PERSUASIONS ON-LINE V.32, NO.1 (Winter 2011)

Temper Tantrums and Sugar Plums: Childish Behavior in Sense and Sensibility

Katherine Elizabeth Curtis


Katherine Elizabeth Curtis (email: teaches Composition at the University of Central Florida.  Her essay “Troubled Sisterhood: When Sisters Become Rivals in Mansfield Park” won the 2009 JASNA Essay Contest and became part of her master’s thesis on sisterhood in Austen’s work.


children do not fare well under Austen’s incisive satire—perhaps nowhere less so than in Sense and Sensibility.  As Juliet McMasters asserts, “Little Henry Dashwood and little John, William, and Annamaria Middleton are all brats of the first water.”  There seems to be a competition among the Middleton children during one scene of the novel over who can misbehave the most.  As the two boys torment their visitors, their little sister throws a violent screaming fit over a minor injury.  Austen implicates their mother in this faulty behavior:  as Lady Middleton offers sugar plums and kisses to quiet Annamaria’s temper tantrum, Austen comments, “With such a reward for her tears, the child was too wise to cease crying” (121).  Critics have debated whether this scene, and similar ones, represents Austen’s dislike of children or her dislike of indulgent parenting.1  What everyone has failed to recognize, however, is that Austen uses this moment to shed light on a much larger issue in the novel.  This brief scene with Annamaria concentrates Marianne’s flaws into their purest and most obvious form and reflects them back to her and to us.  Three-year-old Annamaria mirrors Marianne here, just as her name itself simply reverses that of our heroine.  By reflecting Marianne’s behavior in the little girl’s tantrum, Austen proclaims it childish.  Unlike Lady Middleton, Jane Austen refuses to coddle her heroine with sugar plums.


The heightened emotion coming from Annamaria reflects Marianne’s own habit during much of the novel.  Austen pokes fun at the absurd and unnecessary emotional drama of this scene, as Lady Middleton and the fawning Misses Steele encourage Annamaria to overreact.  The entire situation depends on artificial emotion, beginning with Anne and Lucy’s pretended enjoyment of the unruly Middleton boys’ rudeness and ending with their lamentations after the little girl leaves:  “‘Poor little creature! . . . It might have been a very sad accident’” (122).  To this dramatization Marianne forthrightly responds, “‘Yet I hardly know how, . . . unless it had been under totally different circumstances’” (122).  The mother’s genuine admiration of her children evokes no less satire from Austen.  Lady Middleton praises her young sons’ “‘spirits’” for assaulting the Misses Steele and then compliments her “‘sweet little Annamaria’” for being “‘such a quiet little thing’” (121).  In doing so, she “slightly” scratches the neck of the quiet, sweet child, who proceeds to throw a screaming fit of unprecedented violence (121).  Austen constructs the entire “sad accident” to be actually initiated by the false praise Lady Middleton and the Misses Steele give to the “spirited” boys and “quiet little” girl, whose “violent screams . . . could hardly be outdone by any creature professedly noisy” (121).  While the little girl’s “violent screams” far exceed the pain of her small injury, the response of the attending women is just as disproportionate:  “The mother’s consternation was excessive; but it could not surpass the alarm of the Miss Steeles, and every thing was done by all three, in so critical an emergency, which affection could suggest as likely to assuage the agonies of the little sufferer” (121).  Inspired to believe herself in agony, Annamaria acts accordingly and continues to enjoy the benefits of her temper tantrum.


The lesson Annamaria learns is one that Marianne already partially embodies.  Far more sensible than the little girl, Marianne can see through the emotional theatrics of the situation.  She incisively comments upon it:  “‘[T]his is the usual way of heightening alarm, where there is nothing to be alarmed at in reality’” (122).  Yet Marianne similarly overdramatizes herself.  When Willoughby leaves to go to London, “Marianne would have thought herself very inexcusable had she been able to sleep at all the first night after parting from Willoughby. . . . She was awake the whole night, and she wept the greatest part of it. . . . Her sensibility was potent enough!” (83).  Later, when Willoughby cruelly jilts her, Marianne indulges her grief and pain, making no attempt to subdue them.  Against Elinor’s plea for greater self-control, Marianne works herself into a depression that weakens her body.  Coupled with her romantic walk in the damp evening, this mourning leads her into an illness that almost causes her death.  Marianne may be able to see through the melodrama of Annamaria’s “sad accident,” but she cannot see the excess of her own emotion.  This emotion often causes others pain, particularly her sister and her mother, and ultimately exposes Marianne to treatment as both an object of prey and of ridicule.


Austen uses Annamaria’s screaming fit not only to reveal Marianne’s similarly dramatic emotion as childish, but also to mirror and display the immaturity with which Marianne views the world.  Annamaria enlarges her surface scratch so completely out of proportion that she believes herself the only person who matters in this scene.  In the midst of her tantrum, she “kicked her two brothers for offering to touch her” (121).  Granted, her brothers’ previous rough, violent behavior might not inspire sisterly confidence.  Annamaria, however, still responds unkindly to an apparent offer of comfort and receives no parental reprimand.  Moreover, her initial angry reaction to her mother also ignores that the scratch came as part of a caress.  Annamaria’s reaction to her mother and brothers is understandably childish:  for a three-year-old, this self-centered perspective is reasonable, even if a little dramatic.  Marianne, however, is not a child.  Should she think and act in a similar way, her age would not equally excuse her.


Nevertheless, like Annamaria, Marianne often does ignore the effects of her emotions on other people.  Though Marianne has strong affection for her mother and sister, which can direct her to great self-sacrifice, she cannot always see how she affects others.  Governed by deep affection for Elinor, Marianne impulsively defends her sister before Mrs. Ferrars, embarrassing both herself and her sister.  In fact, “Elinor was much more hurt by Marianne’s warmth, than she had been by what produced it” (236).  Elinor’s reaction is perhaps unfair, too concerned with outward appearances, but Marianne’s actions nonetheless do not take into account the impact of her feelings on others.  Her fierce “‘it is Elinor of whom we think and speak’” equals protection for Elinor in her mind, so surely, she assumes, it will protect her sister (235).  Instead, it only increases Mrs. Ferrars’ enmity.  For Karen Stohr, such behavior on Marianne’s part reveals a lack of practical wisdom, the imagination and discernment that allow moral virtue to be practiced (379).  Marianne lacks the “moral imagination” (Stohr 379) to see outside of her own perspective, to imagine how others might feel or think differently.  Marianne does genuinely care for others; Austen assures us of her good heart and clearly shows her sincere and selfless affection for her family.  But she thinks with the narrow mindset of a child, interpreting the world only in her own terms.  Because of this limited vision, Marianne misinterprets how her “warmth” might affect Elinor’s relationship with the Ferrars, and even more greatly mistakes Elinor’s silent suffering upon losing Edward for complacency.


The effects of Marianne’s excessive emotion and childish perspective are often more negative than she realizes.  In this scene, Marianne by her impulsive words not only increases the female Ferrars’ antagonism to Elinor but starts a new gossip session about herself in the Ferrars drawing room.  A different emotional impulse leads Marianne to express her feelings for Willoughby by openly taking the liberty, reserved for engaged couples, of writing him letters.  In defying social mores, Marianne seems to feel herself superior to her society in her romantic views.  Yet she remains unaware that members of her social world like Colonel Brandon excuse her behavior as if she were a child rather than a superior adult.  Brandon even remonstrates with Elinor over her desire for Marianne’s opinions to mature, asserting that “‘when the romantic refinements of a young mind are obliged to give way, how frequently are they succeeded by such opinions as are but too common, and too dangerous!  I speak from experience’” (56-57).  Wishing to protect Marianne from his own (and Eliza’s) painful experience of growing up, Colonel Brandon would preserve her romantic, and even irrational, idealism and keep her a child, just as Lady Middleton encourages her daughter’s excess.


Both situations recall Mary Wollstonecraft’s declaration in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman against “flattering [women’s] fascinating graces, and viewing them as if they were in a state of perpetual childhood, unable to stand alone. . . . [T]hose beings who are only the objects of pity and that kind of love, which has been termed its sister, will soon become objects of contempt” (12).  Both Colonel Brandon and Lady Middleton are inspired by affection for the girls they coddle.  Yet their attitudes have the power to create a “state of perpetual childhood” in Annamaria and Marianne.  The excesses which the two are encouraged to indulge open each up to contempt from others, whether evoking outright scorn or condescending protection.


Significantly, Lady Middleton and the Misses Steele ply Annamaria with sugar plums and kisses to quiet her tantrum and, supposedly, help ease her pain.  Yet were her injury genuinely severe, such measures would certainly not help her, and counterfeit as it is, they are equally unbeneficial.  Along with the sugar plums, Annamaria is offered a similarly sweet but empty gift:  she is being trained to use her emotions to manipulate, to gain control over others rather than control over herself.  Wollstonecraft bitterly attacks this gift to women, urging that they be educated to be rational, moral creatures rather than frivolous, weak beings only capable of power through manipulation.  She exclaims, “This is the very point I aim at.  I do not wish [women] to have power over men; but over themselves” (67).  Marianne initially refuses such power over herself.  When she indulges her grief after Willoughby leaves, the narrator comments, “She was without any power, because she was without any desire of command over herself” (82).  Annamaria’s temper tantrum and mouth stuffed with sugar plums suggest that such powerlessness for women like Marianne is carefully inculcated into them.  Just as Austen’s satiric portrayal of Lady Middleton’s mothering suggests that she does not approve of sugar plums for Annamaria’s tantrum, so she refuses to feed her heroine’s immaturity.  Marianne learns how to control her emotions and think beyond herself.  Ultimately, Austen urges through this small scene that women be taught self-restraint and a mature perspective in order to gain power over themselves.





1. Rodney Farnsworth, for example, argues that “what is less well known” about Austen “is that she had no particular liking for children” (125).  In contrast, Ruth apRoberts argues against viewing Austen as a “child-hater,” proposing her distaste is for those who do not train and educate children (362).  Her position correlates with that of H. R. Dhatwalia who argues Austen believes “that moderate strictness in the handling of children is necessary” (61).



Works Cited


ApRoberts, Ruth.  “Sense and Sensibility, or Growing Up Dichotomous.”  Nineteenth-Century Fiction 30.3 (1975): 351-65.

Austen, Jane.  Sense and Sensibility.  Ed. R. W. Chapman.  3rd ed.  Oxford: Oxford UP, 1933.

Dhatwalia, H. R.  Familial Relationships in Jane Austen’s Novels.  New Delhi: Marwah, 1988.

Farnsworth, Rodney.  “Mothers, Children, and the Other: Emotions about Children in Stael’s Corinne and Austen’s Sense and Sensibility.”  Prisms: Essays in Romanticism 9 (2001): 123-38.

McMaster, Juliet.  “Jane Austen’s Children.”  Persuasions On-Line 31.1 (2010).

Stohr, Karen.  “Practical Wisdom and Moral Imagination in Sense and Sensibility.”  Philosophy and Literature 30.2 (2006): 378-94.

Wollstonecroft, Mary.  A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.  Ed. Deidre Shauna Lynch.  3rd ed.  New York: Norton, 2009.


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