Sense and Sensibility: Volume I, Chapters 16 - 18

Re: S&S: Chs 16-19: Melancholy Edward

One of the many things I liked about Ang Lee's movie of S&S was how from the opening of the film, the character of Edward emerged as a mixture of sweet eagerness, tact, sensitivity, and intensity with a curious awkwardness; he just can't find the words he's looking for. Now in the movie Edward's inability to articulate his love for Elinor seems until the appearance of Lucy wholly the result of his shyness; so too in the book until we meet Lucy we must fall back upon shyness as the explanation--as well as the second cause that in the book Elinor adduces, Edward's family's intense disapproval of his marrying a woman with a tiny income, few connections, no prestige like herself. What's different about the book from the movie however is that in the book the narrator is constantly planting little clues which suggest Elinor's interpretation of shyness and want of independent means as sufficient cause for Edward's curious reserve is not by any means the whole truth. People have pointed out how strongly Edward's embarrassment at Marianne's accusation of his reserve is emphasized in scene in which it occurs; and how it is at variance with his character; why should he care about being called reserved? Well, it seems the narrator is, like a Sherlock Holmes who underlines clues before explaining them, pointing to something unexplained, here Edward's guilt. Another of several passages in which the narrator herself suggests there's something else going on here comes at the end of the visit:

"Elinor placed all that was astonishing in this way of acting to his mother's account; and it was happy for her that he had a mother whose character was so imperfectly known to her, as to be the general excuse for every thing strange on the part of her son" (Penguin 88),

for, it is implied quietly, had she known the real truth it would not have been happy for her. The narrator then goes on to emphasize the contrast between Elinor's willingness to

"regard [Edward's] actions with all the candid allowances and generous qualifications, whcih had been rather more painfully extorted from her, for Willoughby's service by her mother. HIs want o fsprits, of openness, and of consistency, were ost usually attributed to his want of independence, and his better knowledge of Mrs Ferrars's disposition and designs. The shortness of his visit, the steadiness of his purpose in leaving them, originated in the same unfettered inclination, the same inevitable necessity of temporizing with hs mother. The old, well established grievance of duty against will, parent against child, was the cause of all" (Penguin 88).

In this paragraph Austen is at pains to show that these are Elinor's thoughts, to differentiate the her own voice as omniscient narrator from Elinor's. One of the most interesting facets of reading this novel thus slowly for me has been to see how again and again Austen is caught in a double bind because of the changeover from the original epistolary to his omniscient narrative. In epistolary novels part of the "fun" is the reread; to read first not seeing all, dwelling in the moment with future not at all known, and seeing all the points of view, and then returning to reread and compare. That is what the art of the epistolary narrative gives that the omniscient narrative does not. So originally we were to come back and discover the real truth having got to the end; now Austen wants to make us see it as we go, or suspect it; the reread which is implicit in the epistolary form is still however required to get the full drift of this second S&S . It is interesting to note here that according to Isobel Armstong Elinor and Marianne is said to have undergone not one but two full revisions.

The scenes with Edward then have two strains as we now have them: the overt meaning Elinor sees, and the hidden meaning the narrator hints at. The dialogue over Edward's reserve has already been pointed to; another interesting point is when Marianne makes a point of the lock of hair in the ring on Edward's finger. I'd like to call attention in this scene to where the sentence about Elinor's conclusion is undercut by the narrator's comparing her "read" of whose hair it is with Marianne's; the narrator expects us to remember that Marianne characteristically misreads in accordance with her desires:

"He coloured very deeply, and giving a momentary galnce at Elinor, replied, 'Yes; it is my sister's hair. The setting always casts a different shade on it you know.;

Elinor had met his eye, and looked conscious likewise. Taht the air was her own, she instantaneously felt as well satisfied as Marianne; the only difference in their conclusions was, that what Marianne considered a free gift from her sister, Elinor was conscious must have been procured by some theft or contrivance unknown to hersell. She was not in a humour, however, to regard it as an affront" (Penguin 86).

No indeed. She flatters herself he couldn't resist (we remember like Willoughby) some relict of her, and stares at it on the sly to satisfy her wounded feelings further. I have always thought either Edward like the awkward man he is forgot to take the ring off, or could not reconcile it to his conscience either to Lucy to take it off, yet could not deny himself the indulgence of Elinor's nearness. What he hated to do was lie, and here he's driven to, for can he confess he's walking around with some female's hair to which he's not by blood related. It would be tantamount to confessing an engagement. He becomes very embarrassed and sinks back into the gravity and melancholy with which he first arrived. Later on a reread we realize all the thoughts he must have had at this moment included how much he dislikes Lucy and himself. I find myself very sympathetic with his dislike of himself which I think is real, and presented as anything but insincere (Willoughby never shows anything like this kind of self-despising); the "voluntary" behavior is everywhere: he, like Marianne "sinks" in "an absence of mind," he can't lift his spirits for the rest of the morning; at the close of his visit this strong self-condemnation comes out poignantly:

"'[My sons] will be brought up, said he, in a serious accent, 'to be as unlke myself as is possible. In feeling, in action, in condition, in every thing.'" (Penguin 90).

Edward is not just melancholy because he's leaving the Dashwoods, as Mrs D says ("this is all an effusion of immediate want of spirits"); he is a melancholy sort because he sees what he would like to be, and knows he cannot. He must also live with what his relatives admire, the world's ways, which he despises. He of course also feels sorry for himself, is wallowing ("I think ... that I may defy many months to produce any good to me"), but this is all part of a very real and basically sympathy deeply analytic portrait of the primary hero, and the movie doesn't come near it because its means are not sufficently grounded in words.

The scenes of course also pick up on other themes of interest to the books, as in what is a competence to Marianne is wealth to Elinor, which seems to relate to the different perspectives the two girls have (Marianne all idealism, Elinor all disillusion and diminished expectation), but which in Edward's possibly most spirited and sweet moment in the book is shown to be the result of Marianne defining "competence" as that which will support Willoughby. They also mock somewhat gently the upper and middle class fashion at the time for pretending to deep love for picturesque scenes which was part of the increasing favor public discourse gave emotionalism in life.

Again Isobel Armstrong (whose book I have been reading) finds many parallels between S&S and the Mackenzie's Man of Feeling, the former being a kind of parody of the latter; I don't really think she makes a strong enough case for this particular novel, but rather the kind of novel that the Man of Feeling belonged to, of which there were many many between 1780 and 1800. Austen though has Marianne distinguish between the cant which most people mouth when any fashion is in progress and the new real feeling some may been experiencing ("It is very true.. that admiration of landscape scenery is become a mere jargon. Every body pretends to feel"); in so doing Austen leaves us to imagine that both Edward and Marianne are sincere, with Elinor standing in as chorus, laughing at Marianne's occasional absurdity, defending her man against the new conventions.

I find this set of scenes fully satisfying as art; the book has really taken off now; it begins to have the same proportion of dramatic to omniscient narrative as we find in P&P and the same multidimensional and deeply intelligent texture. The Palmers are brought in with real panache. Yet as I hope I have shown the remnants of original epistolary narrative are still making problems for the writer too.

Ellen Moody

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Page Last Update 15 February 2003