Sense and Sensibility: Volume I, Chapters 16 - 18

To Janeites

July 26, 1999

Re: S&S, Ch 17: Sympathy for Edward; Austen Shifting on Marianne

Aysin's commentary and summary made me remember Norman Douglas's wonderful novel, South Wind where the characters just sit around on their island off the coast of Naples and talk, talk, talk, and marvellous talk it is. I remember stretches in Virginia Woolf's Voyage Out where the characters indulge in intriguing debates on subjects not susceptible of resolution.

I read Austen's opening line on Mrs Dashwood as ironic: it is so common for people to be spontaneously surprised at something, and then deny that surprise to themselves lest their emotions tell them something they don't to bring to full consciousness: in the case in point that it was probable, given Edward's shy temperament and the aggressive ambition and punitive tactics of his family, that Edward would not come. In fact she is brought to admit this in debate with Marianne shortly after the family arrive at Barton Cottage. Marianne has just registered an 'alarm on the subject of illness'. She is 'sure Edward Ferrars is not well. We have now been here almost a fortnight, and yet he does not come. Nothing but real indisposition could occasion this extraordinary delay':

'"Had you any idea of his coming so soon?" said Mrs. Dashwood. "I had none. On the contrary, if I have felt any anxiety at all on the subject, it has been in recollecting that he sometimes showed a want of pleasure and readiness in accepting my invitation, when I talked of his coming to Barton"' (Oxford S&S, ed Chapman, I:8, 39).

The real irony of his coming -- and this tells us something of Austen's understanding of the serenpidity and interconnection of evil and good in our world -- is the reason he comes is he has been too near the Dashwoods to resist coming. We may imagine he had some previously settled appointment to visit Lucy -- perhaps the epistolary S&S told this through letters (visits and journeys lend themselves to epistolary treatment). Having seen her once more, having understood his mistake, longing therefore all the more to come to Elinor, he cannot just go home again. Anyway he has no home -- as he says he loathes the prospects his family have set before them, he is alienated from all around him. Armstrong says he is a character with a low-grade melancholia; Austen uses this as part of her critique of her society in this book. I too like Edward's wording when he responds to Mrs Dashwood's solicitude on his account:

"'... I have no wish to be distinguished; and have every reason to hope I never shall. Thank Heaven! I cannot be forced into genius and eloquence.'" (I:17, 90).

The conversations in this chapter and the next all grow out of the various themes of the book. Isobel Armstrong's book treats them perceptively and thoroughly.

What I find interesting is how they show a gradual change in the novel towards sympathy for Marianne. In this chapter the conversation still goes against her: 1800-2000 p.a. is an extraordinary income in this period: people considered themselves gentry when they had a minimum of around 250 p.a. You were on the edge: you could afford a servant; you didn't have to do anything to bring in more income unless you wanted to, and then it could be something in the genteel line (such as Mrs Smith in Persuasion''"But I thought it was right, Elinor," said Marianne, "to be guided wholly by the opinion of other people. I thought our judgments were given us merely to be subservient to those of neighbours. This has always been your doctrine, I am sure."

"No, Marianne, never. My doctrine has never aimed at the subjection of the understanding. All I have ever attempted to influence has been the behaviour. You must not confound my meaning. I am guilty, I confess, of having often wished you to treat our acquaintance in general with greater attention; but when have I advised you to adopt their sentiments or to conform to their judgment in serious matters?"' (I:17, 94)

Elinor appears to be more subtle. She is the better debater. (The above is fallacious because if you let someone control your conduct, your desires from your inner thoughts may not be fulfilled). She also seems far more aware of her own motives (she would not expose herself over the need to have horses the way Marianne does). She seems more perceptive, as when she distinguishes between what people might say of one another using large general categories as opposed to what the inner qualities of someone's mind is:

'"I have frequently detected myself in such kind of mistakes," said Elinor, "in a total misapprehension of character in some point or other: fancying people so much more gay or grave, or ingenious or stupid, than they really are, and I can hardly tell why, or in what the deception originated. Sometimes one is guided by what they say of themselves, and very frequently by what other people say of them, without giving one's self time to deliberate and judge."' (I:17, 93)

There is a charity in the above. She says I make these mistakes too.

Nonetheless, gradually in these chapters Marianne begins to be taken seriously; she is given something to say on behalf of her views, as when in the next chapter when they discuss the picturesque, she says that although many people may parrot and thus unconsciously parody feelings which belong to an aesthetic imagination that does not mean the perceptions of that imagination are wrong. This together with her genuine suffering over the loss of Willoughby begin to make her not a caricatured but a sympathetic portrayal of sensiblity, passion and idealism in a young girl. The notes leading up to this include Edward's reinforcement of Marianne's animation just thinking of what is beautiful in life. Here again I find Aysin and I are agreed on the good feeling in the following passage; this too is a favorite passage of mine, one of those which makes me like Edward and wonder what his letters were like (if he wrote any) in an earlier version of S&S (if it was epistolary):

"What magnificent orders would travel from this family to London," said Edward, "In such an event! What a happy day for booksellers, music-sellers, and print-shops! You, Miss Dashwood, would give a general commission for every new print of merit to be sent you--and as for Marianne, I know her greatness of soul, there would not be music enough in London to content her. And books!--Thomson, Cowper, Scott;-- she would buy them all over and over again: she would buy up every copy, I believe, to prevent their falling into unworthy hands; and she would have every book that tells her how to admire an old twisted tree. Should not you, Marianne? Forgive me, if I am very saucy. But I was willing to show you that I had not forgot our old disputes."

"I love to be reminded of the past, Edward--whether it be melancholy or gay, I love to recall it--and you will never offend me by talking of former times. You are very right in supposing how my money would be spent-- some of it, at least -- ... (I:17, 92-93)

[I don't count what I spend on books each year -- and my husband doesn't count what he spends on music.]

At the same time we are going gradually to see that Elinor's is susceptible to the same blindnesses as Marianne. Although we don't see this as yet, on our second reading we realise that Edward is behaving in ways analogous to those of Willoughby -- there is a similarity even if the motives and tone of mind and integrity of the characters are disparate: for example, Edward hurts Elinor in this chapter, is reserved, because he does not want to fool her; Willoughby hurt Marianne because originally at least he did want to fool her. Nevertheless, he is in a false position and knows it. Note too Elinor make excuses for Edward (as does Marianne for Willoughby).

If the note of the previous chapter was pain and confusion, the note of this one is softened by Edward's arch teasing, the good motives which justify his melancholy, and the playfulness of the talk. Perhaps Austen was aware she needed an antidote to the tone of the last

The novel is getting yet more interesting, yet more complicated in its ramifications. We have been forgetting that a central theme of the book -- according to Tony Tanner -- is secrecy & lies, that in a hard society like ours, people resort to secrecy & lies to protect themselves; that secrecy and those lies twist, distort, and make us ill (or 'sick' in Tanner's alliterative formulation). The secret engagement of Edward and Lucy, the supposed secret correspondence and hoped-for secret engagement of Willoughby and Marianne form part of this vein in the book.

Ellen Moody

July 26, 1999

Re: S&S, Ch 17: Sympathy for Edward; Austen Shifting on Marianne

The basic point of the passages is that Edward is not falsely ambitious; he is not mercenary, worldly, not interested in impressing the wealthy or powerful. Perhaps I should have quoted the whole passage. The rest reads:

'"how is your fame to be established? for famous you must be to satisfy your family; and with no inclination for expense, no affection for strangers, no profession, and no assurance, you may find it a difficult matter." "I shall not attempt it. I have no wish to be distinguished [then the piece Aysin and I quoted to which Mrs Dashwood replies] "You have no ambition. Your wishes are all moderate." "As moderate as those of the rest of the world, I believe. I wish as well as every body else to be perfectly happy; but like every body it must be in my own way. Greatness will not make me so"' (Oxford S&S, ed Chapman, I:17, 90-91).

There's an interesting self-irony or deprecation in Edward's closing line. Through it we hear how immoderate or difficult is merely this business of being "perfectly happy" in our own way. What his family wants is to mangle him in the image of someone riding around in a great barouche.

One might also think about how Henry Crawford shows Fanny how eloquent he could have been in the pulpit, and how Fanny regards that as much less important than what is in the heart and what a clergyman might do -- unheralded and not well paid -- for his parishioners.

There is an interesting question here. Consider how Mary Crawford insists on the contempt the worldly feel for men who chose to be mere clergymen. Austen's family had many males who chose this line partly because it was a position open to them as gentlemen without large incomes, but also partly because they had religious convictions. Late in life Henry Austen became evangelical. In this her first novel Austen uses the contempt Mrs Ferrars and Fanny Dashwood feel for clergyman to impugn worldliness as such; in MP she seems also to impugn a lack of religious feeling in the Crawfords.

Ellen Moody

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