Monday, March 15, 2010

Sense and Sensibility, Chapters 14-22

We've now finished the first volume of Sense and Sensibility and things are starting to get juicy. Two important things happen in these chapters — first Willoughby leaves abruptly, sending Marianne into a funk. His departure causes Mrs. Dashwood and Elinor to speculate about whether he and Marianne are engaged. Mrs. Dashwood thinks that Mrs. Smith (Willoughby's relative, from whom he will inherit the house) found out about the engagement and unhappy about it, sent him away. Elinor doubts that the couple is engaged at all.

The second thing of note is that Edward Ferrars comes to visit for a week. While he's there, the Dashwoods spot a ring with a lock of hair in it. Marianne suspects it is Elinor's hair (and Elinor thinks he "procured it by some theft or contrivance unknown to herself,") but Edward says it is his sister's hair. Edward is lying here, as we find out later.

The Palmers, a young couple, come to visit the Middletons and have dinner with the Dashwoods. Mrs. Palmer, the daughter of Mrs. Jennings and therefore Lady Middleton's sister, is pregnant and bubbly, while Mr. Palmer is rude and ignores his wife. Elinor asks Mrs. Palmer if she knows anything about Willoughby, and she replies that she knows about his engagement to Marianne. The Palmers leave and more visitors arrive in the form of the vulgar Steele sisters, who are also related to Mrs. Jennings.

The elder sister, Anne, is nearly 30 and quite plain, while the younger, Lucy is very pretty and clever. The Dashwoods don't especially enjoy their company, but are forced to spend time with the sisters nonetheless. Things get more interesting when Lucy pulls Elinor aside to ask if she has met Edward's mother, which Elinor doesn't know what to make of. She soon learns that Lucy has been secretly engaged to Edward for four years — they met at the home of Lucy's uncle, who was Edward's teacher — and that it is her hair in Edward's ring. The engagement is a secret, as the couple thinks Edward's mother would not approve of Lucy's lack of fortune.

The first volume ends with these two anticipated engagements going awry. While we don't know whether Marianne and Willoughby are engaged, we can assume that his sudden departure does not spell good things for the couple. It's interesting how little Marianne wants to talk about him, given her propensity for sharing feelings. After Elinor hears that news about Edward's engagement, which causes "an emotion and distress beyond any thing she had ever felt before," she is "mortified, shocked, confounded." This is the first instance where Austen has Elinor really feel something, though Elinor remains calm around Lucy and does not betray how deeply she apparently cares for Edward.

Two lines in these chapters give us some insight into the main characters', well, character. In Chapter 18, Edward, Elinor and Marianne are walking and admiring the scenery. Edward cuts Marianne off when she asks him which part of the scenery he most admires, and he says that he can only speak about those aspects of the landscape he knows about and does not want to "offend" her with his "ignorance." A bit later, in Chapter 21, Marianne falls silent in a conversation with the Steeles about Lady Middleton. Austen tells us that "it was impossible for her to say what she did not feel, however trivial the occasion; and upon Elinor therefore the whole task of telling lies when politeness required it, always fell."

Though Edward and Marianne insist on only saying those things they firmly believe/feel, they are both, in a sense, lying by omission — Edward keeps his engagement secret, and Marianne keeps whatever has transpired between her and Willoughby a secret. So while they will only talk about those things that are true, they do not talk about all true things.

We also start to see how the Dashwood sisters each embody sense and sensibility — Elinor may have sense, but she finds herself hurt by a man whom she gave her heart to. Marianne, meanwhile, chooses to stay out of a potentially uncomfortable conversation with the Steeles by holding her tongue since she couldn't agree with them. Austen is starting to show us how important it is to attain a balance between sense and sensibility.

What did you think about the first volume of the novel?

This week's reading assignment is to read through Chapter 34. See you here next Monday to talk about them!


  1. Two thoughts I had, in reading this far: first, if I attempt to separate Hugh Grant from the character of Edward Farrars, I find him entirely unappealing, and unworthy of Elinor. What a stick in the mud.

    Second, has anyone else here read Catherine Schine's "The Three Weissmans of Westport"? There's a storyline in it lifted straight from the Steele sisters here, though it hadn't occurred to me until rereading this one.

  2. I'm with you on Edward. He can't think of a profession to engage himself in (besides being a clergyman), so he'd rather sit around and do nothing — at least Willoughby has some interests. And if he's so miserable at being engaged to Lucy, as Elinor surmises, why not just end things? I'm hoping he'll do something redeeming as the novel progresses.

    I haven't read Schine, but I heard that the book was somehow related to "Sense and Sensibility." Did you like it?

  3. I have to begin by saying that I never would have thought that Jane Austen had such a sense of humor. I am really loving this book!
    Her characters are all wonderful. I especially like Edward Farrars who just drifts about;I really do think that he enjoys the whole melancholy and idle persona. In his conversation with Mrs. Dashwood in Chapter XIX he states."But unfortunately my own nicety, and the nicety of my friends, have made me what I am, an idle, helpless being." When I first read that I just assumed that that is just the way he is and that he is just fine with it, but after finding out the shocking news that he is engaged to Lucy Steele (a truly unlikeable girl) I wonder if it's all an act or is he not sure how to get out of his engagement in order to be with Elinor?
    Austen has developed her characters in such a way that they all have some sort of personality quirk or "sensibility." Marianne is exciteable (it seems that every time she speaks it's followed by "cried Marianne"), Mr. Palmer is rude and insulting, Sir John Middleton is not happy unless in the company of a group of people, his wife is quite boring(which could explain why John wants others around), Mrs. Jennings is a busybody, the Steele sisters are bratty, Mrs. Palmer finds everything quite funny,and of course Edward is the wanderer with nothing to do. As for Willoughby, I think we need to see him again to find out what his character is all about.
    Elinor is apart from the rest in that she seems to be quite sensible in everything. From handling the move from Norland, to dealing with her sister after Willoughby's leaving, to the stunning news about Edward, Elinor always handles herself in a way that does not betray her emotions. She is determined not to allow anyone, including her sisters and mother, to know what she is feeling.
    I'm looking forward to the next volume, especially to when Elinor next sees Edward.

  4. Great point about Edward - what if this malaise is all an act? If he's idle and isn't earning any money (we're told a bit later that he has only 2,000 pounds, and Lucy says it would be "madness to marry upon that"), does he think Lucy will break off the engagement? We haven't met his mother, but I think if Edward's sister liked Lucy, she could help eliminate any obstacle to their marriage if he really did want to get married.

    Also, yeah, how often does "Marianne cried" appear? It seems that nearly everything she says is followed by that phrase, or by "Marianne said warmly." (Also Mrs. Palmer and the Steeles also tend to cry out). Meanwhile, Elinor "observed" or "thought." Austen is really hammering home the differences between these characters by describing how they say things.

  5. Louise's point about Edward enjoying the melancholy persona is really interesting, because it would make him seem almost as bad a Romantic as Marianne. I mean--wandering aimlessly around the country without a profession, feeling sad all the time? What's next, dying of consumption?

    How old is Edward, anyway? I think that makes a difference in how I see his idleness. He says he was easily convinced to do nothing at eighteen or whatever but now he's unhappy about it.

  6. I just checked — we don't get an exact number until the end of the book — and Edward is 24.

  7. Oh, interesting connection between Edward and Marianne, Marjorie! I hadn't thought of that, but you're right. They might be equally dramatic, in their respective ways. Twenty-four - what an old fart.

    I'm especially enjoying the depictions of women in this book, beyond just the sisters, even as many of them are portrayed in a pretty harsh light. It's easy to imagine that Austen (like us) knew each of these types: the woman who makes small talk without saying anything; the woman who rambles on and on to the consternation of her husband; et cetera.

    (Amy - I liked the Schine book a lot, but hadn't made the Austen connection till now. I'm remembering the story and thinking of other plot similarities, too. Can't believe it didn't strike me sooner.)