Sense and Sensibility: Roger Gard's Art of Clarity

April 27, 1999

To Janeites

Re: Roger Gard's Art of Clarity and P. J. Scott, JA, An Assessment

Gard's perspective is simply that of P. J. M. Scott in his neglected JA: An Assessment [NY: Barnes & Noble, 1982, ISBN 0-389-2022-7). Scott says that

'For those who are intelligent, sensitive and just, is human society worth the pains they ahve to take to live with it? That is the question at the heart of S&S; and this is one of the great tragic novels because it answers "No" with a very fine calibration of the complexities of social life'

Gard argues that in S&S we have a depiction of two heroines who are at first apparently opposed, and who as the story proceeds seems to be versions of one another. Against 'the moving vicissitudes' of their love stories and the 'full context' of the depiction of social and economic life, 'sense and sensibility acquire new, delicate, experiential mesanings.' He seems to think that at first S&S seems to be a book 'which is furthest away from the immediate concerns of the reader' of Jane Austen, but which becomes a striking and living work of art as we read. We are fooled by the antithetical title. And what is this context: it is, as June says, one where John and Fanny Dashwood practice a 'lethal rationality' which recalls Goneril and Regan in Lear. It is also a world filled with people who have 'mean minds and mean spirits'. John Dashwood's very ordinariness and acceptability underline the baseness of everyday life: 'mean, slightly timorous, pompous, self-deceiving, self-serving.' This book casts a 'harsh, black, bleak light' on society as it presents a 'stripped down and stark version of the ghastliness of most people'. Gard remarks that all Austen's novels oppose a favored protagonist (whatever their flaws) with the compromising dullness in which everyone else they are pressured by lives.

Gard spends a good deal of time on that memorable chapter 2, and then proceeds to show us many of the 'brilliant dramatisations of fatuity' that fill the book, including highly unsentimental (and to some readers still offensive) depictions of children.

There is an interesting discussion of S&S in the light of Elizabeth Gaskell's Cranford:

Gard suggests that Gaskell includes the idealism that is part of George Eliot's vision; Gaskell in fact tells stories which bring out the touching and better qualities of various pathetic, spiteful, dense, overbearing and repressive characters. Austen also forgives those of her creations who are tedious and inept when they have good hearts; however, in S&S the emphasis is on the emptiness of the minds, the greed, the coldness and barely competent hypocrisy. So the book reminds Gard of Balzac (curious that he should continually revert to male rather than female authors).

He also discussses the opening portraits of Elinor and Marianne. Most of it one has heard before though there are some thoughtful original comments here and there. He mentions the line about all the burdening of telling lies falling on Elinor, and says the emphasis here is on how the intelligent and sensitive have to deal with the boors. He says Marianne has more than an energetic and full convincing warmth. Her 'drastically egocentric remarks' tell as harsh truths about life as anything in the novel. People are always telling us to read statements in book ironically; we would do better to read them straight and get the full flavor, not dilute it, and make it more conventional by unduly complicating or qualifying what is said.

The second part of the chapter goes on to expatiate upon the bleak truths that stem from the harshness of S&S -- as well as what consolation it offers us in the minds and hearts of the heroines, their mother and the three heroes, Edward, Brandon and Willoughby.

I like the notes at the back of the book -- what a couple of decades ago might have been the footnotes at the bottom of the page. I suggest Gard slips in some sharp comments about various critics in the back -- as if saying to his fellow critics or scholars, I am allowed as few people will read these :).

Ellen Moody

Re: Roger Gard's Art of Clarity (II)

I was surprised at the opening sentence of the chapter: S&S is 'the least thoroughly achieved' of the novels, the 'one furthest away from the immediate concerns of the reader'. What? Does this show Gard is a man?

And the more so because Gard then launches into a longish essay which shows it to be brilliantly achieved (okay Edward and Brandon are not sufficiently dramatised) and close to the immediate concerns of all human beings. His exegesis turns the book into a Huis Clos.

To Gard's middle section, I'd say it's true that in comparison with Elinor, Marianne is kept from us and we have only 'an idea of intense suffering'; still the idea is fresh and poignant and incisive enough. I did see in Fanny Dashwood's words a good deal of her 'emotional drives and spiritual impoverishment' and that of her society. I agree with him that the way Austen presents the secondary characters recalls the way most people regard other people: they are secondary phenomena; they bustle around the fringes of our consciousness. I loved his comment that the effect of 'the brutal aggressiveness of Mr Palmer and the apparent happy mindless vulnerability of his wife have an almost surreal effect.' I call it wacky, half mad; Gard says they seem to exist in a 'state where normal consequences are suspended', reminding me of Charles Lamb on Restoration comedy, but as June remarks, Gard goes on to show us how there is emotional pain whizzed over in Mrs Palmer's finding 'fresh sources of merriment' in each of life's bitter disappointments. Come to think of it isn't that what Mr Bennet does?

One of my favorite secondary characters is Nancy Steele. I agree with Gard that towards Nancy Austen shows 'a flickering magnanimity'. Nancy is, as Lucy remarks, harmless really; or at least she doesn't mean any harm; 'nearly thirty, ignorant and stupid; chanceless and never likely to live properly' she is at least not malicious. Her situation is painful and we recognise this; there is something in her vulnerability which calls to mind Miss Bates. I love her speeches. The vigour with which Austen performs these looks forward to those of Mrs Elton, a Dickens-like richness; Nancy just pours it out. Thin pathos is not quite it since we do pity Nancy in her social despair. Ah imagine hungering after a huswife and finding consolation in being able to hang onto it. Life is good; Fanny D didn't take the huswifes back :).

don't quite agree we are to take Willoughby as a proto-La Rochefoucauld; I see Willoughby as too shallow and dumb, too maudlin and self- serving and not able to see beyond his own self-confidence for that. Willoughby lacks the 'unrelenting scorn' Gard says Austen shows in her observations in this book. He is sentimentalised in his own mind without sparing any tears for a girl who didn't dare to follow him to London even if he thinks it would have been nothing for her to find his address and seek him out. How that statement nails him as callous for all time. And how common such a statement is. For Eliza Williams the hard mean world has not been just about tolerable. If it were, she could have chased after him. I suppose Willoughby doesn't really understand the nature of pride.

More anon.

Ellen Moody

Re: Roger Gard's Art of Clarity (III)

This last part of the essay has some good comments. Gard describes the bleak, banal, often quasi-nasty atmosphere of the social scenes of the novel and sets the heroines against it.

Good points: S&S has an 'unrelenting scorn in its observation . . . glittering series of comical negatives' in many of its scenes. Gard thinks the manifestations of 'regulated hatred' D. W. Harding famously described are to be found in S&S. The effect of all this is 'a certain comic freedom to enforce and reinforce points'; S&S is 'polemic rather than fully balanced statement.' He remarks that Austen pillories uncomplicated characters throughout her fiction: John Dashwood is once such; I like Gard's comment that Dashwood 'is afraid to be too nice to his sister in front of his formidable wife and mother-in-law. A base immortal indeed'. So he finds in S&S a world which reminds us of the Brocklehursts and Reeds of Jane Eyre except it is not 'denounced with the same passionate naivete. It is the panorama of the quarrelsome,bitchy and money-proud, all lacking in self-knowledge.'

Against this we watch the heroines move. Moreland Perkins's book on S&S celebrates Elinor. Gard loves her too: he speak of her 'beautiful thoughtfulness and moderation in the face of galling tedium'. He says she is endearing. I find her interior monologues poignant, especially the long one after Lucy tells her Edward has been engaged to Lucy for 4 years. I also thought the remark about Elinor that 'there is something peculiarly fraught and nerveuse in Elinor. I think so. Read the book yet again and you will see it too.

Gard's comments on the end of the book recall Claudia Johnson's: what we have is a deeply qualified sense of peace, a retreat of the worthy. I like Brandon and Edward and am not disappointed; Gard says I have had to work at liking them. Well if I have I haven't been aware of it. I am not charmed by Willoughby. June quoted the passage on Lucy by the narrator which Gard says is the strongest thing at the close of the book, the one appercue that leaps up at us. It reminds me of the closing sentence of NA in that it's ironic, but oh how much more bitter. Gard says the close also recalls Rasselas; in fact Elinor's long speeches at the close of the book are very like those of Johnson's Imlac.

Still I honestly don't know if these unillusioned truths are what we come away from the book remembering. After all for me it's Marianne writing in the dawn, tears streaming down her eyes, Marianne at the heights of despair, Elinor watching over her bed as she almost self-destructs, Lucy twisting the knife of betrayal into Elinor, Elinor holding out, standing firm, and finally bursting into tears. The narrator also tells us at the close how remarkable it is that they should live in close proximity and not quarrel. I wish Gard had brought in a bit of autobiography and mentioned Cassandra and Jane; the analogies between the two heroines and what we know of Cassandra and Jane as people and their earlier lives as girls in love is suggestive.

Ellen Moody

To Janeites

Re: Gard's Art of Clarity on the title of S&S

May 26, 1999

Gard focuses in on the title.of Austen's first published novel and proceeds to complain about titles in general, saying they are often the weakest feature of many novels. With respect to Austen I suspect he objects to the title because it 'signals' to the common reader 'old-fashioned' and therefore obsolete book. We don't tend to name our books in terms of antitheses though we do use allegorical words and place names. Modern literature is actually highly symbolic; the realism of the 19th century novel is no longer primary in narratives. Nowadays people often go for a phrase: A Question of Upbringing. Or psychological abstaction: Possession. But lots of books are still called after central characters. The Great Gatsby.

A title like Sense and Sensibility marks Austen's novels as '18th century. Still they are. No one can miss that from page one. On the other hand, I disagree with him that titles are book's weak points (if he really thinks this -- it may be a rhetorical ploy). A great book is often one where the author picks the perfect title. S&S is the perfect title for the book. It is an opposition of intense interest to the century; a deep and interesting one because the terms are linked. Empson's essay on S&S as seminal words is relevant here (it's in his Complex Words).

Gard began with too strong a rejection of _S&S_ with his comments that we can doubt it's a living work of art. After he finished, he had shown it is, and it is relevant. Again he is playing strawman. He is anticipating the opposition and arguing it away before he proceeds to his analysis and defense.

Many, perhaps most, 18th century novels are named after a character. In the case of males, we get two names; in the case of females, one (of course there are exceptions: Moll Flanders). Remember when realistic novelists talked of novels they often called them imaginary biographies or biographies of a specific character. The novel was seen as the exploration of a specific psyche in a set of unfolding particular circumstances. There is a very interesting older book on novels by a man whose name escapes me right now in which he argues the model for novels were the emergent forms of biography and the new sophisticated history of the period.

Ellen Moody

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