Persuasions #9, 1987                                                                                                                                            Pages 17-22


All the “Write” Moves: or, Theatrical Gesture in Sense and Sensibility



Department of English, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta T6G 2E5


Apart from Love and Freindship with its obvious histrionics, Sense and Sensibility is the most theatrical of all Jane Austen’s novels.  Not even in the rehearsals of the amateur theatricals in Mansfield Park do we find gestures – the universal language of the emotions – so much aligned with conventional theatrical gesture, as observed on the contemporary stages and discussed so extensively in the acting theories of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.  John Hill in The Actor: A Treatise on the Art of Playing (1750)1 deals with the actor’s ideal as well as actual approach to and execution of a role.  His analysis includes criticism as well as discussion of contemporary acting techniques, both physical and vocal.  Henry Siddons’s translation and adaptation of Engel’s work entitled Practical Illustrations of Rhetorical Gesture and Action; adapted to the English Drama (first published in 1807)2 deals with physical gestures as manifestations of emotional states and the actors’ demonstration of such conventional gestures on the stage.  Charles Le Brun’s Method to learn to Design the Passions (translated in 1734)3 is a treatise on facial expressions written primarily for painters but used by actors and theorists.

Most theorists recognized the countenance as the primary signifier of emotion, but John Hill explains that “A judicious regulation in the attitude, gestures and manner of the player is as necessary, and of as much consequence to the truth of his action, as all that can be done by the countenance ….  Gestures have a determinate signification, as much as words; and, when properly apply’d, they add a vast deal of life and force to the action” (167).  The gestures of Jane Austen’s “players” in Sense and Sensibility (I include facial gestures in my definition of gesture as “an action expressive of sentiment or passion”4) are so well defined that the “truth of their action” delineates the emotions of her characters, even when words often conceal the truth of their feelings.  And it is Jane Austen’s use of easily recognized and well-recorded stage gestures that offers us, the audience, a clue to the natures of our heroines, Elinor and Marianne, and their fellow “dramatis personae.”

The techniques of what Joseph Donahue calls the “Romantic school” of actings5 are explained by Henry Siddons.  He informs us that the “countenance is the principal seat of the movements of the soul – the most eloquent parts of the visage are the eyes, the eyebrows, the forehead, the mouth, the nose; in short, the whole head, as well as the neck, the shoulders, the hands, and the feet: there is no change of posture which may not have its particular expression or indication” (21-22).  Among the physiological gestures, Siddons lists “the tears of grief, the paleness of fear, and the blush of shame or modesty” (44) which, he says, are involuntary, and he dispenses “with these involuntary variations in the comedian” (45).  I shall not dispense with such “variations” altogether, as several accounts offer evidence of an actor’s ability to turn pale or blush,6 but I offer only a few examples of Jane Austen’s use of colour changes in the complexion to show the emotional states that her characters would not willingly display if they were not totally absorbed in their roles.

Most of the characters in Sense and Sensibility who have the slightest amount of sensibility are prone to a change of colouring in the face, but Marianne’s ability to indicate the extremities of change shows her to have more sensibility than others.  When Willoughby snubs Marianne at the party her countenance changes from crimson to “dreadfully white” (S&S, 191).7  Willoughby, who appears at first to think “the same” as Marianne and whose “behaviour, at all times, was an illustration of [his] opinions” (84), is not affected as violently as Marianne at their meeting.  His complexion changes “with embarrassment” but he manages to “recover himself again” before he abruptly turns away from her.  Colonel Brandon obviously has more sensibility than Marianne gives him credit for, because his countenance changes colour when he receives the letter which causes him to cancel the party to Whitwell (93) and when he sees Marianne’s altered looks after her illness (332).  Edward also colours when he is embarrassed (120, 123) and even Elinor, who normally has great control over any outward display of emotion, is occasionally susceptible to a “varying complexion,” especially when she is informed of Edward’s engagement to Lucy:


She turned towards Lucy in silent amazement, unable to divine the reason or object of such a declaration, and though her complexion varied, she stood firm in incredulity and felt in no danger of an hysterical fit, or a swoon.  (151)


It is Marianne who has the hysterical fit when, later, they hear of Lucy being married to Mr. Ferrars.  “Marianne gave a violent start, fixed her eyes upon Elinor, saw her turning pale, and fell back in her chair in hysterics.” After witnessing such gestures of passion Mrs. Dashwood, understandably, does not know on which daughter she should “bestow her principal attention” (343-44). 


Figure 1: “She walked eagerly on as she spoke” (113).  Le Brun’s depiction of “Hope.”


 The eye, Siddons tells us, is not only “the most eloquent part of the countenance” (22), but also a strong indicator of love.  When Willoughby “was present [Marianne] had no eyes for any one else” (84), and Elinor notes that Colonel Brandon’s “eyes were fixed on Marianne” (86).  Particular gestures for what Siddons calls the “play of desire” are the motion towards the object of desire, and the fact that the “eyes are more brilliant” (95).  This “play” is certainly evident in Marianne in whose eyes “there was a life, a spirit, an eagerness which could hardly be seen without delight” (78), and the “brightness” of which is particularly apparent when she converses with Willoughby.  Walking through the valley with Elinor and Margaret, about a week after Willoughby has left for town, Marianne thinks she sees him riding towards them and walks “eagerly on.”  Charles Le Brun explains that “when Desire hath taken possession of the Heart, and there is an appearance of obtaining our Wish, then is excited in us the Passion which we call Hope” (36, and fig. 1).  With her hopes at such a height, her disappointment when she sees that it is not Willoughby is bound to be great: “her heart sunk within her; and abruptly turning round, she was hurrying back” (113).  The moment Marianne sees Willoughby at the party she wants to move towards him and, after he turns away, “unable to stand, [she] sunk into her chair” (191).  Even then, Elinor has difficulty restraining her from following him.

Movement towards another person is a sign of affection as well as the stronger emotions of love and desire.  Siddons says that “the natural consequences of intimacy and friendship [are] a tendency to approach and to unite to each other” (10).  At Mrs. Ferrars’s house Marianne is affected by the “cold insolence of Mrs Ferrars’s general behaviour to her sister” and


urged by a strong impulse of affectionate sensibility, she moved, after a moment, to her sister’s chair, and putting one arm round her neck, and one cheek close to hers … her spirits were quite overcome, and hiding her face on Elinor’s shoulder, she burst into tears, … Colonel Brandon rose up and went to them without knowing what he did. (242)


Colonel Brandon might not know what he did but, knowing the meaning behind his gesture, we can understand the signs Jane Austen has given us regarding his feelings for Marianne.




Figure 2 (left): “She continued by the side of her sister with little intermission the whole afternoon” (310).  Siddons’ rendering of “Sickness” (54).  Figure 3 (right): “Elinor sprang back with a look of horror at the sight of him” (312).  Siddons’ rending of “Horror” (24).



Siddons and Le Brun agree that repose will find a man “immovable,” both in countenance and body, while degrees of passion in the soul will, in similar degrees, manifest themselves in physical gesture.  When “doubt and an incertitude between jostling ideas take place” in the soul, the countenance, the walk, and “the play of the hands” will be “agitated” (Siddons, 59-60).  Jane Austen uses degrees of agitated gesture to show the degree of sensibility in her characters.  Having promised Elinor “never to speak of the affair [of Lucy’s engagement to Edward] to any one with the least appearance of bitterness” (265), Marianne can show an “unchanging complexion” but she cannot sit still and moves “from one chair to another” (266).  And on the occasion when Marianne is so upset by Mrs. Ferrars’s behaviour over Elinor’s painted screens, even Sir John, whose gestures mark his congeniality rather than his sensibility, “felt so desperately enraged against the author of this nervous distress, that he instantly changed his seat to one close by Lucy Steele, and gave her, in a whisper, a brief account of the whole shocking affair” (242).  When Edward arrives in Devonshire to ask for Elinor’s hand in marriage, he cannot immediately express himself:


He rose from his seat and walked to the window, apparently from not knowing what to do; took up a pair of scissars that lay there, and while spoiling both them and their sheath by cutting the latter to pieces as he spoke... (349-50).


he tells them of Lucy’s marriage to Robert.  Elinor occasionally walks to the window but her gestures of agitation are much less obvious – she usually picks up her work or her drawing and concentrates on what is in her hands rather than on what is in her heart.  As the novel progresses, however, Elinor’s gestures become more expressive of her sensibility.  After anxious days of caring for her sick sister (fig. 2), Elinor fancies she hears the carriage bringing her mother.  She enters the drawing-room and sees Willoughby.  “Elinor, starting back with a look of horror at the sight of him, obeyed the first impulse of her heart in turning instantly to quit the room …” (312.  See fig. 3).  She is, however, persuaded to stay and hear the explanation of his conduct.  When, finally, Elinor discovers Lucy has married Robert not Edward Ferrars, she “almost ran out of the room, and as soon as the door was closed, burst into tears of joy” (350).

Hands, the principal officers of gesticulation, are exceedingly eloquent in the “Romantic school” of acting; for, says Siddons, “the hand is the general instrument of the mind … [and] the tongue of hearty good will.”  Grasping, clasping, and pressing hands show love and affection, while offering a hand usually shows friendship and often forgiveness.  Shaking hands is a gesture “rich in signification” and “there are so many expressions in shaking the hand by which we discover the disposition towards us” (Siddons, 163-64).  Marianne pronounces Willoughby’s “name in a tone of affection, [and] held out her hand to him” (190) at the party.  Willoughby’s refusal of her hand at first and the pain it causes him to hold her hand even for a moment indicate the confusion, embarrassment, and guilt he feels at this meeting.  Mrs. Dashwood, with a sign of affection for Elinor and her wishes, gives Edward her hand even when she believes he is married to Lucy.  The absence of gesture at this moment is equally effective: “Elinor’s lips had moved with her mother’s, [but] when the moment of action was over, she wished that she had shaken hands with him too” (349).  While the pressing of a hand is obviously hard to perceive on stage, the ways in which a hand is given or taken prior to the act of pressing reveal the emotional state of the characters concerned.  When Willoughby rouses himself to leave after his sudden appearance at Cleveland, “he held out his hand, [Elinor] could not refuse to give him her’s; – he pressed it with affection” (324).  And while Colonel Brandon only takes the time to press Elinor’s hand “with a look of solemnity, and a few words spoken too low to reach her ear” (307) before he leaves to fetch Mrs. Dashwood to Marianne’s sickbed, we can understand the rich signification of his gesture and appreciate, as Elinor does, the haste of it.  Marianne’s offer of her “pale hand” to Brandon immediately he enters her room on his return is taken not only in the emotion of “seeing her altered looks” (332) but because of its being offered – a sure sign of affection.

“The truth of expression in the player depends,” says John Hill, “upon the whole, on the truth of the action, and on that of the recitation” (158).  There are gestures, such as those we have been looking at, which display the “truth of expression” of particular characters; and then there are gestures which are obviously studied for their effect, revealing the insincerity of the characters performing them.  Such gestures are those displayed by Lucy Steele and Robert Ferrars.  When Lucy sits with Elinor to tell her about her secret engagement to Edward, knowing from inferences made by Sir John and his family that Elinor cares for Edward, she watches the effect of her narrative, “eyeing Elinor attentively.”  And when she looks down with studied “amiable bashful[ness], with only one side glance at her companion” (150), we know she is affecting the emotions she displays.  A truly bashful person, says Siddons, fixes his eyes “to the earth” and does not have “force enough to make him raise them up again to the height of the face of his adversary, and less to that of his eyes” (173); yet Lucy fixes her eyes upon Elinor when she tells her it is Edward with whom she is "acquainted.”  Elinor seems to recognize this affectation and when Lucy takes out her handkerchief to wipe her eyes, wondering that her “heart is not quite broke,” Elinor “did not feel very compassionate” (154).  She is moved to compassion more by Willoughby’s unaffected display of emotion when, at Cleveland, he explains his conduct than by Lucy’s gestures with handkerchiefs and letters.  In Robert’s bows, Elinor sees “exactly the coxcomb she had heard him described to be by Lucy” (254), and his immoderate laughter at poor Edward’s misfortune “could not restrain her eyes from being fixed on him with a look that spoke all the contempt it excited” (296).  How different is the laughter of Mrs. Palmer, Mrs. Jennings, and Sir John and the polite, but sincere, bows of Mr. Palmer.

Jane Austen’s use of conventional theatrical gestures to show “the truth of expression” and “the truth of action” in her characters also serves her well in her representations of sense and sensibility.  She shows that Elinor does not lack sensibility but that her nature does not allow her to demonstrate its full force.  Marianne, on the other hand, demonstrates her sensibility too actively and suffers accordingly.  Elinor uses sense to keep her sensibility in control but such control prevents her audience from discovering what she feels.  When, finally, her sensibility overcomes her reason and she reveals how much she cares for Edward, Mrs. Dashwood finds “that she had erred in relying on Elinor’s representation of herself” and fears that “she had been unjust, inattentive, nay, almost unkind, to her Elinor” (345-46).  It is fortunate that, as an audience, we have Jane Austen’s representation of Elinor’s character.  Elinor had been too judicious in the regulation of her manner for her on-stage audience to comprehend the true nature of her feelings.  Jane Austen’s “judicious regulation,” however, of the “attitudes, gestures and manners of [her] players” (Hill, 167) adds “a vast deal of life and force” to her novel Sense and Sensibility.





1 John Hill’s treatise was revised in 1755, but I use the 1750 edition reprinted by Benjamin Blom Inc., 1971.


2 All quotations from Henry Siddons’s work are from the second edition, 1822 (New York: Benjamin Blom Inc., 1968).


3 The Augustan Reprint Society.  Publication Numbers 200-01 (Los Angeles: University of California, 1980).


4 Chambers Twentieth Century Dictionary, 1977.


5 Dramatic Character in the English Romantic Age (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1970), p. 245.


6 Sarah Siddons, for example, had the power to be so completely absorbed by her character’s passions that she would remain pale and in tears long after the performance had ended.  Actors on Acting, eds. Toby Cole and Helen Krich Chinoy.  (New York: Crown Publishers, 1970), p. 141.


7 I use the Penguin Books edition of Sense and Sensibility, 1982.

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