Sense and Sensibility: Volume I, Chapters 13 - 15

To Janeites

July 16, 1999

Re: S&S, Chs 14-15: The Engagement & Enigmatic Willoughby

When Mrs Dashwood plots to leave Marianne and Willoughby alone, she is by virtue of this behavior declaring she sees them as engaged. In Michael Masson's Victorian Sexuality (which covers this period of 1790-1810) as well as in Lawrence Stone's Uncertain Unions and Broken Vows (a somewhat wider span), we find that among the gentry engaged couples were left alone and assumed to indulge in a level of sexual intimacy not permitted to the unengaged. (It was not even that uncommon for pregnancies to occur even in the genteel classses -- at least according to the court cases cited by Stone.)

Why doesn't Mrs Dashwood just ask Marianne? That's harder. I think you are right to talk of how useless it might be, given Marianne's character as we have it. This can be read in several other ways too. The obvious answer is Mrs Dashwood is too romantic, too much herself a figure of sensibility. Her daughter is a younger version of her. But to say this is to remain on the level of Jane West's A Gossip's Story (which critics say Austen remembered in S&S). There the characters are one dimensional, the situations can be summed up by general categories, pigeonholed. There is nothing intricate or suggestive in the scenes or dialogues or narrator's words.

So let's look at Mrs Dashwood's reasoning and the whole complex of what's been happening. She replies to Elinor: "Supposing it possible that they are not engaged, what distress would not such an inqury inflict! . . . it would be ungenerous'. I think in another passage in the book the word delicate or delicacy is also used. It would be indelicate for Mrs Dashwood to ask. So here is another reading I think the late 18th century would have understood: Indelicacy is a word which refers to sex as well as money matters in this period. If Mrs Dashwood questions the engagement, she is asking Marianne, what the hell has she been doing riding round the country, visiting houses, walking, spending hours with Willoughby (and alone more than once) if they are not engaged. If we assume they are engaged, there can be nothing improper. If we ask if they are engaged, we are indelicate because we are questioning Marianne's 'honesty' (in the very old-fashioned sense of the word). The question hits directly at the level of intimacy (=sex) Marianne has been allowing Willoughby, including the offered present of the horse and riding with him. Very like Jane Bennet Mrs Dashwood wants to keep to a 'candid interpretation of events, meaning seeing them in the best light. Jane always imputes honorable motives and behavior wherever she can. So Mrs Dashwood.

I agree with Aysin over Willoughby's response to the cottage. Very sharp. In the way Aysin puts it he recalls Frank Churchill who also measures and understands experience basically through the physical or how it hits his feelings, his needs, his convenience. Still again I'll play devil's advocate.

We can see in these scenes Willoughby falling in love with Marianne (as he says later almost against his will). My sense of the passage Aysin quoted is that Willoughby (like Edward Ferrars when he comes to visit) is really happy at Barton Cottage. Both young men are capable of appreciatig this quiet inwardly satisfying way of life in the cottage. Edward too is distressed and his depression comes out most markedly when he has to leave the cottage (remember he came to the cottage from the girl he is supposed to be engaged to); Edward too wants to think it all will ever remain the same; and thus, similarly, Willoughby:

"'What!' he exclaimed -- 'Improve this dear cottage! No. That I will never consent to. Not a stone must be added to its walls, not an inch to its size, if my feelings are to be regarded'" (Penguin 63).

Precisely because it's irrational and deeply nostalgic for something he has cherished and known in this spot, it is a sincere moment. Both when Edward talks to Elinor's mother and here Willoughby addressing her, the reader feels the young man's sense he can't stay here, that's why he's so deeply reluctant to see what he cherishes in his memory -- for memory is all he will have -- be violated.

Again the last scene of all between Willoughby and the Dashwoods which at long last alerts or ought to alert the mother. Like so many of the characters in this book she doesn't see what's in front of her. She can't let herself think about why she is disturbed -- he seems so strangely cold, formal; refuses to talk of a return visit, has left Marianne prostrated with grief. Yet the scene is also sympathetic towards Willoughby. Here again I think the sincerity of the man's grief comes out in spite of his worldly pragmatic words which will free him of any obligation to this family. For example, he cannot keep up the stance of cheer:

"'Is anything the matter with her?' cried Mrs Dashwood as she entered -- 'is she ill?'

'I hope not,' he replied, trying to look cheerful; and with a forced smile presently added, 'It is is who may rather expect to be ill -- for I am now suffering under a very heavy disappointment!'" (Penguin 66).

This word frightens Mrs Dashwood; she is counting on the engagement by this time I suggest.

All the actions in Willoughby's face are what we might call involuntary; he colors, his color increases, he fixes his eyes on the ground---this is the involuntary nervous system so to speak, and it speaks truths our voluntary behavior cannot control. He is guilty and ashamed:

"'You are too good.'"

And so indeed Mrs Dashwood has been, and in so doing endangered her daughter's peace. The silence of Mrs Dashwood and her look at Elinor shows that at long last mistrust has arisen at this "strange" behavior-- why is he guilty, ashamed, abasing himself, cool too on the surface, or trying for coolness. Mrs Dashwood then issues an invitation. Another parallel to the Edward-Elinor story is that she also issues an invitation to Edward before the family leaves Norland and he too is embarrassed, but not cold, not refusing, which is a significant difference: Edward is just diffident; Willoughby lets them know, or tries to, he won't be coming back any time soon and cannot guarantee any date:

"'My engagements at present,' replied Willoughby confusedly, 'are of such a nature--that--I dare not flatter myself'--

He stopt. Mrs Dashwood was too much astonished to speak, and another pause succeeded. This was broken by Willoughby, who said with a faint smile, 'It is folly to linger in this manner. I will not torment myself any longer by remaining among friends whose society it is impossible fo rme now to enjoy'" (Penguin 67).

Here is no practiced Lovelace (from Richardson's Clarissa). The faint smile is a way of deliberately leaving us in ambiguity. Is it the practiced smile of the man who knows he's off and soothes the deluded lady and is slightly, will he nill he, laughing at the innocent's astonishment? Could be. But I see it as an involuntary grimace of the muscles from a desire to soften the blow both to himself and to the Dashwoods. He does seem tormented, and we may say altogether too sorry for himself, but so it is with human nature.

An interesting facet of Austen's art is that at the moment one interpretation leads us to see Willoughby at his worse, as we read another leads us to see him at his best. Nothing became him like the leaving of the Dashwoods.

As to Margaret, she's a vestige from another book, brought in here to end the conversation. As a child, she registered the various signs of the assumed engagement without giving them the weight we are expected to.

Ellen Moody

Subject: [Janeites] S&S, Chs 14-15: The Engagement & Enigmatic Willoughby

July 17, 1999

Mrs Dashwood believes Marianne is engaged -- or wants to believe it. Elinor simply is anxious to see it confirmed.

Playing devil's advocate with Austen's texts is the way we get to see what is in them. To see Willoughby as simply a sneak, or shallow, or heartless is to miss the depth of the fiction. It is to turn the book into a third grade didactic tract. Of course many books are, and I agree Jane West's A Gossip's Story works this way.

Both sisters, Elinor and Marianne, credit Willoughby with a depth of feeling he didn't understand and then violated. I don't know how this can be missed in several chapters towards the end of the book (not just Willoughby's long admittedly self-serving but equally passionate story, but Elinor and Marianne Imlac-like conversations). Of course against him, we have Marianne who refused to violate her depths of feeling and imagination. We also have Edward who is driven to violate his by the twisted perverted values of his mother and by his sense of honour to Lucy (to whom I note he had been engaged and therefore we are to assume had a level of intimacy perhaps stronger than that of Willoughby and Marianne as he visits Lucy as her fiance). The irony there is that Lucy's betrayal of him and her lack of any true passion for anyone but herself saves him -- and Elinor too.

Ellen Moody

Sender: Jane Austen List
From: Elvira Casal
Subject: Mrs. Dashwood

Juliet A. Youngren asks why I said that Mrs. Dashwood should have discouraged Elinor's relationship with Edward rather than encouraged it. The reason is that Edward had no means of supporting a wife. Once Fanny makes it clear to Mrs. Dashwood that Mrs. Ferrars would oppose the marriage, Mrs. Dashwood should have worried about the future of the couple. Instead, it becomes a matter of pride for her to encourage the relationship so as to show Fanny that she (Mrs. Dashwood) does not care about Mrs. Ferrars' disapproval.

Relevant quotations:

"Some mothers might have encouraged the intimacy from motives of interest, for Edward Ferrars was the eldest son of a man who had died very rich; and some might have repressed it from motives of prudence, for, except for a trifling sum, the whole of his fortune depended on the will of his mother. But Mrs. Dashwood was alike uninfluenced by either consideration. It was enough for her that he appeared to be amiable, that he loved her daughter.... It was contrary to every doctrine of hers that difference of fortune should keep any couple asunder..." (Vol. I. Chap. 3; p. 15 in Chapman ed.).

"Fanny took the first opportunity of... talking so expressively of her brother's great expectations, of Mrs. Ferrars's resolution that both her sons should marry well, and of the danger attending any young woman who attempted to _draw him in_; that Mrs. Dashwood could neither pretend to be unconscious, nor endeavor to be calm..." (I,4;23).

"... her late conversation with her daughter-in-law... had not produced the smallest effect on her in that point to which it principally tended. To separate Edward and Elinor was as far from being her object as ever..." (I,5;25).

When Edward arrives at Barton, "Mrs. Dashwood was surprised only for a moment... his coming to Barton was, in her opinon, of all things the most natural.... He received the kindest welcome from her" (I,17;90).

(Mrs. D. speaking to Edward) "Your mother will secure to you, in time, that independenced you are so anxious for; it is her duty, and it will, it must ere long become hier happiness to prevent your whole youth from being wasted in discontent," (I, 19; 103).


The problem with Mrs. Dashwood is that she lacks worldly prudence. She is an older version of Marianne, a woman who believes that feelings are so important that everything else will (or should) fall into place.

I did not mean to suggest, however, that Mrs. Dashwood was a bad parent. I was just mentioning that her advice is not reliable. Her view of the world is sentimental rather than realistic. Her failure to set limits on Marianne's relationship with Willoughby leads to Marianne's near death. Her failure to look at Elinor's relationship with Edward prudently forces Elinor to shoulder all the responsibility for being prudent even though she is in love.

In a way, Mrs. Dashwood's mistake is the opposite of Lady Russell's. Mrs. Dashwood counsels no prudence. Lady Russell counsels too much. In the end, both approaches can hurt.

Elvira Casal

In response to Elvira:

Mrs Dashwood's Romanticism & Lady Russell Revelling in Angry Pleasure

I'd like to agee with Elvira that Austen presents Mrs Dashwood as a romantic, a kind of older Marianne, and say that I find it revealing that at the end of the novel Austen suggests that Mrs Dashwood's encouragement of Colonel Brandon's proposal is not the result of a considered judgement of Colonel Brandon's behavior over the course of the novel, his years of proven worth and trust as witnessed and testified to by Mrs Jennings and the Middletons, but rather is a deeply romantic impulse in which she is, again, and as she was by Willoughby, simply drawn to the man impulsively because he seems so much in love with her daughter, is in love with her himself, is romantic, and has money.

This is brought out carefully in the conversation between Elinor and Mrs Dashwood in which Mrs D reveals to Elinor that, as Mrs Dashwood puts it, "My Elinor, you do not yet know all my happiness. Colonel Brandon loes Marianne. He has told me so himself." When Elinor evinces no surprize, Mrs Dashwood is irritated and says,

"You are never like me, dear Elinor, or I should wonder at your composure now. Had I sat down to wish for any possible good to my family, I should have fixed on Colonel Brandon's marring one of youj as the object most desirable."

The narrator tells us Elinor did not appear surprized because she had know of this love all along, and then remarks in Elinor's vein, tartly,

"Elinor was half inclined to ask her reason for thinking so, because satisfied that none founded on an impartial consideration of their age, characters, or feling could be given;--but her mother must always be carried away by her imagination on any interesting subject..."

As the conversation proceeds it appears that Mrs Dashwood has been deeply moved by Brandon's behavior in the carrriage, and Elinor perceives (and so we are supposed to too) that Mrs Dashwood is "embellishing" what was said with her own "active fancy." Mrs Dashwood attributes to Colonel Brandon the same distress she Mrs Dashwood was feeling; Mrs Dashwood asserts Brandon "has loved her, my Elinor, ever since the first moment of seeing her." This is not so. He was deeply drawn to her, attracted, but in the early sequence of the novel we find him if quickly nonetheless gradually falling in love after he discovers Marianne's gifts, her romantic ideals, her illusions too (which remind him of Eliza).

What Austen draws our attention to here is that Mrs Dashwood is taken by Colonel Brandon's behavior at that moment, and is not judging him over a period of time. Mrs Dashwood speaks of this one act of kindness; Elinor replies one swallow does not a summer make. We may add Willoughby was capable of single acts of kindness, but over the long haul he was not at all. Thus the dialogue runs:

"Such a noble mind!--such openness, such sincerity!--no one can be deceived in _him_.'

'Colonel Brandon's characters,' said Elinor, ' as an excellent man, is well established.

'I know it is,'--replied her mother seriously, or after such a warning [her encouragement of Willoughby and its result], I should be the last to encourtager such affection, or even to be pleased by it. But his coming for me as he did, with such active, such ready friendship, is enough to prove him one of the worthiest of men.'

'His character, however,' answered Elinor, 'does not rest on one act of kindness, to which his affection for Marianne, were humanity out of the case, would have prompted him. to Mrs Jennings, to the Middletons, he has been long and intimately known... (Chapman III:9:336-7).

Elinor goes on to travel over the whole of her knowledge of Brandon too. The sense here and again a bit later where again Mrs Dashwood overrates the compatibility of Colonel Brandon and Marianne, rushes on to fervently assert Marianne could not now care for Willoughby forsooth because he is such a "libertine" and think what he did "inure the pieaceof the dearest of our friends [Brandon], and to again talk of Brandon's romantic love for her daughter--and the money (the narrator brings up how the money and estate are in Mrs Dashwood's mind) is that Mrs Dashwood is still a bad judge. She is not looking to the man's character over the long haul. The mistake Marianne made at the beginning to think she could know a man after a few weeks, her mother is still capable of making. Austen thinks happiness and peace and joy in marriage can only come from the character of the man.

Thus I see a pessmistic moral here in part. Not only does Marianne find it hard and even impossible to change herself beyond controlling her impulses, so the mother has not changed, and as far as Mrs Dashwood's intervention occurs, that Marianne gets a good husband for Marianne is a matter of luck, of chance. Elinor is there, but as we have seen Elinor is ineffectual when her mother and sister have made up their minds to believe in someone or something.

The emphasis in the book on character as the source of happiness in marriage and not romantic sensibility or money in and of itself makes me demure at Elvira's idea that Austen means us to criticize Mrs Dashwood's encouragement of Elinor and Edward's attachment. Austen is also idealistic in this book; she deeply sympathizes with some of Mrs Dashwood's impulses and Mrs Dashwood's staying at Norland, and her invitation to Edward to come, and then her kindness to him are all good facets of her character. There has been nothing wrong between these two. There is nothing hidden. They are not about to elope with nothing.

This is not so in the Willoughby relationship. There Mrs Dashwood sees enough herself to imagine there is a clandestine engagement. In fact she imagines a correspondence going on between them which is hidden from Elinor and herself because Marianne will not allow Sir John to carry the letters. How these letters are magically to be carried from Willoughby to Marianne Mrs Dashwood does not say, but she countenances secrecy and tells Elinor not to interfere. The irony then folds back on her: Willoughby had other real secrets she didn't know.

This is a novel whose story indicts the inhumane unjust money basis of society. It is against (to use Patricia Meyer Spacks's words) "the overriding importance of money" as a determining factor in deciding how to live one's life.

But beyond this demur, I agree that Mrs Dashwood may be regarded as functioning like Lady Russell. In very different books, whose emphasis is different, whose moods are dissimilar, both women give highly unreliable advice and when this advice is allowed to rule the day, the heroine end up wretched, miserable, blighted. Mrs Dashwood's advice in urging Marianne to marry Brandon at the end is as unreliable as ever since she is not urging Marianne to act on well-considered finely understood principles or motives, so too Lady Russell is highly unreliable when she urges Anne to marry Mr Elliot so that, among other things, she can replace her mother. An interesting aspect of Lady Russell's character came out in this week's three chapters; we are told that when she is told Captain Wentworth is in love with Louisa,

"internally her heart revelled in angry pleasure, in pleased contempt, that the man who at twenty-three had seemed to understand somewhat of the value of an Anne Elliot, should, eight years afterwards, be charmed by a Louisa Musgrove" (Chapman II:1, 125).

What intense bitterness, desire for revenge (since it has not turned out favorably for Anne), and spite (the pleased contempt) is revealed here. Lady Russell is a complex and as conceived a powerful character. We ought to have had more of her.

Ellen Moody

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