June 3, 1996
Re: S&S: Chs 16 - 17: Sympathy for Marianne--and Elinor
I read Chs 16 into 17 much in the way Luisa does except I see in it not so much a criticism of Elinor equal the criticism the narrator has implied of Marianne, as the creation of sympathy for Marianne, and a strong validation for some of Marianne's perspective. Elinor's perspective is at long last found wanting in a number of ways, and it's interesting that the way Austen does it is to introduce Edward and present him--finally--at length in dramatic dialogue in all the ambivalence of his erring but well-meaning humanity; but like Elinor when we criticize Edward and find in him real parallels to Willoughby that does not make Edward into the insincere exploitative Willoughby, at least as he was when he first met Marianne and is again in London. Nowhere does Edward abuse Elinor to the extent Willoughby did Marianne; Edward hurts Elinor because he wants not to fool her; and it's not the physical sex that counts so much-except apparently with us--why do people want to see nothing at all happening between Marianne and Willoughby is a puzzle (Joan makes a good comment when she says there's precious little difference between the education of a Lydia Bennet and a Marianne Dashwood; both are of the same class; we might add that the difference is Mrs B taught Lydia not to sell cheap when she could sell dear; and Mrs D filled Marianne's head with romance, and Marianne as Joan says was deeply impressionable, far more than the "perfectly unconcerned" Lydia). I don't think anything beyond hugging and kissing and holding hands which was what engaged couples did in 1790's went on; but it did go on between M and W (not I agree between Edward and Elinor--the film in its lovely pictures of them walking happily side by side caught their nearness yet farness). It's what the physical and letting the other person know you love them means, giving yourself to them as the phrase at the time had, what this embodies, symbolizes, means to the spirit.
But allow me to write a separate posting on Edward, and here dwell just on a couple of the instances I find in which Austen is busy to show us that between the "debate" so-to-speak between two views on how to cope with life, Marianne's versus Elinor's, at long last Marianne has a good deal to say for herself. Luisa has already covered a few. I'll just try to bring in the context which directs us to see Austen means us no longer to reject, but to begin to identify and see Marianne's point of view too.
First her suffering. She really does suffer. It may be she makes it worse, but the sense is she cannot help it. It's not like the apostrophe to Dear Norland Park, as in the end of the opening somewhat ironic paragraph of Chapter 16:
"She was awake the whole night, and she wept the greatest part of it. She got up with an head-ache, was unable to talk, and unwilling to take any nourishment; giving pain every moment ot her mother and sisters, and forbidding all attempt at consolation from either. Her sensibilty was potent enough!" (Penguin 73)
The narrator is critical of the selfishness but I see her also a straightforward serious presentation of intensely disturbed disquieted behavior.
Again when Marianne at first believes the rider is Willoughby, it is presented simply and we get the feeling he has led Marianne to believe, as Luisa so sharply put it, he will not keep to his annual schedule any longer:
"'Months!' cried Marianne, with strong surprise, 'No--nor many weeks.''" (Penguin 75).
I find a moment of intense identification on the part of the narrator with Marianne during the light yet significant dialogue over the leaves; to Elinor's wry and slightly biting
"'It is not every one,' said Elinor, 'who has your passion for dead leaves,'
'No; my feelings are not often shared, not often understood. But sometimes they are.'--As she said this, she sunk into a reverie for a few moments;--but rousing herself again... "(Penguin 77).
It is the sincerity of her losing herself here that I'm trying to call attention to. This is not phony indulgence. She is in the grip of her inner self & it is in this context that Elinor becomes the one who cannot see, who ignores, and it is in this context that we get their dialogue on the Middletons, and we side absolutely with Marianne who is wrong to say they cannot be more "'unfortunately situated'"--here she lacks imagination--they could be in a much worse cottage for much more money with no-one sending baskets of fruit and meat, in London somewhere (like the hovering Eliza, this on the second read round), but she is right when she answers Elinor's
"'Have you forgot, Marianne, how many pleasant days we have owed to them?'
Marianne in fact owes the boating parties and many of her moments with Willoughby to Sir John Middleton, but there's also
'No,' said Marianne in a low voice, ' or how many painful moments."
And then we get the unfair response by Elinor:
"Elinor took no notice of this..." (Penguin 77).
In these chapters there are a number of places where we see the narrator, exclusive of the presentation of Edward, validating Marianne for the first time, sympathizing with her real emotions, bringing to bear on the reader Elinor's views in ways that we judge as unreal, insincere, and false, worse than that useless; they would be better off not to visit the Middletons so much, and no-one more than Elinor; Elinor after all it is who was so pained by all the jokes over "F;" and let us recall what she will experience (and we'll read next week or the week after) particularly when Lucy comes to call. No Elinor will find there is little safety in secrecy and her private space is not secure, but to be invaded in spite of all her techniques of (to use the modern phrase) coping.
Elinor is not wrong and we are still to sympathize with her, and many of the passages with Edward do so (she is so hurt by his "coldness," "reserve," "mortified extremely," only her mother's openness can bring him out, but even there is limited as to his feelings for Elinor which is what she cares about--Penguin 78-9)). I feel Luisa's comparison, which does not take into account whatever Wharton's Duchess's personality is, is unfair; I do not know anything about this Duchess, her nature, or her circumstances. The same behavior under two differenct sets of natures and circumstances is not to be judged by the same criteria. Ethics in Austen are minutely situational because they are so in life; in all her comments on her books she pays close attention to minutiae for good reasons.
Perhaps one can point to the similarity of Elinor with Fanny Price here or Anne Elliot there, but that will not do because all one is doing is saying well Austen admired Elinor's willingness to not only to tell polite lies (and they are important at time; we all tell polite lies all the time, and sometimes it's harder than other times, yet the right thing to do) but to find safety in fitting in. For this is how I see all the heroines. I see Elinor--and very much so in the scenes with Lucy--but also implictly at Norland when she endures the insufferable Fanny and is with her family kicked out, a family who always were fringe people in the house finally--as someone who from the beginning of the novel appears to have extremely diminished expectations, have come to a real disillusion before the novel even opens, to have the kind of desperate integrity of the powerless, like a dog which keeps its space no-one else cares about fiercely its own. The surface control she exhibits is her way of getting through life. I know in this 20th century world all that gets official admiration is the hero who immolates himself in the fire, the man who destroys everything in order to recreate, the strong person, the man who becomes the leader, the president--but remember Edward's ideal of a modest private life of decent occupation with no desire for fame or the world's renown (thank God he doesn't buzz about Doing Something Envy-Inciting).
I have a strong sense here that in Elinor, his feminine alter-ego so to speak, we find represented another kind of courage, less celebrated in our world, but perhaps more important for most of us. It's called living, surviving, bearing it, and then bearing it, and then bearing it some more, as best you can in order to help others not get thrown out in the cold--remember the Dashwoods are dependent upon the Middletons letting them leave real cheap in that cottage, and they could eject them anytime. It takes terrific energy for some; it strains Fanny almost to the breaking point; it makes Anne haggard; what's striking about Elinor is when she comes up for air, like Anne goes out for her walk with the sister who will not walk with her, who casts her aside too, like Elizabeth comes down out of her room after preparing a face to meet the faces she's to meet, she sits down and drinks the tea no-one else wants (yes a wonderful scene in the movie, perfect, perfect) with that arch in her back to say she's not defeated yet. Remember Emily Dickenson's Success is counted sweetest/ By those who ne'er succeed/To comprehend a nectar/Requires sorest need. A narrow definiton of success is what is usually meant by success, and it's rewarded with the trophies of the elite. A truer humane definition of success--which I think is Austen's in all her novels might lead to finding cheer and strength in Elinor's form of courage. Elinor has, to coin the old phrase, the courage simply to be. Let us not underestimate the difficulty. Marianne lacks the Elinor's kind of strength even to pull herself together. But I don't blame her, and in these chapters I suggest we are not supposed to blame her.
And if Willoughby's be not a villain to have seduced, impregnated, and abandoned a young woman, then to have lied about it, kept it a secret, hated the old woman who found out, to mock the girl's relative (but it's not clear Willoughby does not, it's left ambiguous), to have coolly selfishly led another girl to love you without guard, to have humiliated the innocent girl in public (after she "gave" herself to him in 1790 terms of implied engagement), to have then married coldly for money a woman one dislikes, despises, then on top it off with a duel with the girl's adopted father, if all this be not villany, as Dr Johnson would say, where is villany to be found? Willoughby is a villain even if he pales besides Lovelace and at moments has shows real remorse, and a sense of how guilty he has been. Edward's lapses are nothing to this.
Re: S&S: More in Defense of Elinor I am nothing if not persistent. Put it down to my reluctance to prepare my notes for teaching tomorrow night's class. Ellen the Avoider.
Well, Luisa writes:
Elinor "greatly disapproves of continual seclusion" for Marianne and is at some pains to bring her sister into more sociable surroundings (always she emphasizes the social over the individual!).
This might be answered in the common sense (and Elinor does in a way stand for sense) response to deep self-tormented grief that being taken out of yourself is good for you. It gives you perspective. It makes you see yourself in a larger framework. Activity cheers people up; conversation makes them take their minds off themselves.
Then she says:
Elinor rushes to "screen Marianne from peculiarity" (from whom, pray? It is only Edward!) when she mistakes Edward for Willoughby.
Here I would see Elinor as protecting Marianne from possible recurrences to what is bothering Marianne because peculiar behavior even in someone as shy & normally tactful as Edward might elicit a spontaneous question, "what's the matter?" Here it is hard for me to understand why it is hard for others to understand that someone (and this will be the cases of both Marianne and Elinor once Elinor finds out the lock of hair is Lucy's and Lucy & Edward have been officially engaged for years, though parted) can feel so humiliated, so mortified, so wounded, so betrayed (which words describe our double heroines' situations) as to have the least recurrence to this matter be deeply painful.
Americans especially profess to believe that bringing something out helps; but does it, and do we really think that? Often bringing something to the surface particularly in public makes it worse. That's why the supreme pain in the novel is the public humiliation of Marianne at the hands of Willoughby (Elaine is perfectly right to say Willoughby is not grossly evil but rather simply weak and selfish and--I would add-cold). I suggest that behind this assumption is a kind of hard heart or unfeeling habitution or complacency about one's self-worth which assumes such pain should not be respected and protected but rather can be gotten over--because they have gotten over it or never felt it in the first place.
Behind the idea we are not to be respected unless we are utterly honest about all our emotions I suggest is not the idea that the truth sets us free (who can really think this?), but a kind of implicit scorn for those who cannot get over it, and a turning of such scorn into the socially (which in our world means morally) acceptable non-admiration and non-acceptablity of what is then called a hypocrite. So Elinor becomes a hypocrite in her attempt to protect the depths by her control of the surface. Now her control of the surface itself is no road to happiness; but this novel shows us (to paraphrase the narrator at the opening of Chapter 2): "the sanguine expectation of happiness... is happiness itself."
Luisa says she admires Marianne for "sticking her foot in it" which I'll paraphrase as risk-taking. Yes she takes risks, and Elinor doesn't. But because Elinor doesn't does not mean her choice of tact and propriety should be read as hypocrisy or even cowardice--yesterday I tried to define Elinor's courage simply to be. I don't think Austen meant us to use one sister's perspective as necessarily right in order to reject the other sister's; rather they both require understanding.
To close this defense by explication of one way of viewing Elinor, there is a character in Trollope's He Knew He Was Right who reminds me of Elinor; Priscilla Stanbury too is poorer (much poorer than Elinor), lives in a cottage with mother and sister as the book opens, has access to those connections with bring acceptable males to ask for marriage either; she is too is presented as someone with a kind of desperate integrity which includes a desire not to marry at all (one of her important differences from Elinor Dashwood). Sometimes in her words I find Trollope making explicit some of the motives that lead to behavior and choices such as Elinor's and to my ears at least explain some of Austen's own self-erasing behavior in company. It's pretty bitter but here is a typical statement; her idea of what she has to do to get through life is:
"To go on and bear it till one was dead,--helping others to bear it, if such help be of avail,--that was her theory of life, To make it pleasant by eating, and drinking, and dancing, or even by falling in love, was, to her mind, a vain crunching of ashes between the teeth"
The other day too someone on Trollope-l quoted something this Priscilla lets drop which does strike me as relevant to Willoughby:
"One finds so few people that will do any duty that taxes their self-indulgence."
Austen always understates things, but if you think about a remark like the following about John Dashwood:
"He was not an ill-disposed man, unless to be rather cold hearted, and rather selfish, is to be ill-disposed" (Penguin 5)
you get a quiet sense of someone crunching ashes in her teeth. At least I do, for this is a portrait of Everyman; it describes Willoughby (among others in the book) to a T. It does not describe Elinor or Marianne or Edward or Brandon--or other of Austen's characters with which she deeply sympathizes.
Re: S&S: Marianne and Elinor As Sisters
Austen did not mean us to read the two young women only as sisters; they also represent a kind of dialectic, a debate on opposing and related perspectives on all sorts of subjects. They are also presented as sisters, and the portrait of them as sisters is consistent and persuasive if not something we can see typifies all or necessarily many sisters and siblings. They probably are rooted (as are Elizabeth and Jane Bennet) in Jane's close relationship to her older sister, Cassandra, though quite what the private parallels and contrasts are we will probably never really know.
My argument runs as follows: the epistolary narrative forces upon the writer many first-person narratives; in each the novelists becomes that person unless the letter is written as a caricature, which from the revised material we have, I would guess was definitely not the case. Thus Richardson, for example, much to his disamy, found that after many pages of Lovelace's views, readers sided with Lovelace. They saw the world as Lovelace saw it, and especially Clarissa. Richardson resorted to scolding us with footnotes (which can be read in the Everyman third edition). So when Austen would "personate" (to use Richardson's terms) Marianne we would see the world as she saw it. We would delve deeply into her imaginative grasp of things. Let us suppose we also had Margaret chiming in, echoing her; these could parody but they could also reinforce. Then Brandon's voice would be there, as also Willoughby's. The effect would have been a novel that was rightly titled _Elinor and Marianne_ not Elinor. In Austen's mind she might have wanted us ultimately to see the wisdom of Elinor's ways for a final happy outcome, but the dialectic would have been much more strongly brought out. Earlier this year someone on our list quoted a passage from one of Austen's letters in which Austen implied that she identified with Marianne.
And in response to Luisa's response to me today I'd like to correct a possibly mistaken impression I have been guilty of leaving, that is, that when I first read the book at age 13 and fell in love with it, although I admired Elinor, wanted to be just like Elinor, I also identified with Marianne, saw myself as Marianne; my favorite chapter in the book was in fact in the consecutively numbered Penguin, Chapter 23, and in the Oxford Chapman Volume II, Chapter 1, which I have set myself as a kind of exercise this time to try to see how it would have read if it were a letter by Elinor (that is thrown into the first person).