In a pair of beautiful contrasting phrases, John Wiltshire comments that Jane Austen’s novels rarely treat death with “full earnestness,” preferring instead a mode of “curt irony” (203). This is a widely held view, expressed even in work like Wiltshire’s, which is sensitive to bodily language and to instances of physical suffering. Yet these readings that link death with a deprecating irony of tone and deny Austen any “earnestness” in her presentation of death overlook Chapter One of Sense and Sensibility, which in introducing the Dashwood family and in particular the heroines, Elinor and Marianne, is also the most condensed presentation of death anywhere in Jane Austen’s mature work.
Death as a possible fate for the unprotected young or the self-indulgent old is hinted at throughout the mature work, giving a kind of shading or background color to the whole picture. Each of the major novels takes about a year to work out its main action: typically beginning in September, in the English countryside, the time of the harvest. In the unfolding of that main action, deaths occur in a way that affects that action only in Emma and Mansfield Park: the unlamented, except by their spouses, Mrs. Churchill and Dr. Grant. But death is active behind the scenes: in Pride and Prejudice the threat of death and the consequences it would have for the Bennet family should Mr. Bennet die are treated with comic grotesquery (Mr. Bennet teases his wife with the hope that he will survive her); in Persuasion the revived memory of Dick Musgrove’s death produces plump sighs in his mother and a twitch of Captain Wentworth’s lips; and in Mansfield Park the death of Fanny’s little sister Mary, long delayed in the telling, is symbolized by an ambiguous object, the silver knife, which produces only degrading family squabbles until Fanny intervenes and raises the tone of the discussion by introducing a second weapon.
In several of the novels major characters are more shaped by deaths in the past than the narrative seems, at first glance, willing to stress or even to admit: we are encouraged to think that Emma has scarcely noticed her mother’s death, so seamless was the substitution of Miss Taylor; but surely the mourning atmosphere of the opening chapter, in which Miss Taylor’s desertion of her post is depicted, has something to do with reenacting an earlier abandonment? Anne Elliot in Persuasion has lost her mother at about the same age as Eleanor Tilney in Northanger Abbey, and both have grown into subdued, well-behaved young women whose lives, dominated by selfish fathers to whom they are of only “‘nominal’” (NA 225) importance as Eleanor ruefully tells Catherine, seem to have taught them to restrain their impulses and their demands, for love as well as for other objects. The early deaths of fathers, for young women, produce economic consequences, as they would have for the Bennets without those lucky marriages: consider the situation of the Thorpes in Northanger Abbey and, as we need no reminding, the Dashwoods.
But Sense and Sensibility opens, in a chapter that precedes the main action, with a catalogue of deaths: within two pages “[t]he family of Dashwood,” the phrase which opens the novel, (3) has lost an aunt, an uncle, and a father. And beyond those deaths lie others: the marriage that has produced Elinor and Marianne is a second marriage; the young John Dashwood, who will become such a ludicrous, and nearly villainous, figure, was once a motherless child; his wife Fanny, that brilliant comic monster, has, like the Dashwood girls, lost her own father. We learn all this in Chapter One.
Though Austen’s other novels feature catastrophes (Lydia’s elopement, and Maria Rushworth’s, Louisa Musgrove’s fall from the Cobb, the carriage accident in Sanditon), no other has such a gathering of the dead; Chapter One even features a deathbed scene. The other place in Jane Austen’s fiction where death has such a vivid presence is the juvenile writing: named characters die, and vividly, in “Frederic and Elfrida,” “Jack and Alice,” “Love and Freindship,” “Lesley Castle,” and others. In narrating these deaths, the young Jane Austen made use of many of the comic devices she would later use in the novels: if Mansfield Park omits to mention little Mary’s death and its effect on Fanny at the time of its occurrence, holding it back until it becomes part of the pattern of disappointment at Portsmouth, Laura in “Love and Freindship” throws in the fact of her parents’ deaths at Letter 10th, writing to her young correspondent, “I must inform you of a trifling Circumstance . . . which I have as yet never mentioned—. The death of my Parents a few weeks after my Departure, is the circumstance I allude to” (MW 89).
Other deaths in the juvenile works are used to exhibit the characteristics, the self-absorption, vanity, hypocrisy, self-contradiction, and the absurdities that are Jane Austen’s comic targets throughout her writing. But death in the juvenile writing is not taken seriously, and is not sad. The last of the juvenile works, “Catharine” and Lady Susan, date from just a few years earlier than the tentative date given by Cassandra Austen to Elinor and Marianne, the early, possibly epistolary, version of Sense and Sensibility. We laugh at death in the juvenile writings. In Sense and Sensibility we do not. Perhaps the change in the tone with which death is treated in the novel is a kind of emblem for the move Jane Austen has made in becoming a novelist.
It is possible that the lost Elinor and Marianne featured, as does Maria Edgeworth’s superficially similar Letters for Literary Ladies, an exchange of letters between contrasted young women, Elinor and Marianne; Edgeworth’s short novel uses the letters to highlight the sense of one of her heroines and the sensibility of another, sensibility which leads to death. In Austen’s novel, as we have it, the contrast between the heroines is much subtler. Brian Southam, in his discussion of the development of the novel from its lost original, pictures each sister’s having correspondents, probably at Norland, before whom they can exhibit their contrasting approaches to love and marriage, and their contrasting attitudes to decorum. But for letters between the sisters we need to imagine a separation, which does not happen in Sense and Sensibility. Yet in the context of this hypothetical set of letters, some sections of Sense and Sensibility stand out. Marianne’s “‘[d]ear, dear Norland’” (87) effusion about dead leaves may be a leftover from the novel in letters, and so might Elinor’s late, disconcertingly pat, analysis of Willoughby’s character—“The world had made him extravagant and vain—Extravagance and vanity had made him cold-hearted and selfish” (331)—and an ensuing paragraph of platitudes, which feel more like Mary Bennet than like Elinor, particularly an Elinor who a few pages later will catch herself wishing Willoughby “a widower” (335). This contradiction, Southam thinks, is a survival from the epistolary format (55-59).
The move into direct, dramatic writing was doubtless right for this novel, but it was a bold leap and it leaves us with a certain strangeness. Southam suggests that the opening chapter operated for Jane Austen as a transitional space, a place to put some of the information which Elinor and Marianne might have given in letters, to put the story of “the Dashwood family” (56).
The resulting well-shaped piece of omniscient narration leaves us with the question of who the recipients of those letters would have been. Some chapters into the novel Mrs. Dashwood, in considering the size of the cottage at Barton, says with her characteristic optimism, “‘These parlours are both too small for such parties of our friends as I hope to see often collected here’” (29), but we might well wonder when we read this, what friends? The only guest they ever seem to expect at Barton is Edward, and he is the only one who comes. When they leave Norland behind they seem to leave no social world at all, to recall no named friends, no neighborhood. Pride and Prejudice was gestating over the same period; one thinks of the constant toing and froing with the Lucases, and of Mrs. Bennet’s boast of “‘din[ing] with four and twenty families’” (43). With whom, in happier times, did the Dashwoods dine? This depopulated, sparse, monochrome quality of the opening chapters causes the contrast, when in Chapter Six they arrive at Barton Cottage and meet the Middletons, to seem almost explosive, as if they had moved not from Sussex to Devonshire but from Kansas to Oz: it seems that there were no convivial squires in Sussex, no gossipy old ladies. The Dashwoods have been in mourning, so in a degree of seclusion, for some time, first for their uncle and then for their father, but the world just beyond the beautiful grounds of Norland still seems strangely bare.
This lack of a realized social past for the Dashwoods is not a weakness in the novel; but added to the silence that soon grows up between the sisters as circumstances and their own feelings make them unable to mutually confide, it helps to produce a concentrated atmosphere of quiet and intensity, of suffering and sadness as Elinor and Marianne separately endure a year, almost a whole year, of misery, living in different styles of self-imposed silence while surrounded by talkers.
The suffering and the talking begin simultaneously, as the opening narrative confidently informs us of the sequence of events that will lead to the girls’ bereavement and impoverishment and to the loss of any effective male protection. The first member of the family we meet (and there is a gesture toward the existence of a neighborhood in the assurance that they have “the general good opinion of their surrounding acquaintance” ) is a male, the “respectable” uncle. An unmarried man, he has had “for many years . . . a constant companion and housekeeper in his sister” (3), whose death, occurring over ten years before the events of the novel proper, is the first to be mentioned, though only as it affects the uncle: he needs “to supply her loss” (3). His own death is given in the same phrase as his sister’s (“her death, which happened ten years before his own” ), and these two deaths form a parenthesis around the life, at Norland, of the young Dashwood family. We see two Norlands in this opening section, the quiet, well-run, respectable household of the sister-and-brother pair, and the livelier and more populous Norland, with a young family at its heart.
This young family is the product of a second marriage: Mr. Dashwood’s first marriage, alluded to briefly, was the union which produced John and which provided John’s father with a life income substantial enough for him to make a love match with the penniless but charming, cultivated woman who is the mother of his second family of three daughters. That first marriage cannot have lasted very long because Elinor is only a few years younger than John.
The earlier home and marriage appear, though, in the second paragraph: in the first, ten years pass swiftly and happily for the respectable old uncle and for the young family who live with him: the language is formal but friendly. We are immediately informed that Mr. Henry Dashwood is the heir presumptive of the old man’s estate but that pecuniary interests do not define the relationship: “the old Gentleman’s days were comfortably spent. His attachment to them all increased. The constant attention . . . to his wishes . . . proceeded not merely from interest, but from goodness of heart, . . . and the cheerfulness of the children added a relish to his existence” (3).
We might want to hold onto that “cheerfulness” since when we meet those children only three pages later another death has clouded their cheer. But in the time covered by that paragraph Elinor grows from eight to eighteen, Marianne, who at sixteen wears a miniature of their uncle, from five to fifteen; Margaret, from a two-year-old, who presumably pleased her uncle with “such attractions as are by no means unusual in children of two” (4), has by the time we meet her grown out of that early fascinating stage and been supplanted in her uncle’s favor by her young nephew, Harry. This was daily life at Norland for a decade, full of the noise of growing children and the animated conversation of the refined and amiable adults with whom they live.
John Dashwood, to whom we are next introduced, we do not see as a child: the motherless young man does not forge a second bond with his father’s young wife, lovable though she is; indeed, one senses that he has chosen not to waste his limited capacity for attachment on his father’s second family at all, waiting to bestow it on those he could call his own. John is presented to us in almost exclusively material, indeed in financial terms: money is not mentioned in the first paragraph, even the Dashwoods’ relative lack of material greed is only hinted at. As we will see in the matter of the will and their reaction to it, it is important that material considerations be seen as very secondary ones for the family of Henry Dashwood. The financial nature of the “interest,” which might, but emphatically does not, dictate the attentions of the young Dashwoods toward the old uncle, and the matter of Henry Dashwood’s inheritance of the Norland estate are left deliberately underdeveloped. Theirs is a sort of “attention . . . which proceeded not merely from interest, but from goodness of heart” (3). However, with the introduction of John, money moves directly into a prominent position: he was “amply provided for”; his mother’s fortune “had been large” and “half of [it] devolved on him”; marriage “added to his wealth” (3); and there is the repetition of the unspecific but insistent “something”: “something considerable, something more” from his mother in law.1 The passage is crowded with financial information. It is here, in the context of John’s profuse prosperity, that the danger to the Dashwood women becomes apparent. Their fortune is small, and as numbers begin to appear, an important number is zero: “Their mother had nothing” (4). It seems significant that the writing here stresses her portionlessness before marriage rather than the modest provision her husband is able to make for her.
How fragile, then, the status of these women and their happiness, their “cheerfulness,” too, all bound up with their expectations of their uncle: “The old Gentleman died; his will was read, and like almost every other will, gave as much disappointment as pleasure” (4). That passage ends with the detail that the girls are left a thousand pounds apiece as a mark of his affection, which really marks the way in which the attachment of ten years’ standing to young females can be undone by a little toddler flirting from a young male. It is important, however, that there is no uproar here; though presumably Henry Dashwood’s “severe” disappointment in the will was shared by his wife, we are not given the drama of that reaction, and so once again we do not see the Dashwood family displaying any pecuniary greed. Jane Austen’s juvenile writing made comedy out of wills; in one of her “Letters from a Young Lady” the eponymous young lady forges three wills, including her own (MW 175), but there is neither comedy here in Sense and Sensibility nor any sort of vivid display of emotion. The absence here, and indeed the absence throughout the chapter of any exchange of dialogue, is significant: we don’t hear any clamor of frustrated expectations, which might qualify our regard for this family. Instead we see in operation the qualities of personality in Mr. Dashwood that made Norland a happy place: “his temper was cheerful and sanguine” (4).
There is a rhythm in those opening paragraphs, in the movement from the somewhat impersonal presentation of “the family of Dashwood,” to steady, greedy John, to Henry Dashwood’s “cheerful and sanguine” temperament: the thought processes of that loved father’s optimism are demonstrated in a series of billowing phrases, in free indirect discourse: “he might reasonably hope . . . , and by living economically, lay by a considerable sum” (not one of the specified sums which will pepper his son’s speech). The words that characterize his generous reflections are: “hope,” “many years,” “considerable,” “large,” and “almost immediate improvement” (4). But what is almost immediate is his death, and his death scene, the fourth death in as many paragraphs, is the only death scene in any of Jane Austen’s novels.
The scene, with John’s reaction, takes as many more: though the dying, and the father’s plea, comprises one fluid sentence that opens with “His son” and closes with his wife and daughters, as Mr. Dashwood makes a last attempt to bring together these two tenuously linked segments of his family into a protective whole. There is no speech, but there is a sense of the older man’s voice speaking “with all the strength and urgency which illness could command” (5).
John’s response in the next section is measured and deliberate, and, significantly in this novel whose subject is, above all, feeling, and its power to influence action, it opens with the narrative comment that his feelings are “not . . . strong.” But the echo from his father’s deathbed request, of “recommendation,” the repetition of “such a nature at such a time” has a delicacy of emphasis that suggests some sensitivity even in John: he promises (5). This is important, too, for verbal promises will haunt the novel: Willoughby will not promise anything to Marianne, though she will feel herself bound as if by a promise; Edward will be found to be “promised” to Lucy; Elinor, too, will make a quixotic promise, of secrecy, to Lucy, who, exacting promises from others, will finally break hers.
And John will break his. The brief, harsh character sketch which follows his promise (a “prudent” one, he is already thinking) tolls the death of the promise even before the savage Chapter Two comedy of his conversation with Fanny literally undoes it. The carefulness of his schemes echoes the cold-eyed comedy with which character is depicted in Lady Susan, in its doubling and tripling of negative qualifications: “He was not an ill-disposed young man, unless to be rather cold hearted, and rather selfish, is to be ill-disposed” (5). There is an air of thoughtful balance, of weighing the good against the bad, which is really only a listing of the bad. Even his fondness for his wife, here, becomes a vice, since it seems, and proves, to be, only an extension of his calm self-regard: she “was a strong caricature of himself” (5).
With his characteristic attention to financial detail, John is shown outlining his plans for his sisters; there is nothing expansive about them, nothing warm or impulsive. He will literally copy the amount with which their uncle has chosen to gift them. A thousand pounds a piece is clearly a respectable amount, and this satisfactory scheme he turns over in his mind in the kind of slightly internalized discourse Jane Austen invented for the ironic presentation of characters’ self-revealing thoughts. Again it comes near to free indirect discourse: “‘he could spare so considerable a sum with little inconvenience’” (5).
This meager line of thought revolves in his brain without encountering contradiction until the arrival of Fanny, whose eruption into the grieving household immediately after the funeral is given emphasis by being presented through a shift into Mrs. Dashwood’s experience of it: “Mrs. John Dashwood, without sending any notice of her intention to her mother-in-law, arrived with her child and their attendants” (5). Jane Austen has learned how to write these explosive invasions, from a juvenile piece like Love and Friendship in which the two heroines destroy the happiness of the inhabitants of a remote Scottish estate, to the poisonous effects Lady Susan has on any household that takes her in.
There is considerable control involved in Sense and Sensibility in a series of shifts of viewpoint and attention, from John’s steady ruminations in the preceding paragraph, through Fanny’s projectile entry, to Mrs. Dashwood, with an emphasis that gives us the woman: “in her mind there was a sense of honour so keen, a generosity so romantic” (6). The paragraph closes with a withering narrative sarcasm that registers both the pain of the Dashwood women and the lack of decorum of Fanny herself: “she had had no opportunity, till the present, of shewing them with how little attention to the comfort of other people she could act” (6).
We stay with Mrs. Dashwood as she begins, metaphorically, to fling the contents of her wardrobe into a valise, and it is still within Mrs. Dashwood’s experience that we meet Elinor: “her eldest girl,” in an appealingly homely phrase, the elder girl whose unquoted words produce, in her impulsive mother, a pause for cooler reflection, for consideration, for more thoughtful and practical behavior. Elinor is thus from the beginning at once contrasted with her mother: “she would have quitted the house for ever” is a breathless counter to “the entreaty of her eldest girl [who] induced her first to reflect on the propriety of going”; important terms here being both “propriety” and “reflect” (6). There follows a very full, and very concise, characterization of both women and of their relationship: “though only nineteen” Elinor is, “the counsellor of her mother”; significantly, every named quality of both women is appealing in its way: Mrs. Dashwood’s “eagerness of mind” may lead to “imprudence,” but the chapter that follows this, and the discussion of money matters between Fanny and John, will not give prudence a good name. Though Elinor cannot always approve her mother’s eagerness, she has “an excellent heart,” an “affectionate” disposition, and “strong” feelings. The description of Elinor closes with emphasis on her knowing “how to govern” (6) those feelings that are in themselves so admirable, with the sense of an internal monitor that can manage the expression of strong feelings though it cannot, as we will see, dispel those feelings or reduce their strength.
In this juxtaposition of the two women’s attractive qualities there is the sense less of a debate than a duet: perhaps a trace of the epistolary original in which Elinor’s letters enclosed her mother’s words along with her own? And a third voice is added in Marianne, with similarities to both Elinor and her mother: “Marianne’s abilities were, in many respects, quite equal to Elinor’s. She was sensible and clever; but eager in every thing; her sorrows, her joys, could have no moderation. She was generous, amiable, interesting: she was every thing but prudent. The resemblance between her and her mother was strikingly great” (6).
How intense, how operatic even, is this series of introductions on which the chapter, which opened with a series of deaths, closes: three women, all stricken by grief and by the violent intrusion on their grief that Fanny’s arrival embodies. Their contrasting, potentially conflicting desires and distresses and the effect of restraint by there being still, here, in this colloquy, no dialogue so that all their speech is inferred, operate almost below the level of thought for the reader, who seems to hear, seems to feel, seems to know what is being said behind the closed doors where they seek sanctuary, in what was their home, from John and Fanny, whose home it is now. All the while they struggle to find ways of living with their grief: Marianne and her mother by acting it out as expressively as they can—“They gave themselves up wholly to their sorrow”—while Elinor, also “deeply afflicted,” strives to “exert herself” (7). The novel’s title leads us to expect contrasts, and the opening chapter gives them to us; but they are not contrasts of feeling. All of the Dashwood women are grieving. But Elinor alone retains, in the midst of grief, her capacity for moral action. In the texture of Elinor’s inner life as the novel gives it to us, in her daily struggles for both self-conquest and self-knowledge, we see Jane Austen learning how to present the interplay between feeling and action that is a defining characteristic of her mature fiction.
1. This phrasing appeared in the first edition, but it was excised by Jane Austen for the second and therefore does not appear in Chapman’s edition. The omitted sentence reads: “His wife had something considerable at present, and something still more to expect hereafter from her mother, her only surviving parent, who had much to give.”
Austen, Jane. The Works of Jane Austen. Ed. R.W. Chapman. 3rd ed. Oxford: OUP, 1933-69.
Edgeworth, Maria. Letters for Literary Ladies. London: Dent, 1993.
Southam, Brian. Jane Austen’s Literary Manuscripts. London: Athlone, 2001.
Wiltshire, John. Jane Austen and the Body. Cambridge: CUP, 1992.