Persuasions #3, 1981 Page 6
THE APPRENTICESHIP OF ELINOR DASHWOOD
by June M. Frazer
In Chapter 17 of Sense and Sensibility, Elinor quickly concludes the plait of hair set in Edward’s ring to be her own, “procured by some theft or contrivance unknown to herself.” Though Elinor could not possibly know at this point that the hair is Lucy Steele’s, it strains credibility to imagine how the hair could be Elinor’s, attained without her knowledge. Her reading of Pope, had she reflected, would have reminded her that “the rape of a lock” is not an occurrence likely to go unnoticed, and there is no one in the household likely to have procured it in some other manner. Marianne, as Elinor observed, believed it to be Elinor’s own gift; Margaret, as attested by her excited tale to Elinor of Marianne’s willing surrender of her lock to Willoughby, could not have kept such a wonderful conspiracy to herself; and Mrs. Dashwood though romantic enough to fancy the charm of the secretly bestowed lock of hair, would have considered giving Edward Elinor’s hair without her knowledge an indelicate intrusion into her daughter’s affairs. There is, in short, no “contrivance” by which the hair could be Elinor’s own, and her assumption that it must be so, so uncharacteristic of her normal rigorous and sensible analyses of human behaviour, suggests that, where her own heart is inclined, Elinor has a touch of the blindness in love that so concerns her in her younger sister.
Austen points this up quite clearly in her authorial remark, when Edward leaves Barton under circumstances as mysterious and unexplained as those Willoughby had left under, that “Disappointed, however, and vexed as she was, and sometimes displeased with his uncertain behaviour to herself, (Elinor) was very well disposed on the whole to regard his actions with all the candid allowances and generous qualifications, which had been rather more painfully extorted from her, for Willoughby’s service, by her mother.” As with the plait of hair in the ring, Elinor is credulous to a degree very unlike her.
These incidents are not intended to criticize or expose Elinor, but they are, I think, intended to remind us that this remarkable girl is after all only nineteen, an age she describes in her own later analysis and expiation of Edward’s engagement to Lucy as an age of “youthful infatuation.” Elinor remarks to Colonel Brandon, in Chapter 11, that “a better acquaintance with the world is what I look forward to as (Marianne’s) greatest possible advantage.” Despite Marianne’s “extraordinary fate” at the end of the novel, of finding happiness in its least expected form, Elinor’s remark is surely ironic, in that Marianne will nearly die in the process of better acquaintance of the world, but also and more importantly (since the novel is Elinor’s story), in that Elinor’s own knowledge of the world is yet far from expert and is very vulnerable to new shocks and new information.
One further incident will illustrate this point. Elinor considers, in Chapter 20, that Mr. Palmer’s bad temper “might be a little soured by finding, like many others of his sex, that through some unaccountable bias in favor of beauty, he was the husband of a very silly woman,” but she readily concedes that “this kind of blunder was too common for a sensible man to be lastingly hurt by it.” Very soon, however, when she contemplates the sensible Edward’s prospects for happiness in marriage with the pretty but illiterate Lucy, she concludes that “if (Edward) had injured her, how much more had he injured himself. If her case were pitiable, his was hopeless … he, what had he to look forward to? Could he ever be tolerably happy with Lucy Steele?”
Elinor’s character, from the first moment we see her, is flawless, but we tend to forget that she is still a young and inexperienced girl with her own apprenticeship to serve. She has been much abused by some as a smug and priggish lawgiver and much admired by others (like myself) who find her one of the most admirable and likeable characters in Austen’s (or any) fiction. So admirable is she, however, that we sometimes need to be reminded, whichever school we incline to, that she is not perfectly formed at the beginning of the novel. Rather she must, like all of Austen’s good complex characters, suffer through error and experience to earn the happiness that will ultimately be rightfully hers.