June 25, 1999
Re: S&S, Chs 4-6: Still Prologue
Chapter Four contrast telling the truth and allowing other people (characters in this case) to be comfortable. Marianne will not tolerate any deviations from the truth so insists that Elinor admit she loves Edward; if Elinor does not admit it, she must not love him; Elinor clearly hints to Marianne that she is not admitting her deeper feelings in order to protect herself. She must control her love because it may not be reciprocated. Does Marianne not hear this? To believe this, we must believe that Marianne is a bit obtuse. Perhaps Austen wants us to infer this -- as when Marianne meets Willoughby she does not notice that all her enthusiasms become his _only after she has told him which authors she loves_. However, I think the larger meaning here is not the psychological but the moral: which way of getting through life is the wiser? Surely lying is very often the safer and sometimes the moral thing to do -- for Elinor is in effect lying to herself as a way of controlling her feelings. This theme is developed throughout the book: Marianne refuses to be tactful if tact means lying; on the other hand, shall we let people use the demand for decorum to manipulate and hurt or insult us in public (as Mrs Ferrars is willing to do). There is no answer to all this; Austen poses the questions, and let's us see the complexity of experience.
On Mrs Dashwood's fixing her house: the passage is funny. Aysin asks is it not strange to fix a house you don't own. To us it may be, but before the 20th century when long-term mortgages which ended up in someone owning a house (by paying bit by bit over many years) did not exist, it was not uncommon for people to build lovely houses in the first place -- on land they only rented. That was (I believe) the case with Burney's Camilla cottage. I know it was the case with a house Trollope's parents built. One still finds this pattern of behavior into the 1930s. Daphne DuMaurier fixed her beautiful house (upon which Manderly was partly modelled) on land she didn't own. Until the later 19th century most mortages were short; you paid rent for a time, rent which often did not count towards a mortgage, and then if you wanted to buy the house, you had to come up with the whole payment at once.
My idea is that the six chapters we have here constitute a revision. Chapter Two was written after Austen's father died and the family discussions. The revision replaces something else that was there before. Perhaps a series of letters in which we get the history of the Dashwood family as part of texts which also project the sensibilities of the writers. Perhaps not. At any rate the opening five chapters are uneven, read as summaries into which are strung portraits, epitomising dialogues, and the narrator's caustic perspective. The only lengthy piece that differs considerably is Chapter Two. It is interesting to note that the move is set off by an exchange of letters (which we are not given), and we are told upon meeting Sir John 'His countenance was thoroughly good-humoured; and his manners were as friendly as the style of his letter'. This sentence was first written under the assumption we have seen Sir John's letter. We are also told Sir John conveys all their letters to the post: what letters?
I like Chapter 6 very much; it is filled with good feeling as the Dashwoods get used to it. I also enjoy the jaundiced presentation of children in this early part of the book. It is refreshing after the sentimentality we have to endure in our modern popular press and media. On the other hand, I thought Emma Thompson's script and the 1995 movie also developed Austen's conception in appealing directions. Thompson took the spontaneity and truthfulness of the character as we have it so sketchily here and made a sweet character who reinforces Marianne's demand that we tell truths in order to live at all, let alone live fully. Too bad whatever was Margaret's fuller role in the original 1797-8 book has been cut. Last time thought I thought to myself, Was Margaret originally at school? Austen was sent to school. She would therefore be Marianne's correspondent -- and her mother's. What a good occasion for satire both of the school through the eye of a pragmatic young girl and as further revelation of Marianne's Eloisa-like sensibility and Margaret's innocent responses. It would probably be interesting to compare the letter novel in the juvenilia where we find an Eloisa and a hilariously pragmatic Charlotte to Austen's long passages which Mrs Jennings speaks while thinking about Margaret and Marianne.