Jane Austen’s romances with brains (part 4): On Elinor Dashwood, following your heart, unconditional election, &c.
Posted by David
It’s been a while since I last picked up my series on Jane Austen’s first two novels. Too long.
I. Don’t follow your heart?
What made me hasten to return to Austen this week was this very good post by Angelina Stanford about Pride and Prejudice. For what I intend to say in this, my last post on Sense and Sensibility, should provide something of a counterpoint to Ms. Stanford’s essay in praise of sense.
Not that I have a word to say against sense, mind you. My previous post could have been titled “Don’t Follow Your Heart.” And that would have been particularly good advice for Marianne Dashwood. It’s a lesson, alas, that Marianne had to learn the hard way — but she did learn it. “My feelings shall be governed,” she told Elinor, and shall “no longer worry others, nor torture myself,” and “shall be regulated . . . by religion, by reason, by constant employment.”
II. What the well-trained heart may see
But what of Elinor? She had always checked her feelings with cool judgment. And yet she was very much in love with a decidedly flawed man — a secretly engaged man who’d contracted his engagement because of an “idle, foolish inclination.” As if that didn’t demonstrate this man’s weakness of judgment, while he was still secretly engaged he spent a sufficient amount of quality time with Elinor to make Elinor’s family wonder if she and the man might be engaged.
And Elinor continued to love Edward Ferrars even after learning of his secret engagement to Lucy Steele. For a heroine with an irreproachable coolness of judgment, and the noted ability to govern her feelings, the continuation of such an affection seems, to say the least, quite strange.
Strange, and admirable. In persisting in her hopeless affection for Edward, Elinor demonstrated that her much-vaunted sense did not proceed from a stupid insensibility. But there was more — much more — virtue in Elinor’s affection for Edward. Elinor’s character precluded the possibility that her love for Edward was irrational, or non-rational; her circumstances said it wasn’t strictly rational. And so Austen pretty much compelled her reader to conclude that Elinor’s affection for Edward was somewhere above rational. That quality showed itself in Elinor’s mercy to Edward’s flaws, her readiness to forgive and cover his (not insignificant) sins against her. And in the fact that Edward’s later actions proved that Elinor’s love and respect for him were not bestowed rashly or in vain.
III. In conclusion . . .
C. S. Lewis once said that authors make their most shocking discoveries in their good characters . Looking at Sense and Sensibility, we might add that the same is true for readers. Marianne Dashwood isn’t a bad girl, or even a very silly one — but the arc of her story doesn’t really tell us much beyond “don’t follow ungoverned feelings.” A valuable lesson, to be sure, but not a lesson that bends the arc of Sense and Sensibility generally. It’s in Elinor Dashwood, who never had an ungoverned feeling in her life, that we catch a glimpse of something that does bend the arc of the whole novel, and our imaginations with it. For so long as we think of head and heart, or sense and sensibility, as enemies, we will miss that a rigorously governed heart can yet be a generous one, and that a well-trained heart, when it overleaps straight-up rationality, may not be reckless. It may, in fact, image forth the lavish love of God — whose love is not given according to the loveliness of its objects, and yet is never given in vain.
 A Preface to Paradise Lost 100-101 (1961).