chapter 19 appears highly irrational and contradictory, so much so that Elinor is obliged to blame his mother, whom she does not know, without accepting that a man of integrity could withstand maternal pressure. When Mrs Dashwood sensibly suggest he should find a profession, his excuses ring hollow and, although he speaks ironically, his self-criticism accords with ours: ” I was therefore entered at Oxford and have been properly idle ever since.” Jane Austen seems to try to redress the balance and weight against a disapproving reader response by giving Elinor’s inner feelings more depth: “tenderness, pity, approbation, censure and doubt” but they do not seem as strong as Marianne’s and we also wonder if he is worth such considerations. The Palmers enter the narrative and are subjected to some caricature: he is sourly aloof and boorish whilst she is a stereotype of foolish indiscretion, and yet they appear, by a somewhat unconvincing switch, to be more likeable later. Her function in the novel is to create awkward moments by asking indelicate questions: Marianne and Elinor are in agreement over their social lives but Elinor is more stoical and grateful. Elinor is disposed, in Chapter 20, to excuse him but lies in her response to his wife’s question: “he seems very agreeable” before proceeding to interrogate her about Colonel Brandon and his  assertions and evading such questions in return and avoiding defending Colonel Brandon against the criticism that he is “so grave and so dull.” She goes to some trouble to prise information from an unreliable source and, in doing so, behaves secretively herself whilst discovering that everyone likes Willoughby and considers him a good match.

The important characters, the Steeles, arrive in Chapter 21 and Lucy is another presentation with which the reader is sometimes at odds: she does not always appear as bad as she is described.  Despite Sir John’s good humour and sociability both Dashwood girls are cool towards his invitations and guests: Elinor sees in them the wrong sort of “sense”, that of self-advancing cunning in their “constant and judicious attentions” to gain the approval of an over-fond mother. A crucial sentence distinguishes the Dashwood sisters:  “Marianne was silent: it was impossible for her to say what she did not feel, however trivial the occasion; and upon Elinor therefore the whole task of telling lies when politeness requires it always fell.” The reader remains ambivalent at this point, particularly when Elinor approaches rudeness in saying: ” I confess … that while I am at Barton park, I never think of tame and quiet children with abhorrence.” A superficial and vulgar interest in “beaux” is demonstrated and one cannot blame Sir John (or Mrs Jennings at others times) for thinking that some teasing is in order even though he inadvertently touches on sensitive spots. Elinor once more would like to pry and changes opinion of Mrs Jennings, now finding her too reticent to satisfy her curiosity.

Chapter 22 describes Lucy in more detail: Elinor tries to excuse her for being “ignorant and illiterate” but Marianne is harsher. Lucy is criticised for insincerity at a point where Elinor has just revealed the same defect in herself and will ask probing questions in return: the forms of social behaviour demand some hypocrisy. She finds Lucy guilty of “impertinent curiosity”, having recently demonstrated that quality in herself and the reader might warm to Lucy’s need for help and openness in asking for it. When the truth is revealed, Elinor remains silent because she has some difficulty in believing Lucy’s story: she covers her shock with incredulity. Lucy is honest about her motives and trusts Elinor, tells her story with conviction and appears genuinely in love with Edward. Elinor has been more easily deceived in love than her sister, despite her avowed common sense. Her reaction is a prim frostiness which must be incomprehensible to Lucy and does make her feel at fault for what she believes in an innocent revelation, one which Elinor acidly describes as an “unnecessary communication.” She continues to rationalise and suspiciously disbelieves Lucy although everything she says accords with her own observations: she is forced to admit to herself that she has been misled throughout, largely through a willingness to deceive herself but also through Edward’s secrecy, the ring being the emblem of all her errors. Deep down she must have known he could not have taken a lock of her hair without her knowing; at least Willoughby cut Marianne’s with her agreement. Both Dashwood girls are in similar situations although Marianne does not yet know why and Lucy cannot be accused of cruelty if Elinor remains reticent about her own affections.
Chapter 23 – 36 (Original Volume 2)

Chapter 23 opens with Elinor’s reflections on Edward’s conduct: whilst she examines it rationally, she is nevertheless looking for an escape from acceptance that she has been deceived and, in a manner reminiscent of Marrianne’s, she convinces herself that he did and does love her, despite the evidence to the contrary. Emotion rules when she claims: “His affection was all her own. She could not be deceived in that.” The style of this long insight is formal although it is Elinor’s point of view in distress and her opinions take over at the end when she inwardly asks: “could he, were his affection for herself out of the question, with his integrity, his delicacy and well-informed mind, be satisfied with a wife like her – illiterate, artful and selfish?” We wonder where Edward has demonstrated these qualities, if anywhere, and feel that Lucy has more to recommend her than this severely harsh judgement. When Elinor weeps for him rather than herself, the account does not ring true: she seems to be displacing her own misery, possibly having come to love him more through jealousy. In Jane Austen’s novels, rational characters often come to realise their own feelings by irrational means. She rationalises again when she prefers secrecy and emotional seclusion from her family whilst longing for an interview with Lucy to probe more. There is some cunning in her desire to convince Lucy that she is merely a friend and will not appear hurt in front of her; she schemes to bring this meeting about. Lucy hypocritically obliges Lady Middleton over the filigree but we see that Elinor does the same for her own motives and so our sympathies may be with Marianne’s frank boredom and desire to lose herself in music rather than indulge in what seems to her to be petty gossip. Ironically, neither Lucy nor Elinor wishes to do the work but both are obliged to engage in it to fulfil their secret needs.

Elinor’s interest, as shown in Chapter 24, is not expressed genuinely but Lucy is open about her sense that she had displeased Elinor – correctly by an irony in the situation. Elinor had seemed unnecessarily cold and Lucy is relieved to talk. She loves Edward and Elinor’s reaction is patronising: she “hardly knew whether to smile or sigh at this assertion” [that Edward had never given rise to anxiety]. Her smiles are a method of concealment and appear again when Lucy asks for advice, blushing unfairly at her “insincerity”: she continues to be convinced that her own hostility to Lucy must be reflected in Edward’s indifference to his future wife whom Elinor, without basis, believes to be acting out of “self-interest.” The authorial summary does not accord with the spirit of the dialogue in which Lucy has been innocently warm and open and Elinor cold and secretive.

Mrs Jennings, who is subjected to some irony and censure, is nevertheless shown in Chapter 25 to be plain-speaking, tactless but kind and thoughtful in many ways. She is aware she could be a bore with her “odd ways”, has no false dignity and is practical and well-intentioned. Marianne is now shown to be hypocritical, overlooking faults which offend her sensibility if she needs an outcome sufficiently, whilst Elinor seems self-important and prim in hoping to rescue Mrs Jennings from Marianne’s sole company. That this may be Jane Austen’s own judgement is evidenced from Mrs Dashwood’s sharp: “if Elinor would ever condescend to anticipate enjoyment …” and yet, at the start of Chapter 26, she does cover her own unhappiness for the sake of others. When Colonel Brandon appears instead of Willoughby, we are alerted to the puzzling behaviour of the younger man and the narrative parallel between Marianne’s two admirers. Marianne is rashly open and risks hurting herself and yet no-one in their society blames her and the reader responds to her liveliness and capacity for passion. “Let’s have no secrets among friends” strikes us as a central comment: the secrets we have encountered are the cause of suffering and are not always justified by necessity. Mrs Palmer is once more shown as superficial and incapable of enjoying anything but neither can Marianne, out of “anxiety of expectation and the pain of disappointment” albeit on a different level. Yet she is young and impulsive and has every reason to hope Willoughby will come.

Elinor continues to watch Marianne’s behaviour in a prying fashion (Chapter 27), Mrs Jennings is “liberal” and sensible and Colonel Brandon comes almost every day “to look at Marianne and talk to Elinor.” Both sisters accuse each other of lack of confidence, meaing they will not confide, summed up by Marianne; “We have neither of us anything to tell; you, because you do not communicate, and I, because I conceal nothing”: Elinor is distresed at the accusation but feels she cannot betray Lucy, though there was, perhaps, no good reason for her promising to keep the secret in the first place. Certainly, secrets are seen, by authorial comment and attitude, to be an evil and Willoughby’s causes further misery when it is revealed that he had been invited to the dance; it would be better to clear the air as Mrs Jennings would wish since Colonel Brandon reveals that an engagement between Marrianne and Willoughby is universally assumed and we realise that it therefore has the potential for gossip and social shame. He is unhappy and persistent but lacking in appeal for Marianne and the reader. The next Chapter (28) shows Marianne’s despondency and desperation when she consequently approaches Willoughby in such an unconventionally open manner; his behaviour is despicably frosty and, although Elinor tries to “screen” her sister, Marianne is understandably distraught. The brush-off is so callous that even Elinor is shocked and draws our attention to the geometry of plot construction whereby the two girls are in comparable positions, however much Elinor tries to manufacture a difference: both have been deceived and cannot know for certain if their ‘lovers’ ever cared for them.

Chapter 29 is, in some ways, at the heart of the novel in that both sisters are overcome with emotion: even Elinor reacts physically to the sight of a letter from Willoughby, feeling “a sickness at heart” and Marianne nearly screams “with agony.” These muffled feelings are stifled and the result of secrets but Mrs Jennings is wise enough to sympathise with Marianne as society shared her expectations. The letter is callously formal and “impudently cruel” but Elinor’s reactions are so strong that it is almost as if he were her lover.  Her reaction is stronger than that she evinced over Edward’s deception and does not seem to be merely out of empathy. Marianne is making herself ill over the matter but understandably so and the situation is full of irony, in the parallel itself by which both girls are in simliar situations, emphasised by the dramatic irony when Marianne believes Elinor to be loved by Edward.  Elinor is aghast to learn there has been no engagement with Willoughby or even expressed declarations of love and that all conventions have been flouted; she condemns the “impropriety” of Marianne’s notes to him.  Rather primly she points out: “but unfortunately he did not feel the same.” Two points emerge from this: she, herself, has reasoned or felt similarly over Edward’s commitment and Marianne was reasonable in believing that Willoughby cared and that therefore she deserved an explanation which might plausibly be that something external had happened. It is vital to remember, even when Marianne’s reactions seem hysterical and contradictory, that Elinor also shared her faith in his love and responded deeply to the betrayal.

In Chapter 30 we realise that Mrs Jennings is kindness itself and that her pragmatic methods might have brought relief to a less emotional girl, even though they might appear comic in their detail such as walking quietly “as if she supposed her young friend’s affliction could be increased by noise.” It is also clear that, if Marianne were less open, she would not have awakened such sympathy. She is also perceptive, moral and sensible, realising that money is at the heart of the matter: “Fifty thousand pounds” is connected to “dashing about with his curricle and hunters!” Aware that she has not succeeded in cheering Marianne and sensitively regretting her own past teasing and that of others, she prophetically claims that Colonel Brandon will be the winner. She does not deserve the slight mockery nor Elinor’s smile at the offer of wine for a very different complaint from gout: good-heartedness takes many forms. The Colonel is also genuinely concerned for Marianne and yet, with decorum, will not gloat nor slander a rival: Mrs Jennings’ forecast seems possible as even Elinor hopes Marianne’s suffering will prove to be short though severe and that would leave her available.