Monday, March 29, 2010

Sense and Sensibility, Chapters 35-44

We're winding down our reading of Sense and Sensibility, with only six chapters remaining. This week we saw more engagement mess for Edward, a departure from London for the Dashwoods, and a surprise visit from everyone's favorite cad.

While Mrs. Jennings is off helping Charlotte have her baby, Lucy visits the Dashwoods to talk about how much Mrs. Ferrars likes her. While she’s doing this, Edward arrives and all three start acting pretty awkwardly, while Marianne is still in the dark about what’s going on.

It’s time for another party, and the Dashwoods receive an invitation since the couple throwing the fĂȘte think the sisters are staying with their brother. Robert Ferrars makes a dull appearance, and John Dashwood tells Fanny they should really invite his sisters to stay with them. Fanny overrules him and invites the Steele sisters instead.

Mrs. Jennings returns and shares the shocking news (to her and Marianne) that Lucy and Edward have been engaged for a long time. When Elinor tells Marianne that it is true, and that she’s known for months, Marianne is amazed that Elinor has held herself together, and that she was able to talk to Marianne about Willoughby despite being so upset herself.

John Dashwood tells the sisters that Fanny is in a state about the engagement and that Mrs. Ferrars intends to disown Edward if he goes through with the marriage and will give the estate to Robert. Edward keeps his word and plans to become a curate. While he won’t be rich from the position, he and Lucy will be able to sustain themselves. All the characters fall into a tizzy over Edward’s impending pauperdom and his nobility in keeping the engagement.

By this point the Dashwoods are desperate to get out of London, but the Palmers invite them to spend Easter at Cleveland. Since Cleveland is on the way to Barton, they go and plan to return home after the holiday. But before they depart, Col. Brandon visits Elinor and tells her that Edward can have the parsonage at Delaford, his estate, if he wishes. Mrs. Jennings overhears snippets of the conversation, and assumes Elinor and Brandon are engaged, as John Dashwood still assumes as well. Elinor starts to write Edward a letter telling him of the Colonel’s offer, when Edward himself arrives. He’s thrilled, as can be expected.

The Dashwoods leave London, but once they arrive, Marianne becomes quite ill with a fever. After Col. Brandon goes to fetch Mrs. Dashwood, Mr. Harris, the apothecary, tells them that Marianne is out of danger. Elinor hears a carriage that evening, and assuming it is Brandon and her mother, is surprised to see Willoughby. He heard that Marianne might be dying, so he came to apologize for how he treated her. Willoughby admits that he married for money, since he was living an extravagant life he couldn’t afford, and that he still loves Marianne. He asks Elinor to relay his apology to Marianne when she is well, and Elinor agrees.

These chapters drive home the idea of marriage as an economical decision. Willoughby declares that he married Miss Grey for her money and that she “knew I had no regard for her when we married.” Mrs. Ferrars disowns Edward for choosing to marry for love and not money, and John Dashwood tells Elinor that Miss Morton will marry Robert Ferrars and not Edward. When Elinor comments that “the lady… has no choice in the affair,” John replies, “certainly, there can be no difference; for Robert will now to all intents and purposes be considered as the eldest son;— and as to any thing else, they are both very agreeable young men, I do not know that one is superior to the other.”

Miss Grey must have married Willoughby for love, but aside from her and the Edward/Lucy mess, unions in this novel are not formed out of love, but rather formed as a result of economical considerations. Women did not work, and in cases like the Dashwoods, who should have gotten more money after their father’s death than they did, the only way to get more money and maintain a standard of living is through marriage. Austen’s works represent a break from the 18th-century novels that sentimentalized romance. She advocates practicality, but with a caveat — marrying for money is fine, so long as there is a deep attachment to go along with it. With marriage, as with everything in this novel, Austen is pushing for balance: sense is great, so long as you have some sensibility to even things out, and vice versa.

What do you think about marriage in the novel so far?

We're going to finish up the novel on Wednesday and start Pride and Prejudice on Thursday, so if you're reading along with that one, make sure you pick up a copy.


  1. You know, it's funny, but I actually thought just the opposite about the marriages. While society at large thinks of marriage as an economic choice, rather than a sentimental one, it's clear both the Dashwood sisters are concerned first with love and only second with anything else. Even Eleanor, who recognizes the need for some money (in that particularly hilarious discussion with Marianne in Part I), scorns her brother's suggestion that she snare Colonel Brandon for his wealth. With their strong mutual regard and friendship, they could have easily had a successful marriage, especially compared to other couples in the book, like the Palmers. But Eleanor is in love with Edward and Colonel Brandon with Marianne, and neither will contemplate settling. As they are the book's most moral, honorable characters, it seems like Austen is making a clear statement against the appropriateness of marrying for money.

    So-- Austen is a realistic about how marriage was viewed throughout society, and even realistic about how too little money could effect a marriage, but she depicts heroines who think of marriage as something more than a financial agreement. This is true througout the books to varying degrees, but probably most true here. Sense and Sensibility is the only one of her books, I think, that shows a heroine marrying into financially tight (but not impoverished) circumstances. With all the others, love comes first and its importance is quite stressed, but money is most certainly there, frequently in abundance.

  2. I wrote this post before Elinor and Edward get together, and you're right — she would have absolutely married him regardless of whether Brandon bestowed a living upon him. Also we learn at the end that Lucy convinces Mrs. Ferrars to forgive Robert for marrying her and secures them "very liberal assistance" from her mother-in-law - love conquers all.

    But something about Marianne and Brandon just doesn't work for me. After the situation with Willoughby, Marianne devotes herself to her studies, becomes "calm and sober," and develops some affection for Brandon, but her feelings for him aren't as strong as those she had for Willoughby until some time after they have been married. She loses her sensibility and as her reward she gets a husband?

    It kind of seems like Elinor, Edward and Mrs. Dashwood simply wore the poor girl down, and the whole ending just feels tacked on to me - like Austen ran out of steam and instead of exploring Marianne's change in character we're given three paragraphs quickly telling us that Marianne, she who was "born to an extraordinary fate," did a complete 180, likes to study, and is in love with Brandon.

    Does anyone have better insight into this than I do?

  3. Well, ultimately, Elinor has a sensibility-based marriage and Marianne has a sense-based one. In both cases they felt somewhat out-of-character, but they're a logical progression of the arc of the novel, as Elinor and Marianne start at the extremes and need to adjust towards the middle to find happiness.

    But I couldn't believe that Elinor would dive into an engagement without the approval of Mrs. Ferrars immediately after Edward escaped his first secret engagement. And I agree, Marianne's wedding to Brandon feels tacked on.