Jane Austen’s romances with brains (part 2): Sense and Sensibility

A fortnight ago I commenced a what I thought would be a trilogy of posts on Jane Austen and how she held together foursquare rationality – or sense – and imaginative romanticism – that is, sensibility – in her works, and, specifically, in her first two published novels, Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice.  Upon re-reading the novels, I’ve decided to extend the series to a total of five posts, with two posts devoted to each of the novels.  In this post and the next, then, I take up the first-published novel, Sense and Sensibility.

[Warning: this post contains spoilers.]

I.  Posthumous matchmakers for Miss Austen: The line forms to the right

One of the interesting things about Jane Austen’s literary reputation is that it has produced a long line of Emma Woodhouses, eager to make posthumous matches for Miss Austen.  This has been done in two ways.  Some have placed the suitable suitor in the heavenly places.  So Rudyard Kipling, who, in his poem “Jane’s Marriage,” fixed Jane up with one of her own literary creations, Captain Wentworth from Persuasion.[1]  Others have played posthumous matchmaker by creatively reading a romance back into Austen’s rather uneventful life.  This lot notably includes the screenwriters of Becoming Jane, who spun a near-elopement with Tom Lefroy out of a handful of (not especially torrid) Lefroy references in Jane’s letters to her sister, Cassandra.

I suspect that much of what drives the latter kind of matchmaking – the attempts at reading romance back into Austen’s life – is dogged devotion to that authors’ maxim, write what you know.  The idea that Jane Austen could have conceived romances of such subtlety and verisimilitude, upon knowledge gained from a quick ear and a keen eye rather than personal experience, leaves us cold; her fictional romances must have had some experiential basis.  So we read a talent’s worth of romance into a denarius’s worth of romantic passages in Austen’s correspondence.  Such eisegesis may be fun.  But it isn’t realistic.

II.  Sense and Sensibility – or, to treble the alliteration: Sisters, Sense and Sensibility

In Sense and Sensibility, though, we do get to see Austen writing about something she knew very well by personal experience and not only by keen secondhand observation: the relationship between sisters.  Jane and her sister Cassandra were as close as sisters could be; each was easily the most important person in the other’s life.  Significantly, in Sense and Sensibility as in its more vivacious literary twin Pride and Prejudice, the romances are praised, not only for matching good ladies with worthy gentlemen, but for the fact that the resulting marriages did not separate the sisters, who were able to reside within easy distances of each other.

That focus on the sister-sister relationship is sharpest in Sense and Sensibility.[2]  In Pride and Prejudice Jane and Elizabeth Bennet enjoy such free, untroubled confidence in one another throughout the story that, for lack of conflict, we hardly pay attention to the sister-sister relationship – leaving us to be engrossed in the intricate courting dance between Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy.  By contrast, in Sense and Sensibility the friction between Elinor and Marianne Dashwood forces us to pay particular attention to the sisters.  The sisters’ friction, to be sure, is not quite as constant as their mutual affection, but it surfaces at various key points, and takes the form of a running argument that runs through nearly the whole of the novel.  The argument’s source is in the chief difference between the sisters: while both possess generous measures both of sense and sensibility, Elinor governs herself by sense, while Marianne governs herself by sensibility.  It reaches its climax when it comes out that Elinor’s love interest, Edward Ferrars, has been secretly engaged to Lucy Steele.  And it is resolved only just after Marianne’s recovery from her near-fatal illness, and just before the story of Edward and Elinor reaches its wonderful eucatastrophic conclusion.

III.  The sense/sensibility dialectic and the sisters’ romances

So what’s the outcome of the argument between sense and sensibility – this argument that the sisters advance with their lives as well as their words?

A cursory glance at the story, and the outcome of the running argument – the lived argument – between the sisters, would lead one simply to believe that sense wipes the floor with sensibility.  A closer look, however, reveals that that is not so: the argument is more like a dialectic that produces a synthesis than a winner.

The exact shape of that synthesis, and how it is worked out in the sisters’ argument and their romances, I leave for the next post.


[1] Or someone who moved in his likeness:

In a private limbo/Where none had thought to look,
Sat a Hampshire gentleman/Reading of a book.
It was called Persuasion/And it told the plain
Story of the love between/Him and Jane.

He heard the question,/Circle Heaven through –

Closed the book and answered:/ “I did – and do!”
Quietly but speedily/(As Captain Wentworth moved)
Entered into Paradise/The man Jane loved!

[2] This prominence of the relationship of the sisters in Sense and Sensibility leads me to conclude that, for the reader looking for biographical information on Jane Austen in her novels, S&S is probably the best place to look.

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Posted on July 16, 2012, in Authors, David Mitchel, Jane Austen and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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