Edward Ferrars was not recommended to their good opinion by any peculiar graces of person or address. He was not handsome, and his manners required intimacy to make them pleasing. He was too diffident to do justice to himself, but when his natural shyness was overcome, his behaviour gave every indication of an open affectionate heart. (18)
with these words, Jane Austen introduces her reader to the man she deems worthy of her beloved heroine, Elinor Dashwood. Just as Edward Ferrars’s person does not immediately recommend him to the “good opinion” of those individuals he meets, Austen’s initial description of him does not recommend him to the “good opinion” of her reader. Edward is “too diffident to do justice to himself” (18). He does not bear that “manly beauty and more than common gracefulness” that, in Willoughby, “were instantly the theme of general admiration” (51). Although, from their earliest acquaintance, Elinor perceives something in Edward that excites her interest and warrants her esteem, countless critics and readers alike have concluded the novel wondering exactly why Austen, the omniscient matchmaker, finds Edward worthy enough to elevate him to the stations both of hero of her novel and of husband to her heroine.
Some scholars have questioned Austen’s judgment both as a novelist and as a matchmaker for joining Elinor with, in Geoff K. Chapman’s words, “that insignificant microbe” Edward, rather than with the steadfast Colonel Brandon. While this desire to rewrite the denouement of Sense and Sensibility springs from a just recognition of Elinor’s worth, it represents a fundamental misunderstanding of the moral development that Edward undergoes in the course of the novel. In Edward, Austen conceives a man both of sense and of sensibility, whose diffidence prevents him from the proper exertion of these qualities. His improvement in the novel, therefore, consists in the development of confidence, enabling him to act in a way that balances his innate sense and sensibility.
Edward’s moral development occurs in three stages—each stage characterized by the degree to which Edward acts to secure a future for himself. At the beginning of the novel, Edward remains suspended in inaction after having formed his foolish engagement to Lucy Steele. Although he inwardly disapproves of his family’s aspirations for him, he takes no steps toward rejecting their plan or toward accomplishing his own objectives. In this first stage of development, Edward alternates between the exercise of sense and the exercise of sensibility as he tries desperately to produce happiness for himself in the individual exertion of each quality. Edward moves from this initial stasis to a period of compulsory action as the revelation of his engagement to Lucy Steele forces him to reject his own dreams of happiness and his family’s ambitions for him in order to preserve his honor. At this stage, Edward ignores both sense and sensibility in deference to honor. Edward finally reaches full maturity at his “moment of action” (406) when, freed from his engagement to Lucy Steele, he immediately rushes to Barton and proposes to Elinor, in one stroke uniting both sense and sensibility while remaining an honorable hero. As she traces the development of this balance in “diffident” Edward Ferrars, Austen suggests that neither sense nor sensibility is independently adequate as a moral guide. Rather, happiness depends on one’s ability to balance these two qualities in the exercise of independent action.
In order to appreciate fully Edward’s development, it is necessary to lay out a clear understanding of what Austen means by the terms “sense” and “sensibility.” By placing these words opposite each other in the novel’s title, Austen appears to suggest that these qualities bespeak rival values systems, with sense leading the mind to exercise prudence and ordered reason and sensibility relying on the intrinsic goodness of the emotions to provide moral direction. Although Austen distinguishes these two systems, she does not consider them mutually exclusive. On the contrary, like the model of Christian marriage, which, for Austen, produces improvement in both spouses, the marriage of sense and of sensibility breeds not only general felicity in the individual but also a perfection of these qualities impossible to achieve in isolation.
By reconciling sense to sensibility, Austen does not privilege sense by condemning sensibility. Rather, Austen denounces a certain brand of sensibility. As Mary Wollstonecraft describes it, sensibility is “the result of acute senses, finely-fashioned nerves, which vibrate at the slightest touch, and convey such clear intelligence to the brain, that it does not require to be arranged by the judgment” (qtd. in Brodey 111). By feeling deeply, the truly sensible person aims at making himself most capable of sympathy for human suffering (Brodey 111). As Inger Brodey argues, Elinor demonstrates this kind of sensibility throughout the novel in her eager attention to and sympathy with the feelings of others (Brodey 118-20). Marianne, however, displays a marked insensitivity to the feelings of others, and it is this brand of sensibility—a sensibility that, as Brodey styles it, “has become insensible to others, to nature, and even to oneself”—that Austen categorically condemns (Brodey 113). Like Marianne, Edward often exhibits a sensibility that blinds him to the feelings of those around him. Only by uniting this subjective depth of feeling with objective, ordered reason does Edward find both happiness and extraordinary fulfillment.
In Edward’s first stage of development, he takes no action toward the pursuit of happiness. His reluctance to defy his family’s wishes and his imprudent engagement to Lucy Steele prevent him from actively seeking the happiness that he desires. In her introduction of Edward, Austen reveals a stunning disparity between Edward’s own wishes and his family’s wishes for him:
His mother wished to interest him in political concerns, to get him into parliament, or to see him connected with some of the great men of the day. Mrs. John Dashwood wished it likewise; but in the mean while, till one of these superior blessings could be attained, it would have quieted her ambition to see him driving a barouche. But Edward had no turn for great men or barouches. All his wishes centered in domestic comfort and the quiet of private life. (18, emphasis added)
Austen teeters toward overuse of the word “wish” in these four sentences. She employs it as a verb twice, when speaking of Mrs. Ferrars’s and Mrs. John Dashwood’s ambitions for Edward. When speaking of Edward’s aims, however, Austen uses “wish” as a noun, which typically implies desire, but no action. This repetition of the word “wish” suggests that, while others have deliberated about Edward’s life, Edward has put no action and little thought into his “wishes” as his engagement to Lucy—“an entanglement which had long formed his misery” (410)—makes these dreams seem hopelessly beyond his reach. As long as he remains engaged to Lucy, his honor prevents him from acting with any genuine purpose in the pursuit of happiness.
Edward’s conversations with Mrs. Dashwood upon his later visit at Barton reveal a great deal about his character and about the diffidence that prompts his inaction. On his last morning with the family, Mrs. Dashwood initiates an enlightening conversation with him concerning his idleness. She suggests that his happiness might improve if he assumed a profession, as it would “‘engage your time and give an interest to your plans and actions’” (118). She perceives his frustration in his idleness and proposes that employment would motivate him to action. Edward’s response reveals his discontent. If he had taken up a profession as a young man, he now would have an opportunity for independence. Edward discloses that the source of his problem rests in his and his family’s failure to agree on “‘our choice of a profession’” (119). Edward’s use of the words “‘our choice’” demonstrates his inability to separate his wishes from those of his family. Though he declares a preference for the ministry of the church, he lacks the confidence to put this wish into action and, instead, wrestles with his family’s wishes for him to enter the practice of law, to enlist in the army, or to join the navy. As all their plans did not suit him, he recalls, “‘idleness was pronounced on the whole to be the most advantageous and honourable’” (119). Inaction, therefore, results from his failure to assert himself. Since he exerts no autonomy in the choice of his profession, he believes he has lost his chance for independence. His one glimmer of hope seems to rest in the distant future, as he pledges to raise his own sons “‘to be as unlike myself as is possible. In feeling, in action, in condition, in every thing’” (119, emphasis added). In this last phrase, Edward offers the logic behind his inability to act in the pursuit of happiness. His diffident feelings prevent him from acting against his family’s wishes. This inaction places him in the idle condition that prompts his despondency.
At this first stage of his moral development, Edward alternates between the exercise of sense and of sensibility as he desperately tries to balance his desire for happiness and his commitment to uphold his honor. This tension is evident to Edward, even as he begins to develop feelings for Elinor. At the novel’s end, Elinor playfully reproves him for remaining at Norland once he became aware of his affection for her. Edward admits his imprudence, but his explanation reveals his thought process:
“I was simple enough to think, that because my faith was plighted to another, there could be no danger in my being with you; and that the consciousness of my engagement was to keep my heart as safe and sacred as my honour. I felt that I admired you, but I told myself it was only friendship; and till I began to make comparisons between yourself and Lucy, I did not know how far I was got. After that, I suppose, I was wrong in remaining so much in Sussex, and the arguments with which I reconciled myself to the expediency of it, were no better than these:—The danger is my own; I am doing no injury to anybody but myself.” (417)
At Norland, Edward believes that his emotions have no influence over his rational resolutions. Because he fully intends to maintain his loveless pledge to Lucy, he does not deem his interest in Elinor’s “friendship” wrong (417). His sense, therefore, would protect against his sensibility. He realizes the foolishness of this construct when he does recognize that he has developed feelings for Elinor. Rather than abide by the sense in which he has formerly put such faith, Edward allows his sensibility to lead him as he remains in the company of Elinor and her family. He justifies this exercise of sensibility with another foolish conviction—that he is hurting no one but himself. Edward submits to a sensibility of the same selfish character as that to which Marianne submits when she continually cultivates her wretchedness despite the sufferings of her mother and of her sister (215-16, 391-92). Consumed with his emotions, Edward remains insensible to the feelings of Elinor and to the expectations he raises by his attentions to her.
Edward’s visit to Barton Park also typifies this conflict between sense and sensibility. He inclines toward sensibility when he chooses to accept Mrs. Dashwood’s invitation to visit her family in Barton. Edward’s very presence at Barton, especially directly following his stay with Lucy at Longstaple, indicates that his emotions, not his right judgment, guide him in making this decision. His own emotions so overwhelm him that he does not fathom that his presence might have an ill effect on Elinor. In visiting Barton, Edward, like Willoughby, thinks only of his own amusement. Although he fully intends to marry Lucy, as evinced by the ring he wears containing her hair, he comes to Barton, again selfishly thinking that he harms no one but himself. Upon his arrival, however, he seems to realize his mistake, as he reverts to the shy reserve he exhibited upon his first acquaintance with Elinor. Sense, therefore, displaces sensibility and begins to direct his conduct. Indeed, at first, Edward even refuses to participate actively in standard conversation. Austen reveals the pains that Elinor takes to engage him in “something like discourse,” only “extorting from him occasional questions and remarks” (102). Even when he does begin to open up to the family, his behavior around Elinor is guarded, as he denies himself every opportunity to be alone with her (111).
Even as Edward attempts to conduct himself according to sense, Marianne’s unexpected questions about the ring of hair he wears renew both his sensibility and Elinor’s assurance of his regard. Although, as Lucy later reveals, she had recently given the ring to Edward when he visited her in Longstaple, Edward asserts, “‘[I]t is my sister’s hair’” (154-55, 114). He lies both to protect his engagement and, more important, to protect himself in the eyes of the Dashwoods (113-14). By telling the truth, Edward could have informed Elinor of the impossibility of their attachment. Instead, insensible to her feelings, he unconsciously strengthens her conviction that such an attachment is inevitable. Following this exchange, Edward immediately regains his sense and remains “particularly grave the whole morning” (114).
Edward’s resolution to leave Barton is defined by this kind of internal conflict. Austen contrasts his happiness at Barton with his responsibility to remain loyal to Lucy. Employing free indirect discourse, the narrative relates Edward’s repeated determination that he must unwillingly depart from Barton:
Never had any week passed so quickly—he could hardly believe it to be gone. He said so repeatedly; other things he said too, which marked the turn of his feelings and gave the lie to his actions. He had no pleasure at Norland; he detested being in town; but either to Norland or London, he must go. He valued their kindness beyond any thing, and his greatest happiness was in being with them. Yet he must leave them at the end of a week, in spite of their wishes and his own, and without any restraint on his time. (117)
Sense drives him to this resolution to depart, but sensibility compels him to voice the reluctance with which he takes his leave from them.
This ebb and flow of sense and sensibility, thus far personified in Edward, ends in the second stage of his moral development as the disclosure of his engagement to Lucy Steele compels him to act in preservation of his honor. While the engagement remains a secret, his future marriage is a distant reality. He can do nothing until his mother grants him an income. Nancy Steele’s ill-timed revelation, however, forces Edward to ignore the guidance of “sense” and of “sensibility,” and to progress toward the fulfillment of his pledge to Lucy. Once Colonel Brandon provides him with Delaford living, Edward no longer faces any practical impediments to his immediate marriage. Ever committed to honor, Edward resigns himself to a union that satisfies neither his sense nor his sensibility as Lucy is neither a prudent match for Edward nor a match motivated by emotional attachment.
Edward’s rejection of sense consists in his decision to disregard moral, emotional, and financial considerations in deference to his honor. As Joyce Tarpley suggests, the moral development of a son depends critically on his choice of a wife: “the woman he chooses to marry will enhance or impede his progress from sonship to mature manhood” (Tarpley 95). While a healthy marriage will produce mutual improvement, an unhealthy marriage will result in a reversal of that improvement. Fully aware of Lucy’s “ignorance and a want of liberality in some of her opinions” (415) and of her inadequate education, by choosing to marry her, Edward opens himself to the possibility of moral and intellectual regression. Without a spouse to inspire improvement in him, Edward essentially precludes himself from experiencing further development and risks reverting to the self-conscious nineteen-year-old first charmed by Lucy’s low company. Moreover, despite Elinor’s optimistic assertion that “‘time and habit will teach him to forget that he ever thought another superior to’” Lucy (298), Edward faces the dolorous prospect of knowingly committing himself to a lifetime of dissatisfaction with a woman he recognizes as far inferior to the woman he loves. Just as he discerns in such comparisons the first signs of his increasing love for Elinor (417), Edward likely anticipates making these comparisons for the rest of his life. Financially, Edward impoverishes himself by remaining engaged to Lucy as he both surrenders the income his mother has offered to give him and elicits from his mother a promise that she would do “‘all in her power to prevent his advancing in’” any chosen profession (302).
These hardships would appear more acceptable if Edward actually loved Lucy, but Austen makes it clear that this engagement “had long formed his misery” and that Edward “had long ceased to love” Lucy (410). After John Dashwood narrates the particulars of Edward’s meeting with his family, Austen describes the difference in understanding between Mrs. Jennings and the Dashwood girls:
Mrs. Jennings was very warm in her praise of Edward’s conduct, but only Elinor and Marianne understood its true merit. They only knew how little he had to tempt him to be disobedient, and how small was the consolation, beyond the consciousness of doing right, that could remain to him in the loss of friends and fortune. (306)
While Mrs. Jennings imagines that Edward has forgone “‘money and greatness’” (294) to marry the woman he loves, Elinor and Marianne know that Edward does not love Lucy—that his commitment to the engagement satisfies his honor and nothing else. Admirably privileging honor above everything else, Edward intends to submit himself to a life of little ease, little happiness, and less love. Although this decision causes Edward much personal misery, it effects in him a marked increase in confidence and habituates him to action. No longer tethered to the whims of his mother, Edward learns to act according to his own resolutions.
At his third stage of development, Edward reaps the fruits of his new confidence in his “moment of action” (406). After receiving Lucy’s letter, notifying him of her marriage to Robert, Edward—“released without any reproach to himself” (410)—immediately resolves to contract another engagement contrary to his family’s wishes. In this decision, however, Edward accomplishes his own happiness and unites sense and sensibility.
Upon his arrival at Barton cottage, Edward appears agitated at his initial reception, as he knows that he does not deserve the Dashwoods’ kindness (406). Throughout the novel, Edward’s shyness has condemned him to virtual silence in awkward situations, such as his unexpected meeting with both Lucy and Elinor in Berkeley-street (274). In truth, he will always be ill at ease in uncomfortable social situations. At his “moment of action,” Edward does not betray this facet of his character. Rather, he stammers out the news of the dissolution of his engagement between “very awful” pauses (407). He does not overcome this “‘natural aukwardness’” (109), but his firm resolve to act despite this shortcoming makes his action even more impressive.
Austen’s technical construction of the scene further emphasizes this instant as Edward’s “moment of action.” Though this episode occurs in the small parlor of the Dashwood’s cottage, Austen’s use of active imagery makes it one of the most energetic episodes of the whole novel. Austen creates movement and makes Edward the center of the action by employing long strings of action verbs. Indeed, after Elinor questions him on the whereabouts of “‘Mrs. Edward Ferrars’” (407), he realizes her misapprehension. Austen focuses all attention in the room on Edward as everyone, except for Elinor, directs her eyes toward him. Though Edward does not budge from his seat, she attributes four action verbs to him in one short sentence: “He coloured, seemed perplexed, looked doubtingly, and after some hesitation, said . . .” (407). After he informs them that Robert, in fact, has married Lucy, their silent, fixed gazes incline him to seek refuge in movement. Austen narrates, “He rose from his seat and walked to the window, apparently from not knowing what to do; took up a pair of scissars that lay there, and while spoiling both them and their sheath by cutting the latter to pieces as he spoke, said, in an hurried voice . . .” (407).
Verbs and verbal phrases produce action during these dramatic pauses as Austen makes swift transitions from dialogue to narrative. Indeed, the conversation begins with two pauses that Austen explicitly emphasizes: first, “[w]hen Elinor had ceased to rejoice in the dryness of the season, a very awful pause took place” (407), and then immediately following that “[a]nother pause” (407). Within the dialogue, she employs pauses in speech as she contrasts hesitation with exclamation. For example, as Edward exposes the Dashwoods’ misunderstanding, he anxiously utters, “‘Perhaps you mean—my brother—you mean Mrs.—Mrs. Robert Ferrars’” (407). In response, Marianne and Mrs. Dashwood exclaim, “‘Mrs. Robert Ferrars!’” (407). Edward’s fragmented speech increases the tension of the scene: building up to revelation, ultimately erupting into exclamation. Indeed, throughout the scene, Austen highlights the breadth of Edward’s development from inaction to independent action as he not only takes action himself but also produces reaction in others.
Edward finally combines both sense and sensibility in his choice of Elinor as he at last acts independently to secure happiness for himself. From his very first appearance in the novel, Austen establishes a connection between Elinor and Edward. Indeed, she relates to her readers, from the perspective of Mrs. Dashwood, that the two “were attracted by resemblance of disposition” (17). Moreover, Mrs. Dashwood approves of Edward because “he loved her daughter, and . . . Elinor returned the partiality” (17). With respect to sense, Edward chooses someone who has motivated him to personal growth. Though he had “‘blushed’” (414) over Lucy’s lack of education, Elinor, to whom he compares her, is his intellectual equal. In her, he perceives his ideal, a woman who generates in him a desire for excellence. With her love to encourage him, he has every hope of continued development after their marriage. His proposal to Elinor also satisfies his sensibility as her acceptance produces in him an immediate alteration in his feelings: “He was brought not from doubt or suspense, but from misery to happiness” (410). Austen recognizes Edward’s perfect bliss as a happiness that can only come from a union of these qualities: “he had secured his lady, engaged her mother’s consent, and was not only in the rapturous profession of the lover, but in the reality of reason and truth, one of the happiest of men” (409). Edward’s love combines the “reason and truth” of sense and the “rapturous” feelings of sensibility. He has every right to feel “more than commonly joyful” (410) as he embraces Elinor, the choice of his sense and his sensibility.
Sense and Sensibility offers two characters who undergo drastic change—Marianne Dashwood and Edward Ferrars. Austen uses these ostensibly different characters to illustrate that a balance of sense and sensibility is necessary in all people, not just in the naturally outgoing or the awkwardly shy. Though they rest on opposing ends of the personality spectrum, their happiness is shared in Delaford. Though critics and readers alike bemoan Austen’s matchmaking, the composition of these couples illustrates a critical balance. In each couple, one spouse has remained steady throughout the novel, undergoing minimal moral development. Colonel Brandon and Elinor begin the story as balanced characters; they play important roles in the improvement of their respective spouses, who each experience significant growth in the course of the novel. Marianne and Edward, however, achieve the equilibrium of happy marriage only after they have individually reached that balance within themselves.
An anonymous reviewer of Sense and Sensibility, writing in February of 1812, remarked that Elinor “possess[es] great good sense, with a proper quantity of sensibility” (“Unsigned Review” 314). It is only natural that Austen would provide for her heroine a husband with qualities, both moral and intellectual, proportioned to her excellence. Edward, however, does not come “ready made.” Austen furnishes her novel with a hero that must change, and his development, his integration of “sense” and “sensibility,” makes him worthy of the happiness that he ultimately shares with his beloved Elinor.
The author wishes to thank Dr. Theresa Kenney for her thoughtful guidance and encouragement in all things related to our beloved Jane. She would also like to thank Dr. Susan Allen Ford for her invaluable assistance in preparing this article for publication.
Austen, Jane. Sense and Sensibility. 1811. Ed. Edward Copeland. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2006.
Brodey, Inger Sigrun. “Adventures of a Female Werther: Jane Austen’s Revision of Sensibility.” Philosophy and Literature 23.1 (1999): 110-26.
Chapman, Geoff K. “Colonel Brandon: An Officer and a Gentleman in Sense and Sensibility.” Persuasions On-Line 21.1 (Win. 2000).
Tarpley, Joyce Kerr. “Sonship, Liberty, and Promise Keeping in Sense and Sensibility.” Renascence 63.4 (Win. 2011): 91-109.
“Unsigned Review (February 1812).” Sense and Sensibility. 1811. Ed. Claudia L. Johnson. New York: Norton, 2002. 313-15.