Sense and Sensibility: Volume II, Chapters - 11 (44 - 47)

To Austen-l

July 30, 1996

Re: S&S: Chs 44-47: Elinor as Imlac

Among the many kinds of fictions Austen seems to have imitated all at once (unconsciously, imbibed in) beyond that of the gothic romance as practiced say by Ann Radcliffe or Charlotte Smith -- is the didactic fable which was often oriental in its furniture and which was very popular throughout the mid-, and later 18th centuries, especially in the periodicals of the day.

The most famous of these in English and the only one read by common readers today is Johnson's Rasselas, one of whose themes may be found in the central terrain of S&S and is in Rasselas expressed as "the dangerous prevalence of the imagination," and discoursed upon after a meeting with an astronomer in a very grave state over his firm conviction he has absolute power over the forces of the earth (as wind, rain); he tells them this power worried and fretted him no end, for he knew he would die and feared it would get into the wrong hands; but now his heart is "at rest" for he has found a good man to whom he can bequeath it (ChsXLI-XLIII); after the little group of characters leave this man, now at last at ease & cheerful, Imlac begins thus:

'Disorders of the intellect, answered Imlac, happen much more often than superficial observers will easily believe. Perhaps if we speak with rigorous exactness, no human mind is in its right state. There is no man whose imagination does not sometimes predominate over his reason, who can regulate his attention wholly by his will, and whose ideas will come and go at his command. No man will be found in whose mind airy notions do not sometimes tyrannisse, and force him to hope or fear beyond the limits of probability. All power of fancy over reason is a degree of insanity; but while this power is such as we can controul and repress, it is not visible toothers, nor considered as any depravataion of the mental faculties: it is not pronounced madness but when it comes ungovernable, and aparently influences speech and action (Ch XLIV).

We all have a little of this astronomer in us, says Imlac, and some of us more than a little, but we are only thought mad when the ideas that control us become visible to others through our actions or speech.

Imlac of course thinks this is very bad; he says how people enjoy their fantasies of all sorts ("the mind dances from scene to scene, unites all pleasures in all combinations, and riots in delights which nature and fortune, with all their bounty, cannot bestow"), but when the pleasure is over, and we must return to reality (as Imlac assumes people must at some time) then we are in danger. He points but to one people resort to when confronted with "the bitterness of truth;" they hurry back to their dreams:

"fictions begin to operate as realities, false opinions fasten upon the mind, and life passes in dreams of rapture or anguish" (Ch XLIV).

What is striking is the similarity of attitude towards "dreams of rapture or anguish" found in Johnson's Rasselas and Austen's S&S. I have read more than one critic who says, though often without explaining quite why, that S&S is the most Johnsonian of Austen's novels. Here though what I'd like also to draw attention to is the similarity of technique between Rasselas and S&S. If we read the conversations in this part of the novel--Willoughby and Elinor; Mrs Dashwood and Elinor, Marianne and Elinor, and then Mrs Dashwood, Marianne, and Elinor--looking for a psychological novel, that is a text in which the words of the speakers are chosen to convey the deeper impulses of the psyche, we will be disappointed. The words given Elinor are not given her in order that we may dig deep into her psychological recesses; she rather has the role of Imlac, the poet-philosopher, and we are expected to be reading not for psychological but moral analysis.

I use Johnson's Rasselas because the themes are closely similar to those we find in S&S in some ways, and as someone on our list commented to me off-list, one finds in Imlac particularly a strong sense that he "doesn't have the answer but feels compelled to speak anyway." For example in the above conversation Imlac offers the company no advice on how not to be like the astronomer, how not to fall to delusions, in fact he simply points to us the truth that we will, and ends on how when in solitude (the astronomer has been alone for a good long while with his burdensome powers) he too thought of all the wonderful things he would do to reform the world, or, oddly enough (but truthfully) would sometimes fall to dreaming of the deaths of close relatives: "I start, when I think with how little anguish I once supposed the death of my father and my brothers" (Ch XLIV). We assume because a book is written as a moral or didactic fable, emblematically it has got to be simplistic or shallow. Not at all, and I don't think the conversations we now find ourselves listening to in which we are invited to meditate the action of the story as a whole are simplistic or shallow.

But in these--and this is an important element in my suggesting we look at Rasselas or other emblematic fables while reading the close of S&S -- Elinor does not speak as a character in a psychological or realistic novel as a leading voice in the search for deeper truths about the human condition considered in general as well as in these characters' particular cases. Thus we get long speeches in Chapter 47 (I go a little ahead because there this Imlac quality of Elinor is clearly deliberate on Austen's part) as well as give-away lines like "One observation may, I think, be fairly drawn form the whole of the story..." (Ch 47, p 298). Elinor is no longer a character in a story but a participant in a conversation about an emblematic fable.

It's the difference between expecting _S&S_ to be like Frances Sheridan's _Sidney Biddulph_, a psychological epistolary novel in the tradition of Richardson which was very popular in the period, when it's like Sheridan's The History of Nourjahad, one of these very popular emblemtic fictions of the period, like Rasselas also with oriental furniture. Austen would have read both Sidney Bidulph and Nourjhad with enjoyment; both were called novels.

That Austen was willing to combine types we can see in Northanger Abbey. There Austen has written satire with Catherine at times playing the naif in the manner of Gulliver in Gulliver's Travels and at other times written novelistically with Catherine as a deeply felt convincing psychological presence. The two modes jar for the modern reader. They didn't jar for 18th century readers or Austen. Thus my suggestion is that in S&S we again have two modes, and I suggest the 18th century reader would have seen nothing wrong in this self-consciously emblematic group of chapters. (The emblematic fiction fit the journals very well because such fictions are short; you can't go on for hundreds of pages as epistolary novels characteristically do in a magazine; you have five columns your editor tells you, and that's it.)

In Chapter 46 Marianne has a kind of epiphany similar in type if not depth of romantic anguish beforehand and length (Marianne's is long) to that of Elizabeth upon reading Darcy's letter or Emma upon hearing Harriet say Knightley is now in love with herself. Maybe someone else would like to comment on that; I'll just point to the shorter more ironic one between Elinor and the Chapter 45. In this one we see that the mother has "fallen" for Brandon for just the same emotional reasons as she "fell" for Willoughby. Brandon has deeply engaged Mrs Dashwood's emotions with his own for Marianne, and the mother begins to gush (it's the right word) with delight over a new prospective husband; the emphasis in the mother's speech is not on all that Brandon has been and done for them, but on how "he has loved her, my Elinor, ever since the first moment of seeing her," and here we have Elinor as Imlac responding:

"Here, however, Elinor perceived,--not the language, not the profession of Colonel Brandon, but the natural embellishments of her mother's active fancy, which fashioned every thing delightful to her, as it chose" (Penguin Ch 45, p 286)

The mother in this chapter suddenly seems to recall how there was always something in "Willoughby's eyes at times, which I did not like" (p. 287), and she rushes on to dismiss Willoughby as never having "felt or feigned" as much. Well. That Brandon's "character... as an excellent man is well established" (in Elinor as Imlac's phrase) is not the ground of the mother's suddenly intent desire which she is incessantly carrying out in the next conversation between her and Marianne and Elinor by obvious hints (oh my dear and how terrible Willoughby has been to our good friend, Brandon, just think of that, worse than all the rest is her idea). In this chapter Austen is showing us that the mother would have protected Marianne no better than she did the first time; the difference now is a matter of luck. A truly loyal and unselfish man has come forward for her hand, but it is not the Colonel's proven virtues that excite Mrs Dashwood's interest, and very Imlac like (he's always retiring to think about tings) at the close of the chapter and conversation we read:

Here they were interrupted by the entrance of a third person, and Elinor withdrew to think it all over in private, to wish success to her friend, and yet in wishing it, to feel a pang for Willoughby (Penguin 288).

This is the kind of discrimination Mrs Dashwood still and will always I suppose lack. It is the kind of subtle discrimination one can find in the best of the moral fables written in the 18th century to which Rasselas also belongs.

To conclude this little comparison of Rasselas and S&S, the opening sentence of the narrator of S&S in chapter 2 in which we are informed of "that sanguine expectation of happiness which is happiness itself" sets the Johnsonian note to this book, a note which is completed in the emblematic conversations at the close, and may also be found thematically in Rasselas: in a discussion of happiness, Prince Rasselas is ever finding people who are "surely happy" for this reason for that, including the "conveniencies, of which I envy none so much as the facility with which separated friends interchange their thoughts." We may recall that game on Box Hill in which Knightley tells Emma she might not like what she sees if she really could see what all the others were thinking. Well to the Prince, Imlac replies:

"The Europeans are less unhappy than we, but they are not hapy. Human life is every where a state in which much is to be endured, and little to be enjoyed" (CH XI)

Is not this the same vein as Marianne and Elinor:

'"It is very true. My happiness never was his object.'

'At present,' continued Elinor, 'he regrets what he has done. And why does he regret it? -- Because he finds it has not answered towards himself. It has not made him happy... But does it then follow that had he married you, he would have been happy? -- The conveniences would have been different..." (Penguin Ch 47, p 298).

Ellen Moody

'It is not every one,' said Elinor,
'who has your passion for dead leaves.'
---Jane Austen, S&S

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