Sense and Sensibility: Secresy and Sickness"

To Austen-l, June 23, 1998

Re: Tony Tanner on S&S: A Very Great Essay

For me Tanner's book on Austen's novels begins for real with his essay, "Secrecy and Sickness: Sense and Sensibility." The first time I read his introductory chapter I didn't think about it as carefully as I have in order to write about it, and I simply dismissed it as so much "clearing his throat." Now of course I realize it is a chapter defending Austen's art against the idea that great art must concern itself explicitly with great issues or some specific significant social or political or economic. He is also arguing that those who don't like S&S feel it does not align itself closely with what life is centrally about at a gut level. I still think his chapter on NA shows he is not interested in it, e.g., nowhere is there is anything approaching a serious analysis of the gothic. He is more interested in digressing endlessly; he takes up little points in the novel and goes off on tangents.

But when he gets to S&S he is in his element. I hadn't understood that June was objecting to the idea that S&S was once epistolary because she saw my argument as a way of dismissing the novel as weak or poor. I think epistolary narratives are hard to write, and can think of a number of novels told in letters which are very great; the form is not gone from us by any means. If I say something was originally epistolary, this is not to disparage it, but to emphasize the depth of its interiority and the dramatic effect of personating voices and presenting many differing perspectives on life. I am very fond of S&S because I have identified with the sexual issues at the heart of it and identify with the double heroine. S&S was the book that first hooked me into Austen. I read it between the ages of 12-13 and identified absolutely with Marianne while longing to be like Elinor. The tone of Elinor's mind combines fine intelligence with a controlled depth of emotions rare in literature. At her best Marianne is pure poignance, and her scream at the center of the book its heart. When I was young I acted and felt like Marianne (much to my later grief), but I wanted to be Elinor and thought about her values and self-control as important for safety. I see her as implicitly as emotional as Marianne. They are a doppelgänger.

Of course one can read the book for comedy. My young daughter Isabel now has -- she was keen on Mrs Jennings. But then it's a rich book and I am going with Tanner's approach here.

On to Tanner: I think the reason he writes so superbly on this novel is that it answers his demand a book have deep and important truths about life -- as he understands it. He clearly prefers the less comic and more grave aspects of Austen. A give-away of his attitude may be found on p 82 where he compares Marianne's illness to "the amazing burlesque on excessive sensibility to be found in such pieces as Love and Friendship. It's clear he thinks S&S is much superior to this earlier juvenilia because it tells its truths through sequences which verge on the tragic and are presented with deep emotional seriousness. (Tanner is also very good on MP, another book he finds deeply congenial).

Well, what does he tell us? He says it is a book which meditates the demand for secrecy in society and reveals the sicknesses and miseries such secrecy encourages and allows. He presents the need the individual has to keep her inner life secret as a necessary guard against the viciousness, stupidity, competition, materialism, and exploitation other people will inflict on anyone who shows their more vulnerable sides. He shows how such secrecy twists people; how it becomes a weapon in the hands of the unscrupulous. He goes through many scenes in the books where this word is used or its idea embodied in many varied forms, and connects secrecy to the necessity of lying, to the pains this inflicts. He also connects it to the use of screens in the book -- Elinor is a screen painter. He brings out the period's sense of itself as one in which people for the first time were willing to admit to or at least described "nervous disorders." He also shows that screen- painting, secrecy when practiced on behalf of others can also be forms of sympathy, of care, of concern, and demand great strength. I have always looked at Elinor and Marianne as a doppelganger figure which examines the sexual longings of women; this can be seen as just one phase of this larger perspective Tanner puts on the paired heroines. Secrecy and sickness widen out to the larger issues of "jostling for partners, property, and power" which the plot line embodies.

Since he is so moved, goes with the grain of the book, and stays with the text to bring out all sorts of important perceptions about our lives, he again and again waxes eloquent. I will quote just a few lines and passages which are filled with good thought and imagination:

  • I like his definition of sensibility as "a fineness of feeling and disposition which took one out of the arena of more brutal abrasive appetites and desires which constituted 'the world' and or society at large..."
  • how "the opportunistic marriages" of the book "provide suitable punishments in the form of domestic misery..."
  • the long section describing the mounting tension between Elinor and Marianne as each practices a game of concealment in front of the other (pp. 80) which culminates in Elinor's outburst: "For four months, Marianne, I have had all this hanging on my mind, without being at liberty to speak of it to a single creature..."
  • Marianne's deep illness as a form of near suicide linked up to Foucault's ideas about madness in a repressed society (pp. 82-3);
  • I thought he was very good on how little we know about the people we spend hours sitting next to (never mind people on a list), and other the presence of other people often coerces us into destroying parts of ourselves while we are with them (pp. 86-8);
  • he's right about Austen's society being one which "forced people to be at once very sociable and very private," and I thought the paradox that "interior freedom amounts to interior distress" (if you have nothing to control your thoughts you will go deeper and deeper into misery, madness, loss of perspective) well taken
  • the idea that the effort to make words coincide with things and screen us is done in order to provide us with a measure of dignity and peace (p. 93);
  • when he turns to sex in the book his language sings: Marianne is "interested in the more primitive, even the more Dionysiac man." She is the one who loves movement, wildness, dance, the wind, the leaves; "Elinor has an instinct for stillness and composure." (p. 97)
  • Finally he is right to bring in Freud's Civilization and Its Discontents as mediating one of the themes of this book.

This essay is criticism at its best when confronted with a serious and great piece of art in the novel form and when it proceeds from the assumptions that what makes a work of art great is its ability to illuminate the private and social structuring of our lives.

Ellen Moody

RE: Criticism--& Burney Subgroup: Tanner on S&S--& Cecilia

A couple of Tanner's commentaries on S&S also apply to Cecilia, especially the Masquerade Chapter which Jill wrote about.

First it seems to me Cecilia is like Marianne in that for "Marianne forms are equated with falsity; she will not join in the 'social masquerade." Tanner goes on' to talk of the masks everyone wears in society, and how upon Elinor falls all the tasks of hiding and telling lies. These become part of a masquerade carried on through hypocrisy and outward visibilia. Tanner says "the loathing of hypocrisy" is "one of the most sympathetic characteristics of the Romantic movement:"

"the difficulty here is that, while every individual may hav a different inner world of feelings and thoughts, there is only one concrete external world which we must all inhabit. No-one knew better than Jane Austen that people who were as remote foreigners to each other mentally might very well be very close neighbors physically. And, while she saw with unsparing clarity just now much cruelty, repression, and malice the social forms made possible, how much misery they generated"

she knows we cannot be sincere with one another, for this would soon end in anarchy, war, hatred, and so on.

My problem with this is Tanner is a normalizer. He is always justifying society. Perhaps Austen is a normalizer too, but let us note that in Cecilia the masquerade is a series of grotesqueries. Everyone is lying all the time. The idea that there is an external world we must all inhabit presupposes that what people say to one another actually reflects some truths. In Cecilia the idea is broached that this is not so at all. In S&S there are also odd grotesqueries: think of how Mrs Palmer laughs at Mr Palmer's continual insults, how she pretends (or maybe thinks with what passes for a brain) how delightful she finds his abrasive dismissal of her. Think of Nancy and Lucy Steele in Lady Middleton's drawing room, endless lies and grotesqueries the meanest understanding could pick out.

I wonder what masques we could give the characters of S&S if we were to send them to a masquerade.

I also thought another of Tanner's sections on _S&S_ related in interesting ways to Cecilia. He finds not only in Marianne, but in Mrs Jennings, deeply or quietly and tactfully in Elinor

"a protest of the sincere heart against the distortions of social language, which continually threaten to submit the individual's feelings and actions to derogatory redefinitions. One of the most important aspects of the Romantic movement was the refusal of the intensely feeling individual to have the meaning of his experience settled by other people's language."

This recalls Elinor and Marianne's dialogue where Marianne accuses Elinor of demanding she think and feel the way others demand, and Elinor says no, she only says that in outward behavior we have to control ourselves, not in what we really think and choose to do of importance. There are the gentle teasing dialogues of Edward and Marianne on the picturesque; Marianne's mistaken love for Willoughby as brave enough to be sincerely in love. I see Anne Elliot as participating in a refusal to have the meaning of her experience settled by anyone else; so too Fanny Price and many of the Austen heroines.

Well if anything Burney's heroines go further in this. It is made explicit. Cecilia, Camilla, and Juliet are deeply romantic in the sense suggested by Tanner. The dislike and fascination with masquerade so often testified to in literature of the period comes just at the end of the 18th century when the romantic period was beginning. Thus we may also find this complex of emotions and ideas and the imagery of masquerade in other novelists and poets and dramatists. Of course I am thinking of Mozart's _Don Giovanni_--of which there is a marvellous BBC movie filmed in Venice with everyone in remarkable masquerade costumes of the period.

This is an essay which resonates out to and explains other books which share some of Austen's assumptions and are written in a mode like hers. Ellen Moody

To Austen-l

June 24, 1998

Re: On Elinor Watching Marianne Nearly Die

On Tanner's comments on Marianne's suicidal behavior:

The sequence in the final volume where Elinor watches over Marianne while ill is deeply moving. Austen plots it hourly; time expands as it does in moments of deep psychological intensity. The critic who has written most effectively about it is still Elizabeth Jenkins in an early chapter in her Life of Austen on S&S (see pp. 83-4). The kind of deeply inner and affective writing in this sequence and Elizabeth Jenkins's highly imaginative sympathetic response to it is superb. Jenkins is among those who agree the book was probably originally epistolary; but she is also among those who think it is a work of genius. She talks about some of its shortcomings and evidence in it of earlier work, but she does it justice. She finds a "peculiar loveliness" in it. I also thought Emma Thompson's performance as Elinor in the scene of Marianne's illness perfect.

It is true that older criticism tended to dismiss _S&S_. Tanner is probably one of the earliest critics to take it fully seriously. Since his essay there have been several full-length studies of the book, and not only because it explores sex; it depicts a real urge to die rather than fit in to a world not worth it. The world of S&S is that of Cecilia. The movie too may be taken as a "sign" the book is coming into its own again. I have seen on this list and elsewhere people say they actually think it Austen's best. She is very close to her Elinor in the book--though she identifies increasingly with Marianne as the book proceeds; it is really in the earlier sections of the book that Marianne is treated harshly. Not in the later sections.

Ellen Moody

Date: Wed, 24 Jun 1998
Reply-To: Jane Austen List
Subject: S&S: Whether it's worth it to live on

To Anne the response to the use of the complaint that Austen "rarely addresses the terrible, central central concerns of every human life" is to note the astute use of "rarely." This is a flexible word which could be used against Shakespeare for out of 37-9 plays, many sonnets, and 3 long dramatic poems we could equally say he "rarely" talks about them either. It is a clever ploy.

I was thinking that the central sequence of Marianne's story when she wants to die, prefers to die, would rather not live in a world made up of John and Fanny Dashwoods, Mrs Ferrarses, Middletons, and the other horrors of this book (Robert Ferrars) is the central concern of life. Hamlet ponders it. Is it worth it to live, given what we must endure daily from fools and malice, and given the little joy we receive. Myself I am not so sure. I would suggest one of the reasons S&S has come up in estimation in the past quarter century is through its interiority it escapes easy moral categories and Austen could very early on approach tragedy. The dealing with taboo issues is what epistolary books did in the later 18th century; that;'s why they were so popular. Austen herself read them avidly; Lady Susan is influenced by Les Liaisons Danegereuses and Delphine.

An answer is given to the question whether it is worth it to live in MP: it is Yes. There we find a vision of endurance and final peace in the story of Fanny Price and the people of this house. In S&S the answer is a disillusioned and enigmatic close.

To me S&S a superior novel to P&P because of the way it approaches tragedy, deal with trauma, sex--and money too.

Ellen Moody

Re: The Problem of Secrets

I want to bring up the problem of secrets. Tanner talks about this as central to S&S. It is. But as Nancy began to explain from this book, there are other ways of regarding secrets which we don't find in S&S. How about the secrets we keep from those we are said to trust and live with in a close daily and supposedly loving relationship? Tanner talks about the secrets Willoughby and Marianne keep from the world (are they engaged?); but this perspective is social. Edward and Lucy don't tell of their engagement because he could lose his inheritance. What Tanner doesn't go into is the secret of the engagement is then kept from Elinor and harms her in the deeper areas of her consciousness as she falls in love with Edward. But we are not presented with a situation where Edward keeps the secret because he wants to harm Elinor, control her, or because he is afraid of her power. This level or perspective on secresy is closer to what we find in MP from Maria's point of view. She would keep her affair with Crawford secret because of Rushworth's power; Crawford would keep secret from Fanny his affair because he fears what she will do, and wants to control the situation.

I don't think secresy of this kind is that important in Austen. Or maybe it is kept to the margins of the stories. It brings forward a rather darker aspect of our lives with one another. What do others think?

Ellen Moody

To Austen-

RE: Four More S's

To add four more s's to Larry's list of sense, sensibility, secrecy, sickness, sexuality, civility, and self-control as central (a "s'" sound) to S&S, there's sensitivity (as in the Middletons, John & Fanny Dashwood, and Mrs Ferrars and Robert have none at all, while Marianne, Elinor, Edward, Brandon and Mrs Dashwood are all over-endowed; there's scream (as when at the crisis of the book Marianne "almost screamed in agony"); and Isobel Armstrong has a lovely phrase for the book as a whole in which she writes what "characterizes this work is "a certain sadness and tension and even at times an almost lyrical sombreness." I like lyrical sombreness. Ellen Moody

Has anyone thought of "seduction"?

Contact Ellen Moody.
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