The Janeites, the Brontës and Sense and Sensibility

“… You have all so much more heart among you than one finds in the world at large. …”

— Mary Crawford, Mansfield Park

On first encountering the Austen blogs (see my Literature Blogroll) I was surprised at the overwhelming space given over to discussion of film adaptations, but then I realised that PBS were just completing a season on Jane Austen. I have enjoyed adaptations of the novels and had a particularly indulgent phase on the ’95 Davies-Ehle-Firth adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. I started exercising restraint when i noticed that I was starting to blur this adaptation and the novel itself–it was becoming the novel, I still think it biases my impression of the novel. I wonder if anyone else has had this problem.

Appearances can be deceptive.

Via the BrontëBlog I came across this notice:

Jane Austen and the Brontes: ‘Sense’ versus ‘Sensibility’

[…] with Angela Day

[…] Austen’s approach is through a rejection of excess of sentimentality – sense. The Bronte novels emphasise the power of the imagination – sensibility.

And in an exchange of comments Christina said:

What I’ve always concluded from S&S, too, is that by the end of the novel both sisters have learned that extremes are no good and to take a leaf of each other’s book.

Now I would argue against both of these interpretations, what I would call the standard interpretations, and do so at length in the early draft of In Search of Sense and Sensibility (and I anticipate making the same argument in all subsequent drafts unless you persuade me otherwise).

Angela’s “‘Sense’ versus ‘Sensibility'” critique is essentially a conservative one, that puts Elinor at the centre of the novel (rightly in my view) but sees the novel as a dialectic between sense and sensibility with sense winning the day. Christina;s interpreation, what I would characterise as a liberal critique that is sympathetic to Austen, also sees this as a dialectic between Marianne’s romantic sensibility and Elinor’s prudential sense, with neither quality winning out (or both sisters winning through learning from each other).

Clearly I can’t compress my book into a blog article but I argue in it that Austen designed the book to be misread (other critics have said the same of Emma: see Emma’s Debt to Sense and Sensibility), that the reader has to remain sharp witted to navigate all the twists and turns in the book, just as Elinor does inside the narrative, and we have to follow her. And remember the novel is told from Elinor’s perspective, the first time a novel integrated the narration into the heroine’s perspective (i.e., free indirect speech) in a sustained way. Elinor is at the centre and embodies with Edward sense and sensibility, with the (early) Marianne and Willoughby representing the perverted sensibility and Lucy Steele and Robert Ferrars representing heartless prudence, perverted sense. Of course the only way for the head and heart to work is if they work together.

Just as Elinor, Marianne and their Mother have to assess the best way to cope with the allure of John Willoughby and the machinations of Lucy Steele, trying not to be put off balance by them, so does the reader. And it is enormously tempting to firstly buy into the idea that Marianne will find romantic fulfillment through Willoughby (the script of the romantic novel of sensibility), and when that falls to the ground, that Elinor will becomes wealthy by marrying Edward (the script of the conservative novel of prudence), but that fails too. If the reader has been kept the focus on Elinor then the scene where Elinor believes she has lost Edward is quite powerful.

“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.


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. (47.23-46)

The point is that Elinor’s heart has been very much in it—she has been not been lacking in sensibility, as Elinor explained to Marianne in London.

“I understand you.—You do not suppose that I have ever felt much.—For four months, Marianne, I have had all this hanging on my mind, without being at liberty to speak of it to a single creature; knowing that it would make you and my mother most unhappy whenever it were explained to you, yet unable to prepare you for it in the least.—It was told me,—it was in a manner forced on me by the very person herself, whose prior engagement ruined all my prospects; and told me, as I thought, with triumph.—This person’s suspicions, therefore, I have had to oppose, by endeavouring to appear indifferent where I have been most deeply interested;—and it has not been only once;—I have had her hopes and exultation to listen to again and again.—I have known myself to be divided from Edward for ever, without hearing one circumstance that could make me less desire the connection.—Nothing has proved him unworthy; nor has anything declared him indifferent to me.—I have had to contend against the unkindness of his sister, and the insolence of his mother; and have suffered the punishment of an attachment, without enjoying its advantages.—And all this has been going on at a time, when, as you know too well, it has not been my only unhappiness.—If you can think me capable of ever feeling—surely you may suppose that I have suffered now. The composure of mind with which I have brought myself at present to consider the matter, the consolation that I have been willing to admit, have been the effect of constant and painful exertion;—they did not spring up of themselves;—they did not occur to relieve my spirits at first.—No, Marianne.—then, if I had not been bound to silence, perhaps nothing could have kept me entirely—not even what I owed to my dearest friends—from openly shewing that I was very unhappy.”—

Marianne was quite subdued.— (37.29-30)

The point was that Austen worked hard to give us the opportunity of repeating Marianne and her mother’s mistake of neglecting the heroine and assuming that because she isn’t drawing attention to herself she doesn’t feel or her concerns can be neglected. By getting drawn off into the usual romantic or mercenary fantasies we neglect the true heart, in this case the heart of the heroine, which stands in place of our own.

This is what interests me about Austen’s novels, the way they exercise and challenge our heads and hearts (feeling and judgement), and how the novels resist partisan readings.

I cannot resist finishing with one final bit of mischievous speculation. Just as Sense and Sensibility can be viewed as a dialectic between Elinor’s sense and Marianne’s sensibility in which neither prevails, you could also view the long running dialectic between the academy and the Janeites as a dialog between the head and the heart in which neither should prevail. However, I believe Margaret Oliphant identified Jane Austen as the first Janeite (before the term was even coined) but she seems a bit confused though, identifying ‘the fine vein of feminine cynicism which pervades’ Austen’s mind early on in her article before going on to say of the ‘delightful a creature as ever appeared in print’ tribute to Elizabeth Bennett:

This is as curious a piece of revelation as we know, and proves that the young woman who had just given so original a work to the world was in reality quite unaware of its real power, and had set her heart upon her hero and heroine like any schoolgirl. Our beloved Mr Collins, upon whom the spectator would be tempted to think a great deal of pains and some proportionate anxiety must have been expended, evidently goes for very little with his maker. It is her lovers she is thinking of, a commonplace pair enough, while we are full of her inimitable fools, who are not at all commonplace. This curious fact disorders our head a little, and makes us ponder and wonder whether our author is in reality the gentle cynic we have concluded her to be, or if she has produced all these marvels of selfish folly unawares, without knowing what she was doing, or meaning anything by it. Genius, however, goes a great deal deeper than conscious meaning, and has its own way, whatever may be the intentions of its owner[.]

— Margaret Oliphant (1870) on Jane Austen

(See The Cynics article in the Philosophical Manifesto series for more context.)

So I give you the inaugural member of the Janeites: Jane Austen. And I suggest that we likewise we have a false dichotomy here, that Jane Austen and the Janeites succeed in uniting sense and sensibility. (Of course there have been many great critics who have succeeded too—they are included, though we can’t ‘out’ them without bringing eternal disgrace on their heads.)


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