Thoughts on Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility

According to the introduction to the copy I just read, some critics think the book is a allegory, where Elinor represents Sense, and Marianne Sensibility. This is of course obviously wrong, as the author of the introduction, a person called Peter Conrad, notes. The lead characters have depth, which a didactic interpretation in which they are Sense and Sensibility, personified, would not allow,* and of course ultimately Elinor has sensibility, and Marianne has some sense.

And as Conrad demonstrates, the book shows sense and sensibility to be connected in complicated ways. Marianne’s romantic doctrine of following one’s feelings can be a more rigorous moral code than conventional social propriety, which is designed to not be lax enough that people can follow it and leaves people free in their own feelings as long as they pay a few hypocritical tributes. And, on the other hand, if instrumental reason is left alone without passions to guide it, what is it going to do?**

Besides his idea that sense and sensibility are at bottom the same, however, Conrad has dubiously decided that insofar as they are seperable, Elinor has only artificially taken on a sensible character, and Marianne a sensibilitous one, in order to seek out individuality and distinguish themselves from one another***; that Elinor was actually born to be sensibilitous, Marianne to be sensible; and that by the end of the book, each has switched to her proper role, and also the two have melded into “dialectical union” with each other.****

After trying to rescue the book from critics’ dogmatic categories, he plunges it right back in for his own purposes- frying pan, fire. Thus, “Jane Austen has made the ideas into siblings by embodying them in Elinor and Marianne.” And, “The sisters so far outgrow the categories inside which they begin that at the end they exchange places.” And, “[the book ends with the sisters’] dialectical union, as each assumes the quality formerly represented by the other.” As if turning a book into a “dialectic”***** frees it from dogmatism, and as if having characters switch between rigid categories is a way to reveal complexity.

As far as I can tell, Conrad gives no evidence whatsoever that Elinor and Marianne have put on their characteristics in order to achieve individuality and distinction from each other. That is a prism through which he reads the book, based on his own ideas about family development. As far as their switching places, that is a terrible oversimplification of Marianne’s fascinating and brilliantly-constructed development, and in Elinor’s case doesn’t even have a grain of truth.

The cautious and sensible Elinor falls in love with a hopeless passion which fictional magic, abolishing difficulties contrives to reward; the ecastatic Marianne condescends to a sensible connection with ‘a man…whom, two years before, she had considered too old to be married.’

– Conrad

His evidence that Elinor has switched sides is extremely flimsy. “The cautious and sensible Elinor falls in love with a hopeless passion which fictional magic, abolishing difficulties, contrives to reward.” She falls in love very early in the book. She finds out midway through the book about her lover’s previous engagement, so her passion becomes the “hopeless passion,” but the whole point is that her response to this passion forms a contrast with with her sister’s response to Willoughby’s. The only slight change at the end is that, when she mistakenly learns that her lover has married his fiance, she finds this has crushed a hope, and thus that all her sense had never been able to bury that hope (this isn’t a change in character as much as a slight self-discovery.)

As for the abolition of difficulties, that is a matter of plot, not character. Nor is it less real than anything else in the book- it is part of an imaginary story, like all the rest. Why should it be so difficult for Lucy to throw Edward over? He hardly has any money, and she ends up doing quite well for herself, and nobody breaks character.

“The ecstatic Marianne condescends to a sensible connection with ‘a man…whom, two years before, she had considered too old to be married.” Yes, and what begins to change her mind? A change in her own character, yes, but also she learns of his capacity for feeling. He is not just a middle-aged man anymore, he is a man with a tragic past, still pursuing happiness against all hope, she finds out, and begins to respect him. Let us talk no more about “sensible connections!” Marianne’s romantic ideas, again, tended at first to harden into their own rigid convention, for instance the idea that a man of thirty-five is past romance. In the more sensible, so to speak, parts of the review, Conrad makes this point. Here he seems to fall into her error of believing that marrying a man of his age is giving up on romance.

Elinor’s mother, who takes after Marianne in being following sensibility more than sense, favors Col. Brandon as strongly as Elinor does. “With such a confederacy against her – with a knowledge so intimate of his goodness – with a conviction of his fond attachment to herself, which at last, though long after it was observable to everybody else – burst on her – what could she do?” You’ll notice there is no mention of Col. Brandon’s wealth- unlike with Elizabeth Bennett, there is no record of her being attracted to her man’s house; she had shown far more interest in Willoughby’s, incidentally.

Elinor all along badly wants Marianne to like Col. Brandon as she likes him herself, because she thinks he deserves it. Increasingly, she wants her to marry him. This is not because she is trying to mold Marianne into a copy of herself. She does not herself want to marry Col. Brandon, despite her deep friendship with him- having co-heroines gives Austen the freedom to fully develop this relationship, without much danger of its becoming romantic, and so lets us fully appreciate the colonel and Elinor’s friendship while not wanting them to get married. Elinor thinks he is a good man for Marianne, as she is. She worries that he is not the kind of man who can attract Marianne; she never doubts that he Marianne would be happy with him.

Brandon is much more on the “sensibility” end of things than Elinor. Elinor cringes when Brandon tells her he once fought a duel with Willoughby (not over Marianne.) When Marianne openly stands up for Elinor against veiled attacks at a party, rather than engaging in the convention of veiled counterattacks, Elinor is embarassed, but Brandon admires her for it (as does the reader.) Ordinarily in a book, women and men who are “just friends” have to eventually become “more than just friends.”

But, “[Marianne] with no sentiment superior to strong esteem and lively friendship [married Col. Brandon.]” Score one for Conrad, right? Not quite- note “sentiment” and “lively.” “Instead of falling sacrifice to an irresistible passion, as once she had fondly flattered herself with expecting, – instead of remaining even for ever with her mother, and finding her only pleasures in retirement and study, as afterwards in her more calm and sober judgment she had determined on, she found herslef at nineteen, submitting to new attachments….Marianne found her own happiness in forming his…Marianne could never love by halves; and her whole heart became, in time, as much devoted to her husband, as it had once been to Willoughby.” Score one for me.

To return to Elinor, supposedly so gone over to the sensibilitous side, she does indeed leave the room and cry uncontrollably with joy when she finds out Edward is free to marry her. She also, however, tells him to insincerely ask his mother’s forgiveness for his engagement to Lucy, and to be humble about reporting his engagement to herself, so that he can extract more money from her.

* Are we to interpret Darcy as a stand in for Pride and nothing else, and Elizabeth a stand in for Prejudice, just because the book is called Pride and Prejudice? By the way, I always thought it was the other way around. Although Darcy’s pride is mentioned hundreds if not thousands of times in the book, my recollection is that he refused to ask Elizabeth to dance due to her mere lower-middle-upper-class social status, and vetoed Bingley’s marriage to Jane on these same grounds, whereas Elizabeth judged him only after these things happened (no PREjudice), and her wounded pride over the dance snub long colored her view of him.

** By using the word instrumental, I have nicely evaded the dispute over whether reason is solely instrumental. Among those who hold that it is, a “conservative” like Hume and a “Romantic” like Rousseau don’t disagree that reason is a slave to passion; they will just disagree about how this should best happen.

*** Such identity creation being, Conrad says, an actual expression of sensibility in both cases- as indeed it would, if his interpretation were correct.

**** Seems like those claims are contradictory, no?

***** In one of the sensible parts of this schizophrenic review, Conrad writes “Jane Austen is not treating ideas, but their decomposition into modes of thinking and feeling – not the antitheses of romantic philosophy but the paradoxes of romantic behavior…” You can’t have a dialectic without antitheses, can you?


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