Sense and Sensibility: Volume II, Chapters 1 - 3 (37 - 39)

To Janeites

September 27, 1999

Re: S&S, 3:1 (37), Behavior Doesn't Change; Brandon's Spenserian Poetry

This is an important chapter. I have just finished 3 sessions of 3 hours each of talk with students about Radcliffe's Romance of the Forest, S&S, and the 1995 Miramax film S&S. More than one student mentioned Elinor's sudden anguished revelation of all she had to bear both in the film and the novel as the most important moment in the work.

As I suggested what we have in this chapter are the remnants of two first person narratives as letters originally given Mrs Jennings and John Dashwood after which we get a deeply felt scene between Elinor and Marianne derived from the diary-journal of Elinor.

The ironies in each of the first person narratives is worth noting. Mrs Jennings does not change character from the first part of the novel until now; she was seen from the outside during much of Vol I; now we move into her consciousness and find her to be good-natured and humane, decent, as well as pragmatic. John Dashwood comes across very badly: he is sublimely ignorant of just how awful he is. How do you reach such a person

Here we also have the height of the book, the climax. Note the love plot is thrown to the margins, and the relationship between the sisters made the center. Elinor does't confide her love to Edward in front of us, but to Marianne as Marianne confided hers to Elinor over Willoughby's letters. The moral is of coursse that Marianne sees how she has wronged her sister," and at long last Elinor gives vent to her anguish and resentment in a series of penetrating distinctions:

M: ....And yet you loved him.
E: Yes. But I did not love only him...

Marianne's pained self-reproaches are part of her education. This book is about the education of sensiblity or Marianne (it's a complex word and she's a complex character). Marianne is duly subdued, makes a series of promises, and keeps them, the evidence for which is her three times being heard to say "Yes, ma'am" in answer to Mrs Jennings's gibberish. And also to move from chair to chair which is funny.

I'd like to suggest though there's a serious joke here. Yes Marianne keeps her promise, is polite in company, does not betray her loathing of Lucy or sense of estrangement from Edward. Yes the air is cleared and the two girls can once again draw close as loving confidants. But does the lesson go beyond this? We are always talking about how this or that character changes in Austen. Do they? In any essential way? I suggest Austen does not think people finally can change radically; they can alter and control their behavior up to the limited comic point of 3 "yes ma'ams" in this sequence.

For listen to the second paragraph of Chapter 38:

She [Marianne] felt all the force of that comparison [of her behavior to Elinor's]; but not as her sister had hoped, to urge her to exertion now; she felt it with all the pain of continual self-reproach, regretted most bitterly that she had never exerted herself before; but it brought only the torture of penitence, without the hope of amendment. Her mind was so much weakened that she still fancied present exertion impossible, and therefore it only dispirited her more (Penguin 228).

The last sentence leaves us with yet another criticism of Marianne but I don't think we are meant to take this as a harsh criticism in the way of the earlier parts of the book. Yes she is fancying she cannot exert herself, but being Marianne that is what she would do, and she is very weak here. Rather the paragraph taken as a whole reminds us that reasoning with ourselves does not necessarily help people at all; sometimes it hurts them more. Some people can take self-reproach only so far. They dismiss from their minds all they have done wrongly to others, and vow to carry on to do better or tell themselves they will act differently or try harder not to act in quite the same way. Others feel the pains of self-reproach so strongly --- and it is part of the beauty of Marianne's character that she does --that moral lessons hurt her.

So Austen shows us the limits of moral lessons.. In the last chapters of the books, after Marianne has her near-death encounter, it's presented comically -- she vows to exert herself in a kind of regime that's foolishly overdone once again. We cannot be but what we are. Elinor is disappointed that Marianne doesn't change, but it's hubris to think you can re-form people.

My view is that Austen's heroines don't change essentially. They are brought to see themselves better, to see more, and to act upon that knowledge, but change, not very much. They had a false impression, made a bad decision, will do better next time -- they hope.

I suppose everyone can think of analogies in their own lives in which we have tried to teach someone something which did us good or which we tell ourselves will help this poor benighted other person, and it had totally unexpected and sometimes not so pleasant results. It boomeranged. So maybe Marianne will not make her and Elinor's position _vis-a-vis_ others worse, she will not provoke humiliation in public, but from within she preys on herself only the more. Thus we are readied for the self-destructive sequences at Combe Magna.

I have also come to understand the choice of the lines from theFaerie Queene that very perfect and gentle knight, Brandon, read to Marianne at the close of the picture:

What though the sea with waves continuall
Doe eate the earth, it is no more at all...

Nor is the earth the lesse or loseth aught,
For whatsoever from one place doth fall,
Is with the tide unto another brought...

For there is nothing lost, but may be found, if sought...

So put into prose one might paraphase the idea as: if we are eaten up by the storm of life, if much is permanently taken, something else replaces it, and if one can hold on just a bit to that, if we can take what is left, and make that a new key to strength... we can survive. This is not a moral lesson. It is simply experience understood and lived with.

The scene in the film where Harriet Walters (as Fanny) boxed Lucy's ears and behaved like mechanical doll was awful, inadequate to the moment. I have also watched the earlier BBC S&S though only once and think it did a much better job at conveying the sense of the scene and tonal effect Austen wanted.

Ellen Moody

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Page Last Update 15 February 2003