I’ve called this post “Vol. 3, redux”, although it is my first post on volume 3. The reason is that for my Jane Austen group’s 2011 slow read of Sense and sensibility, I wrote posts on volumes 1 and 2, but not on volume 3 as I missed the meeting, and never did write up my own thoughts. This slow read, I have written up volume 1 (as “redux”), but I missed volume 2’s discussion, and again didn’t write up my thoughts. However, I did get to the volume 3 meeting and am naming my thoughts “redux” to match them up with the right re-read!
Now, a quick recap … In my recent volume 1 post, I discussed various ideas that had captured my attention, such as the novel’s autobiographical aspects, “fond” mothers, and appearance. Most of these had fallen away for me by the time I got to volume 3, but one idea that I mentioned – goodness, compassion and kindness – did not…
Triumph of kindness and generosity
From the novel’s beginning, the virtues of kindness, benevolence, generosity, charity are pitted against greed and self-interest. It starts with the sisters’ brother, John Dashwood, doing essentially nothing for his sisters while a distant cousin, Sir John Middleton, offers them a home at a good rental and supports them in any way he can. The theme continues through volumes 2 and into volume 3 where even characters who had been seen, initially, as somewhat silly if not vulgar, like Mrs Jennings and Charlotte Palmer, show kindness and compassion. They show up favourably against the greed and self-interest of Fanny and John Dashwood, Lucy Steele, and Willoughby.
Colonel Brandon is one of the characters whose kindness is evident from the start. Indeed, Elinor says to her mother near the end, that “his character does not rest … on one act of kindness”. A telling moment occurs when, in volume 3, he offers Edward Ferrars “a living”, after Edward’s own mother had disinherited him. The aforementioned John Dashwood finds this behaviour “improvident” and “astonishing” – and wonders why. Elinor responds, simply, that Colonel Brandon wanted “to be of use to Mr Ferrars”. That phrase, “to be of use”, conveys a sense of humility, of not wanting anything back, in his generosity.
It’s surely ironic when a page later, John Dashwood accuses sister Elinor of “ignorance of human nature”.
Mrs Jennings, too, who is described in the opening volume as “rather vulgar”, proves herself to be thoughtful and generous to Elinor and Marianne during their stay in her home in London. And when, in volume 3, Marianne falls seriously ill en-route home, Mrs Jennings
with a kindness of heart which made Elinor really love her, declared her resolution of not during from Cleveland as long as Marianne remained ill, and of endeavouring by her own attentive care, to supply to her the place of the mother she had taken her from.
Money is the root of …?
Money is another idea that threads through the novel from beginning to end: it is the death of Mr Dashwood which results in Mrs Dashwood and her daughters finding themselves homeless and impecunious. As the novel progresses, characters are defined by their attitude to money. There are well-off characters who are avaricious, like the aforementioned John Dashwoods and Mrs Ferrars, and well-off characters who are generous, like Sir John Middleton, Colonel Brandon and Mrs Jennings.
There are many in the novel, in fact, for whom money is so important they will sacrifice values like integrity and sincerity. Willoughby, in his confession to Elinor in Volume 3, admits
My affection for Marianne, my thorough conviction of her attachment to me–it was all insufficient to outweigh that dread of poverty, or get the better of those false ideas of the necessity of riches …
Of his rich fiancee, he says, “her money was necessary to me”.
Lucy Steele is, of course, the epitome of someone who schemes and manipulates for money, with little regard for the feelings of others. In the end, despite all her protestations of love, she is not willing to settle for the secure, if not rich, life that Elinor eventually has.
But what is it really all about?
As with all of Austen’s novels, what Sense and sensibility is about has been discussed and analysed and critiqued from literary, socioeconomic, feminist, historical, you-name-it perspectives. And, really, there is no one thing it is about. That is the joy and value of Austen. What she writes about, fundamentally, is people, and how we read her changes with our own experiences of life.
So here is where I am today. When I first read Sense and sensibility in my teens, I loved it. It was so romantic. Elinor gets her man, and is happy to live the life of an honest but not particularly well-off minister’s wife. Her sweet but overly romantic, emotional sister, gets the rich man. While that never seemed quite fair to me, as happily-ever-after stories go, I accepted it because it just showed what a person of integrity Elinor truly was. Love and esteem for an honest man were what made her happy.
And yet … what is Austen saying to us? Why do some of her heroines end up with less than dashing heroes? Well, I think it is partly because she was an early, if not the first, great novelist of realism. From this, her very first novel, she provides us with a microcosm of humanity. Like her later novels, Sense and sensibility is populated with flawed characters who represent complex humanity, unlike her Gothic and Sentimental novelist predecessors who tended to present the world in more morally absolutist, black-and-white terms. Not so Austen. Mrs Jennings might be “rather vulgar”, and a bit of an interfering gossip, but her heart is large and she’s generous. Mr Palmer, who seems cold and distant when first met away from home, shows himself to be kind and generous when a crisis occurs. And so on. Even Willoughby, despite his “selfish vanity”, is redeemed a little by his confession, and Austen allows him a reasonable life after all. I now see this confession as not being “clunky” as I’d once thought, but as important to Austen’s mission of portraying life.
But, back to Marianne. There was something that I noticed on this read that I’d never noticed before, and that concerned Marianne and her marriage to Colonel Brandon. One of the reasons I have always loved Sense and sensibility is for this quote:
Marianne Dashwood was born to an extraordinary fate. She was born to discover the falsehood of her own opinions, and to counteract, by her conduct, her most favourite maxims.
I so related to this – to the idea of proclaiming opinions before experience teaches us otherwise – that I hadn’t really seen the preceding paragraph, which concerns Marianne’s mother explicitly matchmaking Marianne with Colonel Brandon:
It was now her darling object. Precious as was the company of her daughter to her, she desired nothing so much as to give up its constant enjoyment to her valued friend; and to see Marianne settled at the mansion-house was equally the wish of Edward and Elinor. They each felt his sorrows, and their own obligations, and Marianne, by general consent, was to be the reward of all.
“The reward of all”. This sounds a bit suss! Austen continues …
With such a confederacy against her–with a knowledge so intimate of his goodness–with a conviction of his fond attachment to herself, which at last, though long after it was observable to everybody else–burst on her–what could she do?
And so, Marianne does come around to loving this good, kind man as Austen makes clearer a couple of paragraphs further on:
Marianne could never love by halves; and her whole heart became, in time, as much devoted to her husband, as it had once been to Willoughby.
The point, then, is that Sense and sensibility is not Romance with a capital-R, but a story about love – Elinor’s, from the start, and Marianne’s, eventually – that is based on genuine feeling combined with appreciation of the personal values that make a person worth loving.
There is so much more to this book but I’ll leave it here because I feel that, for now, I understand what it really is about!