Sense and Sensibility: Volume I, Chapters 1 - 3

From: Ellen Moody
Subject: S&S: The Meaning of the Words: Criss-crossing Complex words

The anonymous reviewer who wrote in November 1811 in the Critical Review presents Elinor has having great good sense and a proper quantity of sensibility, while Marianne has good sense but she lets her sense be overwhelmed by her immoderate sensibility. Marianne is associated with the word extravagance and by cherishing a bad experience (Willoughby) almost destroys herself; Elinor is said to have to subdue her sensibilty with great effort, very painful, especially since she is tender and patient with her sister.

The mother is said to be a woman of strong sensibilities; though meaning to be sensible, she fails her younger daughter badly.

We can observe that the word sensibility is used first in the novel of Colonel Brandon (also said to be a man with a thinking mind); then it is used of Edward. Several times Elinor comments (ironically) that Lucy is a person of good sense.

"Sense" and "sensibility" are highly complex words with long histories. Their meanings intersect. In the 18th century they took on charged associations, and when Austen uses them, she means us to set the novel in a tradition of novels where the chief heroine belongs to a "cult of sensibility," the most famous exponent of which was probably Rousseau's Heloise from his novel of sensiblity called La Nouvelle Heloise. There were novels with titles like The Man of Sensibility, and we are told that sensibility is one of Brandon's chief characteristics.

There is a chapter in William Empson's Complex Words called Sense and Sensibility" in which he traces the histories and uses of these two binary yet intersecting words. The opening of Isobel Armstrong's little Penguin book on S&S gives us three pages of meditation on the pair. To sum up the words is impossible, but one can point to the most salient characteristics of each. A person of sensibility could be called someone who is unusually sensitive to the emotions and thoughts of others; he or she is someone with a capacity for a deeply imaginative response to impressions. Such a person would like poetry, landscape, respond deeply to changes in the seasons, to the the arts and music, and is capable of great tact to others (though Marianne is too egoistic to be this way) and a discriminating response to a book. The opposite of sensibility is insensible, the person who is obtuse; Lydia Bennet is insensible in many ways. Sensibility also denotes strong feelings; it connotes a susceptibility to sexual engagement and enthrallment. Anne Elliot is a heroine of sensibility, so too Fanny Price. They are, however, and especially Anne, controlled by sense.

Sense covers the same territory as sensible (which is not the opposite of insensible which means obtuse or indifferent to the emotions of others, or hard). A sensible person is one who may have deep feelings (we are told Elinor has an affectionate heart), but who controls them through reason and judgement. Sense connects up to common sense. The person who exemplifies sense in their conduct draws back from the immediate situation and tries to perceive the truth of what's happening irrespective of any immediate emotional reaction to impressions. Thus Elinor stands back and asks questions about Willoughby which her mother (who is a sensibility figure) and sister do not. Sense is not opposed to sensibility; it controls it. The salient characteristic of sense is sound judgement; Johnson called it strength of natural reason. It also signifies moral perception not based on personal delusions.

Sense does not exclude sensibility. Elinor loves to draw; she is a passionate woman. But she can control her emotions even if it is a struggle for her. Both words should be distinguished from the intense sexual connotations of sensuousness, sensuality, sensationality, and sensitivity. But it is true that characters who are types of sensibility are often alive to sensuousness, sensuality, sensitivity and behave in sensational self-indulgent ways, while characters who are types of sense maintain a distance from sensuousness, sensuality, and sensitivity except in their dreams or the arts (as when Jane Fairfax or Marianne or Anne Elliot play music, or Fanny Price sits in the landscape or looks at pictures or reads). Thus heroines in Austen who also exemplify sense include Anne Elliot and Fanny Price (but not Jane Fairfax for she has been enthralled and is not using her judgement in an undeluded way); other heroines of sense are Elizabeth and Jane Bennet, Mary Crawford, and both Emmas (Watson and Woodhouse). Emma Woodhouse is a rare example of a heroine who seems to have very little sensibility.

For those reading S&S I cannot recommend a better book than Isobel Armstrong's Penguin volume called S&S. It is tiny, written clearly, but does not simplify at all. Nor is it tendentious or argumentative. It really brings forth the content of this novel; Elizabeth Jenkins chapter on the novel in her book is also very very good. She conveys its inner deep musing qualities. Finally Patricia Meyer Spacks and Margaret Anne Doody both have fine introductory essays on sex and power and sex and money (centrally important in this book) in paperback editions of the novel.

Ellen Moody

--- 'It is not every one,' said Elinor,
'who has your passion for dead leaves.'
---Jane Austen, S&S

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Page Last Update 31 January 2003