Edited by Inger Sigrun Brodey
The Political Elinor
Reshaping the Sexes in Sense and Sensibility
By Moreland Perkins.
University Press of Virginia, 1998.
xi + 208 pages. Hardcover, $24.50.
Reviewed by Lorrie Clark
Debate about the nature and extent of Jane Austen's feminism continues: this book argues that, while all of Austen's novels attempt "fictional reconstructions of patriarchal gender conceptions," it is in Sense and Sensibility that she most aggressively and successfully does so. Perkins argues that the "gender dissonance" of a masculinized Elinor Dashwood and a feminized Edward Ferrars amounts to a conscious reconstruction of eighteenth- century gender stereotypes: Elinor's intellectualism and civic-mindedness appropriate traditionally masculine virtues, just as Edward's shy, retiring domesticity appropriates feminine ones. Even the passionately romantic and feminine Marianne rebels against the female decorums of the day in behavior virtually indistinguishable from Willoughby's.
The real scope of the book is fortunately much broader than this rhetoric of social and gender constructionism would suggest. The rhetoric misleadingly implies, for instance, that Austen, while deliberately "reconstructing" notions of gender, nonetheless subscribes to the cardinal principle of social constructionism: that we are ineluctably "constructed" or "conventional," with no underlying nature or human nature against which such constructions might be tested and revised. Perkins nowhere stipulates the grounds on which Austen attempts her reconstructions, those grounds surely being greater truth to what she would call human nature. Austen has always been recognized as a brilliant interpreter of the role of convention in human life; but she would never hold that convention (in current parlance, social construction) goes "all the way down." Once Perkins gets beyond his narrow theoretical formulations into actual analyses of Edward's and especially Elinor's characters, the moral and political complexity of his understanding of Elinor suggests that indeed he does recognize that for Austen "character" must be understood as something far deeper and more foundational than the rhetoric of constructionism would suggest.
It is when one reads past this rhetoric that the real strengths of the book emerge. Elinor is a remarkable character, as Perkins' analysis reveals. He emphasizes and carefully defines through close readings of numerous passages, the "intellectuality" central to her being as "the integration ... of analytical intellect, affective imagination, a disciplined will governed by a sensitive conscience, and a habit of conserving the good," a "principled skepticism" not at all at odds with deeply-felt emotions. Rightly noting the widespread critical failure to appreciate the place of emotion and even passion in Austen's fiction, he emphasizes "the rationality of Elinor's passions" and the extent to which readers need to appreciate "the way reason invests the emotional life of Austenian heroines." Perkins amusingly contrasts this with the kind of emotion one finds in D. H. Lawrence's novels---"emotion ... virtually unviolated by thought."
Most original and suggestive is Perkins' argument in Chapters 5 and 6 ("A Heroine as Public Servant") about the ethical grounds of Elinor's character and conduct: are her "scrupulously self-denying courses of action" grounded in pious Christianity, or in something secular? Perkins posits a secular, gentlemanly ethos of "honor" as the ground of Elinor's conduct, her passion to practice what Edward Ferrars terms her "plan of general civility," proposing in turn that this is a "purely secular vocation" analogous to "the sometimes splendid calling of the dedicated statesperson-politician . This argument, citing examples of Elinor's masterful practice of "difficult civilities among her acquaintances," culminates in a wonderful extended reading of the full social significance of Colonel Brandon's gift of the Delaford living to Edward, and of Elinor's role as "concealed stateswoman" in this transaction. It is a role which requires her to rise higher above her personal interests (since the living she thinks will enable Edward to marry Lucy) than anything else she has done, simultaneously offering her the opportunity to "occupy the highest office of an almost literally political sort that she attains in the novel."
This splendid finale is, alas, weakened by a closing chapter on "problematic Marianne" in which Perkins not only reads her as a genuine romantic rebel, metamorphosed "from spirited dissenter to pallid conformist," but also denigrates the "colorless" Brandon he has just elevated to heroic civic stature in the previous chapter. This last chapter is even more surprising considering Perkins' vigorous defence of Edward Ferrars' apparent dullness of character, which Austen repeatedly compares--in its gravity, reserve, and want of spirits--to Brandon's, And what of Brandon's tragically romantic, secret past?
Despite the weak ending--and a predilection for quarrels with several critics better relegated to his footnotes-- Perkins offers here a deeply thought-provoking argument: that it may be Elinor Dashwood who masters and best exemplifies the intricate art of civility which constitutes Jane Austen's politics.
Lorrie Clark, speaker at the Lake Louise AGM, is associate professor of English at Trent University (Canada), and the author of Blake, Kierkegaard, and the Spectre of Dialectic (Cambridge, 1991). She is currently working on a book, Romanticism and the Problem of Sympathy, with chapters on Rousseau, Wordsworth, Austen, Conrad, and Nietzsche.
JASNA News v.15, no. 1, Spring 1999
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