A Review of Reshaping the Sexes in Sense and Sensibility. By Moreland Perkins. Charlottesville and London: University Press of Virginia, 1998. Pp. xi + 208. $24.50. This is the original somewhat longer version of the review which appeared in The Journal of English and Germanic Philology, 99:1 (January 2000). I have also taken advantage of the space one has on the Web and included notes and a select bibliography.
In a book written in a refreshingly plain style, Moreland Perkins provides an old-fashioned close reading of Austen's first published novel. He demonstrates that Sense and Sensibility is dominated by Elinor's consciousness. While he neglects the hard comedy and mordant ironies also to be found in the novel, Perkins conveys its inwardness, gravitas and qualified affirmation that good people can remain good and survive in a society governed by unjust laws and customs which subject them to chance, unperceptive egocentric people, and individual caprice (p. 171).
Perkins argues that Sense and Sensibility is the most subversive fiction Austen ever wrote. He follows the veins of emotion and reflection which fill the mind of Elinor Dashwood when she is alone, and when she is watching, listening, and responding to a group of individualized characters who are also types who play recognisable roles within the smaller public communities they form inside a larger controlling society. By also taking into account the narrator's suggestive unconventional comments, and stark utterances by the other characters, Perkins finds in Elinor's reflections an indictment of her (and by extension our) society. He shows us that Sense and Sensibility works like poetry since Elinor's emotions "mediate for us knowledge of things external to us" (p. 99).
Perkins contends that in Elinor Austen deviates from her era's female stereotypes to imagine a character passionate and intelligent, domestic and, aided by her mother, active outside her home on behalf of "a group of friends concerned more with living equitably and harmoniously in the present than with projecting themselves into futurity" (p. 158). Through Elinor's interaction with Marianne, Austen makes us aware of an array of repressive codes of behavior, especially those which assume women have no sexual passion, and which confuse respect for the feelings and values of others with social codes intended to protect the more vulnerable but used by the ruthless as an instrument by which to intimidate or hurt others (pp. 187-92). Elinor records how Lucy Steele releases and enjoys the scruple-free and urgent impulses all women have to gratify their appetites and speak plainly about their status (p. 61). We also listen, with her, to Mrs. Jennings's coarse talk; the pragmatism which has given her all her comforts is highlighted (pp. 65-66). Perkins argues that, far from simply deriding the desires and perceptive observations of her rebellious heroine, through Elinor's pained thoughts and exertion, Austen shows us the real cost to a richly-endowed individual of remaining within the faultline of respectability (p. 81).
Perkins disagrees with those who see in Sense and Sensiblity a critique of patriarchy. An anti-worldly communitarian idealism guides all its sympathetic characters against "the atomizing effects of insecurity, ambition, arrogance and greed" (p. 161). In both Edward and Brandon Austen flouts her era's male stereotypes which still lead readers to turn away in distaste or boredom from them as not handsome, aggressive and gregarious; the reason Willoughby is not simply a villain is that like Edward and Brandon he can show himself to be tenderly affectionate, unambitious, and sensitive. Edward is superior to Willoughby because he is capable of self-sacrificing fidelity; Perkins also sees a conscious egalitarianism in Austen's depiction of Edward's initial attraction to Lucy Steele. We value Brandon as a thoughtful "man of sensibility" who acts out of compassion and sympathetic generosity (pp. 155, 165, 170). Through her heroes as well as her heroines, Austen shows us the dangers that "economic dependence upon another's personal caprice" can inflict on all people (p. 121); Edward's depression and his and Willoughby's self-inflicted misery and losses show us that to fulfill one's inner potentials men as well as women must find useful gainful employment. Perkins writes "there are more disparaging remarks made in this novel about young men's lack of a profession and their consequent idleness than in any other Austen novel" (p. 122).
My reservations about Perkins's book might be applied to many books about Austen's novels: since her words are characteristically suggestive and understated, resonant with a variety of applications, the nature of argument often leads scholars either to overstate their case or to categorize a stream of imagined experience too rigidly. For example, what Perkins calls gender reconstruction is by his own account also Austen's way of presenting a world in which avarice and prestige-ridden networking induces female and male characters to use one another as commodities or tools. The nuances of Austen's words encompass Rousseauist ideals which had emerged as an expectation that both men and women pretend to intensely emotional reponses to external impressions while remaining unworldly and asexual. But if the language of criticism is, as Marianne says, in the minds of most so much hollow cant, that does not mean there is not something valuable given life for the first time in the new picturesque and melancholy poetry. In an effort to avoid interpreting Elinor as also an ideal Christian heroine, Perkins resorts to jarring anachronisms: Elinor is a "career intellectual," her self-abnegation the basis of a "splendid calling," that of the "dedicated statesperson-politician." Her uncommon continual civility becomes "the practice of a public-spirited statesperson;" her friends are her "constituents and associates." Perkins wants to make reader identify with Elinor through such references, but to write that the reader's ideals and Elinor's differ only because Elinor is "'at work' full-time: there [are] no holidays from intellectual work while away from office, lab, or study" (pp. 13-15, 29-36, 141-46) risks laughter.
The second problem with the book's argument is a function of its strength. Perkins writes his whole book on a single book. This narrow focus has produced seminal criticism of Austen's novels. However, the gender reconstruction of masculinity which Perkins posits as innovative and unique is found in other many other eighteenth-century novels (e.g., Henry Mackenzie's Man of Feeling, 1771). When Perkins quotes Austen's narrator's comments that "Edward had no turn for great men or barouches. All his wishes centered in domestic comfort and the quiet of private life," Perkins seems unaware Edward's distaste for shallow male ambition recalls a similar "effeminacy" in Mortimer Delvile, the hero of Fanny Burney's Cecilia (1782). This "effeminacy" is shared by the secondary hero of Cecilia, Belfield, whose story is, like Edward's, intended to reveal to us how inhumane and unethical is a money-obsessed society based on egoism. In turn Belfield's career recalls that of Johnson's Rasselas (1759) and the vagabond son in Oliver Goldsmith's The Vicar of Wakefield (1766), where the ideals to be inculcated are, somewhat contradictorily, relativistic, stoic, sceptical and Christian all at once.
Perkins also fails to persuade this reader that after Sense and Sensibility Austen abandoned or marginalised thoughtful, active, strong and unconventional heroines whose poverty or dependence can be read as a critique of their society. He argues that Elinor differs from Austen's other perceptive heroines because she reasons more coolly and detachedly than Elizabeth Bennet and Emma Woodhouse; this posits a distinction that does not survive scrutiny. Perkins's assertion that Austen sympathized with Lucy Steele would gain more credibility were he to acknowledge Lucy's place in Austen's novels, all of which include female characters who flout convention, and are powerless and poor. In Austen's last finished novel, Persuasion, Mrs Penelope Clay also grasps at security through exploiting the weaknesses and passions of two male characters; she may be contrasted to Anne Elliot whose self-denial hurt and endangered her. Anne must rely on time and chance to rescue her from servitude to a biased moral authority; very like Lucy, it is cunning which may make Mrs Clay the next Lady Elliot.
Perkins's interpretation of Sense and Sensibility turns it into a qualified Jacobin novel from whose stance Austen retreated. While Austen's later novels include heroines who are seduced through exploitation of their frustrated sexual passion, Perkins is still right to say that after Marianne Austen does not dramatize overt sexuality, defiance, and release through exultation. It is significant that we are shut out of Jane Fairfax's consciousness. But it's worth pointing out that as in many other and variously radical or epistolary novels and imaginative romances in French and English, in Sense and Sensibility we meet one heroine alive to the edges of her skin as she wanders through a landscape not caring if she meets death, and another who takes austere loving care of others and never in her mind, and, when it comes to important acts, never in her behavior obeys the dictates of her society's quest for wealth, rank, connections, and ephemeral surface triumphs.
Ironically, the core perception at the heart of Perkins's study is one which his method of sticking to one text prevents him from demonstrating: that Sense and Sensibility is a romance, a gothic romance of sensibility even if consciously Austen began with deriding and dismissing the genre. A comparison of it with the French novels of the later eighteenth century as analyzed by Joan Hinde Stewart in her Gynographs(1). I have room to cite but one example: the heroines and patterns of Sense and Sensibility are closely aligned to Isabelle de Montolieu's Caroline de Lichtfield, first published in 1786 and translated into English in the following year by Thomas Holcroft; it went through a a number of editions (or reprints). People praised it as another La Princesse de Clèves; Germaine de Stael loved it, and it made Isabelle de Montolieu's career. Montolieu's closeness to Austen may be seen in her having translated both Sense and Sensibility and Persuasion. Caroline de Lichtfield is one of the few books we can name which Austen gave to her niece Fanny Knight to read (2). Perkin's thesis is that Austen's first full-length novel grew out of a a tradition of women's novels which she herself partly abandoned afterwards, but which other women, inspired by her example, enrichened and still write out of (3). I suggest if this is so and she did so, it was, again ironically, a direct result of her success: she wanted to be respected; she wanted to please (4).
George Mason University
1. Joan Hinde Stewart, Gynographs: French Novels by Late Eighteenth Century Women. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1993).
2. See Margaret Wilson, Another Sister (Kent: Kent Arts and Libraries, 1990), p. 18. Caroline de Lichtfield shows the same intense sensibility as central to the text: it is written in the form of letters and inserted diaries which combination may well have been the form Sense and Sensibility first took. (See my essay, "A Calendar For Sense and Sensibility," Philological Quarterly, 79 (Fall 2000), 233-266.) In brief, a young girl, the Marianne type, is forced at age 15 to marry the king's favorite because it will forward her father's career. Walstein is twice Caroline's age, stoops, is bald, very thin; an ex- soldier, he is one-eyed, limps, and is badly scarred. She marries, but refuses to sleep with him; he agrees she need not even live with him since he is so unpleasant to look at. In nature he is a chivalrous melancholy Brandon. A number of her female relatives are convinced she could do better but are overruled by the father. Over the course of the story she falls in love with a Willoughby type. Lindorf is very like Willoughby in just about every particular, except that a liaison ensues after which Lindorf deserts Caroline for a rich wife, and during the course of three years she discovers her husband is a good man, intelligent, romantic (in sensibility and idealistic). At the close of the book, the marriage is consummated. Montolieu cheats a bit by having Walstein's looks improve before the marriage is consummated: But Caroline also simply gets used to him, and he looks better in her eyes because she loves him. As with Austen's work it is possible to read this text as a defense of the utter violation of nature Caroline is expected to undergo as her marital choice, but the whole feeling of the work moves in just the opposite direction from what is voiced by the older women, the father, and Caroline herself (much in the manner of Anne Eliot at the close of Persuasion, justifying Lady Russell) who by the end of the story has learned "sense" (prudence of the Elinor Dashwood variety) To Austen's generation Caroline de Lichtfield's and the Dashwood stories were voices in a conversation we are still having and which we are not yet wholly honest about. There are even some curious details which have been carried over into the recent 1995 Sense and Sensibility which also validates Marianne: like Brandon, Walstein says it would be better to have an innocent wife rather than have to live with what disillusion can do to a passionate sensibility. He finds out that he was wrong.
3. Katie Trumpener, "The Virago Jane Austen", Janeites: Austen's Disciples and Devotees, ed. Deirdre Lynch. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), pp. 140-165.
4. See my prefatory remarks and the extant calendar of Pride and Prejudice.