Saturday, September 05, 2009

The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing: Sense and Sensibility Thoughts

I've been promising myself to write something substantial about Sense and Sensibility since before I even had a blog, and one of the reasons I've taken so long getting around to doing so is that it tends to fall through the cracks. It's not a perennial favorite like Pride and Prejudice or Persuasion, nor a work I didn't get along with in my teens, and which I can set myself the goal of reengaging with as an adult as I did with Mansfield Park and Emma (and really, it is time to try to do the same with Northanger Abbey as I promised I'd do only two years ago). I liked Sense and Sensibility when I first read it (though at least some of that affection is due to the transcendent Emma Thompson/Ang Lee adaptation which I watched soon after finishing the book for the first time) and I come back to it every now and then, but not so much with the enthusiasm one feels when returning to a beloved work as with a grim determination to finally, once and for all, work the novel out. This is to sound rather negative about what is, after all, as fine and well-observed a work as any of Austen's novels (though stylistically I think it may be her weakest--the humor is a little belabored, and the plot flags in the middle segments) but my problem with it is simply that I'm not sure what Austen is saying, and have a sneaking suspicion that I wouldn't like it if I did.

Sady Doyle, in a characteristically thoughtful and insightful post about Sense and Sensibility (as part of a series about books by, for and about women, which also encompasses Little Women and Valley of the Dolls) calls it "a comedy about sadness, and how to get through it intact." This strikes me as an accurate but incomplete observation. Doyle is right to point out Austen's deliberate contrasting of the ways in which the Dashwood sisters, pragmatic Elinor and romantic Marianne, deal with their romantic disappointments--Marianne weeps and wails and takes to her bed and in general gives as much trouble as she can to the people who love her; Elinor conceals her pain and tries to medicate it with activity and concern for others--but the comparison between the two sisters' temperaments and outlooks is in place even before these disappointments occur. Long before she gets around to prescribing the correct way of dealing with heartbreak, Austen is prescribing the correct way of being in love. While Elinor reveals only the barest hints of her affection for Edward Ferrars, Marianne cries her love for the roguish Willoughby from the mountaintops, and whereas Elinor has other activities and interests to occupy her in Edward's absence, for Marianne, love is as feverish and all-consuming as grief.

When Marianne, in the novel's moral climax, having survived not only Willoughby's abandonment but a near-fatal illness to which her surrender to grief left her vulnerable, compares her behavior unfavorably with Elinor's, it's easy to conclude that Sense and Sensibility is, as Doyle says, a story about the choice between controlling your emotions and wallowing in them. This is not, however, the only axis on which Marianne's behavior is found wanting. As central to the novel as the question of whether to control emotion is the question of whether to display it. At first glance, it may seem that the two dilemmas can be folded into one, but to do so, we have to ignore the novel's historical context, in which the finding and getting of husbands is not simply a romantic pursuit, but a business, and sometimes a necessity of survival. In this context the question of whether to reveal, conceal, or even feign, emotion is not simply a moral one, but a matter of calculated pursuit.

It is a calculation which very nearly every character in the novel but the Dashwood sisters makes at one point or another, and which the sisters themselves find deeply mortifying. Early in the novel, the girls' mother haughtily exclaims at a neighbor's joking assertion that Marianne has Willoughby in her sights. "I do not believe ... that Mr. Willoughby will be incommoded by the attempts of either of my daughters towards what you call catching him. It is not an employment to which they have been brought up. Men are very safe with us, let them be ever so rich." So that when Marianne rejects Elinor's criticism of the uninhibited display of her affection for Willoughby, she's doing so not simply because of her self-absorbed determination to impose her feelings on her general surroundings, but because she takes Elinor's reproach as an admonition to stick by the Regency version of The Rules--play hard to get, make the guy jump through hoops of gold before you show any affection. Similarly, Elinor's growing closeness to Edward, and later on her friendship with Colonel Brandon, are perceived by both her friends and enemies as an attempts to draw the two men in and land herself a wealthy husband. With romantic and mercenary considerations so intimately linked, it's no wonder that both of the Dashwood sisters find it difficult to know just where the happy medium between too demonstrative and too reserved is.

Against Elinor and Marianne's struggle to behave honorably in the unforgiving arena of husband-hunting, Austen sets the character of Lucy Steele (or, more precisely, she sets Lucy and her sister Nancy, who like the Dashwood sisters make up a duo of one observant, controlled sister, and one demonstrative, unheeding one). To the unsuspecting observer, Lucy preforms the role of the perfect fusion of the two sisters--romantically overcome by Edward's charms like Marianne, and cautiously concealing their attachment and planning for their future like Elinor--and this is only one of the many performances--of helplessness, gratitude, self-sacrifice, generosity, and regard for others--that Lucy puts on in order to secure the affections and support of everyone she meets in her single-minded pursuit of financial security. And the thing is, I love her. She is Austen's most fascinating villain, and may well be one of her most interesting characters.

In my first rereading of Sense and Sensibility as an adult, I was bowled away by Lucy, and by the impression she creates of there being a shadow novel, a sort of proto-Vanity Fair starring Lucy in the Becky Sharpe role, stomping over broken hearts and ruined lives on her way to respectability. Lucy plays the game that Elinor and Marianne are too proud to acknowledge like a pro, taking advantage of vanity and honesty alike in her manipulations of everyone she meets. The scene in which she confides with Elinor about her engagement to Edward is a tiny masterpiece of psychological torture, with Lucy, always simpering with deference and feigned simplicity, hammering in one proof after another of her claim on Edward while subtly sowing doubts in Elinor's heart as to Edward's feelings for her and his character. In so doing, she places Elinor in the position of having to not only impassively listen to accounts of Edward's engagement to another woman, but to assist in that engagement's consummation, for fear of giving away her true feelings and compromising her honor. Though it's probably giving Lucy too much credit to say that she engineers the Ferrarses' making a pet of her as a way of slighting Elinor, whom they believe to be the object of Edward's affection, she certainly doesn't fail to take advantage of the situation, and when her engagement is revealed and Edward is cast off by his family with nothing, she leverages even that debacle to her advantage, and ends up married to his now independently wealthy brother Robert. We never get a glimpse of Lucy's internal monologue, and her external one is deliberately insipid, but given this virtuoso performance it's hard not to suspect that that placid exterior conceals a sharp intellect and keen powers of observation--Elizabeth Bennet on her meanest day, or Mary Crawford at her most designing, except much coarser (though that coarseness probably has something to do with having had to claw her way even to the genteel poverty that Elinor and Marianne take for granted)--and even Elinor, though despising Lucy's methods, acknowledges her skills, calls her "better than half her sex," and envisions Edward's life with her as comfortable and well-managed, albeit loveless.

Alone among Austen's villains and romantic rivals, Lucy triumphs, and not only does she triumph, but so complete is her victory that she can afford to be magnanimous in it, and let small fry Edward go while she enjoys the bigger fish she's landed. The letter in which she releases Edward from their engagement is, once again, a tiny masterpiece, and in its own way may very well be the most honest piece of communication between men and women in any of Austen's novels:
Being sure I have long lost your affections, I have thought myself at liberty to bestow my own on another, and have no doubt of being as happy with him as I once used to think I might be with you; but I scorn to accept a hand while the heart was another's. Sincerely wish you happy in your choice, and it shall not be my fault if we are not always good friends
You don't love me any more than I love you, Lucy is saying, and we both know it. And since I've found someone better, I feel free to behave dishonorably, secure in the knowledge that such behavior will make both of us very happy. And the fact is, Lucy may very well end up the happiest of any of the novel's characters. Or rather, she ends up with exactly what she set out to have, and is about as happy as a woman whose greatest aspiration is wealth and position could ever hope to be. Elinor and Marianne, meanwhile, are forced into compromises. Elinor marries a man she loves, but their style of living will always be pitiful compared to the expectations they both grew up with. Marianne marries a wealthy man whom she respects and admires, but whom she does not come to love until some time after their marriage (and it's never sat very well with me, the way Austen describes the growth of that love--it's hard not to see it, as the Emma Thompson version paints it, as a flight to safety by someone who has been grievously wounded and finds themselves more in need of a parent than a lover). Willoughby, meanwhile, is miserable in his choice, but not forever--"His wife was not always out of humour, nor his home always uncomfortable! and in his breed of horses and dogs, and in porting of every kind, he found no inconsiderable degree of domestic felicity."

Sense and Sensibility ends, therefore, with a complete rejection of the romantic ethos. There is not a single traditionally romantic couple to be found at the end of the novel, unless one counts Elinor and Edward, who from the get go are described as unusually unaffectionate, and whose courtship and infatuation happen entirely off-page, so that the readers' romantic gratification is denied even by their union. This is clearly deliberate, and sits well with the raw, uncompromising nature of many of the plot elements Austen employs. The Dashwood sisters are the poorest of Austen's heroines, their situation the most desperate, their prospects the grimmest. The specter of premarital sex and illegitimate children, which haunts several other of her novels, is here on full display in the person of Colonel Brandon's lost love and her daughter, who is seduced and ruined by Willoughby. Marianne very nearly dies. There's an undertone of anger at the very notion of a romantic disposition, which seems to prioritize the mercenary aspect of husband-hunting over the romantic one.

Which is why I find it difficult to accept Doyle's reading of the novel as an admonition against being mastered by emotion. It seems to me to go much further, and caution against being guided by it at all. In all of Austen's novels, there's a tension between the romantic text and the decidedly unromantic subtext, but in Sense and Sensibility the two seem to be almost at war. This is probably in keeping with Austen's own character, which was likely much closer to the cynical, money-obsessed spinster from the miniseries Miss Austen Regrets than the starry-eyed romantic she was made out to be in Becoming Jane, but also makes for an uncomfortable read in the early 21st century. Though I certainly wouldn't say that money no longer plays any factor in courtship, or that games of control and manipulation have disappeared in the wake of feminism and the sexual revolution (the very existence of The Rules, and more recently of seduction manuals, gives the lie to that claim), Sense and Sensibility's moral feels more of its own time than any of Austen's other novels. It's hard not to feel that when Marianne says to Elinor that she compares her behavior "with what it ought to have been; I compare it with yours" that what she's saying is that she should have played hard to get and waited for an engagement ring. That's a little more unromantic than I can comfortably stomach.

14 comments:

Foxessa said...

This is a most insightful view of Sense and Sensibility, one of the best I've encountered. Which means, among other things, that I agree with it.

It took me more readings than it did you to arrive at this understanding though. I read S&S once in h.s., and then didn't bother with it again until once in my 20's. It wasn't until re-reading it post the Ang film that I 'got it' so to speak.

Off-topic, but for entries of this nature presumably, someone gave your blog and Sady's both the Honest Scrap Blog Award here.

Love, C.

Sherwood said...

I so agree about Lucy. She's the Nemesis the Ferrars earned--and she will not only prevail but rule the roost, and enjoy every battle to gain the pinnacle.

I ceased to think S&S about romance and anti-romance some time ago. After all Elinor suffers heroine angst just as much as Marianne does. The key, like you say, is that Elinor makes no one suffer with her.

All Austen's heroines--Lizzie--Anne--Emma--Fanny--even Catherine maintain that silence called delicacy, not even confiding in their closest and most sympathetic friend if it might cause hurt. So Lizzie keeps secrets from Jane, etc. In fact, looking at the silences in Austen is quite interesting.

KindKit said...

I'm afraid I disagree with several aspects of your reading. First, you leave out something absolutely critical, which is that Edward and Elinor do, in fact, love one another. The novel makes that quite clear. Their controlled behavior isn't because they're "unaffectionate," as you put it. Edward controls himself (not always successfully) because he's not free to marry Elinor; Elinor controls herself at first because she's unsure of his feelings and doesn't want to make a fool of herself, and later because her knowledge of his secret engagement makes her morally obliged both to step aside herself and to ensure that nobody knows her heart is broken.

Calling Elinor's behavior "mercenary" is a misreading, I think. Lucy is mercenary--she sets herself to catch the wealthiest man she can. Elinor falls in love with a man who happens to be heir to a fortune, and still loves him when he's disinherited. It's true that in all of Austen's novels, a potential marriage partner's income factors into their suitability, but is that mercenariness or prudence? Many people nowadays would not, for instance, date/marry someone who was long-term unemployed and had no prospect of ever getting a decent job.

I do think Austen is critical of her culture's growing emphasis on romantic love, for the very good reason (in my view) that it can be hard to tell apart from disastrous infatuation. Women in nineteenth-century England had none of the safeguards of modern western women--no real opportunity to get to know a man through dating before marrying him, no property rights and no legal personhood while married, no recourse against an abusive relationship, no access to divorce, no way to earn an independent living if abandoned. In that context, Austen's emphasis on caution looks less like "The Rules" and more like reasonable, and indeed feminist, self-protection.

ibmiller said...

While I completely agree (and like your phrasing) about Sense and Sensibility's artistic or stylistic weaknesses (I would also point out the thin sameness of the secondary characters like Mrs. Dashwood, Sir John, Mrs. Jennings, and Mr. John Dashwood, etc), I'm not sure the novel is so decidedly anti-romantic. I would say that the romantic/mercenary or feelings/society dichotomy you discern is actually part of the larger, eponymous conflict of the novel. Which, I know, seems so naive and jejeune, since it is, after all, the title, but I think that the concepts of sense and sensibility include the romantic and anti-romantic impulses you bring out. However, I also think they're richer, deeper ideas than mere romance - the idea of sense includes the prudence of Elinor, the gold-digging of Lucy, and, perhaps most importantly, the barely concealed ravenous greed of Elinor and Marianne's half-siblings - Mr. and Mrs. John Dashwood. On the other hand, sensibilty not only encompasses Marianne's romantic (or Romantic) temperament, but also Elinor's attempts to spare her family from her distress, Edward's frankness about his blunt sensativity, Colonel Brandon's principled love of Marianne, and the very veil that Mr. and Mrs. John Dashwood draw over the aforementioned greed (the language they use is all about their son and their affection for him - not about how much they want their old father's money). Framed as this wider debate, I would say that Austen does not at all repudiate romanticism or feeling - nor does she advocate mercenary prudence to the exclusion of it. Rather, she sees the qualities of both sense and sensibility in Elinor and Marianne, and has sympathy and pity for both. While Elinor perhaps comes off as more "successful," I'd tend to think this might be artistic immaturity - if you look at Pride and Prejudice, it's almost a recasting of the same general situtation, with Jane as Elinor and Lizzy as Marianne - but both are much more nuanced and less polarized, and this time, Marianne's surrogate is the clear heroine, winning admiration even in her falls.

And I would definitely recommend rereading Northanger Abbey - I don't think that one has to have read any of the genre Austen parodies to find it enjoyable - I certainly haven't, and I've read a very insightful critic who notes that like all great satires/parodies, Northanger Abbey contains just enough of what it mocks (the gothic novel and conventions) so that people unfamiliar with those conventions are comfortable with the humor. At least, that's my take - and I'm just about to read some of those gothic novels for school for the first time, and I've loved Northanger Abbey for about five or six years now.

And your comments about rereading Sense and Sensibility really resonate with me - until the recent BBC adaptation of the novel came out and gave me a new perspective on Elinor's character, I had only read the novel once. However, Hattie Morahan's work in that film was extremely powerful, and bumped the novel waaaaay up on my rereading list - and this time through, it didn't feel like a chore.

Alison said...

Great to hear your thoughts on Austen. I think like Mad Men she charts the struggle to be an authentic and honourable agent in a structured and ruthless world.

Another factor to add to the analysis is the unshakable love between the Elinor, Marianne and their mother. Romanticism is criticised (in my view) because its emphasis on individuality and the indulgence of private feeling damages considerate relations between people, particularly between women.

So Elinor is 'right', and Marianne 'wrong', but Marianne also represents the ground of authentic meaning, and so Elinor and Brandon love her. The family would be incomplete without either of the sisters.

Chuk said...

Thanks -- a friend of mine was just talking about S&S last week. I've read a few other Austen, looks like this one would be worth picking up.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Foxessa:

Aw, thank you :-)

Sherwood:

Yes, good point. And by extension, the most villainous characters (the ones Austen doesn't expect us to admire even a little, as opposed to Lucy) are the ones who impose their feelings and complaints on others - Mrs. Bennet, Lady Catherine de Burgh, Anne Eliot's entire family, even Mr. Woodhouse, though Austen is at least a little sympathetic towards him.

KindKit:

You're right, Elinor and Edward do love each other, but I still feel that the novel minimizes that love. Of all the main characters, Edward is the most opaque, and his relationship with Elinor gets the least exposure - we never see them talk to each other before the Dashwoods leave Norland, and the only description of their interactions comes from the dismissive Marianne. Compare him with Willoughby and Colonel Brandon, who get to explain their state of mind in their own words, or Lucy, whose character is thoroughly explored both through her conversations with Elinor and through Elinor's observations of her. I think Elinor actually spends more of the book thinking about Lucy than she does about Edward.

Considering that Austen could be a very romantic writer when she wanted to, and that even given the restrictions of proper behavior she could write extremely believable descriptions of affection and intimacy, I have to believe that she was acting deliberately (or that this is another example of S&S's stylistic problems). It's not that we're not expected to think that Edward and Elinor love each, but that their love is really not the point.

ibmiller:

Yes, there is certainly an element of wanting to find the right balance between sense and sensibility in the novel. I still think that Austen thinks that balance falls closer to the former, but she definitely repudiates the purely mercenary, purely utilitarian approach of characters like Lucy and Fanny Dashwood.

I was profoundly unimpressed by the recent BBC mini, whose best parts seemed like imitations of the Thompson/Lee film (the actress playing Marianne in particular was just trying to channel Kate Winslet). But Morahan, and the actor who played Edward, impressed me, and seemed much better suited to their roles than Thompson and Hugh Grant did in the film. I wish they'd had better material to work with.

Alison:

Yes, something that tends to get lost in the shuffle in the discussion of Austen as a romantic (or anti-romantic) writer is how important the relationships between women, and specifically sisters, are in some of her novels. Getting, once again, back to the film, one of its most egregious deviations from the text is a scene in which Elinor tells the dying Marianne that she can't live without her, which has always struck me as being faithful both to the character and the novel's themes - Elinor can survive losing the man she loves, but not her sister.

Amy said...

To veer into the Ang Lee film for a moment: I disagree that it portrays Brandon as more a parent than a lover for Marianne. In fact, I think the film rather brilliantly makes it clear that Brandon truly is a match for Marianne -- someone who has loved passionately, impetuously and tragically. Willoughby looks the part of such a lover, but Brandon has the scars to prove his deeper feelings. The point, I think, is best made with the contrast of two moments in the film: the moments when Willoughby, then Brandon, bring an ailing Marianne in from the rain. Willoughby does so easily, with no real sign of strain, and one of them notes that he picked her up as though she weighed no more than "a dried leaf." He puts her down (and gives her up forever) just as easily. Brandon, on the other hand, comes staggering in the door, panting for breath, clearly exhausted. To him, Marianne has weight. He will carry her when it's difficult. That's our signal that his love is real.

To extend this to the novel: Brandon's backstory is very dramatic and very emotional. I can't think of another Austen hero shown to have behaved so extravagantly for love. Yet Brandon is held up by the novel as a model. How does this work (or not) with your read?

Abigail Nussbaum said...

My point about the Marianne/Brandon relationship wasn't really to do with him, but with the way the romance between them is portrayed. There's one scene I'm thinking about in particular, after Marianne has come home and is still convalescing, when they're talking and are clearly on much more intimate terms. Marianne is almost childlike, and there's something almost paternal about Brandon's behavior towards her. It's an impression - I doubt that either Thompson or Lee intended it - but between that and Austen's bald statement that Marianne doesn't fall in love with Brandon until after their marriage, it's hard not to take a slightly dim view of the relationship.

I do agree, of course, that Brandon is a romantic figure - I think Marianne has a line in the recent BBC mini in which she calls him 'the true romantic' - and you raise an interesting point. Brandon has the traditional romantic hero's (and, more often, heroine's) arc - tragic beginning, many misfortunes, and then a very happy ending. Of all the characters, he comes closest to getting everything he wants and being truly happy. I think it may be significant, however, that he's a secondary character, albeit one who is more fully explored than Edward, while it's the woman who marries him out affection but without love who is the novel's actual heroine.

Zahra said...

Very interesting essay. S&S is the only Austen novel I've read only once; I've never been able to get over the sharp divide betwee model Elinor & negative exemplar Marianne.

But do you really think its "moral feels more of its own time than any of Austen's other novels"? I would think Mansfield Park would win that one, hands down. It's actually one of my favorite Austens, but I think it jars modern sensibilities far more than S&S.

Just looking at the recent film adaptations--the Ang Lee S&S hews close to the book, with the exception of the profession of sisterly love that you mention, and I agree that that addition doesn't seem to violate the book. But Patricia Rozema's Mansfield Park has to complete remake the main character so as not to alienate the audience.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

do you really think its "moral feels more of its own time than any of Austen's other novels"? I would think Mansfield Park would win that one, hands down.

I've actually gained a greater appreciation of Mansfield Park following a reread several years ago. I'm not sure I'd say that its moral is of its time - not, at any rate, if you read that moral as being that flash and wit aren't a substitute for character. It's not, to my mind, an entirely successful argument, and as in all of Austen's novels there are elements and themes that don't translate to our era, but the thrust of the novel does, I think.

All that said, I mainly prefer it to Sense and Sensibility because it's much, much funnier and sharper.

ibmiller said...

I would also say of Mansfield Park that it's hugely artistically superior in structure, narrative voice, and above all, characterization of main and secondary characters.

mazenko said...

Does anyone have knowledge of why Ann "Nancy" Steele is referred to by two different names. Was it an editing mistake? Did Austen simply switch names, or is "Nancy" somehow a nickname?

Very confused. Looking for help.

Sherwood said...

Ann's nicknames in those days were Nan, Nancy, Annie, Nannie

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