PERSUASIONS ON-LINE V.32, NO.2 (Summer 2012)

“A Something or a Nothing”: Towards a Sensibilious Reading of Sense and Sensibility

Daragh Downes


Daragh Downes (email: wrote his doctoral thesis on parapsychological and occult themes in a number of key texts of European Modernism.  His current research interests include British Romantic Poetry, the nineteenth-century novel, and narratological theory.  He teaches in the School of English at Trinity College Dublin.


In Volume One, Chapter 12 of Sense and Sensibility, young Margaret Dashwood gives Elinor a breathless intelligence report on the state of affections between their sister and the dashing new arrival at Barton:  “‘Oh! Elinor,’ she cried, ‘I have such a secret to tell you about Marianne.  I am sure she will be married to Mr. Willoughby very soon’” (70).  Elinor responds with her trademark caution:


“Cut off a long lock of her hair”

You have said so,” replied Elinor, “almost every day since they first met on High-church Down; and they had not known each other a week, I believe, before you were certain that Marianne wore his picture round her neck; but it turned out to be only the miniature of our great uncle.”


Margaret stands her ground:


But indeed this is quite another thing.  I am sure they will be married very soon, for he has got a lock of her hair.”

Take care, Margaret.  It may be only the hair of some great uncle of his.”

But, indeed, Elinor, it is Marianne’s.  I am almost sure it is, for I saw him cut it off.  Last night after tea, when you and mama went out of the room, they were whispering and talking together as fast as could be, and he seemed to be begging something of her, and presently he took up her scissars and cut off a long lock of her hair, for it was all tumbled down her back; and he kissed it, and folded it up in a piece of white paper, and put it into his pocket-book.”

From such particulars, stated on such authority, Elinor could not withhold her credit:  nor was she disposed to it, for the circumstance was in perfect unison with what she had heard and seen herself.  (70-71)


Can we blame Elinor for relenting?  Margaret’s particulars are indeed stated on the strongest conceivable authority: the evidence of her own eyes.  And the line she draws from empirical observation (hair-cutting) to confident extrapolation (engagement) does seem unexceptionably straight.


There is only one problem.  Margaret has dropped the word “almost” in the most unlikely of places.  Let us re-read:


Oh! Elinor,” she cried, “I have such a secret to tell you about Marianne. . . . I am sure she will be married to Mr. Willoughby very soon. . . . I am sure they will be married very soon, for he has got a lock of her hair.”

Take care, Margaret.  It may be only the hair of some great uncle of his.”

But, indeed, Elinor, it is Marianne’s.  I am almost sure it is, for I saw him cut it off.”


I am sure—I am sure—I am almost sure.  The sequence is surely wrong here.  How can Margaret be on terra firma if her assurance about Marianne and Willoughby’s engagement rests upon a mere near-assurance that the lock of hair now in Willoughby’s possession is in fact Marianne’s?  Whence this pesky almost?  Unless Margaret has reason to believe that the hair atop Marianne’s head is not actually native to that head—but was transplanted from the head of some unfortunate third party at some point prior to Willoughby’s tender attentions—her certainty as to the provenance of the lock now in Willoughby’s possession should be total.  Did she not see him cut it off?


A listener even more punctilious than Elinor might be forgiven for taking Margaret’s little slip as license to withhold credit from Margaret’s eyewitness story in favor of a rather different sequence of events:  Margaret saw a lock of hair in Willoughby’s possession, identified it with speculative over-confidence as Marianne’s and concocted a romantic eyewitness account of the actual act of cutting.


Margaret is just one example in the novel of a character whose acts of narration are open to question.  Mrs. Palmer is another.  Of her husband she says:  “‘He cannot bear writing, you know . . . he says it is quite shocking.’”  Unfortunately for her, the dour object of this hearsay is at hand to deliver instant confutation:  “‘No;’ said he, ‘I never said any thing so irrational.  Don’t palm all your abuses of language upon me’” (131).  When Elinor asks Mrs. Palmer about Willoughby, that lady responds with a hopelessly self-annulling claim:  “‘Oh! dear, yes; I know him extremely well,’ replied Mrs. Palmer—‘Not that I ever spoke to him indeed; but I have seen him for ever in town’” (132).  She informs Elinor that she heard word of Willoughby’s engagement to Marianne “‘directly’” from Colonel Brandon, only to clarify moments later:  “‘Oh!—he did not say much; but he looked as if he knew it to be true, so from that moment I set it down as certain’” (133).  Elinor quizzes her further:  “‘Is Mr. Willoughby much known in your part of Somersetshire?’”  “‘Oh! yes, extremely well,’” gushes Mrs. Palmer, before checking herself yet again:  “‘that is, I do not believe many people are acquainted with him, because Combe Magna is so far off; but they all think him extremely agreeable I assure you’” (134).


“Mrs. Palmer’s information respecting Willoughby”—the narrator notes with dry understatement—“was not very material” (134).


This problem of narrative unreliability, of characters feeding one another information that is insufficiently material, looms large in Sense and Sensibility—a novel in which, as Claudia L. Johnson notes, “even the least equivocal appearances are profoundly deceiving” (Jane Austen 62).  Reportage is often indistinguishable from misinformation, and narration rarely innocent of embellishment or even outright fabulation.  Elinor must constantly work hard to evaluate the questionable or competing claims coming her way.  When Lucy Steele, for instance, gives epistolary account of how she magnanimously offered Edward Ferrars an honorable exit from their engagement (314), Elinor can hardly fail to recall Nancy’s contrary claim that Edward was the one who made the offer (310).


The specter of misprision—whether as a result of honest error, speculative incontinency, or straight mendacity—haunts Elinor at every turn.  She talks at comic cross-purposes with Mrs. Jennings, who believes her affianced to Colonel Brandon (277-84).  She falls victim to a cruel misunderstanding when the Dashwoods’ man-servant shares the dreaded news that “‘Mr. Ferrars is married’” (400).  Like other characters, female ones in particular, Elinor must negotiate her way through a thick epistemological fog.  Social life, romantic prospects, even the most basic of reported events:  all a kind of guessing game, a hall of mirrors, a round of Chinese whispers.  It is hard not to connect this pervasive information deficit, this repeated distorting of intelligence, with the wounding of expectation that repeatedly motors the plot forward.  Elinor’s expectations of Edward are dashed.  So too—in an at times weirdly similar scenario—are Marianne’s of Willoughby.  Whenever a given visitor is expected, another is sure to turn up.  Predicting a given character’s behavior can be as foolhardy as predicting the afternoon’s weather.


I put the case that the thematic heart of Sense and Sensibility may lie not in this or that romantic entanglement; not in this or that struggle for property or status; nor even in this or that titularly-signalled mode of response to such matters—but in the very fact of uncertainty itself as a way of life for members of the gentry class.  The text is positively saturated with lexical markers of doubt, probability, hope, assurance, belief, possibility, conjecture, suspicion, surprise, proof.  It is a novel about life lived, to an alarming degree, in the subjunctive mood.  Characters struggle to extract sense from sense perception.  They subject each other’s bodies and gestures to hectic semiotic analysis.  They fussily decode each other’s words, whether heard, overheard or reported.  They speculate ad nauseam on the psychological motives lying back of observable behavior.  They make their way, with varying degrees of felicity, in a twilight of probability (Johnson, “Twilight”).  They put an inordinate amount of time into “the collection and interpretation of evidence” (Blackwell 121), all in the hope of improvising what Mrs. Dashwood—herself a notably inept evaluator of evidence—calls a “‘method of understanding’” (91).  They are, in short, what would in a later era be termed amateur detectives.  (Critical recognition of nascent detectivism in Austen is far from new.  Attention however has tended to focus on Emma:  see for instance DePaolo, James, and Sturrock.)


On display in all this amateur sleuthing are two broad hermeneutic styles:  the sensible and the sensibilious.


Elinor—ostensibly at least—is the chief exponent of the former mode.  She is the epistemological stickler par excellence.  Her insistence on ample empirical verification of claims made and hypotheses advanced exasperates more impatient souls around her like Marianne, Mrs. Dashwood, and Mrs. Jennings.  She is herself aghast at their rush to collapse subjunctive surmise into indicative assertion.  Before moving from a “consideration of probabilities” (162) to the drawing of a firm conclusion, she will take pains to collate a strong “body of evidence” (159) comprising circumstantial, testimonial, and ocular elements.  Here she is mulling over the Willoughby situation in London:


Elinor was resolved not only upon gaining every new light as to his character which her own observation or the intelligence of others could give her, but likewise upon watching his behaviour to her sister with such zealous attention, as to ascertain what he was and what he meant, before many meetings had taken place.  (181)


Such investigative thoroughness is habitual with Elinor.  Even when a suggested scenario is most injurious to her feelings, as with Lucy Steele’s claim to be engaged to Edward Ferrars, she will make every exertion to face facts rather than beliefs.


Marianne, like her mother, is an instinctive exponent of the more sensibilious style of what we might, with extended anachronistic licence, term social detectivism.  An idealist in the philosophical as well as popular-romantic sense, she offsets her elder sister’s dogged empiricism with a tendency to prize subjectivity, spirit, and surmise over objectivity, matter and dry inquiry.  This ethos is pregnantly expressed in her reaction to Willoughby’s arrival on the scene at Barton:  “His person and air were equal to what her fancy had ever drawn for the hero of a favourite story” (51).  The man, in effect, pre-existed himself. (Marianne’s idealism here will be mirrored by Willoughby’s confession that he himself was already fetishizing Barton Cottage as a romantic idyll the year before the Dashwood family had moved in [85]).  Marianne’s response to the arrival of her “preserver” (55)—“[h]er imagination was busy, her reflections were pleasant, and the pain of a sprained ancle was disregarded” (51)—is a tidy epigram on sensibility’s penchant for cutting mentality loose of mundane moorings.


This may be a novel peopled by amateur detectives, both rigorous and blithe, but it is still of course far from being a detective novel.  It does not terminate in any centralized explanation or bravura solution.  There are, it is true, some startling disclosures, most memorably those pertaining to Willoughby and Edward Ferrars.  But this is the attenuated analytical payoff of an aim-inhibited mystery story—a mystery story, that is, avant la lettre, one that cannot come into its concept.  This novel’s set of late elucidations falls markedly short of redeeming the mysteries and shocks that have been accumulating en route.  No detective figure of unfailing hermeneutic genius, not even the narrator herself, will intervene just before story’s close to throw retrospective sense over all accumulated perplexities.  No stunning plot twist will force the reader to revisit the preceding action in a revelatory new light.


The electrifying late appearance by Willoughby at Cleveland does, it is true, hold out a momentary prospect of just such an éclaircissement.  But his apologia, the “‘kind of explanation’” which he musters up for Elinor’s benefit (361), surprizes chiefly by virtue of its failure to yield any substantive fresh surprises.


Such a peculiarly anticlimactic plot resolution (Hinnant 300) must surely produce real discomfiture in the analytically aroused reader.  By tale’s end, all that seems left by way of reader response is a more or less sensible emotional or ideological take on was wirklich geschehen ist.  The plot-related analytical work has been done.  The basic facts of the case are in.  Every character and every event has been rendered functionally intelligible.  Only the most perversely fanciful, sensationalistic, sensibilious of readers could possibly disagree with Tony Tanner’s statement that “all the secrets have come to the surface and, with no more mysteries to cloud the emergent geometry of the book, the appropriate marriages can all be solemnised” (81).


Yet—and herein the insinuation I have been working towards—it is precisely with such a reader that Austen has been flirting all along.  If characters’ interpretive styles have been tending towards either the sensible or the sensibilious, then can we not say the same for the interpretive options with which the reader herself has been teased?  Can the sense-sensibility dialectic be meaningfully discussed without reference to a metanarrative dimension?


It is this thought, I submit, that touches on the true fascination of Sense and Sensibility.  It is a story about the dangers of believing stories.  If the sensible person (character, reader) is she who withholds credit until proper verification has arrived, and the sensibilious person she who believes stories a little too easily, then we are brought up against an interesting paradox: the novel relies for its sense of an ending on the sensible reader’s lowering of her usual standards of verification.  By eliciting readerly consent—sub-sensible readerly consent—to certain stories that have been told but not soundly authenticated, the text has seduced the sensible reader into a terminal bout of hermeneutic sensibility.


Certain stories?  I mean those told by Colonel Brandon.


Austen has placed an official cordon sanitaire around these particular stories.  She cannot allow the sensible reader, or Elinor herself, to think twice about signing off on them.  If anyone is to refuse subprime narrative credit to Brandon’s stories, it is going to have to be—ironically enough—the sensibilious reader.  In her instinctive preference for Willoughby, she alone will be prepared to press narrative suspicion to a hyper-sensible (we might even say paranoid) extreme.  She will take the sensible watchword of “trust—but verify” and apply it precisely to the protected claims of the (to her) uncongenial Brandon.  In this she will be prompted in part by the uneasy sense of déjà lu induced by Brandon’s Eliza I and II narrative—a narrative which, as Jocelyn Harris has shown (57-58), comes suspiciously close to being so much Richardsonian boilerplate.




One of the most vexatious “Sense or Sensibility?” questions facing Sense and Sensibility’s reader relates to the determination of a genre-appropriate response to Brandon and his claims.  Is he a self-effacing romantic paragon along Mr. Knightley lines?  A rich Richardsonian composite (“sober Hickman, rakish Belford, protective and appreciative Colonel Morden, and benevolent Sir Charles, all in one” [Harris 63])?  Or, more ominously, a new take on Inchbald’s Dorriforth (A Simple Story) or an anticipation of Eliot’s Casaubon (Middlemarch)?


Or could he represent something even darker:  a scheming older villain?


I would like to suggest that, for the sensibilious first-time reader at any rate, the sense is not easily shaken that Brandon may actually represent the novel’s true center of malignancy.


This is no arbitrarily imported notion.  It is, I would argue, the very possibility that the novel has been alternately raising and recessing all along.  Willoughby’s mischievous allegation on the morning of the planned Whitwell excursion that Brandon has faked the urgent letter calling him away names, for the first time, a startling possibility:  that Brandon is not incapable of duplicity (76).  This possibility remains dormant in the text until a bewildered Marianne, fresh from Willoughby’s cold rebuttal of her in London, indirectly revives it in her final note to said young man:  “‘You have perhaps been misinformed, or purposely deceived, in something concerning me, which may have lowered me in your opinion’” (213-14).  For the first-time reader, Willoughby’s behavior towards Marianne is indeed tantalizingly ambiguous.  Can he really be the egregious roué suggested by his most recent conduct?  Or might Marianne’s speculation that she has been maliciously slandered by “‘the blackest art’” of some shadowy third party (215) be a live one?


When Marianne initially mistakes a letter arriving at Mrs. Jennings’s London home as being from Willoughby, the hope that he may yet turn out to be the hero of her favorite story flares up again:


In one moment her imagination placed before her a letter from Willoughby, full of tenderness and contrition, explanatory of all that had passed, satisfactory, convincing; and instantly followed by Willoughby himself, rushing eagerly into the room to inforce, at her feet, by the eloquence of his eyes, the assurances of his letter.  (229)


Marianne is here articulating not just her own sentimental hope but the alienated sentimental hope of the novel itself.  An innocent and vindicated Willoughby lies at the centre of Sense and Sensibility’s submerged utopia.  He would not after all be the first Willoughby in the Austen reader’s ken to have unaccountably deserted his young beloved only to reappear again late in the novel with an all-exonerating explanation for his actions:  George Willoughby in Charlotte Smith’s Celestina does just this.  It is surely he rather than Sir Clement Willoughby (in Burney’s Evelina) who will suggest himself to Austen’s sensibilious reader as the salient namesake (see further Labbe).


The flame of hope will be fanned one last time when Willoughby manifests at Cleveland.  Elinor, we are told, “rushed forwards towards the drawing-room,—she entered it,—and saw only Willoughby” (358).  Compare the moment when Celestina’s Willoughby shows up suddenly at Exmouth:  “the parlour door opened; and pale, breathless—with an expression to which only the pencil can do justice, she saw before her the figure of Willoughby” (3:278).  What will the revival of this familiar scenario trigger in Austen’s susceptible first-time reader if not the thrilling sense that all bets are off and that Marianne’s Willoughby may be about to set the record straight in sensational fashion?


Has not Austen been taking arch delight in priming her reader for just this moment?  By holding out even the promise of what Roger Gard calls a “sudden block of revelation” she is signaling “a reversion to an earlier, less developed, kind of novel than the fully integrated drama [she is] evolving” (Gard 92).  Willoughby’s exclamation to Elinor that “‘My business is with you, and only you’” (359) is surely designed to tickle every sentimental nerve ending in the reader’s body.




But what is the revelation contained in this shadow text, this virtual narrative, which I am arguing has been subjunctively posited by Willoughby’s reappearance?  What is the eucatastrophic option which Austen, having evoked, is about to not take up?  It is, quite simply, the revelation that Willoughby and Marianne have indeed been prey to a vicious campaign of sabotage and misinformation by his rival, Colonel Brandon.  For a maligned Willoughby requires a maligning and malignant Brandon, a Brandon who is much closer to a Mr. Monckton or a Sir Clement Willoughby (in Burney’s Cecilia and Evelinarespectively) than to a Mr. Knightley.  On this unactualized scenario, Willoughby for his part is not remotely the rakish figure of Brandon’s description.  In our counter-factual text, Austen has him deliver an urgent Beware of Brandon! message.  She has him declare that I can be coerced into silence no longer, the consequences of my speaking out be damned!  The stories told and the claims made by Brandon are exposed as a nefarious confection of truths, half-truths, and lies.  As with Darcy’s correction of Wickham’s fabrications in Pride and Prejudice, the man who gets to tell his side of the story second is the man who has truth on his side.  “‘Remember . . . from whom you received the account,’” pleads Willoughby in Austen’s real text, hinting at what might have been in her counter-factual one.  “‘Could it be an impartial one?’” (365).


A thought experiment.  Suppose the actually existing text of Sense and Sensibility fully intact up to the point of Willoughby’s arrival at Cleveland.  How easy would it have been for Austen to have put a grand revelation of Brandon’s scheming villainy into Willoughby’s mouth?  How easy would it have been for her to effect a late switching of the villain function from Willoughby to Brandon?  Answer:  remarkably so.  In exploiting “the imbalance between what actually happens and the melodramatic narrative expectations her readers have brought to her fiction” (Ruoff 102-03), Austen has left herself some richly ambiguous material to work with.


In the spirit of this thought experiment, let us suspend all “sensible” assumptions and ask instead some of the questions that our ideal typically sensibilious first-time reader might find herself asking.


Was it really “‘some distant relation’” who tipped off Willoughby’s elderly cousin Mrs. Smith about the affair between Willoughby and Eliza the Second (364)?  Is Brandon’s marked penchant for seventeen-year-old Doppelgängerinnen really such an innocent matter?  Why exactly does Brandon sound out Elinor on Marianne’s attitude to second attachments (66-67)?  Is it really to assess his own chances with her, or might it be to take stock of narrative ammunition against Willoughby?  Did Willoughby really seduce Eliza II?  Was there really a baby?  Did the conveniently eventless duel really happen?  Why did Brandon did not warn Elinor about Willoughby while the engagement between the young couple was still apparently on?  Why the silence (so redolent of Mrs. Smith’s bad-faith behavior in Persuasion) when it mattered?  Is his proffered excuse—“‘I had no hope of interfering with success’”—even halfway credible (238)?  Can we sensibly uncouple Brandon’s late narration of the Eliza tale from its all too predictable result (“an increase of good-will towards himself” [246])?  And how sensible is it to put down to mere happenstance the outlandishly unlikely fact that the seducer of Brandon’s ward should turn out to have been—of all people—the man currently outshining Brandon in Marianne’s eyes?


What is the real source of Brandon’s intelligence as to Marianne and Willoughby’s doings in London?  His reading of Marianne’s handwritten direction on a letter to Willoughby suggests ungentlemanly conduct at best (Sutherland and Le Faye 107-08) and—given that the letter would surely have left the Jennings residence quite some time before Brandon’s visit there—bribing of servants at worst (195-97).  And what of this odd little moment at Sir John Middleton’s ball in London?


After they had been assembled about an hour, Mr. Palmer sauntered towards the Miss Dashwoods to express his surprise on seeing them in town, though Colonel Brandon had been first informed of their arrival at his house, and he had himself said something very droll on hearing that they were to come.

I thought you were both in Devonshire,” said he.”  (194-95)


What have we here—a something or a nothing?  Can we be certain that what is being exposed is Mr. Palmer’s froideur?  Was it really over dinner at the Palmers’ that Brandon first learned of Mrs. Jennings and the Dashwood girls’ arrival in London (185-86)?


One may even imagine a reader of the Catherine Morland kidney hurling ever more paranoid and Radcliffean questions down the subjunctive abyss.  Is Brandon’s conviction that Marianne is about to get much sicker at Cleveland based on the fatalism of a man in love (350) or simply on access to certain cordials being prescribed by the apothecary Mr. Harris?  Has he been systematically forcing her illness to the brink in order to stage a faux-heroic role for himself as part of a creepy reenactment of the Eliza crisis?  Is it possible to read the following words without feeling slightly queasy?


[Elinor] soon discovered in his melancholy eye and varying complexion as he looked at her sister, the probable recurrence of many past scenes of misery to his mind, brought back by that resemblance between Marianne and Eliza already acknowledged, and now strengthened by the hollow eye, the sickly skin, the posture of reclining weakness, and the warm acknowledgment of peculiar obligation.  (385)


Has Brandon told the truth about what happened between Eliza I and his brother?  What, for that matter, were the exact circumstances of that brother’s death some five years ago—a death which, in a novel liberally peppered with tasteless actuarial musings, made him a rich man?


Enough.  As questions inspired by the novel of sensibility shade into questions inspired by the gothic romance, the critic will no doubt feel that they are being taken farther into the realms of subjunctive scenario-building than they wish to go.  And lest we forget:  Willoughby comes to Cleveland armed with no sensational counter-allegations.  With each new utterance, he actually narrows the horizon of a strong counter-narrative.  One by one, our little sensibilious maybe-somethings shrink to sensible surely-nothings.  By the end of Willoughby’s testimony we have been all but constrained—in Christopher R. Miller’s phrase—to “a clear-eyed reckoning of the probable” (239).


All but:  certain narrative Leerstellen remain virulent even after Willoughby has had his say.  If it would take a certain stubborn readerly sensibility to out-Catherine Catherine Morland by continuing to fixate on these Leerstellen, then by the same token it would take a certain readerly insensibility to turn a blind eye to them altogether.  Willoughby’s account leaves behind—to borrow and slightly abuse the import of D. A. Miller’s suggestive phrase—a “fermenting residue” (76).  His confession may dampen the notion that Marianne has been “‘cruelly used; but not by Willoughby’” and that some “‘evil’” has been practiced on her by some “‘creature in the world’” (215); but his all too elliptical references to the Eliza affair—no mention of baby or duel—and his use of one verb (“‘injured’”[365]) to characterize his treatment of Eliza and of the non-impregnated Marianne alike will be noticed by the sensibilious reader.  (So too will the later indication that Mrs. Smith adjudged the Eliza affair not qualitatively different from the Marianne one [430].)  Claudia L. Johnson has argued that the implicit “bearing of the Eliza stories on Edward’s treatment of Elinor and Lucy Steele” is even more disturbing than the overt “parallels between the Eliza stories and Marianne’s experiences.”  Edward, she notes, is a lot closer to Willoughby than Elinor can acknowledge (Jane Austen 57-58).  Johnson’s point is well taken.  Is it not possible however—and this by way of explanation of our sensibilious reader’s wide-eyed interest in Willoughby’s failure to mention a baby—that part of the function of the Edward-Lucy story was to slip the reader a tempting interpretive key with which to unlock the true-but-suppressed Willoughby-Eliza II story?  Willoughby talks of “‘an affair, a connection” (364) and insists that there was fault on both sides:  might not this be Edward talking on the far side of an unceremonious breach of engagement with Lucy?


The view of Marianne’s ultimate betrothal to Brandon as a kind of sacrifice has become something of a critical cliché (Tanner 99, Neill 123).  Certainly the facilely schematic character of their union has given pause to even the most sensible of readers.  On a weak-sensibilious reading, however, this unease about Brandon’s suitability as a partner for Marianne is joined by fears that he may in fact be a manipulator of some resource.  And on a strong-sensibilious reading he is a very raptor.


We have already had occasion to note the existence of two pre-Austenian Willoughbys.  Before closing we must consider a third.  The 1794 Supplement to the Lady’s Magazine carries a short story entitled “The Shipwreck.”  It is the melodramatic tale of a young heroine who falls in love with a young man.  He goes by the name of Willoughby.  At one point, after rescuing the heroine, Willoughby is called her “preserver” (“Shipwreck” 680; compare SS 55).  She, like her counterpart in Sense and Sensibility (379, 429), will ultimately be conferred as a “reward” for manly virtue (680).  The villain of the piece—a man old enough to be the heroine’s father (which is just as well, as he actually is her father)—does everything in his power to put up unjust cause and impediment to the heroine’s union with Willoughby.  The name of this Willoughby-abusing older man?  Of all things—Brandon.


Commenting on this curious intertext, Edward Copeland writes that “the purpose of an allusion so thoroughly buried in the oblivion of the Lady’s Magazine turns on a point that can only be guessed at” (lvi-lvii).  If the sensibilious reader is to be listened to, however, we may be in a position to move beyond mere guesswork on this point.  For the meaning of the Brandon-Willoughby agon may lie as much in the subjunctive scenario(s) buried in the near-oblivion of Sense and Sensibility itself as in the seemingly secure “indicative” plot of that same novel.  Gene W. Ruoff, noting the dominance in Sense and Sensibility of secrets and embedded tales, writes that the novel’s “dependence . . . upon a gothic temporal economy suggests that it was easier for Austen to parody the excesses of gothic convention than to erase traces of its influence” (108-09).  This is a fine observation, but it surely holds at least as well for sentimental as for gothic convention—and Austen’s relationship thereto.  While we cannot be sure that the sensibilious reader of the present essay’s conception has not been entirely missing the point of Austen’s text, nor can we be even almost sure that she has.



Works Cited


Anon.  “The Shipwreck.  A Tale.”  Lady’s Magazine (‘Supplement’ 1794): 678-80.

Austen, Jane.  Sense and Sensibility.  Ed. Edward Copeland.  Cambridge: CUP, 2006.

Blackwell, Mark.  “‘The setting always casts a different shade on it’: Allusion and Interpretation in Sense and Sensibility.”  Eighteenth-Century Fiction 17.1 (2004): 111-25.

Copeland, Edward.  Introduction.  Sense and Sensibility.  Cambridge: CUP, 2006.  xxiii-lxv.

DePaolo, Rosemary.  “From Howtoits to Whodunits: Jane Austen to Agatha Christie.”  Clues 2.2 (1981): 8-14.

Gard, Roger.  JaneAusten’s Novels: The Art of Clarity.  New Haven: Yale UP, 1992.

Harris, Jocelyn.  Jane Austen’s Art of Memory.  Cambridge: CUP, 1989.

Hinnant, Charles H.  “Jane Austen’s ‘Wild Imagination’: Romance and the Courtship Plot in the Six Canonical Novels.”  Narrative 14.3 (2006): 294-310.

James, P. D.  “Appendix: Emma Considered as a Detective Story.”  Time to be in Earnest: A Fragment of Autobiography.  Toronto: Vintage, 2001.  243-59.

Johnson, Claudia L.  Jane Austen: Women, Politics and the Novel.  Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1988.

_____.  “‘The ‘Twilight of Probability’: Uncertainty and Hope in Sense and Sensibility.”  Philological Quarterly 62 (1983): 171-86.

Labbe, Jacqueline.  “What Happens at the Party: Jane Austen Converses with Charlotte Smith.”  Persuasions On-Line 30.2 (2010).

Miller, Christopher R.  “Jane Austen’s Aesthetics and Ethics of Surprise.”  Narrative 13.3 (2005): 238-60.

Miller, D. A.  Narrative and its Discontents: Problems of Closure in the Traditional Novel.  Princeton: PUP, 1981.

Neill, Edward.  “‘What Edward promises he will perform’: ‘How to do things with words’ in Sense and Sensibility.”  Textual Practice 21.1 (2007): 113-34.

Ruoff, Gene W.  Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility.  New York: Harvester, 1992.

Smith, Charlotte Turner.  Celestina. A Novel in Three Volumes.  Dublin, 1791.

Sturrock, June.  “‘I am Rather a Talker’: Speech and Silence in Emma.”  Persuasions On-Line 28.1 (2007).

Sutherland, John, and Deirdre Le Faye.  So You Think You Know Jane Austen? A Literary Quizbook.  Oxford: OUP, 2005.

Tanner, Tony.  Jane Austen.  Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1985.


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