…and because they were fond of reading, she fancied them satirical… (Lady Middleton on the Dashwood sisters, Ch. 36)
In January, I wrote about Volume 1 of Jane Austen’s Sense and sensibility, which my local Jane Austen group is reading volume by volume this 200th anniversary year of its publication. Unfortunately I missed the February meeting and so didn’t take part in the discussion. But, I am still reading it volume by volume. Here are some thoughts on Volume 2 (which comprises Chapters 23 to 36).
In my discussion of Volume 1, I suggested that the “sense” and “sensibility” dichotomy is not as absolute as the title would suggest. However, in Volume 2, Elinor and Marianne are pretty well entrenched in these two opposing positions. Marianne gives full rein to her emotions as the extent of Willoughby’s perfidy becomes clear, while Elinor takes tight control of herself to hide her emotional distress about Edward. Is this a flaw in the novel? Or Austen’s skill in setting up the characters and then, in this central section, using their prime characteristic to further her plot and themes? Let’s see how it pans out in Volume 3.
Also in my discussion of Volume 1, I talked about what I saw as the theme of “judgement” being developed in the book. The word “judgement” does not appear as frequently in this volume, but I think the idea is still there. Elinor is convinced that Marianne and Willoughby have a “secret” engagement because she does not believe Marianne to be so lacking in judgement as to behave the way she does (giving Willoughby a lock of hair, writing to him) without being engaged. And yet, she’s not totally confident in Marianne because she decides to go to London with Marianne and Mrs Jennings
as she did not think it proper that Marianne should be left to the sole guidance of her own judgement…
Is Elinor a bit of prig? Some think so, but I prefer to see her as a wise young person, who needed to be so, given the mother and sister she had. As the volume progresses, we see the failure of judgement in many of the characters, such as Fanny Dashwood who ironically prefers to have the Steele sisters as her guests over her relations, the Dashwoods, and Mrs Jennings whose general kindness makes it hard for her to see through more calculating characters like Lucy Steele.
For all this, though, it is money that drives the plot in this book, that generates its main plot crises, one of which occurs in this volume. Money is behind Willoughby’s callous treatment of Marianne, as Miss Grey has £50,000! Miss Morton has £30,000, and so is being promoted in this volume as a good catch for Edward Ferrars who has only £2,000 of his own (though he is promised more if he marries well. What’s that about money begetting money?) Lucy claims to love Edward for himself, and not his money. Money is the governing principle in the lives of Mrs Ferrars and her daughter, Fanny Dashwood. John Dashwood never appears without money being far behind. Money is a significant factor – particularly regarding women and marriage – in all of Austen’s novels, something she establishes clearly in this, her first one to be published.
One of the delights of this volume is the way characters are so beautifully and consistently delineated. For example, here is how some of the characters respond to the news of Willoughby’s engagement to Miss Grey:
- Hail-fellow-well-met Sir John Middleton finds the behaviour “unaccountable” from such a bold rider;
- Cheery but garrulous Mrs Palmer “resolved never to mention his name again, and she should tell everybody she saw, how good-for-nothing he was”;
- Cold Lady Middleton shows “calm and polite unconcern”; while
- Kind Colonel Brandon makes “delicate, unobtrusive enquiries”.
Austen’s ability to define character so clearly, using satire, irony or straight description as the character warrants, is one of the things I love about her.
Finally, I just have to share this little bit of “plus ça change”:
Why don’t he, in such a case, sell his horses, let his house, turn off his servants, and make a thorough reform at once? I warrant you, Miss Marianne would have been ready to wait till matters came round. But that won’t do now-a-days; nothing in the way of pleasure can ever be given up by the young men of this age.
What do I hear today about today’s younger generation wanting it all now?