This novel shows signs of the less mature Jane Austen but it does have claims to be her only novel of ideas. “Sense” is at one end of a spectrum with meanings allied to the modern “common sense” and “sensibility” is at the other, with denotations of “sensitivity” connected to the emergence of the Romantic movement. Neither are simplistically defined although each of the elder Dashwood girls clearly represents one of them, as Elinor does have feeling as well as sense and Marianne increasing rationality tempering her sensibility.
There is also evidence of the earlier epistolatory novel in the long speeches and some melodrama, at times barely credible. Many of the writer’s pervading themes are present: the difficulty of a young unmarried woman without money to find a place in a stultifying society; the deceptiveness of first impressions; family life; social relationshipe; financial considerations; manners revealing deeper moral values. There is the usual verbal irony, though never directed at Elinor, along with dramatic irony and ironies in the situations. The plot demands neat geometry which leads to the swift marrying off of Marianne and, throughout, we find that what is shown of characters is not always what we are told. Jane Austen has been described as Dr Johnson’s daughter and the novel shows both her Augustan values of reason and useful beauty but also her underlying ambivalent attitude to Romanticism: she is both fascinated by it and yet fearful of the power of unrestrained and irrational emotion.
Marriage, the backbone of the plot structure, represents stern moral choices and yet is a semi-necessity for a youthful spinster. It is seen in this book in financial terms as well as emotional in almost every case. (The language is not difficult and it is a good idea to note, as you read, the terms used to describe the characters and their behaviour, particularly the words of moral praise or criticism and those relating to marriage and the key words of the title.) The work does raise awkward and possibly unanswerable questions of authorial intention: whilst it is almost never possible to tell what a writer intended, we do sometimes receive the impression that Jane Austen favours some characters and ideas more than she would wish to – or would like her readers to reward them with such sympathy. Likewise we cannot always admire the apparently admirable as the explicit comments suggest we should. All this adds further interest to a work which also reveals the changing nature of philosophies and attitudes to life at the time as well as having the characteristic sharp eye for human nature and behaviour typical of Jane Austen.
Chapter 1 gives the complicated family tree of the Dashwoods and this is worth drawing on paper for reference, although the plot may be followed without. There is satire directed at the ability of a child to win an inheritance through no real merit and at the John Dahswoods for their lack of feeling. The mother of the girls is distressed at their moving in so quickly and tactlessly but Elinor shows her “coolness of judgement” and can “govern” her. Whilst we are told that Elinor has strong feelings, we do not see them often but any criticism is reserved for Marrianne whose good qualities are soon qualified by a “but” over her eagerness. Her excesses of emotion are indulged not controlled and are shared by her mother. Margaret is dismissed briefly.
Chapter 2 is a masterpiece of writing where the characters are shown through dialogue: Fanny and John conduct a kind of Dutch auction whereby his intention to do good to his family is mercilessly whittled down to a claim at the end that the women should do something for them. Fanny uses every manipulation possible to reduce his generosity: pleading their son’s position; moving from the conditional mood, “To be sure it would” to the indicative, “To be sure it is”; and playing on her knowledge of the misery of paying annuities. Both represent the worst aspects of sense, when this concept is reduced to mere selfish rationalisation. petty avarice and heartlessness. Fanny even represents lack of means of others as an advantage: “They will live so cheap!” Hypocrisy and self-deception are satirised through lethal, sustained irony. Their only motives are respectability in the eyes of the world and economic gain for themselves.
Edward Ferrars is mentioned in Chapter 3 and most readers find him a passive, if not dull, character even though he is praised as having good understanding and an “open affectionate heart.” This latter is not much apparent in the book and the absence of ambition and drive strikes us more. Marianne’s view that his eyes lack “spirit” – eyes being a leitmotif throughout the novel – has some truth even though we may criticise, as does her mother, her youthful pessimism about needing but not finding a partner to share all her tastes. In the next chapter the sisters discuss Edward and, whilst Marianne has severe reservations, she is tactful about not hurting Elinor’s feelings as she wrongly believes the couple to be engaged. The word “rapturous” is used of Marianne and becomes a key-word where “regulation” is often used of Elinor. Elinor’s defence is restrained though full of moral vocabulary and terms of admiration; it does not satisfy Marianne who is laughed at by her sister. Throughout the book we note Elinor smiling or laughing at the flaws in others: here she has to admit to herself that Marianne is right to observe a lack of spirit in Edward, probably due to financial dependancy. Despite their differing personalities and views on life there is agreement between the women about the wisdom of accepting the offer of the house. Economic considerations prevail.
In the end John Dashwood does nothing for the family except bemoan his own lack of funds and his wife resents their having any good furniture: Sir John has done more for them and will continue to do so. Marianne’s language on leaving is melodramatic and self-regarding: “ye well-known trees!” and we become aware that use of language or lack of it is another concern of the writer; here Elinor, who has more reason to lament, remains silent. More satire is targeted at the use of the word “cottage” in the next chapter as suggesting the inconvenient picturesque but the family settle in, recognising they have no choice. Sir John is endlessly kind and liberal, if over-assertive and is preferred in the tone of the writing to his undemonstrative wife: feeling and warmth are advanced above “elegance.” Yet Jane Austen is mild in her irony because the marriage functions, children are raised, however chaotically, and Sir John does good to all, particularly the young. We see in Chapter 7 that they each have their separate interests and whilst it is not a union of depth or passion, it is what most people achieve. Mrs Jennings is another character whom we may find unfairly treated in the novel: she too is unfailingly good-hearted, if vulgar, and Marianne’s difficulty in tolerating her “common-place railery” is illiberal, as is her dismissal of Colonel Brandon as too old to have more than “respect” accorded to him.
In Chapter 8 Colonel Brandon is given sufficient space for us to realise that he is a main player: Marianne’s revulsion at flannel waistcoats is rightly derided by her mother who points out that a “violent fever” would have attracted her fanciful spirit more, a presaging irony in that Marianne suffers such an illness and grows older and wiser because of it. The criticism of her sister for her invariable self-control strike us as having truth as Elinor frequently seems secretive and cool even though she prefers society to notions of isolation. In Chapter 9 a dramatic incident straight out of a romantic novel brings Willoughby into the vacuum of Marianne’s life: on those dangerous first impressions he is wholly attractive though there is a warning in the irony of “to make himself still more interesting” when he dashes off in the rain. Marianne’s instant infatuation stems from her previous dreamy desires and her imagination and is placed by Sir John’s ignorance of Willoughby’s “pursuits … talents and genius” beyond the praise of his dog, an instance of the comic use of metonymy.
Fortunately he des not understand Marianne’s rude rebuke over his choice of words when she has been happy to pump him for information but he does perceive Colonel Brandon’s liking for her and recommends it above “all this tumbling about and spraining of ankles,” sense indeed as it turns out.
Chapter 10 gives us our first physical impression of the two girls and the descriptions accord with what we would expect: “regular” and “correct” are used of Elinor’s prettiness but Marianne is considered a beauty with the all-important eyes revealing “a life, a spirit, an eagerness” which gives her animation for the reader as well as for Willoughby. Their relationship develops with undue haste and is based on apparent mutuality of taste though he seems to accord with her judgement because of her physical appeal. Despite this aura of foolish speed, we cannot but agree with Marianne’s rebuttal: ” I have been open and sincere where I ought to have been reserved, spiritless, dull and deceitful.”
These words echo as the plot unfolds and Marianne’s unwisdom leads to misery whilst she has been merely flouting the surface conventions of formal society which do lead to secrecy, another key-word in the novel. Willoughby is equally amiss in his disregard of the rules and in his opiniated speech but these qualities will turn out to be the manifestations of deeper flaws. Marianne’s “fancy” has led her to picture such a man as Willoughby, “fancy” being a more superficial quality than imagination and so he has an easy entrance into her heart. He is contrasted explicitly with Colonel Brandon whose gravity and reserve commend themselves to Elinor, also sympathetic because of rather mysterious romantic suggestions of previous disappointments in his life. At this point, and later, he seems a good match for Elinor but the reader is not sure that impression is intended. She defends him against the puerile criticisms and mockery of the couple which reach their climax in Willoughby’s self-centred and flippant reasons for disliking the man and yet her defence does sound “comparatively cold and insipid.”