PERSUASIONS ON-LINE V.28, NO.1 (Winter 2007)
How Masculinity Plays: Effects of Musicianship in the 1995 Film Adaptation of Sense and Sensibility

Sarah R. Wakefield

Sarah R. Wakefield (email: is an assistant professor of English at Prairie View A & M University, where she teaches composition, literature, and film.  Her publications include a 2006 book on folklore in British women's fiction, and her current research focuses on the role of music in film adaptations of Victorian novels.


Readers of Sense and Sensibility frequently complain at Marianne Dashwood’s fate, marriage to the grave Colonel Brandon.  Marianne “was born to overcome an affection formed so late in life as at seventeen, and with no sentiment superior to strong esteem and lively friendship, voluntarily to give her hand to another!” (378) reports the narrator with a gentle mockery.  Despite the fact that conduct books of the day advised girls to marry where they felt regard and gratitude, the devoted soldier remains an object of disappointment for fans of the sentimental Dashwood sister.


The 1995 movie adaptation of Sense and Sensibility brought, however, a favorable reversal in opinion.  Directed by Ang Lee with an Oscar-winning screenplay by actress Emma Thompson, the film cast Alan Rickman as the man destined to marry Marianne and revised the Colonel’s character.  Those who preferred a more emotive masculinity approved of the changes. In a collection on film adaptations of Austen, Linda Troost and Sayre Greenfield caption a close-up of Rickman as “exuding danger, mystery, and barely controlled passion—a very different figure from the stolid character Austen created.”


Alan Rickman as Colonel Brandon (publicity photo)


How could Marianne Dashwood—or moviegoers—resist?  Brandon, handsome, thoughtful, and wealthy, now shares the heroine’s musical skills as well.  Typically adaptations of literary works change details of the original texts, yet of all avenues of transformation, associating the hero with the piano represents one of the least appropriate for both Augustan culture and the Austen canon.  Rather than being a simple anachronism, as Robynn J. Stillwell observes, piano-playing calls into question Brandon’s fitness as a match for Marianne.  In Austen’s novels, especially in Sense and Sensibility and Emma, male musicians rank among the least desirable husbands, and the piano figures as a means of deception.  From the standpoint of the novel, for Colonel Brandon to play the instrument strikes a blow to his status as a model of the wealthy and eligible man, yet exactly the opposite is true from the perspective of the modern movie audience, accustomed to screen romance fostered through attraction and mutual interests.  Though musicianship destabilizes masculinity in 1811, it becomes a crucial component of the Colonel’s appeal in 1995.


England’s social discourses at the turn of the nineteenth century clearly discouraged gentlemen from dabbling in music.  Playing the piano was “considered a task only fit for ladies and professional musicians” (Burgan 59), so being musical endangered both gender and class status, particularly, we might imagine, for Brandon, an army officer living comfortably on £2,000 a year.  Emily Auerbach explains that throughout the eighteenth century “professional musicians had little more social status than ordinary servants” in England (9).  To break into the field, a performer often had to complete an apprenticeship (McVeigh, Concert 184).  Aside from its association with labor, musicianship held further dangers for upper-class masculinity.  As far back as Some Thoughts Concerning Education in 1693, John Locke had ranked music as the least desirable accomplishment for a man since it squanders time (Burgan 59).  John Newbery (1788) declared that music has the power to “enervate the mind” (Auerbach 10), and even Samuel Johnson reportedly announced at a dinner party that “no man of talent or whose mind was capable of better things, ever would or could devote his time and attention to so idle and frivolous a pursuit,” although he took back his remark as “nonsense” when a young lady mentioned King David, whose youthful skills at the harp cheered Saul during war (Boswell 503).  Overall, therefore, an English gentleman who wanted to be known for gentility and manliness would avoid musical performance.


Yet both the fashionable bourgeoisie and upper echelons in London patronized subscription concerts in the 1790s.  At the invitation of Johann Saloman, a transplanted German violinist, Joseph Haydn premiered some of his best-known works, including twelve new symphonies, during visits to England in 1791-1792 and 1794-1795.  Like George Handel and Johann Christian Bach in previous decades, Haydn came to England from abroad, and without a doubt their foreignness added to their popularity and ameliorated the low associations of their profession.  Native gentleman singers might join one of the amateur glee clubs that started during the 1790s musical vogue (McVeigh, Concert 8), but in private, household concerts, “while many ladies approached a professional standard on the keyboard very few gentlemen had the application or the inclination to achieve anything comparable” (45).  What’s more, by 1800, concerts fell out of style as society embraced modesty and utility as preferred virtues (68).  The highest mark of class, as well as masculinity, remained the ability to patronize rather than to perform.


As for Jane Austen herself, she both performed and patronized.  She took lessons from George William Chard, who became the organist of Winchester Cathedral, and accumulated an impressive collection of sheet music.  Her letters also indicate attendance at many concerts (some of which she even enjoyed) and at least one experience with a male musician.  In late 1815, Dr. Charles Haden cared for Austen’s brother Henry in London and won her poetic praise as “a sort of wonderful nondescript Creature on two legs, something between a Man & an Angel(2 December 1815).  The physician knew the arts well, having married the daughter of famed singer Samuel Harrison; with Charles Knyvett, he performed a successful Vocal Concert series in 1792 (McVeigh, “Society” 148).  Haden also sang, but the Austen household could not prevail upon him to perform without a proper accompaniment.  He did offer an opinion, however, that struck Jane Austen powerfully.  At the close of her 24 November 1815 letter to sister Cassandra, she confides, “I have been listening to dreadful Insanity.—It is Mr Haden’s firm beleif that a person not musical is fit for every sort of Wickedness.—I ventured to assert a little on the other side, but wished the cause in abler hands.—”  While “the other side” could mean that one who shuns music is not wicked, that the musical are more capable of evil, or that musical aptitude has no bearing on morality, Austen’s portrayal of fictional male musicians leaves little room for uncertainty.  As Kathryn Libin argues, music in the novels “is not just a pleasant domestic activity, but one that offers potential for discord, instability, and deception in an otherwise well-ordered world” (141).  A love of performance in a young man suggests a duplicitous character.


Judging from the textual evidence, one such character is John Willoughby, a musician who behaves without sincerity, modesty, or respect.  In Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, Willoughby, although he does not play the piano, copies scores for Marianne:  “They read, they talked, they sang together; his musical talents were considerable” (48).  That Willoughby has “considerable” skill signals weak character.  According to eighteenth-century conduct books, neglect of talents indicated lack of discipline, so a man would be wrong to shun music if he had skill, yet too much time devoted to any artistic gift rendered an individual “ridiculous” (Fritzer 17).  One need only consider Mary Bennet of Pride and Prejudice for an example of how even a woman expected to perform at the pianoforte could go too far.


Only if a gentleman approached music “to abstract it according to principles of Enlightenment reasoning into a science governed by rules and laws” (Lustig 89) could he escape its feminine associations.  Because Willoughby seems to adore music more for the society of Marianne than for its intellectual charms, his masculinity falters.  Additionally, just as critics of musicianship warn, he fails to show strong character by following up his attentive behavior and intimate moments at the piano with a marriage proposal.  Willoughby exhibits what John Gregory, in his 1774 conduct book, condemns as male coquetry.  Such a practitioner makes it impossible for a lady to “to specify a single expression that could be said to be directly expressive of love” (Gregory 41), and Marianne uncannily echoes the sentiment when she tells Elinor that Willoughby’s love “‘was every day implied, but never professedly declared’” (186).  Readers of the novel certainly may be tempted to connect the gentleman’s lack of true gentility to his musical leanings, especially since another male singer in the Austen canon distinguishes himself in deceit.


In Emma, although Frank Churchill ultimately honors his promises to an impoverished pianist, he too manipulates music and the piano out of self-interest.  Like Willoughby, he sings very well, although he modestly describes himself as “‘without the smallest skill or right of judging any body’s performance’” (201).  He performs several public duets and provokes Mr. Knightley to accuse him of showing off when he begs Jane Fairfax to undertake a third song at the Coles’ party.  Churchill is acting selfishly—here, however, to remain close to Jane rather than to impress the gathering with his voice.  Pianos help him deflect suspicion of their attachment.  For example, Frank helps Emma conclude that, because Mr. Dixon showed a marked preference for Jane’s playing over that of his fiancée—something Miss Woodhouse labels an “‘improper and dangerous distinction’” (202)—that gentleman feels a deep passion for Miss Fairfax and has sent her an expensive pianoforte.  Emma is not alone in the belief that the instrument might reveal a young man’s heart.  Mrs. Weston confides that Mr. Knightley must be in love with Jane because he expresses great concern for her health and compliments her piano playing (226).


Similar to its role in Sense and Sensibility, the piano in Emma serves as a locus for flirtation as well as a tool for misdirection.  Although often prone to dramatic exaggeration, Emma rightly accuses Mr. Churchill of behaving “‘[m]uch, much beyond impropriety’” (397) when she learns about the secret engagement.  Knightley (albeit out of concern for Emma) brands him an “‘[a]bominable scoundrel’” and “‘disgrace to the name of man’” (426).  Attractive and young, like many of the ladies who perform at the pianoforte to attract husbands, both Churchill and Willoughby reveal themselves as false and cruel to women who adore them.  Their ardent enjoyment of singing, and in the case of Frank Churchill, abuse of the piano, reinforce their masculine shortcomings.


In contrast, the ideal man displays not musical virtuosity but rather sincerity, respect, modesty, and duty.  Above all, Austen’s novels stress that a man ought to be active since too much leisure cripples many characters.  In Sense and Sensibility, Mr. Palmer “idled away the mornings at billiards, which ought to have been devoted to business” (305), and Edward Ferrars characterizes his proposal to Lucy Steele as “‘a foolish, idle inclination’” encouraged by lack of “‘some active profession’” (362).  Mr. Knightley, appropriately busy as a magistrate and farmer, criticizes Frank Churchill in Emma, saying, “‘He cannot want money—he cannot want leisure.  We know, on the contrary, that he has so much of both, that he is glad to get rid of them at the idlest haunts in the kingdom” (146).  Because music could not be a gentleman’s profession, piano playing, like billiards, threatens conventional masculinities by encouraging leisure over important matters of business, law, or farming.


In contrast to idlers like Frank Churchill and John Willoughby, Austen’s Colonel Brandon embodies a model masculinity.  He fulfills the requirement of a profession, having served in East Indies for several years.  More significant, embracing what Marilyn Butler calls “Christian self-examination” (189), he questions his every motive for the impact of his actions on others.  Before telling Elinor about Eliza and Willoughby, Brandon wonders aloud if he should speak, and after the story he points out that he thinks only of soothing Marianne.  Most tellingly, his behavior towards his beloved follows the conduct book pattern as laid out by John Gregory:  “True love, in all its stages, seeks concealment, and never expects success” (34).  Colonel Brandon betrays his affection only by small signs, such as at a gathering at Barton Park when “his eyes were fixed on Marianne” (55).  He actually treats the young lady with apparent indifference, taking the time to bid Elinor farewell before he leaves for London while “[t]o Marianne, he merely bowed and said nothing” (66).  Later, after Marianne softens towards him and begins to speak to him following her break with Willoughby, he still converses primarily with Elinor.  Even when he confesses his love to Mrs. Dashwood, he seems “‘too diffident of himself to believe, that with such a difference of age and disposition, he could ever attach her’” (338).  In complete contrast to John Willoughby, who confesses to “‘trying to engage [Marianne’s] regard, without a thought of returning it’” (320), Brandon waits and watches while Elinor pities his quiet suffering.


In fact, Elinor, through whose eyes readers gain most of their perspective on the Colonel, steadfastly admires the gentleman despite his dullness.  Early in the novel, she defends him from the jests of Willoughby and Marianne by pronouncing, “‘He has seen a great deal of the world; has been abroad; has read, and has a thinking mind.  I have found him capable of giving me much information on various subjects, and he has always answered my inquiries with the readiness of good-breeding and good nature’” (51).  Clearly Brandon neither sings nor indulges in effeminate, class-inappropriate piano playing.


The piano itself appears only once in relation to the novel’s Colonel.  When he hears Marianne play, he merely pays “attention” (35).  The narrator even notes how the performer appreciates Brandon’s taste:  “His pleasure in music, though it amounted not to that extatic delight which alone could sympathize with her own, was estimable when contrasted against the horrible insensibility of the others” (35).  Far from the behavior of Willoughby and Churchill, active participants in any musical entertainment, the Colonel of the novel plays the appropriate upper-class role of attentive listener, a sign of his superior masculinity.


The novel thus emphasizes Brandon’s gravitas as it sets him forth as a model man, but “strong and silent” is insufficient to charm a modern movie audience.  In the 1995 film adaptation of Sense and Sensibility, measured approbation falls away in favor of a more Byronic vision of the scene in which the Colonel hears Marianne at the pianoforte.  An enraptured Colonel Brandon, in his first appearance onscreen, watches from the shadowed doorway, gazing at Marianne with “an expression of pained surprise,” “melancholy, brooding eyes,” and “an unfathomable look of grief and longing” (Thompson 71).  Brandon meets—and presumably falls for—Marianne when she plays the piano.  According to the DVD commentary by Emma Thompson and producer Lindsay Doran, an earlier version of the scene, vetoed by the film’s male director and co-producer, even called for Colonel Brandon to join Marianne in an impromptu duet!  Even though he does not sing here, that Brandon reacts, strongly and visibly, to the piano performance already sets him apart from his novelistic counterpart.  His emotional response here is not as problematic, however, as the fact that in the movie, he also is a performer.


The film sets up the Colonel’s musical talents through several small revisions to the novel text.  First, Thompson’s screenplay requires that Marianne leave her pianoforte behind when the women move to Barton Cottage, whereas Austen clearly states that Marianne’s instrument arrives safely from Norland (30).  Onscreen, Marianne can play the pianoforte only in the home of Sir John Middleton.  Therefore although the movie’s Willoughby and Marianne adore wildflowers and Shakespearean sonnets, the two never sing together since no piano is readily available.  Additionally, no one ever mentions that Willoughby has the slightest aptitude for music.  The crucial, artistic bond between the young lady and her first love vanishes, and the private intimacy of sitting together at an instrument is replaced by much more public and—to the film viewer, perhaps more clearly inappropriate—reckless carriage rides through the village.


After stripping Willoughby of his musical inclinations, the film then bestows them on Brandon, alienating him further from Austen’s preferred, moderate masculinity.  The film establishes Marianne as the sole female artist and Brandon as the only male one, and a talented one at that.  When busybody Mrs. Jennings schemes to match her neighbors, she reveals his talent.  “We have not heard you play for us of late. . . . He plays the pianoforte very well. . . . Come, I’ll trow you know as many melancholy tunes as Miss Marianne.  You must play us a duet!  Let us see you both side by side!” she teases, much to the embarrassment of both parties. 


Marianne and Colonel Brandon react to Mrs. Jennings’s proposal.


Marianne, who moments before has been smiling and chatting with Brandon, becomes haughty and claims to know no duets, and the Colonel fidgets with his hat, grimaces, and avoids all eye contact.  In contrast to its use for deceit in the novels Sense and Sensibility and Emma, in the film the piano is thus depicted as a positive, intimate space where duets might encourage bashful suitors.  As Julian North rightly concludes, in the film version, “Brandon has been the hero of sensibility all along, and Marianne gets her Willoughby after all” (47-48).


Another departure from the novel further emphasizes Brandon’s ties to music.  In the Colonel’s presence, Willoughby mentions to Marianne that the soldier owns a fine Broadwood Grand.  In the early nineteenth century, Broadwood enjoyed status as the finest manufacturer, connoting taste and high social standing (Burgan 54).  A Grand, with its six-octave range, cost 70 guineas in the 1790s, compared to just 20 for the least expensive square model (Wainwright 677), indicating that Brandon would have to be either serious about his music or determined to impress local society.  Both scenarios clash with the picture of a modest masculinity, but the possession appeals to the film’s feminine subject.  Marianne reacts joyfully to the brand-name:  “A Broadwood Grand?  Then I shall really be able to play for you all!”  She then rides off with Willoughby, and the performance never materializes.  That Marianne, a musician, is too blind to recognize the merits of a fellow performer neatly reinforces for the modern audience that she has chosen the wrong suitor.


Her choice lands on Brandon at last.  In the novel, Moreland Perkins argues, the narrator glosses over Marianne’s change of heart because it cannot be shown convincingly (193).  The film fills in these blanks, first with the Colonel reading The Faerie Queene to the convalescent Marianne with “a soul-breathing glance” (Thompson 187).  When he closes the book and announces he must leave, she protests, “You will not stay away long?”


Marianne reveals her change of heart.


Next, in a grand romantic gesture, a pianoforte and sheet music arrive unexpectedly from London.  The present proves Brandon by today’s standards to be a considerate suitor, for the accompanying letter reads, “At last I have found a small enough instrument to fit the parlor.  I shall follow in a day or two by which time I expect you to have learnt the enclosed.”  The note suggests a long search for the perfect pianoforte and also puts the sender himself forward as instructor and another parlor fixture.  For an even bolder touch, the enclosed tune, with lyrics from Ben Jonson’s “The Dream,” explores the singer’s sudden realization of love and the need to confess it:


Or scorn or pity on me take,

I must the true relation make:

I am undone tonight:

Love, in a subtle dream disguised,

Hath both my heart and me surprised.  (1-5)


The Colonel indirectly requests that Marianne acknowledge her affection for him when he asks her to learn the song.  Far from Austen’s version of the character, who almost never speaks to Marianne in the text, the commanding Brandon of the film has expectations.


Marianne begins to learn the music Colonel Brandon has sent with the pianoforte.


Yet in the novels Sense and Sensibility and Emma, costly gifts, especially surprises, smack of impropriety.  Willoughby presents Marianne with a horse, and Elinor, shocked, convinces her sister to refuse.  When Jane Fairfax receives her Broadwood pianoforte, Mr. Knightley objects not to the present per se—he, like most of Highbury, believes that Colonel Campbell, Miss Fairfax’s surrogate father, sent the instrument, and so close a connection prompts no talk of indecency—but to the manner in which the piano arrives.  Surprises unnerve the recipient; a man of “‘better judgment’” would give advance notice (228).  The only other piano bestowed in the Austen canon goes to Georgiana Darcy, as a gift from her brother when she comes to Pemberley for the summer.  Ideal men do not give expensive presents, especially without warning.  Brandon’s sending the instrument directly to the Dashwood home therefore would in Austen’s world class him with the thoughtless Willoughby and Churchill.


Even though the changes to the Colonel violate Jane Austen’s norms, they satisfy the demands of 1990s masculinity.  Typically the novels’ heroes are reserved, rising above rivals through their mastery of feeling (Nixon 25).  In the 1790s, the sentimental hero retained charm as a cherished tradition (Johnson 153), but he fell from favor over the next decade.  English society came to view the man of sensibility, with his weeping and tender feelings, as “demoralizing, anti-Christian and childishly French” (Todd 131).  By contrast, the 1990s film audience expected a man unafraid to show his vulnerability.  Susan Jeffords, looking at changes in cinematic representations of masculinity from the 1980s to the 1990s, writes that emotion replaced action as the hero’s motivating force and that he sought connection rather than combat (245).  Brandon’s talent at the piano provides by modern standards a perfect connection to Marianne:  artistic, expressive, and cultured.


Cheryl Nixon claims that Austen’s “notions of masculinity are unbalanced by our revisions of her novels” (28), and Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility indeed knocks askew the novel’s portrait of manliness.  Brandon’s new musical inclinations might have raised more than one eyebrow among Jane Austen’s 1811 audience, but today those moments involving the piano add to his appeal and help explain Marianne’s change of heart.  Perhaps the Colonel’s added charms suffice; perhaps scrupulous readers can overlook his rumored musical skills and gift of a pianoforte, both so improper for an Augustan gentleman and so dangerous for a character in an Austen novel.  And perhaps, just as a precaution to ensure domestic bliss, the cinematic Marianne Brandon ought to convince her new husband that their household needs only one (female) pianist.



Works Cited


Auerbach, Emily.  Maestros, Dilettantes, and Philistines: The Musician in the Victorian Novel.  New York: Lang, 1990.

Austen, Jane.  Jane Austen’s Letters.  Ed. R. W. Chapman.  Oxford: OUP, 1952.

_____.  The Novels of Jane Austen.  Ed. R. W. Chapman.  3rd ed.  Oxford: OUP, 1933-69.

Boswell, James.  The Life of Samuel Johnson Ed. John Wilson Croker.  Boston, 1832.

Burgan, Mary.  “Heroines at the Piano: Women and Music in Nineteenth-Century Fiction.”  Victorian Studies 30 (1986): 52-76.

Butler, Marilyn.  Jane Austen and the War of Ideas.  Rev. ed.  Oxford: OUP, 1987.

Fritzer, Penelope Joan.  Jane Austen and Eighteenth-Century Courtesy Books.  Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1997.

Gregory, John.  A Father’s Legacy to His DaughtersThe Young Lady’s Pocket Library, or, Parental Monitor.  1790.  Bristol: Thoemmes, 1995.

Jeffords, Susan.  “Can Masculinity Be Terminated?”  Screening the Male: Exploring Masculinities in Hollywood Cinema.  Ed. Steven Cohan and Ina Rae Hawk.  New York: Routledge, 1993.  245-62.

Johnson, Claudia L.  “‘Not at All What a Man Should Be!’ Remaking English Manhood in Emma.”  Critical Essays on Jane Austen.  Ed. Laura Mooneyham White.  New York: Hall, 1998.  146-59.

Jonson, Ben.  “The Dream.”  Rpt. in Ben Jonson and the Cavalier Poets.  Ed. Hugh Maclean.  New York: Norton, 1974. 58.

Libin, Kathryn L.  “Lifting the Heart to Rapture: Harmony, Nature, and the Unmusical Fanny Price.”  Persuasions 28 (2006): 137-49.

Lustig, Jodi.  “The Piano’s Progress: The Piano in Play in the Victorian Novel.”  The Idea of Music in Victorian Fiction.  Ed. Sophie Fuller and Nicky Losseff.  Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2004.  83-104.

McVeigh, Simon.  Concert Life in London from Mozart to Haydn.  Cambridge: CUP, 1993.

_____.  “The Society of British Musicians (1834-1865) and the Campaign for Native Talent.”  Music and British Culture, 1785-1914.  Ed. Christina Bashford and Leanne Langley.  Oxford: OUP, 2000.  145-68.

Nixon, Cheryl L.  “Balancing the Courtship Hero: Masculine Emotional Display in Film Adaptations of Austen’s Novels.”  Troost and Greenfield 22-43.

North, Julian.  “Conservative Austen, Radical Austen: Sense and Sensibility from Text to Screen.”  Adaptations: From Text to Screen, Screen to Text.  Ed. Deborah Cartmell and Imelda Whelehan.  New York: Routledge, 1999.  38-50.

Perkins, Moreland.  Reshaping the Sexes in Sense and Sensibility.  Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1998.

Sense and Sensibility.  Dir. Ang Lee.  Perf. Emma Thompson, Alan Rickman, Kate Winslet, and Hugh Grant.  DVD.  Columbia, 1995.

Stillwell, Robynn J.  “Sense & Sensibility: Form, Genre, and Function in the Film Score.”  Acta Musicologica 72 (2000): 219-40.

Thompson, Emma.  The Sense and Sensibility Screenplay and Diaries: Bringing Jane Austen’s Novel to Film.  New York: Newmarket, 1996.

Todd, Janet.  Sensibility: An Introduction New York: Methuen, 1986.

Troost, Linda, and Sayre Greenfield, eds.  Jane Austen in Hollywood.  Lexington: U of Kentucky P, 1998.

Wainwright, David.  “John Broadwood, the Harpsichord and the Piano.”  The Musical Times 123.1676 (Oct. 1982): 675-78.

Back to Persuasions On-Line Table of Contents

Return to Home Page