Sense and Sensibility: Volume I, Chapters 21 - 22

Re: S&S: Chs 21-22: Laughter, the rational response; emotional pain, the natural one

I have long seen Chapter 22 as pure emotional pain. The intensity and hurt come out of Elinor's need to repress her grief lest Lucy triumph. It's a scene of remarkable emotional cruelty. Elinor Dashwood is told her beloved Edwards has been engaged to and has loved Lucy Steele for more than four years -- by Lucy herself. Lucy then shows Elinor the male's ring and miniature and tells her the lock of hair Elinor saw in his ring was Lucy's lock of hair. In Austen the scene is puring writhing emotional pain, both from the shock and the humiliation. We see Lucy and the scene out of Elinor's eyes and through her mind.

You have to read slowly, see this chapter as the result of a long slow buildup of what has gone before and then trace the trajectory of Elinor's tormenter and Elinor's inability to get beyond the lies until you get to:

"I did," said Elinor, with a composure of voice, under which was concealed an emotion and distress beyond any thing she had ever felt before. She was mortified, shocked, confounded.

Paradoxically that gives Lucy more license to talk on. Elinor can't win.

To Austen-l

Re: S&S: Maybe she was amused: a response

Lucy writes:

Is there no one on the list willing to consider that sarcasm, satire, contempt and cynism are the *rational* response of an intelligent mind confronted by the "meanness, density, selfishness, and mercenary qualities which rule ... society" and which "are central to human nature...," a black view, indeed, of humanity? Laughter is the only reasonable response to absurdity, and what's more absurd than the mean, the dense, the selfish, the mercenary ruling all the earth? Call me a hopeless cynic, but I believe Austen laughed because she was amused, not pained.

I agree that sarcasm, satire, contempt and cynicism are rational responses, but they are not Austen's only responses. She also responds with what she would call the strong emotions of the amiable heart and sensibility too. There is more than a little of Austen in Marianne.

Pain does not preclude amusement, nor amusement pain. It is the peculiar conjunction of the two that makes for the curious atmosphere one feels as one listens to Mr Palmer sneer, deride, and ignore hs wife while she insists how charming, amiable, and respectful he is of everyone--except herself, she does not quite say he respects her.

I see the humor of S&S and Lady Susan as containing both. When we observe how Lady Susan knows precisely the way to leave her opponents writhing from within, we are amused but we are also aware of pain--which is in part why we laugh. Lady Susan's ability to twist the knife into Reginald for example by interpreting his behavior as mercenary and heartless, her utterly improbable gay insouciance is on the surface and for real all contempt, all satire, all cyncism, but it rests on awareness of how people, foolishly perhaps, long for the outstretched hand of sympathetic understanding and how the claim we are ugly in our behavior hurts and is yet unanswerable for we must not reveal our vulnerability to pain. She wins because she knows no-one else dares penetrate her hypocrisy, for fear of what she will say or do next. But she loses too: her prize is Sir James Martin, and whatever she may assert about it, Austen expects us to grasp Lady Susan's punishment is that she's her. Life is really more than a power struggle. What we miss in Lady Susan and find in the other books is a real understanding of emotional joy, and an intense longing for it.

Lucy Steele is a dry run for Lady Susan.

Ellen Moody

From: Elvira Casal
Subject: Satire, Comedy, Pain and Laughter
Lucy Balazek suggests that Austen's use of

sarcasm, satire, contempt and cynism are the *rational* response of an intelligent mind confronted by the "meanness, density, selfishness, and mercenary qualities which rule ... society" and which "are central to human nature...," a black view, indeed, of humanity? Laughter is the only reasonable response to absurdity, and what's more absurd than the mean, the dense, the selfish, the mercenary ruling all the earth?

I agree that satire is a "rational" response. Where I think Lucy and I disagree is in that she sees no pain behind Austen's use of satire. Lucy writes:

Call me a hopeless cynic, but I believe Austen laughed because she was amused, not pained.

I believe that Austen was amused because she had to push back the pain. She had to enjoy the absurdity because the alternative was to dwell on the pain.

Laughter is a defense. It releases tensions that can become dangerous to the social order. Ellen Moody suggested that Austen laughed so as not to weep. Maybe. Or maybe Austen laughed so as not to rage. Anger and impatience were not acceptable emotions in the Austen family. Laughter made it possible to acknowledge the discrepancy between what "ought to be" and "what is" without becoming angry, anti-social, unpleasant.

But the laughter of satire (as Ellen points out) is different from the laughter of comedy. The laughter of satire is harsher, less kindly. It is angry laughter. People in Austen's time and shortly afterwards recognized that the satirist is dangerous. One of the points that Austen-Leigh makes in his Memoir (over and over) is that Jane Austen never made fun of her neighbors or of the foibles of real people. (We know this is nonsense. Of course she did.)

The laughter of comedy is tolerant. It moves us from anger towards acceptance. As Austen matures (as a person and a writer) she subordinates the satiric to the comic. But there is always in Austen an awareness of the dark side of life, and this awareness is, I think, what makes her comedy so powerful.

Of course we should enjoy the "light and bright and sparkling" side of Austen. She put a lot of her energy into being amused. But I think we should not overlook that the source of all that amusement was pain. She took joy in life because she knew that life was not always joyful.

Towards the end of Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet writes to her Aunt Gardiner:

"I am the happiest creature in the world. Perhaps other people have said so before, but not one with such justice. I am happier even than Jane; she only smiles, I laugh" (III, 18; Chapman 382-3).

I always see this statement as symbolic of the way in which Elizabeth, who is far more conscious of how close they came to disaster, needs the release of laughter. Jane never really sees the darker side of life. Elizabeth, who does, laughs with relief when everything turns out all right in the end.

Jane Austen's outlook is optimistic and cheerful, but it is so by choice. Whereas the Jane Bennets of this world can only see the best in people, the Jane Austens have to recognize the dark side too. Austen does not weep and she does not rage. She doesn't smile either. She laughs and she invites us to laugh with her. Laughter is (as Lucy says) the only rational response.

Elvira Casal

To Austen-l

From: "Juliet A. Youngren"

Hardly have the Palmers left when Sir John finds someone else to invite to Barton: a couple of distant relatives named Steele. The chapter opens with a short account of how Sir John and Mrs. Jennings meet the girls in Exeter and invite them to stay. Sir John then goes home to break the good news to his wife, who is less than thrilled:

"Lady Middleton was thrown into no little alarm ... by hearing that she was very soon to receive a visit from two girls whom she had never seen in her life, and of whose elegance, whose tolerable gentility even, she could have no proof; for the assurances of her husband and mother on that subject went for nothing at all .... As it was impossible, however, now to prevent their coming, Lady Middleton resigned herself to the idea of it with all the philosophy of a well-bred woman, contenting herself with merely giving her husband a gentle reprimand on the subject five or six times a day."

The last sentence could almost have come from JA's Juvenilia. Also, I think I can faintly hear the echoes of a letter by Lady Middleton in this passage. I know it's unprovable, but I do stubbornly cling to liking the idea of S&S having started as an epistolary novel.

When the sisters arrive, however, Lady M. decides she likes them: they dress like fashion plates, they admire her house, and they dote on children--what more could she ask for? And in due course, Sir John comes to Barton Cottage to fetch the Dashwood family so they can meet the new arrivals: "Benevolent, philanthropic man! [says the narrator] It was painful to him even to keep a third cousin to himself."

Sir John describes the Steele sisters as "the sweetest girls in the world," which as Elinor knows, doesn't mean much coming from him. And, does this passage sound like anyone ese we know?

"Lucy is monstrous pretty and so good-humoured and agreeable! ... And they both long to see you of all things, for they have heard at Exeter that you are the most beautiful creatures in the world."

All I could think was "Isabella Thorpe!"

When the Dashwoods do meet the Steeles, they find a lot less to be enthusiastic about. There is a long paragraph summarizing how the Steeles fawn over the Middleton children, and how this endears them to Lady M., which again might be the remnant of a letter (probably written by Elinor).

The Middleton children do sound like perfect horrors. John Junior makes a mess of everything, capping off his mischief by tossing Nancy Steele's handkerchief out the window and then pinching her, while Lady M. looks fondly on. Then little Annamaria gets accidentally scratched with a pin and throws a screaming fit which is only prolonged when she realizes it's a good way to get sugarplums. (Side note: I actually had some sugarplums last Christmas. They are marvelous. No wonder the kid kept crying.)

Someone said recently that in S&S Austen is unusually hostile toward children. I had always thought this was more or less her general attitude, but now that I think about it I can't think of any other place where children come off quite this badly in her work. P&P has the Gardiner children, who seem all right. I can't remember any children at all in NA. The Watsons has a description of little Augusta Watson, who sounds a lot like Annamaria Middleton, but we never see her in person. MP has the Price children, but they're not as sharply drawn; even spoiled little Betsy isn't as bad as the Middleton kids. Maybe the young Bertrams' behavior toward Fanny approaches the awfulness of the Middleton kids, but they're all older, of course. The young Knightleys in Emma are actual pleasures. While the young Musgroves in Persuasion are pretty rowdy and I've always thought JA was extremely callous over little Charles' fall, she still doesn't unleash her full scorn on them.

Anyway, Lady Middleton carries Annamaria out to look for some apricot marmalade, leaving the Steele sisters and the Dashwood sisters alone together. Suffice it to say they do not quite "bond." Marianne hardly says a word, leaving Elinor to make conversation with the Steeles. Incidentally, it is here that the passage about "telling lies when politeness required it" comes, and the occasion is Lucy's enthusiastic "What a sweet woman Lady Middleton is!" Actually, in the quoted dialogue which follows, Elinor doesn't tell any real "lies" (her response to Lucy's comment isn't quoted), but rather manages to be diplomatic. Here's a sample:

'And Sir John too,' cried the elder sister, 'what a charming man he is!'

Here too Miss Dashwood's commendation, being only simple and just, came in without any eclat. She merely observed that he was perfectly good-humoured and friendly.

'And what a charming little family they have! I have never seen such fine children in my life. I declare I quite dote upon them already, and indeed I am always distractedly fond of children.' [More echoes of Isabella.]

'I should guess so,' said Elinor with a smile, 'from what I have witnessed this morning.'

'I have a notion,' said Lucy, 'you think the little Middleton's rather too much indulged; perhaps they may be the outside of enough; but it is so natural in Lady Middleton; and for my part, I love to see children full of life and spirits; I annot bear them if they are tame and quiet.

'I confess,' replied Elinor, 'that while I am at Barton Park, I never think of tame and quiet children with any abhorrence.'

It's moments like this which make me sorry that Emma Thompson cut Sir John's wife and family from the 1995 film adaptation of S&S.

The conversation then turns to Norland, of all things--how could the Steele sisters know about Norland? It's A Mystery for now. Nancy Steele only wants to talk about "beaux," and I must say I find that passage rather tiresome; perhaps it was funny when the word was new and trendy. In any case, this derails the Norland conversation for the moment ... but it will return.

The Steele sisters are a big hit at Barton Park even if they're not at Barton Cottage, and Sir John in his usual style shares all the family gossip with them--including the names of the Dashwood sisters' "beaux." The chapter closes on a final hint of things to come, as Nancy Steele lets drop that the sisters are acquainted with Edward Ferrars. In fact, she says, they know him "very well." Lucy covers up for her sister--"How can you say so, Anne?"--but Elinor has heard, and her curiosity is roused.

Juliet Youngren

Subject: [Janeites] S&S, Chapter 22: Lucy Drops a Bombshell

From: "Juliet A. Youngren"

Since Marianne wants nothing further to do with the Steele sisters, Elinor finds that she is their preferred companion. Lucy in particular seems to be seeking her out. Elinor doesn't mind Lucy "as a companion for half an hour," but after that her company becomes tiresome. The description of Lucy's intellect in this paragraph suggests that the main reason Elinor (and the narrator) feel such scorn for her is that she does nothing with what natural ability she has:

"Elinor saw and pitied her for the neglect of abilities which education might have rendered so respectable; but she saw, with less tenderness of feeling, the thorough want of delicacy, of rectitude, and integrity of mind, which her attentions, her assiduities, her flatteries at the park betrayed ..."

One day, as she is walking Elinor to the cottage, Lucy asks her a very odd question: does she know anything about Mrs. Ferrars, the mother of Fanny and Edward (and the as-yet- unseen Robert)? Elinor answers diplomatically; although evidently surprised, she doesn't give Lucy her cue by asking why she wants to know. Lucy repeats the question to give her another opportunity; still nothing. Lucy then steps it up by hinting that she may soon be "very intimately connected" with the Ferrars family. Elinor's first thought is of Robert (and "Oh goodness, I might have this woman for a sister-in-law"), but even then she only asks if Lucy *knows* Robert. It's really quite funny, in a horrible sort of way. So Lucy is reduced to simply blurting out the information that she and Edward are secretly engaged, and have been for four years

To drive the point home, Lucy produces a letter from Edward (which she just *happens* to be carrying, of course) and a miniature portrait of him. Elinor is in shock, but she struggles to appear unruffled.

Lucy swears Elinor to secrecy, and Elinor agrees--not without getting in a little dig of her own, however: "Your secret is safe with me, but pardon me if I express some suprise at so unnecessary a communication." The two now carry on a veiled catfight (there's no other word for it), Lucy harping on Edward's devotion, Elinor dryly avoiding indulging or agreeing with her. There's a wonderful deadpan comment from the narrator midway through: "Here [Lucy] took out her handkerchief, but Elinor did not feel very compassionate."

Shocking as the news is, it does provide the answer to some mysteries: Edward's strange hot-and-cold behavior, how the Steeles know about Norland, his ring with the lock of hair. About the last, I found myself reading between the lines of Lucy's story to what might *really* have happened:

"I gave him a lock of my hair set in a ring when he was at Longstaple last ..."

["Look, Edward dearest, I've had this ring made for you." "Oh ... thank you."]

"and that was some comfort to him, he said ..."

["Now you shall feel I am near to you whenever you look at it." "Indeed I shall."]

".. but not equal to a picture."

["I know you would far rather have a picture of me, but this will suffice until I have the opportunity to sit for a portrait, will it not?"

"Yes, certainly."

"Put it on! Oh, it looks vastly well. Promise me you will wear it and think of me."

"My dear, I can scarcely wear it at home without exciting some questions from my mother and sister."

"Very well, you must not wear it at home. But you can wear it when you go to see these friends of yours in Devonshire, can you not? Promise me you will wear it until you go home!" "... Very well, I promise."]

It wasn't quite the way Lucy described

Juliet Youngren

Re: S&S, Chs 21-22: More Comic Dry Wit

Juliet, I thought you really captured the flavor of Austen's more comic dry wit in your paraphrase and summary. The passages supposed to be said by Sir John to Elinor strike me as further instances of prose which would make slightly more sense were it in a letter -- say, of invitation to come to the Park tonight, to meet these two new women: 'You can't think how you will like them'. A good deal of Chapter 22 can be easily transposed from the 3rd to the 1st person (I've made the experiment) and the chapter begins to read like a letter in a Richardson or Burney epistolary narrative. Chapter 23 translates even more easily, even fact sounds more vivid ("She was stronger alone" turns into "I am stronger alone"; "Edward had done nothing to forfeit her esteem" turns into "Edward has done nothing to forfeit my esteem."). The intense poignancy of the close of Chapter 22 which is nonetheless sardonic now because of the distancing presence of the narrative is explained if we see it as originally conceived as 'Elinor in Continuation'.

I still (even after reading the book countless times) find Nancy Steele very funny. She runs off at the mouth like Miss Bates -- but without Miss Bates's ability to see what's in front of her -- judge it aright quietly. Nancy Steele is given a very long first person narrative description of the break-up of the Dashwood-Ferrars household and Edward's long vacillation before turning up to Lucy, and Lucy's attempt to hold onto him later in the book. I am convinced that is the letter text slipped into the book. There is something odd about the way Austen maneuvers the text so as to land the Steeles in the Dashwood house (through the use of the musical party) because they need to be there so Nancy can make the revelation. The musical party introduces us to Robert Ferrars, but it also exists functionally to invite the Steeles to stay with the Dashwoods. Meanwhile Marianne and Elinor are said to be ferried daily to the Middletons If we consider that it was Nancy who spilled the beans in the pivotal revelation of Edward and Lucy's engagement and that this is placed in a climactic place in the book, we see Nancy is or was originally conceived as an important character. She's a comic spy, a snoop. Think about how satiric the early presentation of Marianne is. My sense is the earliest version of E&M was, except for Elinor, strongly comic with a high use of irony: the letters would be written by characters who expose themselves to us (something like the letter novels in the Juvenilia), with Nancy Steele and Mrs Jennings, Sir John & John Dashwood as comic letter writers.

Yes it's undemonstable geologizing, but it does unearth some of the undercurrents of the book and brings out its oddities, blend of disparate elements, and structuring. I have never been persuaded by Q. D. Leavis's argument that MP was originally epistolary, but her essay in which she attempts to prove it sheds much light on the tone, characters, structure and texture of MP -- especially as it relates to the same in Lady Susan.

Laughter may be the only rational response, but it is not the most human response, and I am arguing that Austen's responses are not rational. They are the result of profound pain and in book intemittently disjunctive.

Cheers to all
Ellen Moody

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