Marriane Dashwood has almost always been represented as a woman of feeling. What is striking about the sentimental heroine of Sense and Sensibility is her insistence on pursuing happiness and frankness at the expense of “‘every common-place notion of decorum’” (57). She assiduously rejects worldly propriety by giving the “most pointed assurance of her affection” to Willoughby (63). Within the Romantic context, spontaneous feeling represents laudable self-expression, but Austen portrays Marianne’s overflowing emotion ambivalently: it is neither completely authentic nor completely affected.1 Ironically, when Marianne pushes herself to the extreme in order to achieve an ultimate expression of feeling, the boundaries between genuine and false sensibility become blurred. Marianne is attracted to Willoughby because his “name was good, his residence was in their favourite village” (51) and their “taste was strikingly alike” (56), but their relationship is also characterized by mutual sexual attraction. As she says to Elinor, “‘I was once as dear to him as my own soul could wish. This lock of hair . . . was begged of me with the most earnest supplication. Had you seen his look, his manner, had you heard his voice at that moment!’” (215). Marianne indulges in the recollection of that moment, replaying the scene over and over again. Indeed, she is so passionately fixated on her love for Willoughby and later on her sorrow at losing his love that she can hardly preserve spontaneity of emotion; rather, self-indulgence becomes her most prominent feature. It is the excess of feeling, rather than the feeling itself, that is portrayed as problematic in the novel.
This judgment against emotional excess is reflected in Jane Austen’s “favourite moral writers,” according to her brother Henry: “Johnson in prose, and Cowper in verse” (330). Samuel Johnson warned against just such self-indulgence in his Rambler No. 4: “[S]orrow is to a certain point laudable . . . , but . . . it ought not to be suffered to increase by indulgence, but must give way, after a stated time, to social duties, and the common avocations of life” (255). Johnson censures such “bursts of passion” as not only “useless” but also “culpable.” Furthermore, in such circumstances, a habitual sadness, he writes, “seizes upon the soul, and the faculties are chained to a single object, which can never be contemplated but with hopeless uneasiness” (255).
Marianne is clearly a victim of such a pathological condition: “the restless state of Marianne’s mind not only prevented her from remaining in the room a moment after she was dressed, but requiring at once solitude and continual change of place, made her wander about the house till breakfast time, avoiding the sight of every body” (205-06). The image of a restless wandering woman resembles William Cowper’s “Crazy Kate” in “The Sofa” (Book I, The Task): “A serving maid was she, and fell in love / With one who left her, went to sea and died” (74). In these heroines, the passions are defined in terms of their physical effects. Just as the passion of love causes Kate’s “bosom” to heave “with never-ceasing sighs,” Marianne soaks herself in “silent misery” alone in her own room (224), and her reiteration of sentimental discourse, particularly in its celebration of the feelings, is played out on the body: “when her mind was no longer supported by the fever of suspense, the consequence of all this was felt in an aching head, a weakened stomach, and a general nervous faintness” (210). Austen, echoing Johnson’s admonition, undoubtedly portrays Marianne’s passions as excessive. Marianne’s drive to idealize her relationship with Willoughby is in perpetual contest with Elinor’s attempt to pathologize it. From Elinor’s point of view, Marianne’s yearning for romance is transformed into disorderly passion. Although Marianne detests “affectation” (112) and is proud of her ability to express what the body “naturally” feels, the novel problematizes her love of ardor and her feverish temperament.
Marianne’s amorous pleasures: Austen’s diagnosis of medical treatises
As Akiko Takei has shown, Austen “had a lifelong interest in matters related to medical treatment” and depicted different types of characters from a medical point of view. In describing their feelings, Austen’s language often turns to medical terms. For example, on hearing “‘[a] most scandalous, ill-natured rumour’” about Henry Crawford (Mansfield Park 506), Fanny displays her fevered imagination: Henry’s elopement with Maria Rushworth is so alarming that Fanny “wanted a cordial” (513). In her revulsion, she “passed only from feelings of sickness to shudderings of horror; and from hot fits of fever to cold. The event was so shocking, that there were moments even when her heart revolted from it as impossible—when she thought it could not be” (510-11). Austen’s description of Fanny’s corporeal temperature and its variations, “from hot fits of fever to cold,” suggests a clinical interest in the effect that external events can have on the body. The turbulent language of this passage, different from that associated with the usually modest and restrained Fanny Price, recalls a typical eighteenth-century medical case diagnosis of excessive passions.
In Sense and Sensibility, Elinor and Marianne’s arguments about what might constitute personal identity resemble the very process through which the molding of selfhood, moral agency, and sexual subjectivity was articulated in contemporary medical treatises.2 Some of the most influential medical treatises include Samuel Tissot’s Onanism (1781), William Falconer’s Dissertation on the Influence of the Passion upon Disorders of the Body (1791), Erasmus Darwin’s Zoonomia (1794), and William Buchan’s Domestic Medicine (1800). These four essays contain a theory of the body and the mind (including the imaginative powers) that presents a physiological view of how the interaction of body and mind produce, if not enhance, passions. In Sense and Sensibility, Marianne’s over-excited imagination is treated as something almost palpable. Like eighteenth-century medical books, Austen binds together “ardour” of mind with the material body (heat, fever).
In contemporary literature and journalism, romantic love is normally found most acutely in those who fervently seek enjoyment in reading poetry and fiction and in appreciating nature. One sensational story was that of Martha Ray, who became a courtesan of John Montagu, fourth Earl of Sandwich, but was killed by a lovelorn youth. Ray was generally perceived as a fallen woman, and Town and Country, one of the most successful magazines of the eighteenth century, depicted her as a romantic who “could not help feeling a secret desire of imitating the bold heroines who braved fortune, and every danger incident to the sex, in yielding to the amorous passion” (qtd in Brewer 127). Similarly, Marianne’s imagination has been stimulated by her reading and is contrasted to Elinor’s. When Brandon inadvertently mentions Eliza’s unfortunate fate without finishing his story, the narrator stresses the difference between Elinor’s self-control and Marianne’s (probable) raving speculation: “Elinor attempted no more. But . . . [t]he whole story would have been speedily formed under [Marianne’s] active imagination; and every thing established in the most melancholy order of disastrous love” (67).
More significantly, Marianne dwells in fantasy upon Willoughby’s appearance, his looks, and behavior, all of which perfectly match her picture of a romantic hero drawn from her reading. The relationship between Marianne’s disease and her reading can be explained by Erasmus Darwin’s thoughts on “erotomania” (363). Excessive reading of poems and novels about sentimental love, Darwin notes, can have a powerful hold on people because they “supply the purest source of human felicity” (364): “though the object of love is beauty, yet the idea is nevertheless much enhanced by the imagination of the love, which appears from this curious circumstance, that the lady of his passion seldom appears so beautiful to the love after a few months separation, as his ideas had painted her in his absence” (364). Therefore, “those who have not read the works of poets and romance-writers” are less liable to these diseases of volition (363). The horror of autoeroticism during this period, according to Thomas Laqueur, lies at least partly in the idea that it has no bounds in reality because “it was the creature of imagination” (Solitary Sex 21). Tissot’s warning that “[i]t is imagination, habit, and not nature, that importune [masturbators]” (69) may share the same assumption that letting imagination run wild can be dangerous. Marianne’s passion is aroused by what Tissot would have described as the “unnecessary” indulgence of autoerotic satisfaction (68-69).
In Sense and Sensibility Austen deploys images of physical and emotional addiction to amorous pleasures to dramatize how women can be compromised not only by notorious villains such as Willoughby, but also by the intrinsic structure of romantic discourses themselves. The novel, in a didactic manner, delineates the way in which the Romantic fusion of mind and body proposed by scientists can paradoxically be damaging for women’s health. Austen, by adapting these medical discourses, demonstrates her capacity to read objectively from Marianne’s physical signs and behavior her inward health. In so doing, Austen competes with the male authorial voice of medical treatises.
“‘I must feel—I must be wretched,’” says Marianne to Elinor after receiving Willoughby’s final letter (216). Her persistence in feeling such grief is something that her addictive inclination induces. Although Marianne claims that she should express her sentiments without reserve if they are “not in themselves illaudable” (63), Elinor disapproves: she would “not adopt the method so judiciously employed by Marianne . . . to augment and fix her sorrow, by seeking silence, solitude, and idleness” (120). Such a degree of self-absorption is a typical symptom of the melancholia described in the medical literature. The disease involves that state of alienation or weakness of mind that renders people incapable of enjoying the pleasures, or performing the duties of life, and may be caused by “intense thinking, especially where the mind is long occupied about one object” or “a sedentary life; solitude” (Buchan 426). Tissot also warns of the danger of imagination becoming fixated on a particular object: “Nothing so much weakens as that continual bent of the mind, ever occupied with the same subject” (70). Falconer follows suit in advising his readers to exercise the “management of the mind and passions” in order to effectively cure melancholia (115).
Tissot would have probably said that Marianne’s solitary rambles and continuous indulgence of her imagination have slowly, but steadily, weakened her physical constitution. “Excess of amorous pleasures does not only produce languishing disorders,” he explains, but “sometimes brings on acute diseases” (38). After Willoughby’s desertion, Marianne indulges in her pleasant memories “till her heart was so heavy that no farther sadness could be gained” (96). Again when she is removed to Cleveland, away from the bustle of London and from Willoughby’s new marital schemes, Marianne “rejoice[s] in tears of agony,” in “wandering from place to place in free and luxurious solitude, [and] she resolved to spend almost every hour of every day while she remained with the Palmers, in the indulgence of such solitary rambles” (343). As Wiltshire has noted, the novel shows that “real” sickness is brought about by “real” causes. Austen catalogs Marianne’s lack of sleep, “fever of suspense,” “weakened stomach,” and “general nervous faintness” (210). The “imagination” would have been equally “real” for contemporary medical men, and Austen seems to acknowledge that wearing out one’s imagination can have a deleterious material effect on the body.
The debilitating effects of amorous pleasures
By medicalizing subjectivity and the soul itself, eighteenth-century medical theorists such as Julien Offray de La Mettrie and John Brown demonstrated that the mind, especially in relation to human passions, is inextricably bound up with the body. This new version contrasts with the hierarchical Cartesian subordination of the body to the mind. William Falconer was one of the theorists to point out that passion can excite the powers of the vital system, causing “a pleasurable state of the mind,” which can “give as it were new vigour to the heart and circulation” (31). However, while producing positive effects, Falconer cautions, the passion of love can also cause some irregularity, and “when violently excited,” it can induce “fever attended with great heat palpitation of the heart, and a sense of burning” (34). As John Coakley Lettsom described it in his introduction to Falconer’s Dissertation, “the operation of the passions is no less varied than wonderful; some excite; others depress the vigour of life” (14). These passions, then, acquire a “new influence” independent of the original impression by the active powers of the mind. The passions are represented not only as something born out of the body, but also as an entity with relative autonomy that must be restrained with a conscious effort of the mind. The passions were famously likened to “fire” by Thomas Beddoes in his introductory essay to John Brown’s The Elements of Medicine, which recommended controlling and keeping the body at “agreeable” or “moderate” temperature, in the middle range between high heat (or “ardor”) and cold (Elements 2.9).
The mystery of the soul’s operation is unraveled by the same vocabulary of stimulus and heat-cold opposition in Tissot’s Onanism. Based on the ancient medical notion of Galenic humor, Tissot cautions against the loss of “seed,” “semen,” or the “vital spirit” (43), which is caused by a “perpetual itch for pleasure” or “stimulus” (20). His image of the body is that of a “vessel” (55), and when too much “liquor” (47) or “vital spirit” (48) is lost, the life essence becomes diluted or hollowed out. When “veins and nerves” discharge themselves into the genital organs, a feeling of “titulation” [sic] arises, and this carries with it an impression of “heat” and “pleasure” (48).
Tissot repeatedly emphasizes that the constant exertion of titillating passions gives rise to heat and pleasure, and can materially affect the “weak” female body. In the late eighteenth century, medical treatises already “represented” women’s organs, functions, and feelings as different from men’s—shifting from a one-sex model towards a two-sex model (Laqueur, Making Sex). This evolution illustrates that what constitutes the body, or the experience of sexuality, does not necessarily have boundaries that are fixed in space or stable over time. In this sense, the observations of La Mettrie and Tissot on gender difference are particularly revealing. La Mettrie characterizes the soul of “the fair sex” as “based on passion rather than reason” because of the delicacy of the feminine temperament. In men, on the contrary, brains and nerves are said to have “the firmness of all solids”; thus, “the mind, like the features, is more lively” (8). Since immoderate physical exertion wears out the fibers in the muscles, women, whom Tissot characterizes as having a nervous system much “weaker than men” (67), are more prone to be severely damaged by violent passions.
The debilitated condition of the sentimental heroine is one of the most powerful images of Sense and Sensibility. The narrative of the first Eliza that Brandon relates to Elinor offers an interesting medical case-study of a woman addicted to amorous pleasures. Eliza, Colonel Brandon states, was his sweetheart and a rich orphan, from the start showing the same “‘warmth of heart’” Marianne now possesses: “‘Her’s, for me, was, I believe, fervent as the attachment of your sister to Mr. Willoughby, and it was, though from a different cause, no less unfortunate’” (233). Forced to marry to save the financial situation of the family, Eliza led a miserable conjugal life, which prompted her to yearn for romance out of wedlock. When Brandon discovered her, she was “‘[s]o altered—so faded—worn down by acute suffering of every kind!’” (235). Eliza was seduced by a number of men, as Brandon attests, “‘to sink deeper in a life of sin’” (235), and was in the last stage of consumption when Brandon finally found her confined in a debtor’s lodging and with a child. Brandon is, of course, a participant in his own tale, but he also casts a quasi-medical gaze onto a female body that is diagnosed as characteristically warm and thus volatile.
While Brandon narrates the first Eliza’s story with compassion, Willoughby recounts to Elinor the story of the second Eliza, foregrounding her sexual passions to justify his connection with her. Willoughby’s plea not to condemn him for his libertinism is supported by his negative perception of the female body. For example, he characterizes Eliza as having violent passions and affection “‘scarcely less warm than [Marianne’s]’” (365). Sense and Sensibility is, therefore, permeated with the essentialist approach to gender. Elinor, however, taunts Willoughby about his male-centered attitude: “‘your indifference is no apology for your cruel neglect of her. Do not think yourself excused by any weakness, any natural defect of understanding on her side, in the wanton cruelty so evident on yours’” (365). Thus, through the voice of the strong-willed heroine, the novel questions gender norms widely held by eighteenth-century medical scientists.
The dangers of passion and “ardour”
Marianne disqualifies Brandon as a future husband because of his unacceptable faults: he has “‘no brilliancy’” and “‘his feelings no ardour’” (61). The word “ardour,” also employed by John Brown, is defined by the OED as “fierce or burning heat; concr. fire, flame,” or “heat of passion or desire, vehemence, ardent desire; warmth of emotion, zeal, fervor, eagerness, enthusiasm.” Interestingly, some of these words are used also by Lettsom to explain the passion of love. He warns that the physiological state of warmth can make the heart palpitate: “when this passion has taken deep possession of the heart and soul,” the consequences are “a pale and wan face, sunk eyes, and loss of appetite” (17). Along the same lines, Elinor questions Marianne’s deification of fever: “‘Had [Brandon] been only in a violent fever, you would not have despised him half so much. Confess, Marianne, is not there something interesting to you in the flushed cheek, hollow eye, and quick pulse of a fever?’” (46). Elinor shows her concern not only about Marianne’s feverish condition (the body), but also about her incapacity for moral judgment shown in her condemnation of Brandon as simply “old” and “infirm.”
Elinor’s animadversion reverberates with the instruction of medical advice books such as William Buchan’s Domestic Medicine, originally published in 1769 and the most widely used handbook of the period (Wiltshire 46). Buchan gives practical advice about how to control passion: before a man falls “desperately in love,” he should “consider well the probability of his being able to obtain the object of his wishes” (119). For the maintenance of mental health, Samuel Johnson also advises his readers not to “trust ourselves with favourite enjoyments, not to indulge the luxury of fondness, but to keep our minds always suspended in such a state of indifference, that we may change the objects about us without emotion” (256). Marianne’s frankness in showing her affection towards Willoughby is met with a reproof: Elinor “only wished that it were less openly shown” (63). The rhetorical battle between Elinor and Marianne over the necessity of exerting this form of internalized control creates one of the interesting tensions in the novel. Marianne rejects such a necessity outright and eulogizes Romantic ideals of “‘genius, taste, [and] spirit’” (61) and the ability to express what the body “naturally” feels. She criticizes Elinor for not feeling enough when leaving Norland and her beloved Edward: “‘When is she dejected or melancholy?’” (47). With such comments Marianne attempts to normalize her own melancholic state.
Elinor’s rhetorically effective use of medical terms casts Marianne’s passions in a different light as she reminds her sister that her “flushed cheek,” “hollow eye,” “quick pulse of a fever” are dangerous symptoms. In addition, in an effort to recover Brandon’s honor, Elinor divests Brandon of his previous image of illness and frailty: “‘I must object to your dooming Colonel Brandon and his wife to the constant confinement of a sick chamber’” (45). Elinor discredits “melancholy” as merely a proof of ill-health and restores its clinical (not romantic) meaning that suggests “mania” and “depressed mind” (Lettsom 18)—another symptom of how Austen inhabits romantic and medical eighteenth-century discourses simultaneously.
Echoing eighteenth-century medical books, Austen metaphorically delineates the way in which the mind can be swayed by the operation of the body in such forms as warmth, fever, or “ardour.” This move away from the Cartesian dualism that presupposes the power of the rational mind to keep the body under its control opens not only the possibility of the body revolting against the mind but also of passion fueled by over-exercised imagination.
In Sense and Sensibility, the two heroines are influenced by these medical discourses in different ways. Marianne is endowed with a highly developed sensibility that renders her alluring to men around her but, at the same time, morbid. Strictly speaking, Elinor herself does not escape Marianne’s proclivity to amorous fancy, in what sounds like Marianne’s fixation on Willoughby: “Elinor found every day afforded her leisure enough to think of Edward, and of Edward’s behaviour, in every possible variety which the different state of her spirits at different times could produce”; Edward becomes “a subject so interesting, [that] must be before her, must force her attention, and engross her memory, her reflection, and her fancy” (121). However, drawing support from the interventionist approach of contemporary medical advice books such as Buchan’s, Austen endows Elinor with the effectual female agency capable of repelling the evil of amorous pleasures. Elinor, who can “struggle” and “exert herself” even when “deeply afflicted” (8), extricates herself from the potentially destructive self-indulgence of the passions of the female body, and thus deserves a happy ending. Similarly, Marianne’s eventual recovery from her illness may be regarded as a kind of conversion from the morbid principle of filling her imagination with a romantic void, to a robust commitment to a wholesome life of social duties, what Johnson termed “the common avocations of life” (255).
In her fiction, Austen demonstrates an understanding of the passions widely held among the medical community, namely, that there is a “reciprocal influence between the mental and corporeal parts, and that whatever injures the one disorders the other” (Buchan 112). Elinor, displaying the capacity to discipline her mind, contradicts the contemporary medical assumption that women, when led astray by inflated imagination, are more easily subsumed by sexual passions, with consequent damage to the body. Austen challenges the notion that the female body is essentially weak, restoring Marianne’s health and demonstrating how Elinor’s healthy body remains safe. The differences between the two heroines exposed by contemporary medical treatises reveal Sense and Sensibility as Austen’s most rational and romantic novel—well-worth celebrating after two hundred years.
1. Margaret Anne Doody also points out the irony of Marianne “push[ing] her own sensibility until it becomes something perilously close to affectation, while never quite being that” (xix).
2. John Wiltshire takes issue with orthodox Western biomedicine, which excluded the body from notions of subjectivity, personhood, or identity, and shows how the body surface can be the receptor of cultural forces and is decorated or molded by culture (17).
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