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View Full Version : Re-reading Sense and Sensibility - plot and characterisation



Jackson Richardson
10-29-2015, 03:45 AM
I’ve just finished Sense and Sensibility. It is a very fine novel and if Jane Austen hadn’t written five other novels it would be her finest.

It is a highly ingenious plot, probably the most elaborate she wrote. But to begin with it seems too schematic with the two sisters contrasted as Sense and Sensibility. (My sympathies are all with Elinor and in the early chapters Marianne strikes me as an emotionally self-indulgent and self-centred pseud.) And the clever twist that leaves Edward free to marry Elinor is not prepared for at all.

The characterisation also seems cruder than in the other novels (including the earlier Northanger Abbey). The dominant figure of Mrs Ferrers only appears once in person and compared to other tyrants (Lady Catherine, General Tilney) is a simplistic caricature.

Edward Ferrers himself is a really boring character.

Ecurb
10-29-2015, 09:35 AM
I agree with you in general, Jonathon. S & S is probably the most flawed of Austen's six (almost perfect) novels. Among the flaws:

1) Edward is the most boring romantic hero in the novels.

2) Colonel Brandon runs a close second, and his failure is more acute. He's meant, I think, to be a brooding, romantic figure, disappointed in love and life. One problem, though, with a character of whom the other characters think little is that the reader may agree with the other characters. When Marianne and Willoughby make fun of Colonel Brandon for wearing a flannel waistcoat and complaining of a twinge of rheumatism, I always wonder about the Colonel's sensibilities myself. Has he no idea of how to make himself attractive to a romantic, seventeen-year-old girl? In all charity, we can't object to Brandon for his rheumatism, but it would be easy to keep silent about it in front of his beloved Marianne. Brandon is constantly being described as "grave", "melancholy", and "dull". OK, but why should we readers root for such a dullard to win Marianne's heart? Here, from the end of the book, Austen describes the Colonel:


A three weeks' residence at Delaford, where, in his evening hours at least, he had little to do but to calculate the disproportion between thirty-six and seventeen, brought him to Barton in a temper of mind which needed all the improvement in Marianne's looks, all the kindness of her welcome, and all the encouragement of her mother's language, to make it cheerful.

Well, yes, Colonel Brandon, 36 and 17 are separated by quite a chasm, and moping about seems like an awkward (and usually unsuccessful) method of wooing a young girl. Perhaps some young girls like men who mope (those same girls who love Bronte novels, perhaps?), but I don't.

On the other hand, some of the best things about S & S are:

1) It is the most emotionally resonant of the novels (along with Persuasion). The scene where Elinor tries to comfort Marianne as she lies weeping on her bed is heartbreaking. These two novels (of the six) offer the gift of tears.

2) Lucy Steele is a good foil, hard as, well, steel.

3) I disagree with you about Marianne. I am now even older than the archaic Colonel Brandon, but there was a time when beautiful, romantic girls appealed to me, and I remember it fondly. Who wouldn't like a beautiful girl who loves poetry and literature? In fact, I find Marianne's conversion to "sense" disappointing, and when she trots to the altar with "with no sentiment superior to strong esteem and lively friendship", I find that tragic. Nonetheless, Marianne is a great heroine, although I wish her conversion to "sense" was more tempered.

4) I like some of the minor characters. Mrs. Dashwood, despite resembling Marianne in her romantic sensibilities, is the best parent in Austen. Austen wrote S & S when she was a young woman herself, but I wonder that it never occurred to her to find a romantic entanglement for Mrs. Dashwood, who is, after all, closer to Colonel Brandon's age than Marianne is. Mrs. Jennings, despite embarrassing Elinor and Marianne, has a heart of gold.

Jackson Richardson
10-29-2015, 11:26 AM
Mrs Jennings is interesting. I can’t imagine Jane Austen would create such a vulgar but obviously good character in her later works, or have so much fun describing her.

It might be thought that Elinor, with her concern for social propriety, would reject Mrs J and Marianne who praised spontaneity with no reference to social good behaviour would have some sympathy.

But no. It is sensible Elinor, who probably realises how awful Mrs J’s behaviour often is, who is unfailingly considerate, appreciative and polite to her. It is Marianne, the emotional snob,who considers her beyond the pale and can barely bring herself to talk to her even when Mrs J is giving her considerable hospitality.

Ecurb
10-29-2015, 01:17 PM
It's true that Marianne is rude to Mrs. Jennings (and Colonel Brandon, for that matter). Young, headstrong, opinionated people (like Marianne) are young, headstrong and opinionated. This may be shocking to my readers, but I was a bit conceited and judgmental at age 17 myself. Nonetheless, although I was worse in some ways at age 17 than I am now, I was also better in some ways -- more idealistic, romantic, energetic, and eager. Marianne's charm is inseparable from her failings. She is sure (for example) that "second attachments" are impossible, which is silly, but (if one is, like Willoughby, the "first attachment") very attractive. In real life (and fiction) self-centered, opinionated lovers are often the most charming, especially when we are young. That's because self-centered lovers are obsessed with their love and their lovers, and project on them qualities of perfection. This (of course) lacks "sense", but it is romantic and appealing.

I agree, though, that Marianne's inability to appreciate Mrs. Jennings is one of her major failings.

Jackson Richardson
10-29-2015, 05:20 PM
Gosh, ecurb, itís lovely having intelligent exchanges with someone half way round the world, but on the subject of Marianne Dashwood weíll just have to respectfully differ Ė I suspect our experience of adolescence was very different. I canít find someone who is rude to everyone apart from her family and boyfriend charming. And whose artistic tastes I find so unsympathetic. (ďPope was admired no more that he should be.Ē Give me The Rape of the Lock any day against any romantic twaddle.)

HOWEVER Iíll grant this, that once Willoughby leaves her, I can totally sympathise with Marianneís distress. This is the deepest emotion depicted in Jane Austen and it is powerful in a way that the painting-by-numbers seduction story of Eliza Williams and her daughter are not.

It also shows up the superficiality of her earlier romanticism. Iím all for recognising deep emotion. What Iím highly suspect of is indulging in emotion for its own sake without any deep basis, which is what it seems to me, crabby old thing you may think me, is what she is doing in the early chapters.

Ecurb
10-29-2015, 07:39 PM
"Indulging in emotion for its own sake" is the essence of romantic love. "All love is a delusion," wrote Oscar Wilde.
Romanticism (and hence a certain kind of romance) is culturally constituted and hence "artificial". However, the artificial is no less real for being manufactured. Man makes himself.

Also, I'll grant that my attraction to Marianne lacks sense. Perhaps we can excuse rude behavior in teenagers that we might deplore in grown-ups.

Jackson Richardson
10-30-2015, 04:06 AM
Oh it doesn't lack sense (in the conventional modern sense). You just fancy her, as does Colonel Brandon. Mother Nature has made me unresponsive to female physical charms.

Come to think of it, that's what lacking about Elinor, any erotic aspect. Colonel Brandon is quite sexy in comparison to Edward Ferrers, who is specificaly said to be "not handsome". Brandon has fought a duel with Willoughby, quite the most macho man in Jane Austen apart from Captain Wentworth capturing all those French ships. Edward is the least sexy of Austen heroes.

mona amon
10-31-2015, 05:37 AM
It is a very fine novel and if Jane Austen hadnít written five other novels it would be her finest. ~ Jon

That's a nice way of putting it. I love Sense and Sensibility, but I love the other five more. It is a fantastic book! I love both Marianne and Elinor. Marianne is a little like Emma and Catherine Moreland (and Don Quixote) in the way all these characters come to grief while trying to make the real world conform to the romantic notions they pick up from the books they read. We laugh at the bumbling of the other two, but Marianne suffers too much for us to laugh at her.

I think Edward Ferrars is sexy enough - or maybe I'm thinking of Hugh Grant in the movie. I agree with Ecurb, the minor characters are wonderful. Mr Palmer is a hoot (or am I remembering Hugh Laurie in the movie?), and I was really amused at the way all the 'bad guys' Lucy Steele, John and his wife, and Mrs Ferrars continue throughout to flourish like the green bay tree.

For me, Colonel Brandon is the most unsatisfactory part of the novel, both in terms of plot and character. There is something so annoyingly passive about him - mooning over Marianne even before Willoughby enters the scene but never trying to get her attention, giving her up so easily to Willoughby, never doing anything to help the first Eliza from going downhill, failing to adequately chaperone Eliza no. 2, and worst of all, never warning the sisters that Willoughby is a cad who seduced and abandoned his ward. Even the way Austen describes how he and Marianne eventually decide to marry, it is almost as if other people did all the work.

True he challenges Willoughby to a duel, but it doesn't seem to have had much effect with Willoughby boldly seducing Marianne in front of his eyes.


This is the deepest emotion depicted in Jane Austen and it is powerful in a way that the painting-by-numbers seduction story of Eliza Williams and her daughter are not. ~ Jon

Yes, I think that's probably the worst bit of writing in all the six books. On the other hand, I love the scene at the end, with Elinor and Willoughby, with the surprising amount of sympathy, empathy and affection she feels for him. In this masterful passage, Austen manages to lighten up Elinor's staid and restrained character, vindicate Marianne, and even humanize Willoughby. Anyone can create a weak but charming scoundrel and have her heroine come to grief because of him, but all the nuances and undercurrents and ambivalent feelings we find here are the work of pure genius!