while Jane Austen, newly published-author-to-be, wrote to Cassandra about her forthcoming novel in famous maternal, if rather painful or at least debilitating terms—“I am never too busy to think of Sense and Sensibility. I can no more forget it, than a mother can forget her sucking child” (25 April 1811; my italics)—The Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA) has neglected Sense and Sensibility. The Society’s last Annual General Meeting (AGM) to treat the novel occurred in 1990. And sales statistics indicate that of the six Austen novels, Sense and Sensibility lags far behind the others.1
Karen Joy Fowler, in her best-selling novel, The Jane Austen Book Club, involves two of her characters in a discussion of Sense and Sensibility. Granted, fictional characters are not the best witnesses to support anyone’s critical case. But what they say is germane to our concerns. Sylvia insists, “Brandon and Marianne. At the end, doesn’t it just feel as if Marianne’s been sold? Her mother and Elinor, both pushing so hard. It reads as if she fell in love with Brandon, but only after she married him. He’s been such a good man that her mother and Elinor are determined he’ll get his reward.” “But that’s my point,” replies Prudie: “Jane intends you to feel that uncomfortableness. The book ends with that marriage and the thing Austen isn’t telling you about it” (75). Let us concede that Fowler is making a point through her characters.
As an actual professor of living, breathing students, I admit that Sense and Sensibility is the hardest Austen novel for me to teach. This it is not because there are too many Dashwoods in the first few pages: I always hand out a genealogy chart the week before we start to discuss the book to help my students through their Johns and Henrys. Rather, after reading volume one, they are looking for a new male character to appear in London as the hero. By the time we discuss volume three, they are dissatisfied with Elinor’s marriage to Edward and, like Fowler’s fictional discussants, are stunned when they read that Marianne is to be Colonel Brandon’s “reward,” feeling, instead, that he is her reward and wondering if she has truly grown enough to deserve him, despite the narrative assurance that Marianne at nineteen is much improved over Marianne at seventeen (378).2
Such complaints prompted me to engage in what some Janeites may regard as an act of heresy: rereading the novel with a special sensibility about what offends, or at least disturbs, our sense and sensibilities as readers.
Edward Ferrars obviously made Emma Thompson uncomfortable when she adapted the novel for her screenplay. She changed Edward, who, the novel tells us, “was not recommended to [the Dashwood ladies’] good opinion by any peculiar graces of person or address,” into the cute and charmingly insecure Hugh Grant-persona, complete with floppy hair and stammer (15); we know this screen persona from Four Weddings and Funeral and Two Weeks’ Notice. (Of course, when Hugh Grant plays the Wickhamesque Daniel Cleaver in the Bridget Jones movies, he manifests a very different screen persona. This is called acting!) To complete Edward’s metamorphosis from charmless to charming, Thompson saw to it that Hugh Grant actually played the role—the role being the Hugh Grant-persona rather than the novel’s actual Edward Ferrars.
I need not detail to readers of Persuasions (because, dear readers, you must be Austen aficionados, whatever the media) the many witty lines and cute actions that Thompson wrote for Edward / Hugh (or Hugh / Edward—the name order makes no difference in the film) in order to make the character who causes Elinor Dashwood to suffer acute psychological pain for about 95% of this novel somewhat palatable and even attractive. Indeed, Thompson’s interpolated atlas and swordplay antics between Edward and Margaret and the boyishly witty repartee with which Edward engages Elinor as they walk and ride together at Norland make it easy to forget that, in the novel, Edward has no direct speech until, having been introduced by the narrator in chapter 3 and discussed in the third person by Elinor and Marianne in chapter 4, he guiltily blurts out in chapter 5 the word “Devonshire!” after hearing Mrs. Dashwood’s announcement about moving to Barton (25).
Clear evidence of Emma Thompson’s discomfort with Edward’s deceptive silence about Lucy appears in yet another new scene that she wrote for the screenplay. We have Elinor, suddenly as much a lover of horses as Marianne is of dead leaves, bidding farewell to a favorite horse in the Norland stables (Perhaps Thompson did this to emphasize overtly to her film-viewers that Elinor, too, has sensibility as well as sense.) In the film, Edward / Hugh, seeking Elinor, hastily enters the barn. The screenplay reads: “the HORSE breathes between them. Elinor is on fire with anticipation” (60).
Edward begins mid-sentence, saying, hesitatingly, with Hugh’s signature insecure-persona stammer, “—about—about my education”:
ELINOR (after a beat): Your education?
EDWARD: Yes, It was less . . . successful than it might have been.
EDWARD laughs nervously. ELINOR is completely bewildered.
EDWARD: It was conducted in Plymouth—oddly enough.
EDWARD: Yes. Do you know it?
EDWARD: Oh—well—I spent four years there—at a school run by a—Mr. Pratt—
ELINOR: Pratt? ELINOR is beginning to feel like a parrot. [Could Thompson be punning here on Pratt and parrot?]
EDWARD: Precisely—Mr. Pratt—and there, I—that is to say, he has a—
As EDWARD flounders, a voice cuts through this unexpected foray into his academic past.
FANNY [DASHWOOD]: Edward! Edward! (60-61)
Fanny rushes into the stable and hastily escorts her brother off to the carriage that is waiting to take him to London.
The stable scene is clearly meant to help exonerate Edward for his secrecy about his engagement to Lucy even as he is paying attention to Elinor—acting just as Persuasion’s Captain Wentworth acts with Louisa Musgrove, giving the impression to everyone that he is about to be formally engaged to Louisa because he gives her a lot of time and attention. But no such semi-exculpatory stable scene occurs in the novel. Rather, Edward’s sudden disappearance and sustained dishonesty force Elinor to develop a painful stoicism that inhibits her emotions.
But Edward’s dishonesty is not merely a matter of his not having a scene in the novel like the film’s stable scene, where he at least makes an aborted attempt to tell Elinor about his involvement with Lucy. Nor is his dishonesty based solely on his omitting to tell the truth. He actually has a chance early in the novel to be honest with Elinor, but he lies deliberately and facilely. This occurs when Marianne calls his and Elinor’s attention to Edward’s wearing a hitherto unseen “ring with a plait of hair in the centre, very conspicuous on one of his fingers” (98): “‘I never saw you wear a ring before, Edward,’ she cried. ‘Is that Fanny’s hair? I remember her promising to give you some. But I should have thought her hair had been darker.’” Edward “coloured very deeply,” says the narrator, and then gave a “momentary glance at Elinor . . . who had met his eye.” Here is his chance to tell the truth. Instead, he replies, “‘Yes; it is my sister’s hair. The setting always casts a different shade on it you know.’” Edward may color with embarrassment about the hair’s true owner, but he glides right into the lie, even offering embellishing details about the setting’s changing the hair’s shade, to throw Marianne and Elinor off the scent. Right there, Edward is an outright liar.
Through both the voice of the narrator, which we hear a great deal in this novel,3 and the voice of Elinor, we learn of Elinor’s straining to convince herself that Edward loves her, not Lucy—such as her “instantaneously” feeling that “the hair was her own” in the ring scene just cited, before she even knows of Lucy’s existence. Yet the narrator’s telling us that “Elinor gloried in [Edward’s] integrity” because he stands by his engagement to Lucy, despite his mother’s dismissing and disinheriting him, rings false (270). This is because Elinor, herself, later contradicts her earlier martyr-like response about glorying in Edward’s integrity. After hearing the servant, Thomas, describe his encounter with the newlywed Mr. and Mrs. Ferrars in Exeter, Elinor “now f[inds], 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” (357). While Austen uses the “more eligible opportunity for the lady” option to release Edward from his engagement to Lucy, the emotionally desperate Elinor is willing to entertain “some resolution of his own” or “some mediation” by his friends to have her man. The same Elinor who talks a good game about Edward’s “integrity” is perfectly ready to have him break his engagement to Lucy.
At age twenty-three, Edward is aimless and self-indulgently deceptive. But if he truly loves Elinor soon after meeting her—which his availing himself of her pleasantly intelligent company, including a week-long visit to Barton Cottage after spending a fortnight visiting Lucy near Plymouth, certainly implies is true—then why does he not resolve to publicly admit his engagement as a mistake, take the consequences, and spare Elinor the constant pain and exertion that she bears? After all, as we have just heard, Elinor had wished that some circumstance, even “some resolution of his own,” would enable her to have her man.4
In fact, Edward would not have been legally responsible for his engagement to Lucy: he was nineteen—legally underage—when he entered the engagement. By the Marriage Act of 1753, any contract made by a person under twenty-one, without parental consent, was void (Stone 92). And even if the court had considered Edward, by prolonging the engagement to age 23-24, financially independent with his £2,000, his brother, Robert, suggests outright that his family would have helped him to disengage himself: “‘I cannot help thinking in short,’ Robert tells Elinor, ‘that means might have been found’” (300).
According to legal practices of the day, “means” could surely “have been found.” Assuming that Edward’s continuing the engagement into his majority would have made him liable for breach of promise, he would not have suffered greatly if Lucy had sought damages. Of course, Mrs. Jennings might have ostracized him socially for jilting her cousin, but with the likes of Lady Middleton ready to leave her card with the new Mrs. Willoughby, it is unlikely that Edward would endure anything more dramatic than short-lived gossip at Mrs. Jennings’s house—but not at the Middletons’, because Lady Middleton would always change the topic to the weather.
How did breach of promise suits work? First, because the novel never even implies that Edward has sexually seduced Lucy, the courts would not have considered him a rakish villain, deserving severe punishment. As Lawrence Stone explains, “[A] defendant who had merely broken his word, perhaps under pressure from parents or friends, was treated much less severely than one who had impregnated the woman and then repudiated her” (89). Next, because the novel gives no evidence that Lucy had refused an offer of marriage from another would-be suitor because of her engagement to Edward, she could not have claimed that Edward’s breaking their engagement led to her losing a different opportunity to marry. Finally, had Lucy succeeded with a breach of promise suit, “[I]n the period 1790 to 1830, for which the evidence is particularly plentiful, the vast majority of the awards for damages were between 100 pounds and 500 pounds” (Stone 91)—a small price for Edward to pay out of his £2,000 to be free of Lucy. Indeed, if an “ambitious” plaintiff asked for thousands of pounds, the court was chary of “scheming women”; such suits were usually settled out of court for much less money (Stone 88, 91).
Granted, Edward confesses later to Elinor that “he had always believed [Lucy] to be a well-disposed, good-hearted girl, and thoroughly attached to himself” (367). And he rationalizes his spending “so much time with [the Dashwoods] . . . when he must have felt his own inconstancy”: “He could only plead an ignorance of his own heart, and a mistaken confidence in the force of his engagement” (368). But all of this adds up to reader discomfort with Edward, as we find ourselves wondering, “If Edward is so morally upright and sensitive to the feelings of Lucy, then why is he insensitive towards Elinor, leading her on as he does, even as he knows he is already engaged? Why not tell her prior to the Lucy/Robert marriage everything that he tells her after their marriage sets him free? And how could such a moral Edward lie easily and fluently about the hair ring?” No wonder my students are looking for another, better man for Elinor! They are as uncomfortable with Edward’s behavior as Emma Thompson was when she created the stable scene and turned Edward into Hugh Grant in more ways thanone.
It is, of course, by a Robert ex machina ending that Elinor and Edward find happiness. But many readers don’t. We think Elinor deserves better than the Edward she gets; she deserves a man like Colonel Brandon.
Early in the novel, Colonel Brandon gets a bad deal not only from Marianne, who sees Brandon’s imminent demise in his wearing a flannel waistcoat, but also from the narrator, who tells us readers of his being “silent and grave,” as if this means he is one step away from a silent grave (38, 34). Many passages enfeeble and / or age Brandon. For example, the narrator observes that he is “neither very young nor very gay” (33). Marianne and Margaret deem him “an absolute old bachelor, for he was on the wrong side of thirty” (34), while Marianne and Willoughby slight him and are “prejudiced against him for being neither lively nor young” (50). Even Charlotte Palmer says that “‘it is quite a pity he should be so grave and so dull’” (115). Jane Austen has enervated and aged Colonel Brandon so convincingly that Cheryl Nixon calls Brandon “elderly” (40). He is thirty-six in the final chapter of the novel. This is not Mr. Woodhouse on Viagra™. If the age difference between Brandon and Marianne, at 35 and 17 (369), makes him seem to some readers a “father-figure” to her, what about the eighteen-year age difference between Jane Fairfax and Mr. Knightley (Armstrong, 70, 79; Looser, 171-173)?5 In Emma Mrs. Weston thinks that Jane at age 20 would make a good wife for Mr. Knightley, “a man about seven or eight-and-thirty” (224-226, 9). And Emma, who is Jane’s age, marries Mr. Knightley, whose “tall, firm, upright figure, among the bulky forms and stooping shoulders of the elderly men” at the Crown Inn Ball arouses Emma’s attention (326): that is not a reaction towards a man that a twenty-year-old woman considers a father-figure!
Silence and gravity, which imply to some readers and to Marianne a moribund Colonel Brandon, suggest something quite different when two of our favorite Austen lovers, Elizabeth and Darcy, display these traits. In Pride and Prejudice, when Darcy returns to Longbourn, Elizabeth observes, “‘He looked serious as usual,’” and after asking her about Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner, he is silent (335). Rehashing his behavior in the following chapter, Elizabeth asks herself, “‘Why, if he came only to be silent, grave, and indifferent . . . did he come at all?’” (339).
Six chapters later (3:18), with love on both sides declared and Darcy’s proposal happily accepted, Elizabeth questions Darcy about his quietly serious behavior during his earlier visit, and he replies by querying Elizabeth about her silence and gravity during that same visit:
“What made you so shy of me? . . . Why . . . did you look as if you did not care about me?” [asks Elizabeth].
“Because you were grave and silent, and gave me no encouragement.”
“But I was embarrassed.”
“And so was I.”
“You might have talked to me more when you came to dinner,” [insists Elizabeth].
“A man who had felt less might.” (381)
Thus, Elizabeth and Darcy both misinterpret the other’s silence and gravity as disinterest—another wrong first impression.6 Likewise, in Emma, as Mr. Knightley begins his proposal to Emma, he says, “‘If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more’” (430). Silence and gravity, then, are indicators of deep feeling.
Deep feeling has been haunting Brandon since he first learned of Eliza’s divorce fourteen years ago on grounds of her criminal conversation (or crim. con., as adultery was abbreviated in Civil Law), which was widely reported during the era in question (Stone 231-73, passim). Marked as sexually depraved and deprived of her income, she was confined to a “spunging-house” (207). Thus, he is “silent and grave” when the Dashwoods first meet him. But weighing equally heavily on the Colonel’s mind was his distress about his missing ward, Eliza Williams, who had suspiciously disappeared from Bath almost eight months earlier and whose whereabouts and condition Brandon only learns on the morning when the Barton party was to go to Whitwell, at which time he springs into action (63). No wonder the man looked silent and grave as he observed Marianne, the same age as his vanished ward.7
Recall that the Colonel’s so-called love-at-first-sight for Marianne was initially announced by the gossipy Mrs. Jennings, who is “remarkably quick in the discovery of attachments.” Her imagining love occurs “on the first evening of their being together, from his listening so attentively while [Marianne] sang to them” (36). (Later in the novel, Elinor will discount her mother’s reporting to her that Colonel Brandon “‘has loved [Marianne] . . . ever since the first moment of seeing her’” : “Here . . . Elinor perceived,—not the language, not the professions of Colonel Brandon, but the natural embellishments of her mother’s active fancy, which fashioned every thing delightful to her, as it chose” .)
Back at the time of Mrs. Jennings’s initial romantic musings at Barton, “Colonel Brandon alone, of all the party, heard [Marianne play the pianoforte] without being in raptures. He paid her only the compliment of attention” (35) But Mrs. Jennings’s ideas were prompted more by her own wishes than by any real evidence: “Mrs. Jennings had been anxious to see Colonel Brandon well married, ever since her connection with Sir John first brought him to her knowledge; and she was always anxious to get a good husband for every pretty girl” (36)
Shortly thereafter, when Mrs. Jennings transfers her romantic gossip from Brandon and Marianne to Willoughby and Marianne, Elinor starts “to believe that the sentiments which Mrs. Jennings had assigned him for her own satisfaction were now actually excited by her sister” (49). She witnesses Brandon’s gravity as he and everyone else see Marianne’s and Willoughby’s openly flirtatious and thus indecorous behavior (50). Interpreting Brandon’s reserve as “rather the result of oppression of spirits, than of any natural gloominess of temper,” Elinor is further influenced by Sir John Middleton’s having “dropped hints of past injuries and disappointments,” which have influenced the Colonel’s demeanor (50). Thus, she now both “pitie[s] and esteem[s]” Brandon not only for being “slighted by Marianne and Willoughby . . . for being neither lively nor young,” but also for their “undervalu[ing]” his merits” (50).
So why is the Colonel “silent and grave,” suffering from “oppressed spirits,” from the first moment that the Dashwoods meet him at the Middletons’—before Willoughby even appears in the novel (34)? One reason that we learn only later in the novel is, as I have already mentioned, the eight-month-disappearance of his ward, Eliza, who is the same age as Marianne. This would account for Elinor’s thinking that “his reserve appeared rather the result of some oppression of spirits than of any natural gloominess of temper” (50). Had Brandon’s “gloominess” been repulsive or disturbing, would Elinor have reached a point where “Colonel Brandon alone, of all her new acquaintance . . . excite[s] the interest of friendship, or give[s] pleasure as a companion” (55)?
One paragraph later, watching the others, including Willoughby, dance, Brandon asks Elinor about Marianne’s disapproval of second attachments. Elinor replies somewhat pejoratively that her sister’s opinions are “‘all romantic,’” but that she hopes, “‘A few years will settle her opinions on the reasonable basis of common sense and observation’” (56). Colonel Brandon now brings up the late Eliza Brandon—whose shame as a fallen woman, as we later learn, is the original cause of his gloom—for the first time: “‘Yet there is something so amiable in the prejudices of a young mind, that one is sorry to see them give way to the reception of more general opinions’” (56). Elinor disagrees with him, but the Colonel persists, “‘When the romantic refinements of a young mind are obliged to give way, how frequently they are succeeded by such opinions as are but too common, and too dangerous! I speak from experience. I once knew a lady who in temper and mind greatly resembled your sister, who thought and judged like her . . . ’” (56-57).
This cryptic reference to the late Eliza, along with Brandon’s distress over his young ward’s seduction and abandonment by Willoughby, which the author hides from us, is important to remember in hindsight when we read that during Marianne’s gloom in London, as she grieves excessively over Willoughby’s absence and his failure to reply to her letters, the Colonel comes to Mrs. Jennings’s house “almost every day . . . to look at Marianne,” to watch her with “earnestness” (168-69). Brandon is neither a stalker nor a voyeur—though without the information about the two Elizas that Austen is holding back, he may appear ghoulishly in love with the late Eliza, whom he sees again in Marianne because of the latter’s attachment to Willoughby, who Brandon now knows is a seducer.8
At this point in the novel, Marianne is the third young woman Brandon has seen so struck. Elinor here observes that “his spirits were certainly worse than when at Barton” (169). While she attributes Brandon’s increased low spirits since their last encounter at Barton to his unrequited love for Marianne, she does not yet know (and neither does the reader) what Brandon knows: his sixteen-year-old ward’s seduction and desertion by the same Willoughby whom Marianne bemoans. Marianne, then, is the third young woman he has encountered whose romantic ideals have been shattered by careless men—and the second young woman whose painful damage was caused by Willoughby within the past twelve months. Poor Brandon! No wonder his spirits look “worse” to Elinor. But if he were still in love with the first Eliza, would he have asked Elinor at Barton, “‘Are those who have been disappointed in their first choice, whether from the inconstancy of its object, or the perverseness of circumstances, to be equally indifferent during the rest of their lives?’” (56). Brandon obviously supports the idea that second attachments must be accepted.
As we finally learn from the Colonel’s sharing the Eliza stories with Elinor, the Colonel is an advocate of “‘the amiable prejudices’” or as he next calls them, “‘the romantic refinements of a young mind.’” That is, as a young man, he had believed these same romantic prejudices and refinements would sustain Eliza’s moral ability to withstand her uncle’s (the Colonel’s father’s) cruel and selfish pressure to marry the Colonel’s elder brother so that her fortune could be appropriated to save the financially ailing Brandon estate.9 He had hoped that Eliza’s love for him, and her knowledge of his love for her, would enable her to resist. Instead, the “‘amiable prejudices of [her] young mind’” failed her: she succumbed to the unrelenting pressure of her uncle, married his elder son, and when he committed adultery, so did she. As Colonel Brandon states, “‘[W]ith such a husband to provoke inconstancy, and without a friend to advise or restrain her,’” she became a fallen woman and the shameful object of divorce (206). This, he continues, is when his “gloom” descended: “‘The shock which her marriage had given me . . . was of a trifling weight—was nothing—to what I felt when I heard . . . of her divorce. It was that which threw this gloom— . . . ’” (206, Austen’s italics). (Add to that “gloom” what he will soon reveal about Eliza Williams’s problems!) The grounds for divorce were legally based on the wife’s adultery (but not a husband’s adultery), and her shame was public.
Painfully cognizant of both the Willoughby / Eliza Williams situation and Marianne’s very public “gloom” after Willoughby first inexplicably ignored and then deserted her for Miss Grey, the Colonel is quick to assure Elinor, “‘Your sister, I hope, cannot be offended . . . by the resemblance I have fancied between her and my poor disgraced relation. Their fates, their fortunes cannot be the same; and had the natural sweet disposition of the one been guarded by a firmer mind, or an happier marriage, she might have been all that you will live to see the other be’” (208).
Having had her “‘romantic refinements’” crushed by Willoughby’s callous treatment, Marianne now experiences her own gloom when Elinor tells her the Eliza stories. Indeed, she becomes like Brandon, and her “gloom” descends for the same reason as Brandon’s did about the elder Eliza when she learns of Willoughby’s treatment of the younger Eliza:
[Marianne’s] mind did become settled, but it was settled in a gloomy dejection. She felt the loss of Willoughby’s character [i.e., “the romantic refinements of a young mind”] yet more heavily than she had felt the loss of his heart; his seduction and desertion of Miss Williams, the misery of that poor girl, and the doubt of what his designs might once have been on herself, preyed altogether so much on her spirits, that she could not bring herself to speak of what she felt even to Elinor; and [she] brood]ed] over her sorrows in silence . . . (Austen italicizes once; other italics are mine, 212)
Thus, Marianne and Brandon, suffering similar romantic disillusionments, react in the same way: with gloomy silence. What a pair!
While Marianne does not fall morally in the way of the two Elizas, she suffers in a way that impairs her ability to function. This is not just a matter of a teenager crying in her room over a boyfriend’s jilt for a few days; rather, her suffering is prolonged and serious. In modern terms, she falls into a situational depression and near fatal illness.10
Neither sleeping nor eating and weeping inconsolable tears, she displays loss of energy and fatigue, is overwhelmed by sadness and grief, and suffers from headaches:
Elinor . . . found . . . [Marianne] faint and giddy from a long want proper rest and food; for it was many days since she had any appetite, many nights since she had really slept; and now, when her mind was longer supported by the fever of suspense, the consequence of all this was an aching head, a weakened stomach, and a general nervous faintness.
Even John Dashwood notices Marianne’s dramatic physical deterioration since he last saw her, months ago at Norland: “‘But my dear Elinor, what is the matter with Marianne?—she looks very unwell, has lost her colour, and is grown quite thin. Is she ill?’” (227). Her extended period of misery over Willoughby is, of course, unknown to him.
Also in line with the symptoms of depression, Marianne loses interest and pleasure in everyday activities, and she even manifests feelings of inappropriate guilt as she tells Elinor that “‘nothing but the blackest art employed against me can have’” changed Willoughby’s feelings about her (188-89). So is it any surprise that Marianne falls severely ill at Cleveland? Jane Austen attributes this to Marianne’s carelessly failing to change her wet stockings and shoes after walking in the long, wet grass. But modern medicine would diagnose that Marianne’s situational depression led to her having a depressed immune system, making her vulnerable to the very “‘infection’” that the Palmers’ apothecary mentions (307).
Brandon, then, has witnessed the troubling and dangerous transformations of both Eliza Brandon and Marianne from the lovely and innocent young women they were before the “‘amiable impressions of [their] young mind[s]’” were crushed by others’ cruelties—cruelties grounded, as we learn, in each man’s selfish desire for money. He was also discerning enough to see the similarities and differences between the two of them. As a gentleman of real feeling, he was and is seriously concerned about both of them.
But the gratuitous narrative comment that calls Marianne Brandon’s “reward” in marriage (378)—turning Marianne into a trophy wife—does little to help readers discern Colonel Brandon’s true character. It is as if in hastening to conclude the novel, the narrator neglected all that she had earlier told us of the Colonel or had let the Colonel tell us of himself. Furthermore, the narrator needlessly adds to reader discomfort about the Marianne / Brandon marriage by trying to reassure us that “Marianne could never love by halves; and her whole heart became, in time, as much devoted to her husband, as it had once been devoted to Willoughby” (379). It is as if the narrator is doing her best to assuage our doubts.
The Colonel, himself, has felt and suffered from the meanness of a father and brother who separated him from the woman he loved. And even after that woman, Eliza, fell into disgrace, he came to her aid and cared for her illegitimate child, as well as that child’s illegitimate child. He is the hero of sensibility whom Marianne idealized. Whether she can really mature enough to value him requires us readers to exercise our Coleridgean “willing suspension of disbelief . . . which constitutes poetic faith” (388). But satisfying our sense is another story.
Willoughby, on the other hand, is an actor of sensibility: he confesses as much to the emotionally bedraggled Elinor in that very showy scene at Cleveland: “‘I endeavoured, by every means in my power, to make myself pleasing to [Marianne], without any design of returning her affection’” (320). And he excuses himself by saying he was “‘a blockhead . . . [and] a rascal’” (319).
A sociopath is more like it.11 Willoughby exhibits most of the abnormal personality disorder traits associated with sociopathy. Superficially charming, sociopaths tend to be outgoing, glib, even charming—all of which Willoughby is (just ask the Dashwood ladies when they meet him!). They exhibit selfish and unemotional sexual behavior (recall his cavalier attitude about the pregnant Eliza Williams: “‘common sense might have told her how to find it [his direction, address] out’” after learning she was pregnant ) and irresponsibility, even towards their children. Willoughby never mentions an intention to provide support for Eliza and their child. Sociopaths are keenly sensitive to their own pain: “‘Thunderbolts and daggers!’” he claims assailed his heart when he read Marianne’s letters (325). But they are also selfish and lack empathy. Stating that Marianne “‘was dearer to me than any other woman in the world,’” Willoughby then says, “‘But everything was just then settled between Miss Grey and me’” (326); he later notes matter-of-factly and without a hint of apology, Miss Grey’s “‘money was necessary to me’” (328). A parasitic lifestyle is another sociopathic trait.
Sociopaths seek attention by claiming themselves to be victims: recall Willoughby’s ridiculing his erstwhile benefactor, Mrs. Smith at Allenham, for being puritanical: “‘The purity of her life, the formality of her notions, her ignorance of the world—everything was against me . . . In the height of her morality, good woman! She offered to forgive the past if I would marry Eliza. That could not be— . . . ’” (323). He even blames his wife, Sophia Grey, “‘She does not deserve your compassion,’” and then morbidly suggests with psychopathic consciencelessness, “‘Were I even by any blessed chance at liberty again—’” (329, 332). Could any statement better represent the antisocial, even psychopathic characteristic of “completely lacking in conscience and feelings for others” (Hare xi)?
Sociopaths desire self-gratification through self-pity: Willoughby directly asks Elinor for pity three times in this scene (327, 329), and throughout his narration, he presents himself as a victim of others. Exhibiting a typically sociopathic sense of pompous self-worth, Willoughby enters Cleveland, fascinated with the thought that the dying Marianne’s last thoughts are of him (sociopaths are totally egocentric), and that he can behold her face, with the same “‘look and hue’” of death that he saw in her face at the party when he rejected her (327). Sociopaths are manipulative and conning. Case histories validate behavior such as Elinor’s feeling sorry for and losing sleep over Willoughby (325, 332, 333).
Thus, while the narrator tells us that we need not doubt that Willoughby’s “repentance of misconduct . . . was sincere” (379), it is hard for some of us to reconcile the narrative assurance with what we have just seen and heard Willoughby display at Cleveland. Emma Thompson, then, had a good reason to omit Willoughby’s Cleveland scene from her screenplay.
Why, then, are we uncomfortable with Sense and Sensibility? We have a hero, Colonel Brandon, whose strength and sensibility are undermined by the other characters and the narrator, herself. We have a pseudo-hero, Edward Ferrars, who is a liar. We have one heroine, Elinor, through whose eyes most of the novel is rendered, suffering a prolonged and deep anxiety and anguish because of the pseudo-hero. We have another heroine, Marianne, going from near-fatal situational depression at seventeen to maturity at nineteen because the narrator unconvincingly tells us so. Furthermore, she experiences similar gloomy silence over Willoughby’s treatment of Eliza Junior as Brandon experienced for Eliza Senior and for the same reasons, and she is called the “reward” for the heroic Brandon, who in many ways seems to be the trophy husband, instead. Finally, we have Willoughby’s displaying a disturbingly sociopathic personality, even as Marianne and Elinor end up forgiving him, which is, of course, precisely what the victims of sociopaths and psychopaths do.
The brilliance of this novel is that the young Jane Austen was able to create psychologically provocative characters, who evoke as many strong and conflicting feelings among her readers as actual persons do in our lives. And she managed to accomplish this without ever having taken Psychology 101.
1. My survey of the albeit sometimes questionable sales rankings at www.amazon.com for Mass Market Paperback editions (usually, the cheapest editions) of Austen’s six novels revealed that Sense and Sensibility trailed behind the other five novels by over 600,000 copies sold: S&S’s sales rank was #704,604; P&P’s #814; MP’s #44,705; E’s #3,298; and even NA’s #39,101. I went to Mass Market because I felt these would not be the editions assigned by faculty to their students, who were buying editions on professorial orders. When the 1999 AGM took an admittedly “not-so-scientific poll” among attendees, asking them to name their favorite Austen novel, Sense and Sensibility came in last, earning a measly four votes of the 280 cast (JASNA News, 15 [winter 1999], 7). I asked John Parker (JASNA-Vancouver), a longtime thoughtful Austen reader, why he thought this book was viewed so unfavorably, he said, “I am never comfortable when I finish Sense and Sensibility.” He made this comment several years prior to the publication of Fowler’s novel, discussed in the paper’s next paragraph.
2. Interestingly, Lindsay Doran, the producer of the 1995-film version of Sense and Sensibility, commented on Oct. 9, at the 2004-AGM during a panel discussion of Austen inspired films, “The question whether Marianne Dashwood matures enough to deserve Colonel Brandon or merely settles for Colonel Brandon still bothers readers of Sense and Sensibility.” Thanks to Marsha Huff for corroborating my hurried transcription of her comment (e-mail, Oct. 17, 2004).
3. Likewise, Claudia Johnson observes, “Sense and Sensibilty seems to give us exceptionally generous access to authorial voice” (xi).
4. Given the topic of engagements, broken and kept, it is interesting to remember that Jane Austen not only recanted her acceptance of Harris Bigg-Wither’s marriage proposal, but also advised her niece, Fanny Knight, who was “nearly engaged” to John Plumptre and then ended the relationship, “It is no creed of mine, as you must be well aware, that such sort of Disappointments kill anybody” (A Family Record, 121-122 and JA to FK, 20 Nov. 1814, #109 in DLF Letters). That the Austens were no strangers to broken engagements is also seen in Henry Austen’s experiences. A Family Record states that Mary Pearson “broke off her engagement to Henry” (91); however, Jon Spence suggests that Henry, in love with Eliza De Feuillide, “somehow managed to extricate himself from his engagement to Mary Pearson, and there was no open scandal as a result of the break” (107). Henry soon thereafter married Eliza. Thanks to Sheila Quigley, Esq., who referred me to historical case law regarding engagements in Austen’s day. For an alternative view of Edward Ferrars, see “In Defence [sic] of Edward Ferrars” at http://www.jasa.net.au/efdefence.html.
5. Tanner (72, 100), Ruoff (68), and D. Kaplan (208-09, 214) see Brandon as boring and unromantic; on a similar note, James-Cavan considers him unlikely to have an interesting story (26).
6. I first developed this concept in “Austen’s Sense and Sensibility,” The Explicator 60 (Fall 2001), 15-19.
7. Lawrence Stone observes, “By the mid-eighteenth-century . . . the breach of promise action was firmly established in common law, and was filling an urgent need”—the “need to discourage males from seducing young women on promises of marriage and then abandoning them when they became pregnant” (87, 89). This suggests that Brandon’s deep worry over his ward’s disappearance realistically reflects a serious concern of the period regarding the dangers posed to the virtue of young women.
8. At the May 7, 2005 Gala hosted by JASNA-Greater Chicago Region, Margaret Ann Doody went so far as to interpret Brandon’s behavior at Mrs. Jennings’s house as ghoulish, “There is a whiff of the vampire about Colonel Brandon, to whom Marianne’s greatest charm is her resemblance to his father’s ward.” Thanks to attendee Marsha Huff for e-mailing me this information (5/8/05). Similarly, JASNA-Calgary, Alberta’s Spring Gala on June 8, 2002, featured a panel discussion of Jane Austen’s heroes, followed by audience participation, where Professor Juliet MacMaster claimed that “Brandon is in love with a dead girl.”
9. I arrived at this reading independently from Isobel Armstrong’s discussion of the same passage (78), which was kindly pointed out to me by Marcia Folsom. My development, however, goes beyond Armstrong’s.
10. Using a medical dictionary from the mid-eighteenth-century, as well as Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), Armstrong (n. 9) deals with Marianne’s behavior in terms of hysteria and hyper-sensibility’s connection to sexuality. Thanks to Cheryl Kinney, M.D., for reading my interpretation and acknowledging that it makes medical sense, as well as to the Psychology and Nursing majors in fall 2004’s ENGL 498: Senior Seminar on Jane Austen, the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, for assistance with the diagnosis.
11. My discussion of the symptoms of sociopathy and antisocial personality disorder is taken from DSM-IV-TR and Stout. Thanks to Sarah Qualls, Ph.D, Professor of Psychology at my campus, for discussing with me anti-social personality disorders and the differences between psychopaths and sociopaths.
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