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

To Janeites

October 11, 1999

Re: S&S, 3:6-7, Chs 42-3: A Third Crisis for Marianne: Near Death?

As I wrote in our first read of this book from out of nowhere -- given the atmosphere of uncomfortable comedy and poignant to near suicidal pain, of spite, dumbness and just plain stupidity that has reigned in London -- a new mood momentarily enters the book. We move to Cleveland, out of London, Dorsetshire in view. And we find ourselves in 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 S&S, ed RBallaster, 3:6, Ch 42, p 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, 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" (p 257).

Elinor may seem a bit priggish in that last phrase (though Austen is unaware of this and identifying utterly); still, imbecilic laughter can be irritating. Elinor is very realistically drawn. I can believe in her.

Mr Palmer seems a younger and perhaps more crudely drawn picture of a Mr Bennet -- as to situation if not exactly type. There are a number of these spouses drawn in by someone else's physical attractions: Sir Thomas, Lady Elliot, Captain Benwick, Mrs Tilney; perhaps John Knightley who seems to like Isabella because she is so dependent -- and her fecundity suggests satisfaction. Mr Palmer then comes out better because the whole atmosphere is more harmonious; he is more comfortable in his home -- can play billiards all the livelong day. The 1995 Miramax S&S certainly 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.

It's an interlude before Marianne's lunge towards death (which she calls deliberate self-destruction later in the book), the final self-scourging of herself and through her Elinor. Marianne is of course out making herself sicker and sicker. The heights of despair is a funny and yet psychologically true phrase. Again, I am reminded of Sylvia Plath who said she did death better than anyone else. She had a knack for it (this is a paraphrase of one of the poems -- from memory). It's clear Marianne's promises to Elinor to amend her ways did not go much beyond those 3 "ma'ams," i.e., minimal politeness in company.

I also sympathise and admit I have felt this way -- and would act on it when I was younger. Marianne 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. When Elinor says she has no one and nothing to stay for that is a kind of deadening despair. The moral seems to be the natural one that that human nature will only take so much self-punishment.

In the film and in the book the scene is beautifully and inwardly pictured; one feels the damp; it's like being in a Claude Lorraine scene.

"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..." (p. 257).

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 longest and wettest..." (pp 256, 259).

Does anyone have the Oxford Classics Romance of the Forest: look at the cover illustration by Thomas Wilson, A River Landscape. It looks like the above. If you own a book with reproductions of Godmersham in the later 18th or early 19th century, you will see something very like the above scene, with a Romanesque church thrown in for free (over and above the small temple.

Austen has given us a quiet ordinary chapter with which to pass time psychologically. This prepares us for the sudden movement into traumatic crisis of Marianne's near-encounter with death and Elinor's exhausting solitary vigil by her side. I don't know how any one can have read the paragraph in which Elinor is so deeply moved by Marianne's recovery that she cannot show it externally as anything other than deep emotion:

"Elinor could not be cheerful. Her joy was of a different kind, and led to any thing rather than to gaiety. Marianne, restored to life, health, friends, and to her doting mother, was an idea to fill her heart with sensations of exquisite comfort, and expand it in fervent gratitude; but it lead to no outward demonstrations of joy, no words, no smiles. All within Elinor's breast was satisfaction, silent and strong (3:7, Ch 43, p. 266).

It comes at the end of a long harrowing sequence. Elizabeth Jenkins's chapter on S&S in her JA goes over this chapter very well: she brings home its deep-musing reverie aspect and the slow ticking of time. She argues this chapter stands out as one of the best in the novel -- it is superb in the way Juliet went over, from one phase to the next, making us see now this character and now that react to the on-going almost unchanging crises of a real illness. 'Putrid' was a buzz-word of the time meaning very bad; infectious.

Ellen Moody

From: "Paul Janse"

To Janeites

Re: S&S, Chs 42-43: A Third Crisis for Marianne: Near Death?

Ellen Moody wrote:

>Elizabeth Jenkins's chapter on S&S in her JA goes over this chapter very well: she brings home its deep-musing reverie aspect and the slow ticking of time. She argues this chapter stands out as one of the best in the novel -- it is superb in the way Juliet went over, from one phase to the next, making us see now this character and now that react to the on-going almost unchanging crises of a real illness. 'Putrid' was a buzz-word of the time meaning very bad; infectious.

I agree that the description of the atmosphere at Cleveland is admirably done. However, Marianne's illness itself is described in a remarkably flat way. We never learn exactly what the treatment was and only vaguely how Marianne reacted.

"His medicines had failed(...)"

What medicines?

"Her pulse was much stronger, and every symptom more favourable than on the preceding visit."

Which symptoms is he talking about? "Marianne was in every respect materially better." In what respects?

Does the description of Marianne's illness satisfy the other list members?

Paul Janse

Re: S&S: (French?) Decorum, Simplicity and Cults

I agree with Paul that the description of Marianne's illness is unsatisfying from a 20th century perspective. From an 18th century one, it might not have been so. The words which seem to us so vague were in the 18th century about as specific as people often became: medicine had not yet become a science; it was not until the mid-19th century that diagnosis of a specific illness became central to the doctor's function; it was not until even later that the notion that a specific causative agent leads to a specific disease was widespread. And in 19th century England many doctors fought 'the germ theory of disease' as it is sometimes called. Austen's description would probably have been specific enough for her original audience.

There may also be a euphemism factor here. Today many people don't like to use the words 'die' or 'death' when someone they know dies. They will say so-and-so passed away. Cancer is a word people avoid; venereal diseases spread because no one will discuss them even in doctor's offices. The stigma is very bad. In the 19th century one comes across novels in which the main character has small pox or TB and words which signified those diseases at the time (pox, consumption) are never breathed in the novel. Superstitions which generally resolve themselves into fear of contagion (even through naming) are perhaps at the core of such avoidance.

A third possibility is the sense that Austen does not quite want to say Marianne is suicidal, self-destructing. When Marianne speaks with Elinor later in the book, she talks very seriously, using religious language and the word 'God' with reference to her courting death by her behavior. Austen suggests Marianne wants to die without actually making it explicit. She also connects Marianne's illness to her depression, despair, mortification. Today we might use words like psychosomatic. Such words were not in use at the time. The idea though seems to me clear from the text, though the amount of sympathy Austen feels towards this plunge of Marianne's is debatable.

Finally I'd like to suggest that the lack of information, the emptiness of this text is not just a matter of underdetermination for which Austen is praised -- and which I have tried to justify. It also explains why her novels have become cult books and have fan followings. Fans can pour themselves into this.

Haven't I?

Ellen Moody

To Janeites

October 14, 1999

Re: S&S: (French?) Decorum, Simplicity and Cults

A final comment:

Although I mentioned how in 19th century novels one comes across the same kind of euphemistic language used for illnesses (especially when they are fatal or have unpleasant symptoms like tuberculosis), I have always thought that Austen is sort of French in her use of decorum. She doesn't give us all sorts of home-y details we find in Edgeworth, Burney, Smollett and other realistic novels of the later 18th century. If you turn to French novels of the period, you find the same 'delicacy' or reluctance to name things that are physically sordid or messy or somehow low and vulgar. I know this is true of Radcliffe, but she is writing romance and was promptly translated into French. Another writer of Austen's period who practices the same decorum is Elizabeth Inchbald who Lytton Strachey said wrote 'French-like' novels. I don't link it to her evocation or not of landscape, but rather to an avoidance of home-y earthy details.

It's a theory of mine Austen (which someday I mean to check by reading many French novels of the mid- to later 18th century by women), that Austen liked to read French novels and memoirs. In Persuasion when Anne Elliot goes on about memoirs, the description sounds like the French ones by women which were so popular in the period. Translation work between English and French throughout the 18th century was a thriving trade -- though poorly paid.

Meandering on (I am typing aloud) neo-classic poetry also tends to this avoidance of details. Johnson's Imlac said we do not number the streaks on a tulip, but rather convey tulipness. This is not really true since I can think of all sorts of sordid home-y details in Pope, but then they're there to debunk. Thomson and Cowper manage to describe landscape in detail without 'lowering' the tone by being Miltonic.

More generally, this sense of decorum in Austen comes from her period and the kinds of art respected at the time. She may also have written fast and not thought endlessly about all details. I have come to think that Henry James was not wrong about all her methods. It's in Emma that we feel her control most -- and there it's aesthetic and point of view.

Cheers to all,
Ellen Moody

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