Sense and Sensibility: Volume III, Chapters 4 - 7 (40 - 43)

RE: S&S Chs 42-43: Quiet Before the Anguish

Rather than dwell upon what we all recognize-- the traumatic crisis of Marianne's near-encounter with death and Elinor's exhausting solitary vigil by her side--I thought I'd point just to the paragraphs which settle us into Cleveland Park. From out of nowhere in the house a new mood enters the book; we are treated to an atmosphere of private cosiness, of quietude, and repose:

"Their party was small, and the hours passed quietly away. Mrs Palmer had the child, and Mrs Jennings her carpet-work; they talked of the friends they had left behind, arranged Lady Middleton's engagements, and wondered whether Mr Palmer and Colonel Brandon would get farther than Reading that night. Elinor, however little concerned in it, joined in their discourse, and Marianne, who had the knack of finding her way in every house to the library, however it might be avoided by the family in general, soon procured herself a book (Penguin 257).

This is the first social gathering in the book which has not been excruciatingly dull, irritating, grim, and filled with mean or stupid hypocrisies. Austen is out to make us feel good about the Palmers, or at least better:

"Nothing was wanting on Mrs Palmer's side that constant and friendly good-humour could do, to make them feel welcome. The openness and heartiness of her manner, more than atoned fo rthat want of recollection and elegrance, which made her often deficient in the forms of oliteness; her kindness, rcommended by so pretty a face [and why Mr Palmer married her, yet another spouse "drawn" in by physical attractions, we can add him to Mr Bennet, Lady Elliot, Captain Benwick], was engaging; her folly, though evident, was not disgusting because it was not conceited [like Robert Ferrars?]; and Elinor could have forgiven every thing but her laugh" (Penguin 257).

Mr Palmer is more comfortable at home, and the 1995 Miramax S&S had textual authorization for making him suddenly show genuine respect and humane concern for his visitors, though of course Elinor finds him wanting in comparison with her Edward.

This is an interlude or quietude before the final blow descends on Marianne, the final scourging of her and through her Elinor. Marianne is of course out making herself sicker and sicker; it's clear her promises to Elinor to amend her ways did not go much beyond those 3 "ma'ams," i.e., minimal politeness in company. She seeks solitude at all costs, seeks to revel in her anguish as if emotion itself, no matter of what kind, is life; better to plunge the knife in than feel nothing at all, anything but psychic deadening is understandable, but that human nature will only take so much punishment seems to be the moral. Anyway the scenes are beautifully done, i.e.,

"she quitted [the house and its walls] again, stealing away through the winding shrubbering, now just beginning to be in beauty, to gain a distant eminence; where, from its Grecian temple, her eye, wandering over a wide tract of country to the south-east, could fondly rest on the farthest rideg eof hills in the horizon, and fancy that from their summits Combe Magna might be seen..."

And later:

"Two delightful twilight walks on the third and fourth evenings of her being there, not merely on the dry gravel of the shrubbery, but all over the grounds, and especially in the most distant parts of them, where there was something more of wildness than in the rest, where the trees were the oldest, and the grass was the ongest and wettest..." (Penguin 256, 259).

A scene comes back to me suddenly of Fanny standing somewhere in the rain. She has gone for some solitary walk, maybe while on an errand for Mrs Norris. It's raining, and she won't come in. Does not Mr Grant shame her in coming in to the parsonage where she has no right to be sure of a welcome (and how well I can sympathize with someone not wanting to cross a threshold without knowing a welcoming or smiling face will confront her) by bringing her an umbrella at least? She both feels how silly she is and that of course she can come in. Though as several people have remarked Fanny is stronger than Marianne. She has had a much harder life; no terribly over- indulgent loving mother, she; but I think Fanny's also got more steel in her constitution. Fanny is self-contained, another reason she's not that likable, but it fits; she lives on and within herself. Marianne is not and cannot. She reaches out frantically.

Fanny has ever meant a great deal to me; Marianne is what we all dread in us.

Ellen Moody


Re: The Text and Movie: Near Death Traumas

Reading Austen in tandem with the screenplay (see INT 166), and then watching the movie, makes a profoundly rich experience, the book enriching the movie, and vice versa

The novel in this really fine chapter moves slowly and realistically: you get exhausted with Elinor over the long vigil; the apothecary keeps saying as how the very next preparation he will bring will be sure to do the trick--well, he would, wouldn't he? the medical profession had very little useful at its disposal against "infection." Elinor herself had refused to believe in the seriousness of Marianne's "cold" until it becomes clear she's very ill, and she becomes incoherent, and speaks to make no logical sense, only emotional sense. Yet there's little dialogue in this chapter once again, only Marianne and Elinor's brief exchange:

... Marianne, suddenly awakened by some accidental noise in the house, started hastily up, and with feverish wildness, cried out--

'Is mamma coming?--'

'Not yet,' replied the other, concealing her terror, and assisting Marianne to lie down again, 'but she will be here, I hope, before it is long. It is a great way, you know, from hence to Barton.'

'But she must not go rond by London,' cried Marianne, in the same hurried manner, 'I shall never see her, if she goes by London.' (Penguin 263).

"Hurried" is perfect; Austen really uses plain ordinary simple words when she characterizes complex emotional states; no jargon for her. This is true of the chapters just after the party in which Marianne agonizes over Willoughby's motifying snub and cold letter.

But this is just about the only dialogue in the chapter. This is very unlike P&P which became heavily dramatic narrative after Austen lopped and chopped it. In S&S we have a moving internalized or subjective narration which exists somewhere between Elinor's psyche and the narrator's; it is effective in its rhythmical imitation of Elinor's perceptions.:

About noon, however, she began--but with a caution--a dread of disappointment, which for some time kept her silent, even to her friend--to fancy, to hope she could perceive a slight amendment in her sister's pulse;-she waited, watched, and examined it again and again;--and at last, with an agitation more difficult to bury under exterior calmness, than all her foregoing distress, ventured to communicate her hopes. Mrs Jennings, though forced, on examination, to acknowledge a temporary revival, tried to keep her young friend from indulging a thought of its continuance;--and Elinor, conning over every injunction of distrust, told herself likewise not to hope. But it was too late. Hope had already entered; and feeling all its anxious flutter, she bent over her sister to watch--she hardly knew for what. Half an hour passed away, and the favourable symptomyet blessed her. Others even arose to confirm it. Her breath, her skin, her lips, all flattered Elinor with signs of amendment, and Marianne fixed her eyes on her with a rational, though languid gaze" (Penguin 166).

How different the techniques of fiction from movie-making. Here's it's essential to move slowly, bit by bit. Another interesting thing about the passage is its use of demotic language when necessary ("conning") and suggestiveness which is not sure what it is because that's the way a pyschological state feels ("she hardly knew for what").

The movie is much more overt and swift; rather than the slow penetration, we get the vice, the throb of the heart-wrench; and I'd like to suggest it becomes more affective if we read it _with_ the book in mind, though it differs in details. The doctor has suggested all is just about lost. Marianne does not seem better about noon; we are now in that "cold" dark night, "stormy" which follows in which Austen's Elinor is now at peace over Marianne, but intensely anxious for her mother's presence. Emma Thompson's Elinor sudden outburst is terribly moving in and of itself:

MARIANNE lies in the grip of her fever. ELINOR sits watching her. Slowly she rises and walks to the bed. When she speaks, her tone is very practical.


Marianne, Marianne, please try...

Suddenly, almost unconsciously, she starts to heave with dry sobs, wrenched out of her, full of anguish and heartbreak and all the more painful for being tearless.


Marianne, please try--I cannot--I cannot do without you. Oh, please, I have teid to bear everything else--I will try--but please, dearest, beloved Marianne, do not leave me alone...

She falls to her knees by the bed, gulping for breath, taking MARIANNE's hand and kissing it again and again. (Screenplay, 183-4)

This is nearly unbearable to watch (my 12 year old Isabel left the room when we watched it on the VCR). It is so far from the typical or common sense view of Austen as satiric and comic shows a part of the imaginative terrain of Elinor and Marianne and Austen herself utterly unlike some of the more famous portions of Emma and P&P. There's nothing in either novel which approaches the tragic or intensely poignant -- unless of course you were to turn _Emma_ on its head and make Jane Fairfax's story the center or totally change the personality of Lydia who is we recall the embodiment of "perfect unconcern."

S&S has been least noticed by critics since the early 20th century. Perhaps this is due to its lack of sure technique, lack of sufficient dramatization which itself may stem from its origin in an epistolary narrative which was not completely or sufficiently revised In conception it is deeply romantic, more romantic than Persuasion which is much more subdued. This chapter is profound romance: I have read scenes in so much 18th century fiction which come nearest to this when nearest death: D'Épinay's Montbrillant when the old father-in-law lies dying; Radcliffe when Montoni's wife or or the marginalized hero, Adeline's father is tortured to death.

The idea which the moment in the movie brings to a full agon is without Marianne, Elinor will be alone. So men matter, but they matter more to one another than the men. They are permanently bonded and to be relied upon by one another. And if you've read the novel as you watch the movie or read the screenplay, you emember characters and moods not in the pictures, for example, Mrs Ferrars, Lady Middleton and the cold world they embody, the many dialogues between Elinor and John Dashwood, her brother, in which he continually makes Mr Collins look good, and also the weaknesses of Mrs Dashwood in the book (she is if not necessarily more at least as at fault for Marianne's crisis and values in different ways as is Mr Bennet may be said to be responsible for his Lydia's crisis and values), and also Elinor's full expectation that Edward will marry Lucy, and they will not see each other again for a very long time, if ever.

One problem for the film-maker is not to overdo; one false step, one overdone phrase or shot and it's melodrama, and loses its grip on the audience, and becomes laughable at least to some. The book while not reaching for the "heights" of the movie does not risk this.

For those who own the book of the screenplay, there's a good black-and-white still right above the words I quoted (p 184) which allows us to see Emma Thompson's face and expression.

Ellen Moody

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Page Last Update 24 February 2003