Monday, March 22, 2010

Sense and Sensibility, Chapters 23-34

We read through Chapter 34 this week, and wow, is Willoughby a cad or what? Volume Two starts with Elinor deciding to get to the bottom of what exactly is going on with Lucy and Edward, and she plots to pull Lucy aside one night. Elinor is convinced that Edward's engagement to Lucy was the result of a youthful infatuation, and that he cannot possibly still care for her. Lucy tells Elinor that Mrs. Ferrars would not approve of their marriage, and since Edward only has £2,000, they must wait to marry until Edward inherits her estate.

The Dashwood sisters head to London, where Mrs. Jennings will be showing them around town and taking them to dinners and parties. As soon as they arrive, Marianne expects that Willoughby will call and gets increasingly agitated when he does not respond to her letters or come to visit. To Marianne's chagrin but Elinor's delight, Colonel Brandon is in London, and he visits the sisters frequently. The Middletons also come to London and throw a ball, inviting Willoughby, who turns down the invitation.

Soon, though, the Dashwoods run into Willoughby at a party, where Marianne confronts him. He's cold and rude, and Marianne leaves the party immediately. She sends him a letter the next day, and with his reply he returns her letters and the lock of her hair that he snipped while they were in the country. When Marianne shows Elinor the letter, we learn the truth behind her relationship with Willoughby: they were not engaged, as it turns out, and Willoughby never exactly told Marianne that he loved her. Making matters worse, he says that he has been engaged to another woman for a long time, and he apologizes if he lead Marianne on. His fiancĂ©e is an heiress and the Dashwood's social circle, appalled by the turn of events, quickly rejects Willoughby — including Mrs. Palmer, who has never even met him — excepting Lady Middleton, who thinks Mrs. Willoughby will be a sophisticated friend to have.

Elinor soon learns that Willoughby is even worse than she imagined, when Col. Brandon tells her a story about his former lover, Eliza, who ended up marrying his brother. His brother didn't love Eliza, and the couple divorced, setting Eliza on a path of destruction. She had a child and then died, but Brandon supports her daughter and sends her to school. This girl followed in her mother's footsteps and unfortunately met Willoughby, who took her virtue and then abandoned her. Elinor is appalled and relays this story to Marianne, who laments Willoughby's loss of character.

The next couple to arrive in London are John and Fanny Dashwood. John tells Elinor some interesting things, including that he expects her to marry Col. Brandon, and that Edward is engaged to a girl named Miss Morton, not to Lucy Steele. The Steeles conveniently come to town as well, and the Dashwoods decide to host a dinner. They invite Elinor, Marianne, Mrs. Jennings, the Steele sisters, the Middletons, Col. Brandon, and Mrs. Ferrars, a most appalling woman. Mrs. Ferrars insults Elinor's artwork and praises Miss Morton's artistic abilities. Marianne is outraged and tells her off, while John Dashwood tells Col. Brandon that Marianne has lost her beauty.

A lot happens in these chapters, and it looks like Willoughby's involvement in the novel is done. We learn that Edward is apparently engaged to two women, one publicly and one secretly, depending on who is to be believed. From these chapters, I'm most interested in Col. Brandon, who seems to be the only honorable man in this entire novel. After all, he challenged Willoughby to a duel for how he treated Brandon's ward.

What I can't figure out yet is why Brandon is so infatuated with Marianne and not Elinor. Though he thinks she resembles his long-dead lover, each time Brandon visits the sisters in London, he sits and converses with Elinor for hours, while Marianne flees upon his arrival. The pair have never held a substantive conversation, and Marianne has never been anything but rude to him. But Elinor is not taken with Brandon either, despite the fact that they are the only two characters who seem to have a shred of common sense. Though she says that his visits are the best part of her day, and looks forward to them, she is astounded when her brother suggests that she might marry him. Brandon seems like the only one of the Dashwood's beaux worth marrying, yet neither sister wants to.

The other thing that struck me from these chapters is how cautious characters are about asking each other things, and how quickly they form assumptions. No one asks Marianne whether or not she is engaged to Willoughby — this includes her own mother and sister, who tip-toe around the question — yet they assume the couple are betrothed. Marianne herself doesn't even ask Willoughby what his feelings are, and makes assumptions of what she thinks they are. Elinor's appreciation for Edward is also assumed by the other characters, and no one asks him where his affections lie either. Mrs. Jennings does grill Col. Brandon about his ward, but when he refuses to answer her questions, she makes up her own story about what's going on. Are these characters making assumptions and gossiping simply because they have too much time on their hands and want to have a little fun? Or do they think they're being proper by avoiding these potentially awkward conversations? Or does Austen keep things secret for as long as she possibly can in order to fuel the plot?

Next week, you should read through Chapter 44.


  1. I'm finding myself really fond of the male characters' token flaws. Mr. Palmer is hilarious, Edward is so adorably pathetic I want to pat him on the head and shove him off to watch him bob haplessly on the ocean of life.

    I'm a lot less sympathetic towards the women, and I'm somewhat interested in that from a feminist perspective. The male flaws are somewhat charming and childlike for the most part, while the female's flaws can make them actively hostile or dangerous. Even John Dashwood's selfishness is inactive, while Mrs. John Dashwood has all the agency in turning him against his family.

    I think this mostly comes from the novel being set very much in the women's world. The men are carried along, but the women do all the work of driving the plot forward.

    The main exception to this is Willoughby, who is playing more deliberately in the women's world, causing harm through action rather than inaction.

  2. This is a great point, Molly, and I wonder to what extent we'll see it occur in Austen's other novels as well.

    Instead of thinking of the male characters as cardboard cut-outs ill-matched for the women, who despite their flaws are incredibly dynamic, I need to think about the novel as Austen exploring the women's lives and their way of looking at the world and not matching them up with the suitors they deserve, which would say more about relationships than I think Austen is trying to do here.

  3. I have been meaning to comment on all three of these posts, but my head is just a stew of potential comments and I haven't had the wherewithal to sort any single one out. But I just had to chime in and say how much I've been enjoying everyone else's comments. You guys are just so smart.

    Hopefully, I'll have wrangled my thoughts a bit by the time we finish up this week so I can hop in to the concluding discussion. I'm really enjoying reading the books again with a more active, critical attitude. It's so invigorating. I've really loved sorting out what Austen does well(dialogue, hands down; sly descriptions of wretched/ridiculous characters; expert plotting)and where she falters (here, LOADS of showing-not-telling; some occasional lapses into an overly didactic, preachy tone; some dichotomies drawn too sharply for strict realism). I'm remembering loads of stuff from my Victorian Lit discussions of this book. It's just really fun-- so thank you for facilitating it!