Trapped in the Cabinet of Horrors

[This article consists of the first two sections of the Conclusion of In Search of Sense and Sensibility, shorn of the footnotes.]

The fall of Public Man

Madeleine Bunting’s recent article, From buses to blogs, a pathological individualism is poisoning public life, laments the modern failure of civility, citing Richard Sennett’s prescient 1974 The Fall of Public Man: “because every self is, in some measure, a cabinet of horrors, civilised relations between selves can only proceed to the extent that nasty little secrets of desire, greed or envy are kept locked up”. There are some interesting similarities and marked divergences between Sennett’s thesis and what Sense and Sensibility seems to be saying.

Separating Head and Heart

Not only does Austen test Marianne’s romantic philosophy in Sense and Sensibility to destruction but she subjects the reader to analogous stresses that can take the reading on a similar trajectory to Marianne’s in the narrative if these pressures aren’t resisted. The heroine of the novel is ‘my Elinor’ yet the reader has to stay sharp to avoid misreadings that mirror the mistake of the carefully camouflaged parental villain of the piece, Elinor and Marianne’s mother. If the reader fails to resist the conventions of sentimental fiction and sees Marianne as the heroine of the novel, expecting to see Marianne’s romantic aspirations fulfilled in the narrative then, as one of its early readers noted, ‘it ends stupidly’. The problem with our modern sentimental and romantic philosophies is that they tend to atomise the world, exaggerating the divisions between self and other and between head and heart, the head’s job being to arrange and/or maintain whatever reality the heart has fixed on (and most certainly not to ask any awkward questions).

Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.

David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, §2.3.3

Released from the discipline of critical examination with this arrangement the self quickly becomes a cabinet of horrors. In this respect Austen would disagree with Sennett. By taking a sceptical view of the self—as is traditional in Christianity in particular and religions in general—it becomes possible to regulate ourselves and tame those horrors before they get out of hand.

When this looser regulatory system comes with a doctrine of authenticity that places the horrors in the public domain, civility is bound to suffer. The confusion is encapsulated in a key exchange between Marianne and Elinor.

“But I thought it was right, Elinor,” said Marianne, “to be guided wholly by the opinion of other people. I thought our judgments were given us merely to be subservient to those of neighbours. This has always been your doctrine, I am sure.”

“No, Marianne, never. My doctrine has never aimed at the subjection of the understanding. All I have ever attempted to influence has been the behaviour. You must not confound my meaning. I am guilty, I confess, of having often wished you to treat our acquaintance in general with greater attention; but when have I advised you to adopt their sentiments or to conform to their judgment in serious matters?”

Vol. I, Ch. XVII (17.38-9)

According to Elinor, everyone is entitled to our civility and kindly attention, regardless of whether we approve of their personal philosophy or character or even actions but we should meanwhile be highly discriminating and careful in bestowing that stamp of approval (or disapprobation). Marianne is too quick to approve of Willoughby and too quick to be contemptuous of Colonel Brandon, and with Marianne and Willoughby, ‘their behaviour at all times, was an illustration of their opinions’ (11.2).

Austen is careful to set us up at the beginning, soliciting our hearty disapproval of the selfish and greedy disinheritance of the Dashwoods, rooted in their grandfather’s sentimental attachment for his great grandchild, but then carefully gets Marianne to repeat this selfish disregard for social obligations, and if the reader is not sharp they will find themselves assenting to the ‘injustice to which [Marianne] was often led in her opinion of others, by the irritable refinement of her own mind’ (31.4). It is the critical wrestling and attempts to break out of this trap that seems to have led to some remarkable assertions in the modern critiques, starting with Scott’s review of Emma.

Looked at another way, at the start of the novel, which is related from Elinor’s perspective, our hearts are primed to identify with Marianne, setting up a bifurcation in which our heads identify with ‘prudent Elinor’ (25.10) and the heart with Marianne, so replicating in the reader the dilemma of Marianne and her mother, of trying to resist the allure of the romantic Marianne-Willoughby fantasy for long enough to at least kick the tyres. If like Marianne we allow our sentiments to rule then our interest in the proceedings will likely get shattered along with the Willoughby illusion. If on the other hand we look for refuge in prudential Elinor getting the pile and prestige then we are in for just as much of a shock—it is often overlooked that the novel is a satire of the conservative genre venerating heartless prudence as well as the radical novels venerating heartless sentiment. If the reader expects either of these conventions then the novel ends stupidly.

For the ‘correct’ reading, the reading that will satisfy the head and heart, the reader has to avoid the sentimental and prudential excesses satirised at the start and the mistakes of Marianne’s mother and keep the focus on Elinor and follow Elinor’s lead in keeping a tight reign on judgement and expectations, keeping head and heart united to get the exquisite resolution.

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