Shannon A. Blatt
University of Dallas
Feminine Manipulation in Sense and Sensibility
Some feminist critics have argued that Jane Austen’s novels portray women as subservient to men, lacking in individual authority and subject to a patriarchal power structure that marginalizes the female role in society. Although it is true that Austen’s novels focus on the precarious role of women in Regency society, some of her female characters do, in fact, use their influence to obtain the ends they desire. Nowhere is this use of feminine influence more evident than in Sense and Sensibility. In this essay, I will first discuss how female characters in the novel use manipulation to gain power over male characters. I will then conclude with an examination of Austen’s intentions in characterizing the power struggle between women and men in this way.
Sense and Sensibility begins with an illustration of how a cunning woman can manipulate a weak man. The novel’s first instance of dialogue centers on the exchange between Mr. and Mrs. John Dashwood concerning his father’s deathbed wish that John consider the interest of his mother-in-law and sisters. John initially formulates a plan giving his three half sisters the generous sum of one thousand pounds each. His wife, unwilling to part with any of the couple’s income, convinces him that his father never actually meant for him to give the girls anything. By praising his nonexistent generosity and urging that he consider the future of their “poor little boy,” Fanny proceeds to persuade John that his mother-in-law and sisters are in no real need of money and that their son Harry will surely live in penury should any be removed from his future estate. The skill with which Fanny manipulates John is impressive; her cunning leads him away from his original plan and down the path of her choosing. Fanny accomplishes this by using a variety of rhetorical tools to persuade him. First, she uses overstatement: “Had he been in his right senses, he could not have thought of such a thing as begging you to give away half your fortune from your own child” (26; vol. 1, ch. 2). Because the reader has already learned of Mr. Dashwood’s recommendation to his son (no begging took place) and that John had considered giving only three thousand pounds to his sisters (not half his fortune), this is our first indication from Austen that we are not to trust Fanny Dashwood. After the clever use of overstatement, Fanny resorts to understatement: “Five hundred a year! I am sure I cannot imagine how they will spend half of it, and as to your giving them more, it is quite absurd to think of it. They will be much more able to give you something” (28; vol. 1, ch. 2). By the end of this rather short conversation, John is convinced of a plan completely opposite from the one with which he began: “I clearly understand it now, and I will strictly fulfil my engagement by such acts of assistance and kindness to them as you have described” (29; vol. 1, ch. 2). Austen intends this display to reflect negatively on both the manipulator and the manipulated.
Austen provides another example of a manipulative female in Lucy Steele. As with Fanny Dashwood, Austen gives the reader clues as to Lucy’s credibility through her dialogue. In Volume I, Chapter 19, we learn from the narrator of Edward’s feelings toward the ladies of Barton Cottage: “He valued their kindness beyond anything, and his greatest happiness was in being with them” (97). Lucy, however, describes Edward’s mental state quite differently. Speaking of his trip to Barton Cottage, Lucy tells Elinor, “Did not you think him dreadful low-spirited when he was at Barton? He was so miserable when he left us at Longstaple, that I was afraid you might think him quite ill” (123; vol. 1, ch. 22). This discrepancy between Lucy’s words and actual events characterizes the type of cunning that she will exercise throughout the novel. Although Lucy is disingenuous with everyone, her manipulation of Robert Ferrars is the most striking example of her shrewdness. Following Mrs. Ferrars’ disinheritance of Edward after the revelation of their secret engagement, Lucy must face the prospect of marriage to a man with little money and even fewer prospects. Despite this turn of events, she gives the impression of constancy in a letter to Elinor: “[T]hough we have suffered dreadfully, we are both quite well now and as happy as we must always be in one another’s love” (233; vol. 3, ch. 2). This “happiness in one another’s love,” however, is short-lived. Edward’s brother, Robert, visits Lucy in hopes of persuading her to abandon her plan to marry Edward so that he might be welcomed back into the family. Although Austen does not provide the details of the visit, she allows Edward to surmise after the fact what may have led to Robert and Lucy’s marriage. Austen writes, “Edward could only attempt an explanation by supposing that perhaps at first accidentally meeting, the vanity of one had been so worked on by the flattery of the other as to lead by degrees to all the rest” (302; vol. 3, ch. 13). Lucy easily manipulates Robert by catering to his vanity, which is his major weakness. Just as in the case of Fanny and John Dashwood, Austen illustrates how a clever woman, properly motivated, can manipulate a self-absorbed man.
While Fanny Dashwood and Lucy Steele use their cunning to achieve the ends they desire, other female characters within the novel use money to control the men in their lives. Although readers often think of John Willoughby as a master manipulator, his love of extravagance allows women who can feed that extravagance to manipulate him. According to Willoughby, Mrs. Smith, his aunt, had felt slighted by his negligence. As the source of his income, he could little afford to offend her. He tells Elinor, “[Mrs. Smith] was previously disposed, I believe, to doubt the morality of my conduct in general, and was, moreover, discontented with the very little attention, the very little portion of my time that I had bestowed upon her in my present visit” (270; vol. 3, ch. 8). Mrs. Smith demands that Willoughby marry Eliza, the mother of his illegitimate child. Willoughby will not agree, and Mrs. Smith then cuts off his funds, leading him to abandon Marianne and any thoughts he may have had of marrying her. Aware of his need for the comforts of expensive society and unwilling to face a life of poverty, Willoughby heads to London confident in his ability to woo the wealthy Miss Sophia Grey. Although his relationship with Miss Grey mirrors his relationship with his aunt in that both are founded on his need for money, Miss Grey’s manipulation of Willoughby is successful where Mrs. Smith’s is not. By tempting Willoughby with the promise to maintain his extravagant lifestyle, Miss Grey gains control over him. She seems to expect little in return. Austen writes, “‘Do not talk to me of my wife,” said he with a heavy sigh. ‘She does not deserve your compassion. She knew I had no regard for her when we married’” (275; vol. 3, ch 8). Here, again, Austen portrays a cunning female manipulating a weak male to illustrate the flaws inherent in both of their characters. She seems less concerned, however, with Miss Grey’s ability to manipulate Willoughby than she is with the fact that Willoughby can be so easily manipulated. Following his visit to Elinor, Austen writes of Willoughby:
The world had made him extravagant and vain. Extravagance and vanity had made him cold-hearted and selfish. Vanity, while seeking its own guilty triumphat the expense of another, had involved him in a real attachment which extravagance, or at least its offspring, necessity, had required to be sacrificed. (276; vol. 3, ch. 8).
This passage illustrates why Willoughby is so easily manipulated: since only extravagance can feed his vanity, and only money can feed his extravagance, he will always be at the mercy of the person holding the purse strings.
Another character who attempts the financial manipulation of others is Mrs. Ferrars. Austen describes her as sour-faced, ill-tempered and bad-natured. After learning of Edward and Lucy’s secret engagement, Mrs. Ferrars first attempts bribery; she promises Edward a handsome family estate if he will break off his relationship with Lucy. She then offers him a thousand pounds per year, increasing the amount to twelve hundred pounds in a desperate effort to force Edward to break the engagement. Her final offer is penury; Edward will receive no more money than what is already his (two thousand pounds) if he marries Lucy. Seeing that he will not be swayed, Mrs. Ferrars goes so far as to threaten that, should he attempt to enter any profession, she will do everything in her power to prevent his success. Although this behavior speaks to the intractability of Mrs. Ferrar’s character, Edward’s response is of more concern here. Unlike Willoughby, money cannot persuade Edward to break an oath. And although Edward and Lucy were underaged when they entered into their engagement, he considers his promise to her as irrevocable. He carries on with the engagement despite his mother’s assurance that his future holds little more than a life of poverty. Mrs. Ferrar’s attempts financially to manipulate her son, then, are unsuccessful.
What does Austen mean to show her readers through these examples of feminine manipulation? Is she illustrating that women must exert whatever power is available to them in order to achieve their goals? To answer these questions, we must consider the outcomes of these instances of manipulation. Fanny Dashwood is successful in convincing John to deny his step-mother and sisters money, despite his father’s deathbed wish that he provide for them. Lucy Steele is successful in her flattery of Robert Ferrars--so much so that they are married. Austen writes later, however, of “jealousies and ill will” between Fanny and Lucy and of “frequent domestic disagreements between Robert and Lucy themselves” (313; vol. 3, ch. 14). Austen then compares Robert’s life to Edward’s by describing his “increasing attachment to his wife and his home” and his “regular cheerfulness of spirits,” pointing out that Edward would certainly not trade Robert’s life of wealth for his own life of happiness. Miss Grey is also successful in her manipulation of Willoughby, although like Lucy and Robert, there is little hope for domestic bliss. Austen writes of Willoughby, “His wife was not always out of humour, nor his home always uncomfortable, and in his breed of horses and dogs, and in sporting of every kind, he found no inconsiderable degree of domestic felicity” (315; vol. 3, ch.14). Although Mrs. Ferrars cannot manipulate Edward financially, she succeeds in demonstrating her power as the matriarch of her family by bestowing favors on her sons as she pleases, preferring the fashionable Robert and Lucy to the domestic Edward and Elinor.
The female characters in Sense and Sensibility who use manipulation to achieve their goals, then, are mostly successful. This is not, however, what Austen intends to show through the actions of these women. I submit that Austen’s purpose in portraying these female characters successfully manipulating male characters is to comment on both the manipulators and the manipulated. Austen characterizes the manipulating women—Fanny Dashwood, Lucy Steele, Sophia Grey, and Mrs. Ferrars—-as deceptive and ill-natured. In short, they are unable to use intelligence or honesty to secure what they desire. Austen then characterizes the weak men—John Dashwood, Willoughby, and Robert Ferrars—as vain and selfish. Each needs someone to satisfy his vanity, and the woman manipulating him is all too happy to do so, for a price. By placing women and men in these types of power struggles, Austen illustrates that domestic happiness cannot be achieved through money alone. She turns the traditional “fairytale ending” upside down; the cunning and selfish characters are not punished—they receive handsome incomes and continue to live lavishly. Virtuous and honest characters, like Edward and Elinor, are nearly poor by comparison. But real happiness, Austen means to show her readers, is found in love, family, and friendship, the foundation of which are, not manipulation or cunning, but honesty, kindness, and virtue.
Austen, Jane. Sense and Sensibility, 1811. New York: Signet Classics, 1961. Print.