Persuasions #3, 1981 Page 5
THE EXTRAORDINARY FATE OF MARIANNE DASHWOOD
by Mary Millard
I know that I am contradicting many of the most eminent critics when I affirm that Jane Austen provided Marianne Dashwood with an ideal husband. Willoughby would never have done, even if he had inherited Mrs. Smith’s fortune in Chapter XV of Sense and Sensibility. His character would remain expensive and selfish, and his new wealth, being at his own disposal, might be dissipated in a few years. However congenial his interests, taste and spirits are to the seventeen-year-old Marianne, an alliance with him offers no probability of her developing into a mature and useful woman. With the very best of luck, Marianne and Willoughby would become no worse than a fashionable, giddy couple, living entirely for pleasure and new sensations. The idealism and enthusiasm of Marianne need to be harnessed to a worthy cause. Such is Colonel Brandon.
The Colonel isn’t so bad. If he is “grave and dull,” it is because he suffers from a moderate, or perhaps only mild, depression, dating from his loss of the first Eliza, and reinforced by the disappearance of the second. But Colonel Brandon has not become a hermit. He has the sense to keep busy. His property, if we believe Mrs. Jennings and John Dashwood, is in good condition. He spends some time in London. He visits the Middletons, where we presume that he hunts and shoots with Sir John. And he falls in love with Marianne, instead of the more sedate Elinor, because the younger sister’s vivacity, and perhaps even her wrong-headedness, stimulate him.
Jane Austen knew that you are as old as you feel. When Sense and Sensibility was given to the printer, she was just Colonel Brandon’s age, and far from decrepit. The Colonel’s oppression of spirits makes him seem older than he is, but he can, like Anne Elliot, experience “a second spring of youth and beauty.” Don’t worry about his rheumatic shoulder. In the English climate (colder then than it is now) even children had aches and cramps in bad weather.
Marrying Colonel Brandon will bring Marianne at least as much good as he received. The girl needs a job. In becoming “the mistress of a family and the patroness of a village” she will have plenty of scope for her energy and imagination.
Marianne will do more than manage Colonel Brandon’s house. Her husband can be expected to allow her to new-furnish it. We suppose that she will, with Edward and Elinor’s assistance, start a village school, and promote schemes for relieving poverty and distress in Delaford parish. It is likely that she will be the great lady of a large neighbourhood, since Colonel Brandon’s sister, wife of the proprietor of Whitewell, is an invalid living abroad with her husband. But one can do only so much on £2000 a year: the “confederacy against her” will see that her expenditures do not exceed her means. Dinners, balls, parties on the water will be conducted with elegance and taste, but without extravagance.
The Brandons’ income permits a yearly visit to London (concerts, theatre, the opera) and occasional “tours of pleasure.” The Colonel will certainly buy his wife a horse.
“Domestic comfort and the quiet of private life” do not, in Jane Austen’s mind, imply a parasitic and indolent existence. She thought that people should spend what they could, and condemned the “illiberality” of misers such as Mrs. Norris. Ladies ought to keep busy, both in service to others and in the improvement of their minds. It is Marianne who tells us that Colonel Brandon (like Mr. Darcy) keeps his library up-to-date. Edward predicts that, when in possession of a fortune, Marianne would send “magnificent orders” to London for music.
Sense and Sensibility ends with Marianne in a fair way to lead “a godly, righteous and sober life,” and have a lot of fun, too.