Sense and Sensibility: Shattuck on "The Pleasures of Abstinence"

To Austen-l, May 18, 1996

Re: S&S: Two Essays (NYRB and LRB)

A few weeks ago I cited an essay in The London Review of Books by Margaret Anne Doody which set Jane Austen's novels in the context of a other contemporary women novelists and authors in France and England. The essay was actually on Germaine de Staël's Delphine and brought out some interesting parallels between Austen's Sense & Sensibility and de Stael's Delphine. Well this week in the New York Review of Books (Vol XLIII, No. 10, June 6, 1996) there's a really splendid essay by Roger Shattuck (one of two, so there's another to come next week); it's entitled "The Pleasures of Abstinence" and sets up another tradition or context into which it seems to me Austen's S&S falls, and which helps make sense of Austen's presentation of Marianne and Elinor.

Shattuck goes back to Ian Watt who said there was a "great tradition" (so to speak, I borrow Leavis's term for books Leavis didn't approve of) in the 18th century in England which began with Defoe, Fielding, and Richardson. Shattuck says the problem is Watt left out the French, and I'd like to remind everyone on our list how Austen talks about various French novelists in her letters and refers to French books in her novels. Shattuck explores a tradition of French fiction which begins with Madame de Lafayette's La Princesse de Clèves and climaxes in the 18th century in LaClos' Les Liaisons Dangereuses; it carried on throughout the 19th century and takes in George Eliot's The Mill on the Floss and Tolstoy's Anna Karenina.

What I'd like to call attention to today in the light of our reading of S&S is that Shattuck calls all these novels works of "renunciation." In these books the female characters again and again learn to renounce sexual entanglement, sexual enthrallment, sexual bonding with men--or they live to regret their inability to renounce their sexual appetites and desire to live out their deepest dreams of sexual joy. Characters who live to regret their inability to renounce include most famously Anna Karenina who throws herself under a train over the shallow selfish Vronsky (and Vronsky then viewed in this light becomes a later version of our Willoughby). Characters who become mature women because they do renounce and through that renunciation either control their destiny or retreat from life itself include: Julie in Rousseau's La Nouvelle Héloïse who, as Shattuck says, "finds a way to renounce her cake and to have it too;" she stays with boring safe husband and has his kids while sexy alluring lover lives next-door and they carry on their platonic frissons (to coin an oxymoron); the first of the type is the fascinating Princesse de Clèves who renounces her Vronsky-lover and tells her husband of her adulterous yearnings; hubby dies some time later, and lover turns up, but the Princess refuses to get married anyway because, as she says, he will grow bored with her once he has her, and the sense is she will lose control over her very identity if she allows herself to become his; she retires to a convent where she does have "le repos." She is no saint; her behavior springs, in Shattuck's succinct words, "as much from an instinct for survival as from strong moral feelings."

It seems to me interesting that the novel several of our members insisted was the most "dark" or pessismistic of Austen's novels is the only one which centers itself in this "French" and then European trajectory. Marianne does not renounce, and she endures all the wretchedness her vulnerability to a "free-lance predator" subjects her to. Austen gives us a heroine who both does not and then does renounce. Brandon is her safety, her happiness, her security, but he too is presented as someone who did not renounce.

The archetype is not only feminine in Austen; it is masculine. Brandon is permanently wounded by his enthrallment with his Eliza, and seeks to recreate Eliza in protecting Marianne by marrying and taking care of her. Marianne is an outward manifestation writ large of what goes on under the surface of Elinor, but Elinor does not choose the sexually conniving male.

Another thing Austen adds to this tradition is that she is trying--though according to some member of list it seems she fails--to create a new kind of hero who is not a predator, but a decent and good and yet more truly loving man than any of the Valmonts (to use the hero's name from Les Liaisons Dangereuses which Austen's Lady Susan imitates because her heroine recalls the fascinating cynical and cruel Madame de Merteuil of that book). She tries first in Edward Ferrars, succeeds in Darcy who picks up the external allure of the Valmont types, but then return to her Edward Ferrars' conception with Edmund Bertram, where she doesn't altogether succeed (at least if one reads what readers say about Edmund); then there's the reserved Knightley who I think she does succeed with; and finally Wentworth, who I think the actor, Ciarhan Hinds, in the recent film embodied perfectly (i.e., I liked his portrayal; it seemed to me to capture something of Austen's conception of an older man who has been inwardly deeply hurt, but got over it, or thought he did, and now returns to learn yet another lesson about himself and the true value of a woman like Anne Elliot). It seems interesting to me though that without half-trying her Henry Tilney is entrancing and good (I defy Henry Churchyard's accusation that I have a crush on Tilney), but then this novel does not delve sexuality in the way her later books attempt it.

I'd like to end by quoting a line Shattuck quotes from George Eliot's Mill on the Floss because Eliot with her genius seems to pinpoint precisely what Austen is getting out in a character like Edward Ferrars and his struggles in the trammels of his love for Elinor and earlier enticement by Lucy Steele. Eliot wrote:

"The real problem of the shifting relation between passion and duty is clear to no man who is capable of apprehending it."

What Austen is trying to do before Eliot so lucidly stated the complex psychological and moral dilemma here in so few general and yet precise words is show in Edward Ferrars & Colonel Brandon two men and in Elinor Dashwood a woman who experience and learn to apprehend "shifting relation between passion and duty." This real problem which Eliot thinks no man can apprehend is to determine what is the fulfilling and yet truly decent thing to do when caught up in the trammels of "the shifting relation between passion and duty." What Marianne learns is this thing to do is protect yourself first; selfishness is her trump card in the game; what Colonel Brandon learns is to act out of a kind of "residual" (this is Shattuck's nice word) left-over instinct for protection of the loved object.

I await with anticipation Part Two of Shattuck's essay.

Ellen Moody

Re: The Quotation from Eliot's Mill on The Floss

Last week Arnessa responded to my post S&S in context, and it has taken me all this time to think about Arnessa and my differences and come up with a reasoned reply worthy her thoughts. But here I am. I think she and I are closer in agreement than she supposes. In fact it's just a matter of emphasis between us. First I did take "it" to refer to shifting relation in the following sentence:

"The real problem of the shifting relation between passion and duty is clear to no man who is capable of apprehending it."

I did mean that the real problem is no man can apprehend it, it meaning "shifting relation. And I admit I too am partly baffled by the line; I read Mill on the Floss when I was a teenager, and although I have a copy of the book still I have no idea where it is, and Shattuck offers no "context" to help one along, that is, he does not tell one where in the story this line occurs. Of course if we could find it, then maybe we wouldn't be so baffled.

As we do not know exactly where it occurs or if in context it is any less ambiguous (and Shattuck praises ambiguity in his piece), we must just go on to talk from what information we have. Thus I'll just say that Arnessa and I both agree that a paraphrase into simpler language of this sentnece would run, in Arnessa's words: "the real problem is clear only to those who never see any shift in the relation, who always put passion first or duty first." She then took the line and applied it to S&S with the meaning that ethics with respect to passion or duty are situational. That is in one situation we must follow our passion, and in another duty, and there is no hard or firm rule. Still we are in agreement, and this is what Shattuck took the line to mean also:

"The sentence... affirms that no moral abstraction or maxim will provide a 'master key' to any such dilemma. One must know the full story in all its human circumstances..."

Now we get to where our emphasis took us in different directions. Arnessa took the line to mean that one can at any given time still decide what to do; the relation between duty and passion shifts, but there is a decision we can make at a given point which we can say was the best. This I deny. I take the sentence to suggest the shift is so shifty (so to speak), so slippery from moment to moment that we can never be sure. So the real problem of apprehending this shifting relation (it) is to see that we cannot quite see clearly what is the decent or humane or just or right thing to do as the shifting emotions keep shifting, and the situation keeps slipping into something slightly different from what it was a moment before.

Thus I also disagree about Elinor, because my emphasis makes me say that Austen proves Eliot's sentence accurate. Austen does not intend us to think Elinor always decides right. Elinor is caught up "in the trammels" as I put it of these shifting relations between passion and duty. Elinor as we all know by now will rigidly at times put duty first; but as the book "flowers" out so to speak we will see that Austen (I suggest) intends us to recognize that Elinor could have been spared intense heartache had she put passion first and told her love--to her mother, to Marianne, to Edward himself. I cannot imagine Lucy turning the knife in Marianne's heart; Marianne would break out and Lucy would not be able to twist the poison in and revel in it. We may say well this happened--Lucy could take such advantage, including writing a letter to Elinor (imagine this) to get a job for Edward, banking on Elinor's duty, but there we know it's her passion, she loves Edward and wants to help him, and will not hurt him--we may well say this between Lucy and Elinor happened because Elinor's Elinor. Ah.

We are not to take Elinor as anything like in possession of life's truths. In the book life is in possession of all the characters, not only Marianne; its strong stream takes along Brandon, Willoughby, Edward, everyone, now some are lucky and some are not, for this stream's forces are other people's wills, the access to money, prestige, power, someone's vanity, so many things beyond each character's control. Now as opposed to some of the characters, Elinor often makes admirable and sometimes the right decisions, but she too is swept along by forces beyond her control including her own nature. So while Arnessa takes the line to mean we can decide even if the decision is not absolute but a result of situational ethics, I take it to mean it's almost impossible to decide since the damn stuff (passion and duty) never stops shifting. That Elinor "wins" in the end is not to be taken as a sign she made right choices. We can all easily sense the fairy tale nature of the happy ending in P&P; we talked of this during our readings; I suggest the intensely qualified happy ending in S&S also partakes of the fairy tale; Elinor ending in that cottage with her man, Marianne ending in her great house with a man who does love her was not necessarily in the cards by a long shot. It was not Elinor's self-abasing self-abnegation behavior that won Edward; it was his passion for her, all of her; he loved her for her beauty, for all of her character which his was in sympathy with, and in this line her self-abnegation becomes a version of his awkwardness, inability to cope with stronger people, and his knowledge she would pity and not scorn him.

This is very interesting; I find S&S brings up issues which to me are in some ways far more intriguing and penetrating to some of life's deepest problems than P&P which is more like the champagne we drink so as to make the bearing of life more easy, more apparently pleasant.

Ellen Moody

Contact Ellen Moody.
Pagemaster: Jim Moody.
Page Last Update 10 January 2003