Emma’s Debt to Sense and Sensibility

[the first half of this article on Sense and Sensibility is a highly compressed encapsulation of Exploring Sense and Sensibility, and the second is concluding section of some notes on Emma. The join is not intended to be seamless, but to help provide an entry point for the book.]

While Emma (1815) is seen as Austen’s masterpiece, Sense and Sensibility (1811) is said to show ‘evidence of artistic immaturity’ (Duckworth (1994), p. 82, n. 1), but I beg to differ; it seems to show almost miraculous artistic maturity, that we are to this day still coming to terms with. Just as Austen’s first great critic, Scott (1815) reviewed Emma for John Murray only to finish with a sally at Sense and Sensibility that makes little sense, so his antecedents have been following in his footsteps, rightly celebrating the vastly superior technique of Emma, while failing to properly comprehend the debt that Emma owes to Jane Austen’s first-published novel, and not merely getting Austen established as a published authoress.

Sense and Sensibility has succeeded perfectly in meeting the needs of its initial market, drawing favourable notices for its technique and wholesome ethics.

We will, however, detain our female friends no longer than to assure them, that they may peruse these volumes not only with satisfaction but with real benefits, for they may learn from them, if they please, many sober and salutary maxims for the conduct of life, exemplified in a very pleasing and entertaining narrative.

Unsigned Notice of Sense and Sensibility, British Critic, May 1812

But at the same time it made also a perfect vehicle for establishing an audacious experimental design, smuggled in underneath the presumption of a wholesome morality tale by a novelist learning her trade. This kind of audacious experimentation could not have been done in any of her succeeding novels without damaging her enterprise.

Duckworth (1994), while providing some excellent insights into Emma seems to stumble a bit on the ‘immature’ Sense and Sensibility, starting with his failure to realise that Marianne is not the heroine of Sense and Sensibility. He has no excuse for this as he himself says Elinor ‘is the only character (apart from Mrs. Jennings on one occasion [39] which must be judged as a technical lapse) whose mind the reader is allowed to enter. The only possible pretext for making Marianne into a heroine is our sentiment for no rational basis exists any more than there is in considering Jane Bennet a heroine. Duckworth (1994) (pp. 106-110) also understands better than any other critics the philosophical critique that Austen was after, the idea that sentiment should form basis of judgement, started by Shaftesbury, opposed by Butler, and continued to this present day, as evidenced by Duckworth’s attempts to justify own attempts to justify Marianne though our response to her.

What vindicates Marianne in the early scenes is the sincerity behind her enthusiasms, the personal quality present even when her sensibility is mediated through her reading. That she is not merely fashionable is shown in her dislike of Gilpinesque “jargon,” indeed of “jargon of every kind” [18.8]. During her conversation with Edward about landscape scenery she observes: “sometimes I have kept my feelings to myself, because I could find no language to describe them in but what was worn and hackneyed out of all sense and meaning” [18.8]. And when Sir John Middleton suggests that she “will be setting her [her] cap” at Willoughby, her caustic reply, though somewhat outspoken for a seventeen year-old, is no less of a cliché than it deserves [9.29-32]

Alistair M. Duckworth, The Improvement of the Estate, p. 105

We are sympathetic towards Marianne in the early scenes because Austen has pulled out all the stops, giving Marianne all conventions of sentimental fiction to make us like her (even to the extent of giving Marianne own qualities); we are taken by Marianne’s youthful exuberance for just the same reason that the ‘old gentleman’ is taken by his great grandson and ties up the estate for his benefit (1)—the great crime of sentiment that kicks of the novel. None of us are immune to these forces, even great critics, and must be constantly watchful.

We are ultimately sympathetic to Marianne for the same reason that we are sympathetic to Emma who comes in for a quite similar onslaught, showing her up to be not at all above Mrs Elton and Frank Churchill (see Emma from which the rest of this article is taken); the protagonist Marianne and the heroine Emma hold our sympathy for the same reason that Knightley continues to love Emma for all her faults.

“Can you trust me with such flatterers?—Does my vain spirit ever tell me I am wrong?”

“Not your vain spirit, but your serious spirit.—If one leads you wrong, I am sure the other tells you of it.”

Emma, Vol. III, Ch. II (38.49-50)

It is Emma’s potential, her serious side, that rather than joining the flatterers tries to break out of the subjective prison, see herself more clearly and adjust that wins our final approval. As Rosmarin (1984) shows Austen takes great care to give the reader not only a view from the outside but also take the reader inside the narrative, seeing things from Emma’s perspective but without the reader noticing. This is analogous to the problems we all have in getting from one end of the day to the other—we see things from a particular perspective but keep forgetting this believing that ourselves to have an omniscient, objective view, and this illusion will be all the more powerful the more clever we are, until we start bumping into reality as Emma does, and start to take seriously the need to acquire self-knowledge. By allowing the reader to condemn and laugh at Emma’s matchmaking in the first volume the reader is subjected to the same hubristic pressures as Emma is by her flatterers (especially her indulgent father and governess). Throughout the succeeding chapters, after Frank Churchill’s arrival, we lose our omniscience, ‘For, with Churchill’s entrance, Emma is no longer the puppet-mistress of Highbury but instead becomes a marionette in Churchill’s more subtle show’ (Duckworth (1994), p. 163). And so do we, and we begin to participate in the shortcomings of Emma’s that we were warned about at the start, joining in her dismissal of Miss Bates, her reserved niece, and the openhearted but undiscriminating Mr Weston, sneering at the vulgar Mrs Elton and condemning the unprincipled Frank Churchill. And so we should (up to a point) but we have probably failed to recognise all the while that we have been partaking in their failures to a greater degree than we had realised, and unless we happen to be a saint, will have been doing so before we picked up the novel and will continue to do so once the book is put down; but maybe a little less with each rereading. Gary Kelly sums it up in formulating his conception of the ‘Anglican romance’.

The consequences of misreading were much debated in Austen’s day, and still are. Novels in general and ‘romances’ in particular were often condemned for furnishing readers with false images of life and encouraging fantasy and desire at the expense of the moral and intellectual discipline considered necessary for ‘real life’. Austen allows her readers to indulge these desires by reading or misreading with the protagonist, despite the warnings of narratorial irony, and then teaches readers how to read better. Chastened the reader can reread Austen’s novels with instructed interest. Austen’s novels have indeed been found eminently rereadable, a fact which has made them into ‘classics’, or literature. Thus it can be argued that Austen used the very seductions of the novel to teach readers to overcome them, and thereby transformed what was then considered ‘only a novel’ into literature, as it was then becoming understood[…].

Gary Kelly, Religion and Politics, pp. 166-7

Austen reminds us that just as outer surfaces are unreliable, that appearances can be highly deceptive and must be subject to analysis (we have become exceptionally good at this in the physical sciences), so internal surfaces can also be highly deceptive, and must be subjected to analysis before they can be considered reliable, but this is something we moderns are not so good at. Once the thoroughness of this programme is comprehended—Austen’s use of the techniques of sentimental fiction to encourage the reader to identify (initially at least) with Marianne Dashwood rather than Elinor Dashwood, Elizabeth Bennet instead of Jane Bennet, Mary Crawford instead of Fanny Price and Emma Woodhouse rather than Jane Fairfax, while demonstrating through the development of the action that these preferences are untenable as ethical judgements, so showing our modern propensity to allow the head and heart to become separated, and the problems this creates. This may account for some of the passion in the critical literature of this most rationalist of authors. By taking Sense and Sensibility as the first great novel in the Austen canon, rather than Pride and Prejudice, it is possible to arrive at a philosophical scheme that is consistent with all the novels that Jane Austen published, and may perhaps help us to better understand each of the novels individually.

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