Sense and Sensibility is a novel of grief, heartbreak, resilience, and second chances. It’s also a dialogue about how to deal with bereavement and betrayal. Austen’s heroines cope with them in different ways, from fainting and running mad to putting themselves together for the sake of those they love. While in Love and Freindship taking leave of our senses seems to be the only option, the interaction between Elinor and Marianne shows us the path to rational behaviour and self-control as well as the difficulties it’s strewn with.
One of the things I like best about Austen’s first published book is that it is virtually impossible for readers to remain neutral. Sooner or later we must choose between the sisters, though we might change sides over time. Each has a point and there is something of both in most of us.
After their father passed away,
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.
Their distress doesn’t on the whole appear as artificial as the author makes it sound here, especially if we consider that, a few months on, ‘the sight of every well known spot ceased to raise the violent emotion which it produced for a while.’ Mrs Dashwood’s ‘spirits began to revive, and her mind became capable of some other exertion than that of heightening its affliction by melancholy remembrances.’ Wouldn’t that be normal after all? We all mourn differently, and not all of us are immediately able to get on with our lives. Austen’s account of her own father’s death might surprise us with its restraint, but even she acknowledges that ‘the loss of such a Parent must be felt, or we should be Brutes.’
Yet someone must take charge of things:
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.
The trouble with her is that she thinks everybody must deal with suffering in the same way. Thus, she strives ‘to rouse her mother to similar exertion, and encourage her to similar forbearance.’
We should bear in mind that the Dashwood ladies will eventually be thrown out of their home, and have to make do with an income of £500 pounds a year, when the Norland estate alone has been yielding 4000. Not the main source of their sorrow, but enough to add to their worries, just like the lack of a place of their own did to the Austen women’s.
This is, indeed, Laura’s only anxiety in Love and Freindship:
You may perhaps have been somewhat surprised .., that in the Distress I then endured, destitute of any support, and unprovided with any Habitation, I should never once have remembered my Father & Mother or my paternal Cottage in the Vale of Uske. To account for this seeming forgetfullness I must inform you of a trifling Circumstance concerning them which I have as yet never mentioned. The death of my Parents a few weeks after my Departure, is the circumstance I allude to. By their decease I became the lawfull Inheritress of their House & Fortune. But alas! the House had never been their own and their Fortune had only been an Annuity on their own Lives.
Her subsequent expressions of regret, therefore, do not ring true:
I took up my Residence in a Romantic Village in the Highlands of Scotland where I have ever since continued, and where I can uninterrupted by unmeaning Visits, indulge in a melancholy solitude, my unceasing Lamentations for the Death of my Father, my Mother my Husband & my Freind.
As a satire on the novel of sensibility, the story is full of exaggerated outbursts that prevent characters from taking adequate action but not from caring about the materialistic aspects of life. Extreme sensitivity coexists with calculating callousness.
Sense and Sensibility might also have started as a critique of this tradition, but we soon see there’s nothing fake about the sisters’ feelings. The only difference between them is that Elinor ‘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.’
‘Taught by whom?’ we might ask. Does Elinor’s knowledge of how to keep her own emotions in check qualify her to educate others? What works for her might not, after all, work for them. And her methods might not be the best. Her sister is not swayed by her arguments:
‘Exert yourself, dear Marianne,’ she cried, ‘if you would not kill yourself and all who love you. Think of your mother; think of her misery while you suffer: for her sake you must exert yourself.’
‘I cannot, I cannot,’ cried Marianne; ‘leave me, leave me, if I distress you; leave me, hate me, forget me! but do not torture me so. Oh! how easy for those, who have no sorrow of their own to talk of exertion! Happy, happy Elinor, you cannot have an idea of what I suffer’ …
‘Whoever may have been so detestably your enemy, let them be cheated of their malignant triumph, my dear sister, by seeing how nobly the consciousness of your own innocence and good intentions supports your spirits. It is a reasonable and laudable pride which resists such malevolence.’
‘No, no,’ cried Marianne, ‘misery such as mine has no pride. I care not who knows that I am wretched. The triumph of seeing me so may be open to all the world. Elinor, Elinor, they who suffer little may be proud and independent as they like–may resist insult, or return mortification–but I cannot. I must feel–I must be wretched–and they are welcome to enjoy the consciousness of it that can.’
‘But for my mother’s sake and mine–’
‘I would do more than for my own. But to appear happy when I am so miserable–Oh! who can require it?’
In a similar situation, Emma, clueless as she often is, convinces Harriet Smith to make a serious effort to forget Mr Elton:
‘My being saved from pain is a very secondary consideration. I want you to save yourself from greater pain. Perhaps I may sometimes have felt that Harriet would not forget what was due–or rather what would be kind by me.’
This appeal to her affections did more than all the rest. The idea of wanting gratitude and consideration for Miss Woodhouse, whom she really loved extremely, made her wretched for a while, and when the violence of grief was comforted away, still remained powerful enough to prompt to what was right and support her in it very tolerably.
Emma then famously reflects that ‘there is no charm equal to tenderness of heart.’ Does this mean Marianne is cold and unloving? Not really. Harriet is a simpler creature, and she does not care for the vicar as passionately or as deeply as Marianne does for Willoughby. At any rate, Miss Woodhouse succeeds in persuading her friend, whereas Miss Dashwood does not.
Her example is not enough, as we see when she finally reveals Edward’s secret engagement and her own struggle:
‘And yet you loved him!’–
‘Yes. But I did not love only him;–and while the comfort of others was dear to me, I was glad to spare them from knowing how much I felt. Now, I can think and speak of it with little emotion. I would not have you suffer on my account; for I assure you I no longer suffer materially myself. I have many things to support me. I am not conscious of having provoked the disappointment by any imprudence of my own, I have borne it as much as possible without spreading it farther. I acquit Edward of essential misconduct. I wish him very happy; and I am so sure of his always doing his duty, that though now he may harbour some regret, in the end he must become so. Lucy does not want sense, and that is the foundation on which every thing good may be built.–And after all, Marianne, after all that is bewitching in the idea of a single and constant attachment, and all that can be said of one’s happiness depending entirely on any particular person, it is not meant–it is not fit–it is not possible that it should be so.–Edward will marry Lucy; he will marry a woman superior in person and understanding to half her sex; and time and habit will teach him to forget that he ever thought another superior to her.’–
‘If such is your way of thinking,’ said Marianne, ‘if the loss of what is most valued is so easily to be made up by something else, your resolution, your self-command, are, perhaps, a little less to be wondered at.–They are brought more within my comprehension.’
‘I understand you.–You do not suppose that I have ever felt much.’
Now it’s Marianne that’s being intolerant, though Elinor comes dangerously close to a ‘picture of perfection.’ Just as the elder sister assumes we must all bear our pain in the same way, the younger believes we must all feel alike. Soon realising her mistake, however, ‘“Oh! Elinor,’” she cried, “you have made me hate myself for ever.–How barbarous have I been to you! … Because your merit cries out upon myself, I have been trying to do it away.”’
Tender caresses ensue, but Miss Dashwood neither denies her own excellence nor attempts to counteract her sister’s self-loathing. She seems to believe that invidious comparison will lead to positive behaviour. Wrong:
She felt it with all the pain of continual self-reproach, regretted most bitterly that she had never exerted herself before; but it brought only the torture of penitence, without the hope of amendment. Her mind was so much weakened that she still fancied present exertion impossible, and therefore it only dispirited her more.
Oh dear! Isn’t is obvious? Marianne is depressed. She can’t even bring herself to try. Far from relieving her misery, guilt only increases it. To be fair to Elinor, she is young and inexperienced. She has a lot on her plate right now, too, what with her own disappointment, watching over her family, keeping up appearances, observing the rules of propriety, being polite to their acquaintance, and excusing her sister’s occasional lack of manners. Must be exhausting. So much so she fails to notice Marianne has not changed her wet shoes and stockings …
Perhaps it’s just as well, as she might not see sense otherwise. As she recovers from her illness, she puts things into perspective, fully realising the error of her ways, and once more acknowledging her sister’s superiority. Strangely enough, considering her fragile state, she manages to summon the energy to devise a scheme of ‘rational employment and virtuous self-control.’ Elinor’s response is nuanced: ‘impatient to soothe, though too honest to flatter,’ she gives her ‘only that praise and support which her frankness and her contrition so well deserved.’
From which I gather she believes she’s been right all along and worth following as a role model, whereas her sister is to blame, among other things, for inconsiderately endangering her own life. Self-abhorrence would therefore seem a proper way to show repentance. It doesn’t cross her mind that she might have taken a different approach or tried to understand what was going on in Marianne’s.
Sometimes people forced by circumstances to become towers of strength find it useful to stick to a few black-and-white notions. They might feel entitled to sit in judgement and passive aggressively exact a little commendation every now and then. All too often self-denial comes at a price.
Marianne is eager, immoderate, and imprudent – she’s also a teenager. She may be selfish and rude at times, but she’s so very honest that even her wretchedness commands respect. I’m glad Col. Brandon is capable of appreciating that ‘there is something so amiable in the prejudices of a young mind, that one is sorry to see them give way to the reception of more general opinions.’ This time round I too side with her.
Jane Austen’s novels quoted from www.mollands.net
Love and Freindship quoted from
Le Faye, Deirdre, ed. (2011). Jane Austen Letters. Oxford: OUP.
Nemade, R., Staats Reiss, N., and Dombeck, M. (2007). Historical Understandings of Depression. Retrieved from