Sense and Sensibility: Volume I, Chapters 5 - 6

To Austen-l

March 28, 1999

Re: S&S: Chs 5-6: "Each for the sake of the others resolved to appear happy"

How perfunctory is the movement of these two chapters. Austen is hastening us to where the action proper is to begin. We are still in the frame. The movement of the chapters is choppy and the sense of a deeper background thin.

Much of the active satire in these chapters is again directed at Mrs Dashwood and Marianne. We are supposed to laugh at Mrs Dashwood's plans for improving her house, for her lack of imagining what effort it is to "throw out a passage here" and add a staircase there. She also seems to forget how expensive this sort of thing is, and how she is not exactly on to save much. Marianne's lachrymose adieu to the trees is a set piece which is probbly meant to reveal her longings to commune with nature as absurd. Yet there is a depth of emotion worked up that makes us stop to consider and wonder if it isn't a half-serious feeling placed before us too:

"Dear, dear Norland!" said Marianne, as she wandered alone before the house, on the last evening of their being there; "when shall I cease to regret you!--when learn to feel a home elsewhere!--Oh! happy house, could you know what I suffer in now viewing you from this spot, from whence, perhaps, I may view you no more!--And you, ye well-known trees!--but you will continue the same. No leaf will decay because we are removed, nor any branch become motionless although we can observe you no longer!--No; you will continue the same; unconscious of the pleasure or the regret you occasion, and insensible of any change in those who walk under your shade!--But who will remain to enjoy you?" (Oxford S&S, ed Chapman, I:5, 27).

It's not that the satire directed at Marianne or Mrs Dashwood or even Elinor demonstrates their failing to be anything more than overdone sentiment which is when not overdone decency and depth of heart. They are none of them spiteful, malicious, selfish, nor are they capable (as their half-brother and his wife clearly are) of letting others go off into the world with hardly any income to sustain them. The sins here are venial, and we are to see ourselves in them. As we were to identify with the conversation of Chapter 3, so we think of the innovations we have tried and how resistant are houses, voracious contractors, difficult all changes. Reality is just not something one can move around like magic. Far from it. Underlying this are the more serious grave themes of the book which have been set forth in Chapter 1-2: without money, you are not safe; individual caprice, unjust laws and customs control your options when you are powerless or vulnerable.

The one person to emerge in these chapters as decent and sensible and trying within the limits of her capacity not to drown is Elinor. In Chapter 4 we find her limiting the number of servants they will have at Barton Park.

There are other veins here. There's the back-handed humour of John Dashwood's vexation that the little he had planned to do (to make him feel good about himself) is not needed. There's the petty spite of Fanny envying the Dashwoods' ownership of the china. The woman would see them go off with the clothes on their backs and what they can carry in their hands and nothing else. Actually this kind of thing is perfectly credible, reasonable. That's part of what Austen is doing: no need for Great Gothic Villains; human nature itself is where her comic quarrel lies, though the jokes are not so much merry as wry. A home is being broken up; people are being ejected and the owners lament they can't do small things to wend the others on their way, that the others take a few dishes. Perfectly real. Happens all the time. Reminds me of a girl my daughter told me about: when this girl left her boyfriend for good, they got into a great quarrel over who owned the fan. This took place in Richmond, Virginia where it's superhot in summer and the apartment wasn't air-conditioned.

What people are. Let me not hear about kind hearts -- Marianne weeping because the trees do not weep is a brilliant thrust in this context.

There is also a planted clue. Edward is startled to hear they will be moving to "Devonshire.' He asks which part of it. The question seems natural and only the result of his feeling bad they are going so far. On a second read we know he is thinking of Mr Pratt and the Steeles. This small line looks forward to the method of Emma; in a modest way S&S attempts the same kind of ironical second reading which gives lines different qualities and resonances the second time round.

A slight upturn in Chapter 6. We are invited to linger in a pretty spot and Austen hopes we have been to Devonshire and will fill in the details:

"their interest in the appearance of a country which they were to inhabit overcame their dejection, and a view of Barton Valley, as they entered it, gave them cheerfulness. It was a pleasant, fertile spot, well wooded, and rich in pasture. After winding along it for more than a mile, they reached their own house' (I:6, 28)

Our friends are "cheered by the joy of the servants on their arrival, and each for the sake of others resolved to appear happy" (I:6, 28). Again the hills and roads which wind behind them are mentioned; Austen is thinking of Willoughby. Our friends settle in and we see them making do:

" they were wise enough to be contented with the house as it was; and each of them was busy in arranging their particular concerns, and endeavoring, by placing around them books and other possessions, to form themselves a home. Marianne's piano-forte was unpacked and properly disposed of; and Elinor's drawings were affixed to the walls of their sitting room" (I:6, 30).

The feeling here is good, affectionate peace, trust, meaning well. Note we are not told they are happy, but resolve to appear to be happy. In controlling the surface though one controls the depths.

The first entry of the Middletons combines the dual moods of these two chapters. Sir John's entrance brings cheer, fellowship, well- meant hospitality. Lady Middleton brings back the theme of the chasms between people because they care little for one another for real and have nothing to say as they have little thought or information in their minds. She is the ultimate inactive mind in the book. The narrator mocks the use many people do make of children. "On every formal visit a child ought to be of the party, by way of provision for discourse" (I:6, 31). I have found this to be so only when the child is controlled and not forced to stay in the room too long.

Barton Cottage is very reminiscent of Chawton Cottage; the relationship of the ladies recalls that of the Austens to Edward Austen. Even the disposition of the rooms on the ground floor recalls the reality of the Austen's new house. Of course it was in no living Austen's interest at the time (or apparently since) to discuss the clear analogies.

Dear Margaret who was given a role and place in Emma Thompson's movie. We have one paragraph on her in Chapter One. Can anyone find even one reference to her since? Nary a one. Has she nothing to put away? She no need to settle in? She no nonsense to grieve over? Didn't she at least get in Elinor's way. The vestigial character who Austen didn't want to give up totally. We know that Austen paid to have this book published, and had had a number of disappointments before this paying at last. I wonder if she thought anyone would really pay attention to her book for real. She didn't want to give up Margaret for the sake of some later dialogues and a satirical thrust at the book's end, but how Margaret was originally used is lost from view.

Ellen Moody

---- "In comparison with Norland, it was poor and small indeed! -- "
Sense and Sensibility

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