what is the proper ethical response to manipulation? Is it possible to resist the sources of manipulation without compromising our own values in the process? A close textual analysis of Austen’s first published novel, Sense and Sensibility, provides possible answers to these two questions, pointing to the practice of a classical form of prudence for negotiating the moral dilemmas encountered in social life. Austen does not leave her protagonists unequipped for combating manipulation as she might, preferring to portray the difficulty of remaining virtuous amid the decidedly vicious. Instead, the travails of her chief protagonists, Elinor Dashwood and Colonel Brandon, illustrate the need both to know and to act upon principle, in turn helping her readers recover an understanding of prudence that was nearly as lost to Austen’s generation as it is to our own.
The virtue of prudence remains, as it was in Austen’s time, under a cloud of ambiguity. It is certainly less familiar to the ear than other ancient virtues, such as moderation or courage. We can trace its earliest expression back to Aristotle, who defined prudence or “practical wisdom” (phronesis) as a way of thinking of the relationship between universal wisdom (sophia) and individual experience (praxis). Unlike Plato, Aristotle argues in his Nicomachean Ethics that the human good is much more than the proper ordering of the soul in conformity to reason (II.2, 1103b26-28). Rather, if theoretical wisdom establishes the highest end of happiness, practical wisdom is a conviction leading one to deliberate well about the objects promoting that end depending on considerations of time and place: “virtue makes us aim at the right target, and practical wisdom makes us use the right means” (VI.13, 1145a5-7; VI.12, 1144a7-9). Such wisdom is an intellectual virtue because it entails thinking about the actions conducive to the good life as antecedently determined by reason, but is separate from the theoretical virtues insofar as it is concerned with matters that are particular and variable rather than “what exists by necessity,” which are the proper objects of “pure science” (VI.4, 1140a25-28; VI.5, 1140a32-b4). Accordingly, prudence helps intelligently arrange and unify whatever general ends (e.g., wealth, pleasure, health) enable us to become “just, noble, and good” (VI.12, 1143b17-33). When these particular goods are chosen and directed in accordance with moral virtue, we partake in the activity of human flourishing (eudaimonia) (X.7, 1177a20-22).
The lexical meaning of the classical or later Thomistic understanding of prudence has been reshaped over time. Den Uyl notes that whereas prudence once ranked among the capital virtues in classical and Christian ethics, it has undergone a steady decline in favor since roughly the mid-seventeenth century: in its classical articulation “prudence was not a moral virtue” whereas in modern philosophy, “insofar as prudence had any moral status, it was a moral virtue” (8). No longer an intellectual virtue that conducts the ends proper to the human good, prudence has become descriptive in modern political thought of more mundane behaviors and characteristics, such as self-preservation and circumspection (115-21). Perhaps we owe this change to an inherent difficulty in reconciling knowledge of the universal good with particular fact, or, following Den Uyl among others, a theoretical horizon that calls into question the importance of such a faculty in the first place (263-69).1 Regardless of the explanation, we are at least on safe ground when we state that in most contexts, “prudence” means something quite different from what it meant to Aristotle.
Except, perhaps, when we read Jane Austen. To be sure, by the eighteenth century, this shift in the meaning of prudence was nearly complete. As Sarah Emsley notes, both prudence and wisdom “are complicated in Austen’s time and ours, since in today’s terms prudence is often thought of as wisdom in financial matters” (46-47). As a result, a modern reader of Sense and Sensibility is more likely to identify prudential behavior with the cunning of John Willoughby or Lucy Steele than either Elinor or Brandon. The novel indeed lends support to this inference early on: the words “prudence” or “imprudence” occur a total of nineteen times in Sense and Sensibility by my count, beginning with its modern, mercenary connotation, but, following Elinor’s use of the word in Chapter Four (24), it is generally employed as a mark of virtue or wisdom. Interestingly, the phrase “common prudence” occurs three times, suggesting perhaps a general appropriation (similar to “common sense”) of what was at one time a singular virtue.
Yet Austen teaches us in those pages, no less than in her other works, that appearances can be deceiving. In fact, Sense and Sensibility is good literary terrain upon which we can survey prudence’s equivocal meaning, helping scour some of the patina that has tarnished its original, pre-modern definition. After all, Austen’s novels have provided an important entry point for examining pre-modern systems of virtue ethics. Anne Crippin Ruderman (8-9), David Fott, and David Gallop have all perceived the Aristotelian virtues at work in Austen’s novels, while Sarah Emsley (17-41) and Alisdair MacIntyre (240-43) have viewed Austen as synthesizing classical and biblical virtues and applying them, via her protagonists, to practical settings.
The challenges that Elinor and Colonel Brandon encounter, as well as the lessons they learn from the forms of manipulation they experience, are essential to a recovery of prudence as a unique source of resistance to such manipulation. Although they are my main focus in what follows, manipulation abounds in both the Ferrars and Dashwood households. Yet however influential temptations involving sex, money, and other sources of power may be in the novel, a measure of practical wisdom admits an equally strong repulse to the security of principle.
The first dialogue in Sense and Sensibility is between the “narrow-minded and selfish” Fanny Dashwood and her husband John on the subject of providing some support for his stepmother and three half-sisters (5). Despite the promise that his father had exacted from John “‘to assist them, and make their situation more comfortable than it was in his power to do,’” no “‘particular sum’” was promised for the widowed Mrs. Dashwood and her daughters (9). Fanny quickly bargains their inheritance down from the initial three thousand pounds originally proposed by John, to five hundred a year, to the simple performance of “neighbourly acts” of assistance, persuaded by his wife that any greater sum would be “absolutely unnecessary, if not highly indecorous” (13). We learn in the course of the first two chapters not only of the meager condition of the Dashwood women, but also that wealth is a source of manipulation even among those who do not (yet) possess it. It can trample our commitments, as it does in the case of John Dashwood, who in light of Fanny’s “irresistible” argument (13) rationalizes his default on his promise by agreeing to effectively distort its terms. Yet even though money is the most obvious object of ruin in this early part of the novel, Fanny’s rhetorical flair is just as striking as John’s complaisance, a foreshadowing of the more polished eloquence of Willoughby and Lucy Steele. Beneath the veneer of this exchange lies the seemingly limitless scope of power that the clever manipulator wields: Fanny is able to leverage the immediate utility of the family fortune to upend ties of kinship, moral scruples, and even a deathbed promise.
There are, nevertheless, ways to overcome the temptations of wealth. An obvious course is to refuse to compromise one’s principles at all, even at the expense of hardship for others. When Edward Ferrars’s mother finally learns that her son is engaged to Lucy Steele, she orders him to break the connection or suffer the loss of financial support. Edward, a pious man who stands on his principles, resolves to keep the engagement. Consequently, as John Dashwood informs his half-sisters, Edward’s mother, “‘with a very natural kind of spirit,’” decides to settle an estate upon his younger and more foppish brother, Robert (269). In contrast to John Dashwood, Edward remains steadfast in his “‘duty’” to Lucy (367), but in doing so is bereft of any material support for a marriage. His dedication would indeed be honorable if it were not so altogether pitiful. Just as a wife (Fanny) can manipulate her husband, so will Mrs. Ferrars attempt to use her considerable estate to divert Edward from his promise to honor his long-standing bond to Lucy. Both cases show how money can cancel promises made in the context of the most intimate human relationships, between father and son or between lovers. And both examples suggest that we might be stuck between the unsavory alternatives of either becoming like John Dashwood and compromising our principles, or learning from Edward’s fate and removing ourselves as much as possible from those who would manipulate principle in the name of self-interest.
Yet all is not lost: Brandon intervenes to provide Edward with a small rectory in Delaford in order that Edward might maintain both his principles and economic sufficiency. While Edward’s refusal to waver in his commitment would have likely led to his future family’s indigence, Brandon’s actions remind us that knowledge of virtue only affords passing solace in the event of material devastation. Brandon acts to counteract the “‘cruelty, the impolitic cruelty . . . of dividing, or attempting to divide, two young people long attached to each other,’” even though he has only met Edward “‘two or three times in Harley-street’” (282). Indeed, his sole motivations are his own “general benevolence” and “particular friendship” with Elinor and the Dashwood family (283). Brandon is on this occasion able to combine the general good with the particular welfare of two households, one of which includes Marianne Dashwood, who is especially close to his heart. Accustomed to combating more definite enemies in the theater of war, Brandon defends the general good of the Dashwood and Ferrars families by channeling money in a beneficent direction, a course that will lead to the marriage between Edward and Elinor when the engagement with Lucy is eventually broken. Though Edward is hardly a villain in the novel, his predicament does demonstrate the insufficiency of simply holding firm to one’s commitments, come what may to oneself or others.2 Between these equally unsatisfactory poles—adopting Edward’s stringent adherence to principle (no matter how destructive), or John Dashwood’s simple surrender of moral conviction—Austen suggests a third way to respond to manipulation: with prudence that tends to the most morally defensible course given the circumstances.
Willoughby and Lucy possess great external charms apart from wealth, as manifested in the ease with which they gain the favor of the community. Willoughby, clad in a distinguishing “shooting-jacket,” immediately captivates the Dashwood women upon his entrance into the Dashwood home carrying the ailing Marianne: “His manly beauty and more than common gracefulness were instantly the theme of general admiration, and the laugh which his gallantry raised against Marianne, received particular spirit from his exterior attractions” (43). The Dashwoods’ introduction to the Steele sisters likewise finds them “‘agreeable’”: “Their dress was very smart, their manners very civil” (119). The Steeles pass the inspection of Lady Middleton (who “pique[s] herself upon the elegance of her table, and of all her domestic arrangements” ); Sir John Middleton is only too eager to introduce his Dashwood cousins to “the sweetest girls in the world,” particularly the “‘monstrous pretty’” Lucy Steele (119). The latter is described upon her introduction to the family as possessing “considerable beauty; her features were pretty, and she had a sharp quick eye, and a smartness of air, which though it did not give actual elegance or grace, gave distinction to her person” (120). While Willoughby is “interesting” to the Dashwood women because of his physical appearance (bearing a fanciful resemblance to a “hero of a favourite story” ), Lucy relies much more on ingratiating manners and a mode of speaking that disguise from most of her interlocutors her “thorough want of delicacy, of rectitude, and integrity of mind, which [to Elinor] her attentions, her assiduities, her flatteries at the Park betrayed” (127).
Uniting the scenes, however, is that both characters’ immorality is made clear only with time, with first impressions concealing more than they reveal. Upon learning of Edward’s engagement to Lucy Steele, Elinor thinks that it would have been only a matter of time before he must have reached a more sober judgment of her true character: “The youthful infatuation of nineteen would naturally blind him to every thing but her beauty and good-nature; but the four succeeding years . . . if rationally spent . . . must have opened his eyes to her defects of education” (140). (Compare Elinor’s diagnosis of Edward’s lack of discrimination to Aristotle’s remark that prudence is unavailable to the young, who are in need of the “knowledge of particulars” that come with age and experience [VI.8, 1142a11-15].) Even so, only at the end of the novel is Edward able to fully come to terms with the distance between Lucy’s appearance and her motives (368). Elinor is the ablest judge of Lucy’s character, precisely because she is “not blinded by the beauty, or the shrewd look . . . to her want of real elegance and artlessness” (124). Nor is she, like Sir John, susceptible to the conversational flattery that Lucy deploys to manipulate others—and not for Lucy’s lack of trying (128-35).
Willoughby is harder to read. It is a testimony to Willoughby’s artfulness that he swiftly becomes an effective member of the Dashwood family after rescuing Marianne: “Nothing could be more expressive of attachment to them all, than Willoughby’s behaviour. To Marianne it had all the distinguishing tenderness which a lover’s heart could give, and to the rest of the family it was the affectionate attention of a son and a brother” (71). We learn of his true character along with Elinor, to whom Brandon relates his own personal history: the sad story involving Eliza Williams, his childhood love (whose resemblance he perceives in Marianne), “‘married against her inclination’” at seventeen to Brandon’s brother for the sake of enriching the family (205). The unhappy marriage failed in a few short years—“‘his pleasures were not what they ought to have been,’” hints Brandon (206)—and it was the Colonel who tended to her young daughter, also named Eliza, when her mother died of consumption after a period of physical and mental decline. When the second Eliza later journeys with a friend to Bath, she falls prey to none other than Willoughby, who, taking liberties with her “‘youth and innocence,’” has no reservations about abandoning her and the unborn child he fathers, isolated and “‘in a situation of utmost distress,’” to pursue Marianne (209).
Our initial predilection toward Willoughby compared to the staid Brandon is therefore unfounded. Willoughby, like Lucy, exemplifies the deceptive character of both appearance and speech as a means for advancing amorous or other social conquests. While Marianne ridicules Brandon for having “‘no brilliancy, . . . no ardour, and . . . no expression’” (51), Willoughby, in contrast, is able to read aloud “with all the sensibility and spirit which Edward had unfortunately wanted” (48). But actions, not simply words, are what reveal character. In recounting his personal history with Willoughby, Brandon seeks to warn Elinor that Willoughby has so far sought to dominate and manipulate Marianne’s affections just as he did Eliza’s (210). Neither Eliza nor Marianne, both sixteen at the time of their encounters with Willoughby, stood a whit of a chance before the powers of his seduction: both are young and naïve, and easy targets. Only the prospect of financial stability in the form of marriage with the well-heeled Sophia Grey is (apparently) able to temper Willoughby’s desire for sexual conquest: he is willing to barter one pleasure for another.
But even Willoughby recognizes that the pleasant may not be the same as the good: his marriage, while affording “no inconsiderable degree of domestic felicity” amid his “breed of horses and dogs,” cannot meet the “secret standard of perfection” he will always see in Marianne (379). His marriage personifies Austen’s broader lesson that unhappy marriages are often the product of superficial or conventional estimates rather than decisions based on virtue (Bloom 203-04). Despite the value Willoughby places on Marianne, his ultimate fate is to vacillate between his passion for women and his passion for luxury. He lacks any contentment that might come with financial security; as we learn he continues to take part in “sporting of every kind” (379). He thus trades in one source of incomplete enjoyment for another. Willoughby is relegated to the “common run of people” that Aristotle sees as “betray[ing] their utter slavishness in their preference for a life suitable to cattle” (I.5, 1095b19-22). His example makes plain that the passions of sex and money, when not grounded by wisdom, never provide true fulfillment or happiness but yield only temporary satisfaction. In the end, the manipulator is himself manipulated.
Let us grant the sorry fate of the manipulator: what chance, if any, does principle stand against such charms? Elinor is admirably able to counteract Willoughby’s stratagems when he confronts her just as Marianne is beginning to recover from the precipice of death after a sudden illness. On Willoughby’s arrival at Cleveland, the anguish he displays upon meeting an astonished Elinor appears genuine: he cannot help but think the he is at least partly the cause of Marianne’s affliction, but he attempts to recover his usual aplomb when Elinor informs him that her sister has lately rallied. With “a forced vivacity,” he asks Elinor in a confidential manner for her candid opinion of him: “‘do you think me most a knave or a fool?’” Elinor, struck with “greater astonishment than ever” at the return of his typical exuberance, urges him to take his leave (318). Willoughby, undeterred, plies his store of rhetorical maneuvers to further prolong the conversation—alternating between sorrow, to self-pity, to indignation—but Elinor, “hardening her heart anew against any compassion for him” (322), neither excuses his behavior or admits him to see Marianne. In spite of his earnest attempts to persuade her, Elinor adheres to “her duty to check such ideas” that might jeopardize her sister’s recovery (325).
It is at this point that the hitherto demure Elinor, with “angry contempt,” begins verbally directing the hitherto poised Willoughby to be short (320) and to not blame his wife for his mistreatment of Marianne (329); in spite of granting him a measure of forgiveness and wishing him well, she abruptly denies him any “‘blessed chance’” for a future renewal of acquaintance with Marianne (332). Elinor defends her family against further harm at his hand even though she is capable of a small amount of sympathy with Willoughby’s current emotional state. Aware that she is being manipulated, she refuses to give in or run away. Only after Willoughby finally departs does she realize what a formidable opponent she has been pitted against: “She felt that his influence over her mind was heightened by circumstances which ought not in reason to have weight; by that person of uncommon attraction—that open, affectionate, and lively manner which it was no merit to possess” (333). The same moral judgment that allows Elinor to see past Lucy’s superficial attractions also now penetrates Willoughby’s.
But her mere recognition of Willoughby’s bad character is not what makes Elinor’s conduct praiseworthy in this scene: it is her ability to turn him away on the basis of such judgment and in spite of his ingratiation, a feat that amazes Marianne when Elinor later recounts the meeting (347-48). That such judgment is colored by Willoughby’s charms does not prevent Elinor from acting on principle, nor does it prevent her from correctly recognizing Willoughby’s “‘ruling principle’” as “‘his own ease,’” thus explaining his many crimes “‘against virtue’” (351-52). The discussion among Elinor, Marianne, and Mrs. Dashwood about Willoughby’s final visit throws into relief Elinor’s character: in comparison to her mother’s admitted “‘imprudence’” and Marianne’s confessed “‘folly’” stands Elinor’s wisdom and resilience (352).
I have suggested that Colonel Brandon and Elinor both show the need for prudence to apply principle to action when the occasion calls for it. But prudence also dictates discretion, or even silence—a quality of some consequence in the novel (Brodey, “Dangerous Words”). Silence is a bad trait if taken to extremes and can be mistaken for passivity: Brandon is willing to deny his affection for his childhood love for the sake of his family, and despite punishing Willoughby for his seduction of Eliza in a duel, he is unwilling to reveal to the Dashwoods the full extent of Willoughby’s vices. The “reserve” Elinor admires in Brandon’s character (50) must be qualified by the tragic (or almost tragic) consequences of these deferrals. Brandon’s growth as a character lies in his gradual willingness to act in defense of the good of those who are dear to him. Like Elinor, whose “feelings were strong [though] but she knew how to govern them” (6), Brandon later realizes the importance of connecting knowledge of virtue with right conduct.
After learning of Edward’s four-year secret engagement to Lucy, Elinor exhibits a similar reserve. The knowledge produces much internal anguish in Elinor given her expressed “‘esteem’” for Edward (21), yet she is able to maintain her composure so as not to distress her mother and Marianne, depending on “her own good sense” and “self-command” (141). When Elinor finally reveals to her sister Edward’s engagement, her explanation is “clear and simple,” touched by neither “violent agitation nor impetuous grief” (261) It is instead Marianne who cries “excessively” upon hearing the news, and only with considerable effort grants the “great concession[ ]” of emulating her sister’s “‘constant and painful exertion’” of restraint in all future meetings with Edward (265, 264).
Yet as her ultimate encounter with Willoughby illustrates, Elinor is not simply a silent and passive receptacle for the hardships and struggles that come her way. The same “exertion” that allows her to temporarily suppress the knowledge of Edward’s engagement informs a broader mode of self-government, a temperament that contrasts sharply with Marianne’s consuming sensibility (Tave 113-15). Elinor, rather than avoiding Willoughby and thus risking another encounter between him and Brandon, decides on second thought to listen to Willoughby’s explanation for his conduct regarding Marianne, “concluding that prudence required dispatch, and that her acquiescence would best promote it” (317). She listens as much as she can to his story, before taking charge for the sake of her sister and family. Elinor, whose silences are as meaningful as her speech, is the moral touchstone of the novel due to her judgment of the good and its practical approximation, to her ability to reconcile particular necessities with an ideal moral order.
What then is the lesson that Sense and Sensibility teaches us in view of the Willoughbys and Lucy Steeles of the world? We must acknowledge that, to some extent, the Dashwoods are one more family who fall victim to Willougby’s carnal predations. He exploits them through a combination of sexual attraction and monetary power (for example, in his attempt to further seduce Marianne through the bestowal of a particular riding horse, which, as she relates without a trace of irony, is “exactly calculated to carry a woman” ). Marianne fully “discover[s] the falsehood of her own opinions” (378) concerning Brandon only after Willoughby has fled the scene. Yet rather than signaling resignation to suffering misfortune, or refusing to confront those who might inflict it, Austen’s protagonists combat its perpetuation through a combination of moral virtue and prudent conduct.
For both Elinor and Brandon, the response to manipulation is not to abandon society to the depraved for purposes of preserving the purity of one’s principles, along the lines of Mr. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, or even Edward Ferrars. Neither should the answer be to return cunning with equal duplicity in an effort to outwit charlatans at their own game, as typified by Sir Edward Denham in Sanditon or Mary and Henry Crawford in Mansfield Park. Rather, Austen urges us toward judging and responding to the dilemma of reconciling our abstract moral principles with the practical (and usually unavoidable) impediments that might subvert them.
Meeting this challenge does not mean rejecting the positive if limited good that wealth and sexual attraction promote. Austen would not have us reject the importance of personal desirability in partners, nor would she countenance the purely sentimental and mercurial marriages that Marianne might make.3 Rather, we must judge for ourselves the proper balance to achieve among these traits: we might thus see prudence not merely as a counter to manipulation but as a positive model for choosing ends. This definition of prudence certainly characterizes the practice of Elinor Dashwood. Brodey, for instance, notes that Austen portrays in Elinor a new heroism amid the prevailing “cult of sensibility,” one that evinces “the courage and strength it takes to achieve moderation, the ‘exertion’ that it takes to achieve civility towards fools and enemies, the heroism that can be involved in the expression of ‘good Cheer,’ or the difficulty of achieving ‘tranquility’” (Ruined 195). As I have suggested, Elinor’s (and, to a somewhat lesser extent, Brandon’s) prudence is part of Austen’s didactic purpose as it prompts us to be wary of manipulators but also to respond to their challenges in ways that keep our own moral fiber intact. Our answers to such challenges—answers, be it noted, of both the head and the heart—indicate our potential to be our own heroes and heroines. By way of understanding the lesson of Marianne’s “extraordinary fate” (378), our own road is made a little clearer.
I would like to thank Inger S. B. Brodey for reading and commenting on earlier versions of this article, Susan Allen Ford and the anonymous reviewer for their helpful suggestions, and Colleen Sheehan for introducing me to Jane Austen’s books in the first place.
1. As Ruth Grant describes, actors in modern politics are often left with the unpalatable option of either appearing as sanctimonious zealots or unprincipled compromisers. There is scarce middle ground between adhering unwaveringly to principle, on the one hand, or appearing as an utter hypocrite, on the other (2). Grant’s interpretation of Machiavelli on this point (18-56) is a good counterpoise to the more optimistic Aristotelian framework I rely on here.
2. Brandon’s willingness to act based on the circumstances does not mean that he has no convictions concerning right and wrong. Edward’s fault lies not in failing to renounce his convictions but in persevering in his engagement despite its ruinous consequences for Lucy and himself as well as the boon it would confer on vacuous Robert.
3. See, for example, Austen’s parody of marriages based purely on sentiment without regard to financial security in Love and Freindship. Consider also the humorous exchange between Jane and Elizabeth Bennet concerning the merits of Charles Bingley in Pride and Prejudice:
“He is just what a young man ought to be,” said [Jane], “sensible, good humoured, lively; and I never saw such happy manners!—so much ease, with such perfect breeding!”
“He is also handsome,” replied Elizabeth, “which a young man ought likewise to be, if he possibly can. His character is thereby complete.” (14)
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Brodey, Inger Sigrun. “Dangerous Words and Silent Lovers in Sense and Sensibility.” Persuasions 12 (1990): 134-38. [As Inger Sigrun Thomsen.]
_____. Ruined by Design: Shaping Novels and Gardens in the Culture of Sensibility. New York: Routledge, 2008.
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Fott, David. “Prudence and Persuasion: Jane Austen on Virtue in Democratizing Eras.” Lamar Journal of the Humanities 24 (1999): 17-37.
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Grant, Ruth. Hypocrisy and Integrity: Machiavelli, Rousseau, and the Ethics of Politics. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1997.
MacIntyre, Alasdair. After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory. 2nd ed. South Bend: U of Notre Dame P, 2007.
Ruderman, Anne Crippin. The Pleasures of Virtue: Political Thought in the Novels of Jane Austen. Lanham, MD: Rowman, 1995.
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