Monday, March 8, 2010

Sense and Sensibility, Chapters 1-13

In the first 13 chapters of Sense and Sensibility, we meet most of the novel's main characters, and the major conflicts have also been set into motion. We're introduced to Elinor and Marianne, the Dashwood sisters, who have been forced with their mother and little sister out of their house  upon the death of their father. Mr. Henry Dashwood bequeathed the property to his son from his first marriage, though he exacted a promise from this son to care for his half-sisters and step-mother. John Dashwood plans to do this until his wife, Fanny, convinces him that he has no obligations to them. The women stay on until they can secure new lodgings, and it's here that they meet Edward Ferrars (Fanny's brother), whom Marianne is convinced that Elinor loves.

When Sir John Middleton, a relation of Mrs. Dashwood, offers the displaced women a cottage on his property to stay in, the action of the novel shifts to this new house, where the Dashwoods meet some charming men and a terrible busybody, and attend parties. The men include Colonel Brandon, who is in love with Marianne, and Willoughby, with whom Marianne fell in love after he came to her rescue after she twisted her ankle in a rainstorm. Willoughby courts Marianne and raises the neighbors' eyebrows when he takes her on a carriage ride and a tour of the house he expects to inherit. Elinor is convinced that her sister is making poor decisions and jeopardizing her reputation.

That's where we leave the Dashwood sisters at the end of the first 13 chapters. These early sections are concerned with various expectations the characters have for themselves and each other, and Austen introduces the idea of "sensibility," a term that doesn't quite mean what it means today. "Sensibility" is  present in varying amounts in each the novel's female characters, and this term is, I think, one of the best ways to enter into our discussion of the novel.

The title is about more than equating sense with Elinor for her practicality and theories about marriage, and linking sensibility to Marianne for her belief in sharing feelings ("'Esteem him! Like him! Cold-hearted Elinor!… Use those words again and I will leave the room this moment.'") and the idea that the only love that matters is the first attachment one makes (we'll get into this at a later point). To contextualize sensibility, we can look to Mary Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), in which it is argued that men kept women dependent on them by insisting on their sensibility, or their alliance with feeling instead of reason. Ros Ballaster notes in the introduction to the Penguin Hardcover Classics edition that according to Wollstonecraft, "women who have been enslaved to sensibility… either neglect or indulge their children, whereas women given the opportunity to exercise their capacity for reason would educate them to become full rational citizens themselves."

We see a woman enslaved to sensibility in Mrs. Dashwood, who gossips with Marianne when the two interpret Elinor's feelings about Edward, and who cannot make a practical decision when finding a new house. Elinor saves the day with her "steadier judgment" and rejects "several houses as too large for their income." Marianne seems destined to follow in her mother's footsteps — her courtship with Willoughby is based on sensibility — while Elinor's mother and sister worry that her inability to show feelings means she'll never marry.

Wollstonecraft refers to Samuel Johnson's 1755 definition of "sensibility," which is "quickness of sensation; quickness of perception; delicacy," and writes that "the definition gives me no other idea than of the most exquisitely polished instinct." Both Elinor and Marianne possess this sharp instinct but they show it in different ways, allowing Austen to turn the popular sentimental novel on its head and usher in a new era of writing. Austen picks apart contemporary society and satirizes the novelistic conventions that sentimentalize romance. With Sense and Sensibility and the novels that follow, we're dealing with a very astute writer — one who will charm us with her wit and humor while dissecting the society in which she lives.

What did everyone think of Sense and Sensibility?


  1. So I read this book about ten years ago, and I remember noticing this then, but even so I'm surprised all over again at how much telling and how little showing there is in this novel. Edward in particular just shows up and Austen tells us that an attachment forms between him and Elinor, but I couldn't tell you why or how. The dialogue we *do* get is all among the Dashwood family, and it seems like Austen is much less interested in the love stories of this novel than she is in the Dashwoods' differing approaches to life.

    I also forgot completely about Lady Middleton...partly because (cough) she isn't in the Emma Thompson movie. I can see why she's left out--she's such a lackluster character--but it's kind of amazing how thoroughly Austen portrays her boring-ness. I liked this line in particular, when Marianne is singing: "Lady Middleton frequently called him [her husband] to order, wondered how anyone's attention could be diverted from music for a moment, and asked Marianne to sing a particular song which Marianne had just finished."

    That's one example of the sheer snark in this novel--I have difficulty coming up with a more appropriate word for it. There are some really choice samples, like when Willoughby brings Marianne home and then leaves "to make himself still more interesting in the midst of a heavy rain." Or when the excursion to Whitwell can't take place in chapter 13, and they all decide that "although happiness could only be enjoyed at Whitwell, they might procure a tolerable composure of mind by driving about the country." (Something about this passage really drives home for me the rather purposeless character of life in this class and era.)

    Marianne deals out the snark herself when talking about Colonel Brandon...Elinor says he's interesting to talk to and has been abroad, and Marianne replies, "That is to say, he has told you that in the East Indies the climate is hot and the mosquitoes are troublesome." Elinor is calm but does not yield to this: "He would have told me so, I doubt not, had I made any such inquiries, but they happened to be points on which I had been previously informed."

    One detail that I found telling: "He had been to several families that morning in hopes of procuring some addition to their number, but it was moonlight and everybody was full of engagements." I had never thought of moonlight having this effect on social life, but it makes sense if you're going driving about at night in an age without electricity.

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  3. Yeah, Austen is incredibly snarky, isn't she? It's not something that I expected to find here, but I'm glad I did.

    I like your point that "Austen is much less interested in the love stories of this novel than she is in the Dashwoods' differing approaches to life." So far it just seems that their love stories exist to illustrate the sisters' differences. We have the relationship you mentioned between Edward and Elinor that we don't know what it's based on, and we have a clearly superficial relationship between Marianne and Willoughby — she's taken with him because "is name was good, his residence was in their favorite village, and she soon found out that of all the manly dresses a shooting-jacket was most becoming."

    Though Marianne and Willoughby's relationship seems like puppy love, the above quote is more of a reason than Austen gives us for Elinor's affection for Edward. I'm interested to see how the relationship plays out between the two going forward.