Things are rarely quite as they seem in an Austen novel and so it is with Sense and Sensibility, that most anti-romantic of novels with its mocking of Marianne’s romantic philosophy and romantic conventions (the flying apart of Elinor and Edward when he is finally free to make his declaration), the hitching of the girls to the drippy Edward and the decrepit Colonel (in an arranged marriage), the minutiae of Elinor’s domestic cares and the strong emphasis placed on familial bonds at the close; the modern reader can scarcely suppress D. H. Lawrence’s suspicion that ‘this old maid’ is perhaps taking subconscious revenge for being denied romantic fulfilment.
With comic authors (and especially this one), it would be well to enquire after the cause of strong reaction as the author may be drawing or attention to something we really should be taking an interest in. As I have explained in the book much of the above narrative comes about through the mistaken notion that Marianne is a heroine of Sense and Sensibility but Austen has used the conventions of sentimental fiction in the first volume to induce the reader into following Marianne and her mother into getting hooked on an insubstantial romantic fantasy while missing the real romantic story playing out in its shadow.
It isn’t that romance is a bad idea per se, but (as with all powerful forces) it can be harmful if pursued carelessly, just as it would be unwise to walk out onto a high flat roof without testing and getting to know it first—to do so habitually would be to invite a nasty fall. In Austen’s world the reader gets to participate as well, not only watching the protagonists undergoing trials, but being subjected to analogous trials. If, like Elinor and Marianne’s mother, the reader tunes out of Elinor’s story and invests their interest in Marianne’ narrative then the reading will likely undergo a crisis with Marianne’s and follow a trajectory that parallels Marianne’s dull and languid recovery in the final volume.
It is possible to avoid this in by resisting and maintaining a sceptical attitude towards Marianne’s enthusiasm for Willoughby and staying faithful to Elinor and her judgement. If the reader does this they will notice that Edward and Elinor remain emotionally honest, principled and true to each other throughout despite great trials in a world that is offering precious little encouragement. When Elinor tells Marianne that ‘I have known myself to be divided from Edward for ever, without hearing one circumstance that could make me less desire the connection’ (37.29) the reader will have to have been sharp indeed to have understood the full force of the point on the first reading. Although we may be appalled at Edward’s ungallant behaviour with Elinor after leaving Norland, we later realize later that he is trying to protect Elinor with whom he has (foolishly but accidentally) fallen in love, but is blocked from either developing the relationship or even clarifying it through a promise to Lucy; like Elinor we have to suspend judgement. Not realising Lucy’s cynical designs , he must not break his promise to her: that would put him in no better a position than John Dashwood’s failure to fulfil his promise to his dying father; nobody gets criticised in the novel for keeping to a promise. All Edward can honourably do at this stage is try and warn Elinor off with his ungallant behaviour, which is actually the most romantic thing to do, trying to protect the women with whom he has fallen in love without any visible prospect of a reward, a true, unconditional love. His reward for this is our contempt for looking like a drip next to the dashing Willoughby who, as we learn later (44), has no compunction about toying with Marianne’s affections for his own amusement without any intention of meeting the expectations he is exciting, except briefly before his ‘dread of poverty’ (44.41) gets the better of him.
If the reader can penetrate the twists in the plot and tune in to the romantic story that is driving it forward then the narrative can provide plenty of interest when breaks the surface in the final volume. The scene where Elinor finds out that Edward is married (or so she thinks) in the middle of Volume III (47) reveals Elinor’s profound shock, reflected through the demonstrative Marianne and her mother (but this will not be of much interest to a reader that regards Elinor’s love of Edward with contempt, as some critics have done).
Elinor grew impatient for some tidings of Edward. She had heard nothing of him since her leaving London, nothing new of his plans, nothing certain even of his present abode. Some letters had passed between her and her brother, in consequence of Marianne’s illness; and in the first of John’s, there had been this sentence:—“We know nothing of our unfortunate Edward, and can make no enquiries on so prohibited a subject, but conclude him to be still at Oxford;” which was all the intelligence of Edward afforded her by the correspondence, for his name was not even mentioned in any of the succeeding letters. She was not doomed, however, to be long in ignorance of his measures.
Their man-servant had been sent one morning to Exeter on business; and when, as he waited at table, he had satisfied the inquiries of his mistress as to the event of his errand, this was his voluntary communication—
“I suppose you know, ma’am, that Mr. Ferrars is married.”
Marianne gave a violent start, fixed her eyes upon Elinor, saw her turning pale, and fell back in her chair in hysterics. Mrs. Dashwood, whose eyes, as she answered the servant’s inquiry, had intuitively taken the same direction, was shocked to perceive by Elinor’s countenance how much she really suffered, and a moment afterwards, alike distressed by Marianne’s situation, knew not on which child to bestow her principal attention.
The servant, who saw only that Miss Marianne was taken ill, had sense enough to call one of the maids, who, with Mrs. Dashwood’s assistance, supported her into the other room. By that time, Marianne was rather better, and her mother leaving her to the care of Margaret and the maid, returned to Elinor, who, though still much disordered, had so far recovered the use of her reason and voice as to be just beginning an inquiry of Thomas, as to the source of his intelligence. Mrs. Dashwood immediately took all that trouble on herself; and Elinor had the benefit of the information without the exertion of seeking it.
“Who told you that Mr. Ferrars was married, Thomas?”
“I see Mr. Ferrars myself, ma’am, this morning in Exeter, and his lady too, Miss Steele as was. They was stopping in a chaise at the door of the New London Inn, as I went there with a message from Sally at the Park to her brother, who is one of the post-boys. I happened to look up as I went by the chaise, and so I see directly it was the youngest Miss Steele; so I took off my hat, and she knew me and called to me, and inquired after you, ma’am, and the young ladies, especially Miss Marianne, and bid me I should give her compliments and Mr. Ferrars’s, their best compliments and service, and how sorry they was they had not time to come on and see you, but they was in a great hurry to go forwards, for they was going further down for a little while, but however, when they come back, they’d make sure to come and see you.”
“But did she tell you she was married, Thomas?”
“Yes, ma’am. She smiled, and said how she had changed her name since she was in these parts. She was always a very affable and free-spoken young lady, and very civil behaved. So, I made free to wish her joy.”
Mrs. Dashwood could think of no other question, and Thomas and the tablecloth, now alike needless, were soon afterwards dismissed. Marianne had already sent to say, that she should eat nothing more. Mrs. Dashwood’s and Elinor’s appetites were equally lost, and Margaret might think herself very well off, that with so much uneasiness as both her sisters had lately experienced, so much reason as they had often had to be careless of their meals, she had never been obliged to go without her dinner before.
When the dessert and the wine were arranged, and Mrs. Dashwood and Elinor were left by themselves, they remained long together in a similarity of thoughtfulness and silence. Mrs. Dashwood feared to hazard any remark, and ventured not to offer consolation. She now found that she had erred in relying on Elinor’s representation of herself; and justly concluded that every thing had been expressly softened at the time, to spare her from an increase of unhappiness, suffering as she then had suffered for Marianne. She found that she had been misled by the careful, the considerate attention of her daughter, to think the attachment, which once she had so well understood, much slighter in reality, than she had been wont to believe, or than it was now proved to be. She feared that under this persuasion she had been unjust, inattentive, nay, almost unkind, to her Elinor;—that Marianne’s affliction, because more acknowledged, more immediately before her, had too much engrossed her tenderness, and led her away to forget that in Elinor she might have a daughter suffering almost as much, certainly with less self-provocation, and greater fortitude.
Vol. III, Ch. XI (47.21-46)
Only if this scene makes any sense can the brilliant comic resolution stand a chance of working, as it continues to mock romantic conventions (the lovers flying apart), anticipates some to come (Edward spoiling the sheath with the scissors), culminating in Edward’s quitting of the house for some fresh air and a walk in the village—very English and very cool (but too cool for some).
Elinor now found the difference between the expectation of an unpleasant event, however certain the mind may be told to consider it, and certainty itself. She now found, that in spite of herself, she had always admitted a hope, while Edward remained single, that something would occur to prevent his marrying Lucy; that some resolution of his own, some mediation of friends, or some more eligible opportunity of establishment for the lady, would arise to assist the happiness of all. But he was now married; and she condemned her heart for the lurking flattery, which so much heightened the pain of the intelligence.
That he should be married soon, before (as she imagined) he could be in orders, and consequently before he could be in possession of the living, surprised her a little at first. But she soon saw how likely it was that Lucy, in her self-provident care, in her haste to secure him, should overlook every thing but the risk of delay. They were married, married in town, and now hastening down to her uncle’s. What had Edward felt on being within four miles from Barton, on seeing her mother’s servant, on hearing Lucy’s message!
They would soon, she supposed, be settled at Delaford.—Delaford,—that place in which so much conspired to give her an interest; which she wished to be acquainted with, and yet desired to avoid. She saw them in an instant in their parsonage-house; saw in Lucy, the active, contriving manager, uniting at once a desire of smart appearance with the utmost frugality, and ashamed to be suspected of half her economical practices;—pursuing her own interest in every thought, courting the favour of Colonel Brandon, of Mrs. Jennings, and of every wealthy friend. In Edward—she knew not what she saw, nor what she wished to see;—happy or unhappy,—nothing pleased her; she turned away her head from every sketch of him.
Elinor flattered herself that some one of their connections in London would write to them to announce the event, and give farther particulars,—but day after day passed off, and brought no letter, no tidings. Though uncertain that any one were to blame, she found fault with every absent friend. They were all thoughtless or indolent.
“When do you write to Colonel Brandon, ma’am?” was an inquiry which sprung from the impatience of her mind to have something going on.
“I wrote to him, my love, last week, and rather expect to see, than to hear from him again. I earnestly pressed his coming to us, and should not be surprised to see him walk in today or tomorrow, or any day.”
This was gaining something, something to look forward to. Colonel Brandon must have some information to give.
Scarcely had she so determined it, when the figure of a man on horseback drew her eyes to the window. He stopt at their gate. It was a gentleman, it was Colonel Brandon himself. Now she could hear more; and she trembled in expectation of it. But—it was not Colonel Brandon—neither his air—nor his height. Were it possible, she must say it must be Edward. She looked again. He had just dismounted;—she could not be mistaken,—it was Edward. She moved away and sat down. “He comes from Mr. Pratt’s purposely to see us. I will be calm; I will be mistress of myself.”
In a moment she perceived that the others were likewise aware of the mistake. She saw her mother and Marianne change colour; saw them look at herself, and whisper a few sentences to each other. She would have given the world to be able to speak—and to make them understand that she hoped no coolness, no slight, would appear in their behaviour to him;—but she had no utterance, and was obliged to leave all to their own discretion.
Not a syllable passed aloud. They all waited in silence for the appearance of their visitor. His footsteps were heard along the gravel path; in a moment he was in the passage, and in another he was before them.
His countenance, as he entered the room, was not too happy, even for Elinor. His complexion was white with agitation, and he looked as if fearful of his reception, and conscious that he merited no kind one. Mrs. Dashwood, however, conforming, as she trusted, to the wishes of that daughter, by whom she then meant in the warmth of her heart to be guided in every thing, met with a look of forced complacency, gave him her hand, and wished him joy.
He coloured, and stammered out an unintelligible reply. Elinor’s lips had moved with her mother’s, and, when the moment of action was over, she wished that she had shaken hands with him too. But it was then too late, and with a countenance meaning to be open, she sat down again and talked of the weather.
Marianne had retreated as much as possible out of sight, to conceal her distress; and Margaret, understanding some part, but not the whole of the case, thought it incumbent on her to be dignified, and therefore took a seat as far from him as she could, and maintained a strict silence.
When Elinor had ceased to rejoice in the dryness of the season, a very awful pause took place. It was put an end to by Mrs. Dashwood, who felt obliged to hope that he had left Mrs. Ferrars very well. In a hurried manner, he replied in the affirmative.
Elinor resolving to exert herself, though fearing the sound of her own voice, now said,
“Is Mrs. Ferrars at Longstaple?”
“At Longstaple!” he replied, with an air of surprise.—”No, my mother is in town.”
“I meant,” said Elinor, taking up some work from the table, “to inquire for Mrs. Edward Ferrars.”
She dared not look up;—but her mother and Marianne both turned their eyes on him. He coloured, seemed perplexed, looked doubtingly, and, after some hesitation, said,—
“Perhaps you mean—my brother—you mean Mrs.—Mrs. Robert Ferrars.”
“Mrs. Robert Ferrars!”—was repeated by Marianne and her mother in an accent of the utmost amazement;—and though Elinor could not speak, even her eyes were fixed on him with the same impatient wonder. He rose from his seat, and walked to the window, apparently from not knowing what to do; took up a pair of scissors that lay there, and while spoiling both them and their sheath by cutting the latter to pieces as he spoke, said, in a hurried voice,
“Perhaps you do not know—you may not have heard that my brother is lately married to—to the youngest—to Miss Lucy Steele.”
His words were echoed with unspeakable astonishment by all but Elinor, who sat with her head leaning over her work, in a state of such agitation as made her hardly know where she was.
“Yes,” said he, “they were married last week, and are now at Dawlish.”
Elinor could sit it no longer. She almost ran out of the room, and as soon as the door was closed, burst into tears of joy, which at first she thought would never cease. Edward, who had till then looked any where, rather than at her, saw her hurry away, and perhaps saw—or even heard, her emotion; for immediately afterwards he fell into a reverie, which no remarks, no inquiries, no affectionate address of Mrs. Dashwood could penetrate, and at last, without saying a word, quitted the room, and walked out towards the village—leaving the others in the greatest astonishment and perplexity on a change in his situation, so wonderful and so sudden;—a perplexity which they had no means of lessening but by their own conjectures.
Vol. III, Ch. XII (48.1-26)
The most subtle mystery of Sense and Sensibility is that it is after all a romantic novel.