If I could but know his heart: Willoughby’s story and Marianne’s closure

‘If I could but know his heart, everything would become easy,’ says Marianne Dashwood to her sister a few months after Willoughby’s betrayal. He has already opened it to Elinor, hoping she may eventually convey his passionate apology to her:

You tell me that she has forgiven me already. Let me be able to fancy that a better knowledge of my heart, and of my present feelings, will draw from her a more spontaneous, more natural, more gentle, less dignified, forgiveness. Tell her of my misery and my penitence–tell her that my heart was never inconstant to her, and if you will, that at this moment she is dearer to me than ever.

Miss Dashwood won’t go quite that far: ‘I will tell her all that is necessary to what may comparatively be called your justification’ – his ‘protestations of present regard’ will be out of the question. But Marianne needs closure, and Elinor lets her have it at last:

‘I am now perfectly satisfied, I wish for no change. I never could have been happy with him, after knowing, as sooner or later I must have known, all this.–I should have had no confidence, no esteem. Nothing could have done it away to my feelings.’

‘I know it–I know it,’ cried her mother. ‘Happy with a man of libertine practices! … No–my Marianne has not a heart to be made happy with such a man!–Her conscience, her sensitive conscience, would have felt all that the conscience of her husband ought to have felt.’

Mrs Dashwood’s referring to his seduction of Eliza Williams. Willoughby’s account doesn’t, however, add anything to what they already know in that respect, except that he thought he’d given the girl his address. Elinor has purposefully focused on the ‘chief points’ of his explanation, and therefore must have spared her sister the unpleasant details, as well as the ungentlemanly victim-bashing.

‘Marianne sighed, and repeated, “I wish for no change.”’ She had been wondering what his real intentions towards her had been:

If I could be satisfied on one point, if I could be allowed to think that he was not always acting a part, not always deceiving me;–but above all, if I could be assured that he never was so very wicked as my fears have sometimes fancied him, since the story of that unfortunate girl–

Elinor has set her mind at rest: everything had been ‘strictly honourable’ and ‘blameless’ – his affection had been genuine and, but for the unfortunate discovery of his previous affair, he would have proposed. Nor had he been as ‘fickle’ as Marianne had previously suggested – just afraid of poverty. That would have been a huge relief. Miserable as she still is, she must  be savouring it. Her own self-esteem has been at stake:

My peace of mind is doubly involved in it;–for not only is it horrible to suspect a person, who has been what he has been to me, of such designs,–but what must it make me appear to myself?–What in a situation like mine, but a most shamefully unguarded affection could expose me to–

In other words, she might have been encouraging the advances of a man whose sole aim was sexual intercourse – a thought so dreadful she can’t even finish the sentence.

The Misses Mary and Hannah Murray by John Trumbull

Her suspicions may have been allayed, but she can’t excuse his sexual misconduct, his callous disregard for his partner’s feelings and reputation, or his irresponsible behaviour towards his own child. He couldn’t possibly have been trusted as a husband or a father.

Financial issues would also have prevented a happy union. As Elinor points out,

Had you married, you must have been always poor … His demands and your inexperience together, on a small, very small income, must have brought on distresses … Your sense of honour and honesty would have led you … to attempt all the economy that would appear to you possible: and, perhaps, as long as your frugality retrenched only on your own comfort, you might have been suffered to practice it, but beyond that–and how little could the utmost of your single management do to stop the ruin which had begun before your marriage?–Beyond that, had you endeavoured, however reasonably, to abridge his enjoyments, is it not to be feared, that instead of prevailing on feelings so selfish to consent to it, you would have lessened your own influence on his heart, and made him regret the connection which had involved him in such difficulties?

The yield of his estate is reckoned at between six and seven hundred pounds a year. Marianne would have brought in fifty more. The Dashwoods live on five hundred, so they wouldn’t have been destitute. Elinor believes a thousand a year would be enough: she calls it ‘wealth,’ but her sister, already influenced by Willoughby, disagrees:

Two thousand a-year is a very moderate income … A family cannot well be maintained on a smaller. I am sure I am not extravagant in my demands. A proper establishment of servants, a carriage, perhaps two, and hunters, cannot be supported on less.

Elinor goes on:

His circumstances are now unembarrassed–he suffers from no evil of that kind; and he thinks only that he has married a woman of a less amiable temper than yourself… Had he married you, … the inconveniences would have been different. He would then have suffered under the pecuniary distresses which, because they are removed, he now reckons as nothing. He would have had a wife of whose temper he could make no complaint, but he would have been always necessitous–always poor; and probably would soon have learned to rank the innumerable comforts of a clear estate and good income as of far more importance, even to domestic happiness, than the mere temper of a wife.

Furthermore, as Emma Woodhouse would have put it, ‘a very narrow income has a tendency to contract the mind, and sour the temper.’ Of course she’s talking of ‘those who can barely live, and who live perforce in a very small, and generally very inferior, society,’ but, given Willoughby’s expensive lifestyle, we can anticipate a similar outcome. She would have spoken her mind eagerly, and not always with perfect composure. And, if the way in which he refers to Eliza Williams and Miss Grey is anything to go by, he would have ended up blaming her.

Illustration from http://www.mollands.net

In the last chapter we learn that Mrs Smith finally forgives him, ‘stating his marriage with a woman of character, as the source of her clemency,’ which leads him to believe ‘that had he behaved with honour towards Marianne, he might at once have been happy and rich.’ Eventually, that is, since the death of his ‘old cousin’ would have been ‘uncertain, and possibly far distant.’ Though in Jane Austen’s novels we never know. Doesn’t Mrs Churchill pass away at exactly the right time? To say nothing of Dr Grant, who conveniently departs from this world just as Edmund and Fanny ‘begin to want an increase of income.’

Elinor’s mention of Willoughby’s selfishness draws a deep emotional response:

Marianne’s lips quivered, and she repeated the word ‘Selfish?’ in a tone that implied–’do you really think him selfish?’

‘The whole of his behaviour,’ replied Elinor, ‘from the beginning to the end of the affair, has been grounded on selfishness. It was selfishness which first made him sport with your affections; which afterwards, when his own were engaged, made him delay the confession of it, and which finally carried him from Barton. His own enjoyment, or his own ease, was, in every particular, his ruling principle.’

Elinor’s tough love has gone too far – this is overkill. Marianne has suffered enough already. She’s just said: ‘I wish to assure you both … that I see every thing–as you can desire me to do.’ Does Miss Dashwood need to keep on piling up charges, taking away every possible comfort? Surely no one is ruled by selfishness ‘in every particular.’ She sounds like Fanny Price, who accuses Miss Crawford of cruelty just because she has a sense of humour. But, unlike Edmund Bertram, Marianne seems to acknowledge the truth of the indictment: ‘My happiness never was his object.’ She believes she’s being honest, but guilt over the pain she’s caused her family has made her doubt her own judgement and submit to her sister’s. Gone is the earnest, critical, ironic creature that once remarked to Elinor: ‘I thought our judgments were given us merely to be subservient to those of neighbours. This has always been your doctrine, I am sure.’

Her sister, in turn, might be trying hard to convince herself. She has been powerfully moved by Willoughby’s narrative and knows he still loves Marianne, though she’s decided not to tell her:

Willoughby, in spite of all his faults, excited a degree of commiseration for the sufferings produced by them, which made her think of him as now separated for ever from her family, with a tenderness, a regret, rather in proportion, as she soon acknowledged within herself–to his wishes than to his merits. She felt that his influence over her mind was heightened by circumstances which ought not in reason to have weight; by that person of uncommon attraction, that open, affectionate, and lively manner which it was no merit to possess; and by that still ardent love for Marianne, which it was not even innocent to indulge.

Illustration from http://www.mollands.net

Having stood near the brink of the abyss, sensible Miss Dashwood fears her sister might be sucked back into it:

Willoughby, ‘poor Willoughby,’ as she now allowed herself to call him, was constantly in her thoughts; she would not but have heard his vindication for the world, and now blamed, now acquitted herself for having judged him so harshly before. But her promise of relating it to her sister was invariably painful. She dreaded the performance of it, dreaded what its effect on Marianne might be; doubted whether after such an explanation she could ever be happy with another; and for a moment wished Willoughby a widower.

Oh dear! Who would have thought? She resolutely checks her emotions and focuses on making sure that her sister gets married to someone who truly deserves her:

Then, remembering Colonel Brandon, reproved herself, felt that to his sufferings and his constancy far more than to his rival’s, the reward of her sister was due, and wished any thing rather than Mrs Willoughby’s death.

We’ve just seen how strong Elinor’s feelings can be – she must have been shocked by their intensity. Somehow she manages to ‘govern’ or repress them, and see to it that Marianne does too. The past is dangerous and should be laid to rest by drawing the appropriate moral from the story: ‘All Willoughby’s difficulties have arisen from the first offence against virtue, in his behaviour to Eliza Williams. That crime has been the origin of every lesser one, and of all his present discontents.’

There you are! Original sin in all its anticlimactic triteness. Fanny Price couldn’t have put it better. Yet we must bear in mind that, whatever ‘the violence of her passions,’ Willoughby’s lover was a young girl of about sixteen. He would have been twenty-four at the time, and much more experienced. The ‘weakness of her understanding,’ far from excusing his behaviour, would have been an ‘aggravating circumstance,’ as the phrase would suggest an imperfect awareness of the devastating social consequences of her actions. Her character could never be restored, no one would want to marry her, and she would have to live in virtual seclusion. By taking away her virginity, he’s actually destroyed her whole life. The scandal also ruined Marianne’s, as well as his own chances of happiness with her, leading to a loveless, mercenary match with wealthy Miss Grey. Elinor does have a point, and, ‘unpleasant … as the discussion of such a subject’ is to her, bravely confronts him with his guilt.

But Marianne will never know Willoughby’s true heart. Always ready to tell ‘lies when politeness required,’ Miss Dashwood proves equally capable of concealing the truth.

Jane Austen’s novels quoted from www.mollands.net