November 3, 1999
Re: S&S, Chs 48-50: Austen's Retreat & the Ending of the 1995 Miramax Film (1999) These three chapters have an extraordinary variety of tone, and depending on the reader's predilection or mood, one will seem to be predominant. This posting repeats some of what I wrote 3 years ago, but I have changed my emphasis somewhat and looked to see what are the social inferences here.
To turn back to our original reading, one can read this close as romantic and moving, as cool and biting, and as prosaic. There are moments for each mood, and the famous problem with the ending -- how are we to take the dismissal of Marianne to Colonel Brandon's arms -- is partly a result of these mingled approaches. For my part I would add to these I agreed with P. J. M Scott's essay, Claudia Johnson's closing words and the spirit of Roger Gard's assessment of this close: we have here the retreat which condemns the venalities and emptiness of the social world, the retreat which is itself the compromise we must all pay up with, the quiet coda on the sisters' relationship.
On the irony and coolness: the ending of S&S is not the happy ending we find at the close of P&P. Not only is Austen superlatively acerbic towards Lucy and the Ferrars, but she looks from a sharp distance at the conduct of Edward (see Aysin's quotatations), and Elinor is kept at a distance from us too. It is not only Marianne who is suddenly not dramatised in the last moments of the book. suddenly very acerbic towards Marianne once again, but is so towards just about everyone, including even Elinor.
As I suggested last time, Elinor does not escape the scalpel. She is going to live very modestly in a cottage with a man who has been given his income by the man who becomes her sister's husband. She may be older, but she is definitely second in income and status as the book closes, and we are to rejoice the two sisters' living together never produce disagreement. That is not the same thing as saying they never disagree underneath the politeness. Her marriage is not presented in rapturous terms either; instead we get:
"after waiting some time for [the] completion [of the improvements to the cottage], after experiencing, as usual, a thousand disappointments and delays, from the unaccountable dilatoriness of the workmen, Elinor, as usual, broke through the first positive resolution of not marrying till everything was ready, and the ceremony took place in Barton cottage early in the autumn" (p 318).
Here is how the presumed first euphoria of their marriage is presented:
"The first month of their marriage was spent with their friend at the Mansion-house, from whence they could superintend the progress of the Parsonage, and direct everything as they liked on the spot;--could chuse papers, project shrubberies, and invent a sweep" (p 318).
Nuances of Edward's own behavior and words after the marriage as opposed to his absolute agreement with everything darling Elinor says before (and there is irony directed at Elinor for her assumption Lucy meant to be malicious when she sent the message; Lucy may have thought Thomas saw it was Robert, not Edward) are relevant. Here's the narrator on Edward's deeper sense of Elinor's attitude towards him as opposed to his voiced kinder or more generous one:
"He could do nothing till he were assured of his fate with Miss Dashwood; and by his rapidity in seeking _that_ fate, it is to be supposed, in spite of the jealousy with which he had once thought of Colonel Brandon, in spite of the modesty with which he rated his own deserts, and the politeness with which he talked of his doubts, he did not, upon the whole, expect a very cruel reception. It was his business, however, to say that he did, and he said it very prettily. What he might say on the subject a twelvemonth after, must be referred to the imagination of husbands and wives" (Ch 49, p 311).
And while we might imagine Edward consumed with love for the individual Elinor, the narrator seems to leave room for doubt on this one too. We are told of his rushing instantly to ask Elinor to marry him upon Lucy's marrying Robert that:
"for after experiencing the blessings of _one_ imprudent engagement, contracted without his mother's consent, as he had already done for more than four years, nothing less could be expected of him in the failure of that, than the immediate contradtion of another" (p 306).
The closing paragraphs on Marianne are written in the same spirit. I agree with Moreland Perkins that it is obvious from the text there is no celebration here; Marianne has learnt a hard lesson and there is loss as well as recovery. I can see someone easily arguing that from the point of view of the very mercenary ironic narrator who opens MP that there is a direct parallel between Marianne's marriage to Brandon, Charlotte's to Mr Collins -- as well as Anne Elliot's to Wentworth (aged 27 to someone of middling 30s). Consider the tone of the following:.
"She was born to overcome an affection formed so late in life as seventeen, and with no sentiment superior to strong esteem and lively friendship, voluntarily to give her hand to another!"
The comforting tone was emphaszed in Emma Thompson's film. Elinor bursts into tears after weeks of anxious waiting, dreariness, and in fact some real despair; Edward's sweet awkwardness (his use of the scissors has phallic connotations). There's some tenderness the depiction of Brandon towards the end of Austen's penultimate chapter. I don't read Lucy's letter harshly. She also knows that Edward has long not loved her, and it's a good reason for her to have chosen the elder. There is nothing there for her in Edward: as her ironic comments about him in the book show, she despises the sensitivity of the man. She would make a very bad wife to him; they are deeply uncongenial. In fact she will manage the fool Robert very nicely. He won't be grateful, but he ought to have been. Without her, he might go broke (consider his appetites for building and tearing up expensive plans).
Austen does (as in all her novels) skim over the initial rapture between Edward and Elinor and take us into their conversation afterwards.
"How soon he had walked himself into the proper resolution, however, how soon an opportunity of exercising it occurred, in what manner he expressed himself, and how he was received need not be particularly told. This need only be said;--that when they all sat down to table at four o'clock, about three hours after his arrival, he had secured his lady, engaged her mother's consent, and was not only in the rapturous profession of the lover, but in the reality of reason and truth, one of the happiest of men" (Ch 49, p. 306).
The sense is of long duration and comfort to come. The intense emotion has been given us in the scenes between the sisters at the midpoint and towards the denouement of each volume.
For those of us with romantic hearts one of the most delightful scenes in the movie, Sense & Sensibility was the one where Edward's love scene with Elinor, the culminating moment of the film, was not seen but reported too. So Thompson tried for something of Austen's evasiveness. Margaret is the messenger reporting to her sister and mother from up in her treehouse. And he kneeled. (Now how could you show that in a movie.) I loved the line that his heart was all hers. In the film we have comfort in seeing Margaret's new house, not as luxurious as her previous, but another, a sign all is well once again. Here are the excited innocent tones of the ecstatic child, in response to Marianne's shameless questions:
MARGARET has climbed into her tree-house. The branches rustle.
It's indicative of the intelligence of the movie that they knew a curious joy came from not seeing, from hearing it from the messenger (a la those old Greek plays). But there was a kiss, alas left on the cutting room floor. This too is in the book of the screenplay:
EDWARD stops walking. He looks at ELINOR and realises he can stand it no longer.
And the color still was rescued and may be found in all its poignant loveliness two pages (unnumbered before p 161).
The script took a number of years, went through many drafts (including several more during the shooting) and seems to be equally a product equally of that shooting and of the intelligence and love for Austen in the producer, one Lindsay Doran.
Willoughby is dismissed to his Sir John Middleton existence -- at least it will resemble Sir John's on the surface. They even have similarly cold women -- Miss Grey is presented as a cold type.
So I still say the ending of S&S is balanced between romance, comfort and the prosaic on the one hand, and coolness, bite, and disillusion on the other. I add that I read it thematically as do Gard, Claudia Johnson and Scott.