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

July 23, 1996

To Austen-l

Re: S&S: Chs 39 - 43: Unexplained (Unnoticed) Peculiarities

I'd like to make a couple of comments on this very odd sequence of four chapters (counting in last week's No 39 to No 43) in that in them we have some of the most powerful passages in the book--which the movie made brilliant use of--and the most tedious.

First the tedious: what do others make of not so much Mrs Jennings's misunderstanding of Elinor and Brandon's conversation over Brandon's offer of a curacy for Edward in and of itself, as of the long drawn-out nature of it. It went nowhere in the sense of contributing anything to the plot as we now have it and the revelation was as unsuspenseful and unfunny as the lack of emotion roused in either the reader or Elinor or Mrs Jennings (or the wholly ignorant Brandon) by the misunderstanding. Such mistakes are supposed in comedy to lead somewhere; in pathetic stories to lead to heartache, futher disruptions and dislocation, or in comic ones, people asking the wrong people to dinner or to marry them, bringing on further comic and serious (in terms of the plot) consequences; at the very least someone should jump into bed with the wrong person. And what a lame comment our narrator ends with:

"The deception could not continue after this; and an explanation immediately took place, by which both gained considerable amusement for the moment, without any material loss of happiness to either..." (Penguin 246).

This is about as entertaining as Radcliffe in her worst moments of explaining it all to us or asking us to laugh at a servant's prolixity (the pot calling the kettle blakc here). The turn ends awkwardly, and is wooden throughout.

There is also a kind of unsureness in the presentation of Edward's last visit to Elinor. Talk about painful to both; he has come to see her one more time; the parallel here is with Willoughby's last meeting with Marianne. He does manage to hint his despair at not seeing her again for a very long time:

"I should have ben extremely sorry to leave London without seeing you and your sister; especially as it will most likely be some time--it is not probable that I should soon have the pleasure of meeting you again. I go to Oxford tomorrow" (Penguin 243-4).

Austen is piling it on Elinor; every instance brings a new turn of the screw; she had hoped at least to write Edward the offer; he shows up "to force her uon this greatest exertion of all." He too misunderstands--and yet it too remains undeveloped in the novel as we have it--and thinks Brandon gives him this job out of love for Elinor. He dreads going to Delaford as much as Elinor; she because she fears to see him married to Lucy; he because he fears to see her married to Brandon. Even as I tell it, it has a comic feel, and it seems at moments as if Austen was writing comedy for our delectation: "they sat down together in a most promising state of embarrassment" (Penguin 243). The joke is they can't speak the truth to one another because if they did then they'd have to act on it.

This is not funny; it's not a joke, and the whole thrust of the scene because of what has gone before and what will come afterwards, including both their comparative poverty, and the implicit comparison with Marianne's openness at least getting to say what she wants to, is meant to be partly dialectical and partly simply deeply emotional, that of both young lovers' aching silent misery at the coming permanent estrangement, and many of the lines and paragraphs of the scene convey complex serious drama. I'll quote just one interchange: Elinor begins it:

'The unkindness of your own relations has made you astonished to find friendship any where.' ,p>'No,' replied he, with sudden consciousness, 'not to find it in you; for I cannot be ignorant that to you, to your goodness I owe it all.--I feel it--I would express if I could--but, as you well know, I am no orator'" (Penguin 244-5).

The scene closes:

"Elinor did not offer to detain him; and they parted, with a very earnest assurance on her side of her unceasing good wishes for his happiness in every change of situation that might befall him; on his, with rather an attempt to return the same good will, than the power of expressing it.

'When I see him again,' said Elinor to herself, as the door shut him out, 'I shall see him the husband of Lucy" (Penguin 245-6).

It's as if Austen can't make up her mind whether we should cry for these two people having to accept as a wonderful gift something that will separate them forever (as they suppose) or laugh at the absurdity of such a paradox and their behavior.

The strong scenes I refer to include: the appearance of Edward's brother, Robert Ferrars, that arrogant malicious nitwit, totally unconscious of his own viciousness, but wonderfully vital because of the energy of the caricature; yet another appearance of Elinor's brother, John Dashwood, who is beginning to make Mr Collins look smart, and as having had some glimmerings of decent feelings; and the whole intensely emotional, brilliantly visualized, and intuitively complicated psychological sequence of reverie into reverie, making for events, descriptions of places, and changes in characters, of Chapters 42 and 43 which Elizabeth Jenkins chooses for lengthy quotation, and rightly.

Ellen Moody

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