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Jane Austen, Sense and sensibility (Vol. 2)

March 19, 2011
Austen, Sense and sensibility, Ch 36 illustration

From Chapter 36, illus. by CEBrock (Presumed Public Domain, from solitaryelegance.com)

…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?

13 Comments leave one →
  1. March 20, 2011 7:18 am

    You’re not starting one of those Jane Austen cults, are you?

  2. March 20, 2011 10:58 am

    Am enjoying the Austen posts Sue! John @ LD

    • March 20, 2011 11:15 am

      Thanks MLD, are you a fan?

      • March 21, 2011 11:48 am

        I read and loved Pride and Prejudice in late 09, then read S&S, Persuasion & Emma all in the next two weeks! I enjoyed them all, particularly P&P and Persuasion. It probably wasn’t the best thing to do in retospect as characters from one book started to bleed into another in my mind, but it was a fun fortnight. John

        • March 21, 2011 3:18 pm

          Ah yes, if I HAD to say to avoid being tortured, I’d say P&P and Persuasion were my favourites too, though like most Austenites I’m more likely to say it’s the one I’m currently reading.

  3. March 20, 2011 11:25 am

    I agree that money seems to be the theme of Sense and Sensibility. It is a more mercenary novel even than Pride and Prejudice. I love Mrs Dashwood’s constant plans to change the tiny cottage they live in even though she has never saved in her life! Enjoyed your post.

    • March 20, 2011 11:33 am

      Welcome Nicola and thanks for commenting. Love the observation about Mrs Dashwood. I’ve read this novel a few times (of course) but this slow read has been beautifully illuminating. Money features in all her novels, doesn’t it, but it does seem to be particularly persistently front-and-centre in this one. I think there are a few themes but money is a biggie!

  4. March 20, 2011 3:32 pm

    Aren’t you a trooper! I’m sure many people would’ve interpreted missing the meeting as a valid excuse to skip out on this particular “homework” 😉 I s’pose this just goes back to the fact that you actually love reading and this blog 😛

  5. March 22, 2011 2:58 am

    I came this close to starting S&S over the weekend but held off because I really need to finish off Bolano and I’m in the midst of Shirley Hazzard. I want to be able to devote some high quality attention to Jane. Your posts give me much to think about!

    • March 22, 2011 9:16 am

      Thanks again Stefanie … I can see your eyes are too big for your stomach, metaphorically speaking! I know the feeling. I think you should at least finish Hazzard first, but I’d love it if you came back and gave your impressions when you do get to it.

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