Jane Austen’s romances with brains (part 3): The extraordinary fate of Marianne Dashwood

Jane Austen introduces the principal characters of Sense and Sensibility – Elinor and Marianne Dashwood – by telling us about them.

For a modern novelist this would be a major faux pas; the development of a character should be done by showing rather than telling.  And one might say that in this (as in other things) Pride and Prejudice is a novel superior to Sense and Sensibility.  But good rules have exceptions, and good authors know when the exceptions apply.  And if we grant that Jane Austen is a very good author, we may give her the benefit of the doubt for introducing her two heroines this way, and grant, further, that she does it thus for good reason.

I concluded the last post on the sense/sensibility dialectic that runs through the whole of Austen’s novel.  This dialectic accounts for Austen’s way of introducing Elinor and Marianne.  For she wants the reader to know, from the novel’s outset, that Elinor’s good sense and “coolness of judgment” proceeds, not from stupid insensibility, but rather from strong affection. She governs her feelings with a firm hand, not because her feelings are weak, but because such strong governance benefits those she loves.  Marianne, meanwhile, resolved “never to be taught” how to govern her feelings.  But Austen wants her reader to know also that this isn’t because Marianne is an airhead – her “abilities were, in many respects, quite equal to Elinor’s,” and Austen calls her “clever.”  Marianne’s resolve never to regulate her sensibility is, like her belief in the impossibility of second attachments, a principled one, resulting not so much from a deficiency of intellect as from a weird kink of the intellect.

Having thus told us about Elinor and Marianne, Austen proceeds immediately to show this difference between them by contrasting how they work through the grief of losing their father.  Marianne and Mrs. Dashwood “encouraged each other . . . in the violence of their affliction,” seeking to renew over and over again their first agony of grief, giving themselves up “wholly to their sorrow.”  Elinor, though also “deeply afflicted,” could “still struggle” to “exert herself” to do her duties to the world, and to rouse her family.  The contrast between the sisters’ responses repeats itself throughout the novel, most sharply in their respective responses to the failures of their first romances.

In telling us and then showing us the contrast between Elinor and Marianne, Austen, with startling economy, previews the entire story.  She also displays an uncannily subtle understanding of both sense and sensibility.  She does not identify the difference between them in the simple difference between heart and head.  Elinor’s sense is rooted as deeply in her bosom as in her brain.  Marianne’s flights of sensibility have at least as much to do with the considerable reach of her imagination as with the fluttering of her heart.

Having established the characters of her heroines, Austen proceeds to break Marianne and stretch Elinor to within an inch of her breaking point.

Adding sense to sensibility: The overcoming of Marianne’s romantic prejudices

. . . More witnesseth than fancy’s images,

And grows to something of great constancy;

But howsoever, strange and admirable.[1]

Verily, verily I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.[2]

I have noted Marianne’s principled opposition to regulating her sensibility by sense, and, more briefly, her principled opposition to second attachments.  Austen topples these prejudices one at a time – but in a way that does not leave in their place a cold, stupid insensibility.

The importance of what grows up after the demise of Marianne’s first opinions is recognized early in the story by Marianne’s first admirer, Colonel Brandon.  Marianne is indifferent to him, for “thirty-five has nothing to do with matrimony,” and her attentions are wholly taken by the younger and more lively Willoughby, but Brandon’s insight is (as usual) spot on.[3]  After observing to Elinor, generally, that “there is something so amiable in the prejudices of a young mind, that one is sorry to see them give way to . . . more general opinions,” he tells Elinor not to desire “a total change of sentiments” for Marianne, “for when the romantic refinements of a young mind are obliged to give way, how frequently are they succeeded by such opinions as are but too common, and too dangerous!”[4]  In other words, today’s romantic is too often tomorrow’s cynic, or used-up moral indifferentist.  What marks Brandon as one of Austen’s most remarkable heroes is how constantly he works, with no encouragement and indeed in the face of shocking discouragement, to ensure that that isn’t Marianne’s fate – and that her sentiments, once vanquished by reality, give way to an outlook and temper more wise but no less amiable.

And so it proves, by the help of Elinor and Colonel Brandon, and the grace of God.  For after Willoughby is proved blackguard, once his own romantic outlook proves no defense against straight up gold-digging cynicism in running off to marry the wealthy Miss Grey, Marianne is plunged into an extended period of despair – here, as in the first chapter, giving herself up wholly to her sorrow.  But after this is ended, rather than clinging longer to the unbridled sensibilities by which she’d nearly destroyed herself, Marianne repents of them.  Perhaps the most significant statement in the entire book is Marianne’s declaration to Elinor that “my feelings shall be governed.”  And, of further, deeper significance, she repents of her ungoverned feelings precisely because she recognizes that strong feelings are no defense against hardness of heart and an unloving lack of consideration.  For, after running off a long list of people she’d wronged through her ungoverned sensibility, she says her feelings shall “no longer worry others, nor torture myself.”  As to Willoughby, Marianne says that though his remembrance cannot be overcome, “it shall be regulated . . . by religion, by reason, by constant employment.”[5]

Thus passed the greater of Marianne’s romantic prejudices.  But what of her lesser prejudices against second attachments and flannel waistcoats, or her belief that five and thirty has nothing to do with matrimony?

I can’t help but smile when I think of the exquisite pleasure Austen must have taken in allowing Colonel Brandon, two years after first meeting Marianne, finally to vanquish the last of “her most favourite maxims” – to have Marianne admit that while thirty-five had nothing to do with matrimony, a man of thirty-seven[6] may be good marriage material.[7]

“Set me as a seal upon thine heart . . . : for love is strong as death”[8]: The fate of Elinor

Austen rightly calls Marianne’s fate “extraordinary,” but the same could equally be said of the fate of Marianne’s elder sister, Elinor.  For though she begins the story with no objection to second attachments in principle, she’s the only one of the four principal characters who could have maintained such a prejudice.

But since much has been said here already, and much remains yet to be said about Elinor, I shall (again) increase the number of posts I had designated to this series, and reserve comment on her story for the next post.


[1] William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream V.i.26-27.

[2] St. John 12:24.

[3] For more on disappointed lovers making the keenest observers of the objects of their affections, see here.

[4] S&S ch. 11.

[5] S&S ch. 46.

[6] Insert comment of Dennis the constitutional peasant from Monty Python and the Holy Grail – “I’m thirty-seven. I’m not old.”

[7] There are, of course, those who find Marianne’s end less than satisfactory – who think that she settled for Colonel Brandon.  To these I can only say: (1) read the story; and (2) if you have read the story and still think that Marianne settled, you are a blockhead.  May your blockheadedness prove as treatable as Marianne’s.

[8] Song of Solomon 8:6.

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Posted on July 30, 2012, in Authors, David Mitchel, Jane Austen and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Splendid! Keep it up as long as you like.

  2. You say that thirty- seven is a fine age for marriage, I do not disagree, but I think nineteen is a far better age than seventeen. I think Austen let two years go by more for the sake of Marrianne.

  1. Pingback: Jane Austen’s romances with brains (part 4): On Elinor Dashwood, following your heart, unconditional election, &c. | Lantern Hollow Press

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