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The Immortality of Sense and Sensibility: Margaret’s Tree House, Edward’s Handkerchief, Marianne’s Rescue

William Wordsworth’s “Ode:  Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood,” the partial inspiration of JASNA’s 2017 conference theme, imagines humankind’s prehistory as well as our journey through life:  we come into this world “trailing clouds of glory” (65), seeing a world “[a]pparelled in celestial light” (4).  The poem mourns the loss of that vision through our growth toward adulthood and its “earthly freight” of “custom” (129-30).  It also celebrates our compensatory ability to remember, our “shadowy recollections” (151) of all that we’re losing, those “[f]allings from us, vanishings” (145).  I’d like to use Wordsworth’s notion as a way of mapping at least partially the prehistory as well as the afterlife of Sense and Sensibility, to achieve an understanding of some of what Jane Austen brought to the writing of her novel as well as some of what’s happened in the two centuries since.  I’ll admit that Wordsworth’s poem provides an imperfect analogy only.  I’m certainly not suggesting that the novel’s prehistory is any kind of “glory” (5, 18).  And though I will confess that I believe in the superiority of Austen’s novel to the adaptations that have followed, I’m more interested in thinking about the changes they make, the understanding of Sense and Sensibility that seems to be developing.  

My thinking actually began when over the past year and a half I saw two stage versions of Sense and Sensibility—one a frequently produced version by Jon Jory, this time staged at Theatre Memphis, and the other by Kate Hamill, produced by Bedlam at both the Gym at Judson in New York City and the Folger Theatre in Washington, D.C.  I was struck by the obvious links to Emma Thompson’s 1995 film version of Sense and Sensibility, directed by Ang Lee, in these wildly different adaptations.  They both repeat elements not found in Austen’s novel—elements that, it seems, have now become attached to our collective memory of what constitutes Sense and Sensibility.  If we acknowledge that Austen’s novel itself is to some extent an adaptation, we invite an understanding of the novel’s identity as cumulative, and it might be worthwhile to think about the questions raised by that new identity.

In addition to Jane West’s A Gossip’s Story, identified by J. M. S. Tompkins in 1931 as “an embryo Sense and Sensibility” (Popular Novel 99), I will consider Mrs. Francis Brown’s 1929 continuation, Margaret Dashwood, or Interference; the 2000 Tamil-language adaptation, Kandukondain, Kandukondain; the 2007 BBC/WGBH version written by Andrew Davies; the two stage versions already mentioned, Jory’s, published in 2010, and Hamill’s in 2016; and a 2013 novel, Joanna Trollope’s contemporary update for The Austen Project.1

Although Austen family tradition dates the composition of what was then titled “Elinor and Marianne” to 1795, it’s difficult to imagine that Jane Austen hadn’t read—and read closely—Jane West’s A Gossip’s Story, published in 1796, before she began composition.  The connections are striking.

Like Sense and Sensibility, A Gossip’s Story sets up two sisters as opposites, principally due to their different educations.  Louisa, with “features . . . more agreeable than beautiful” (16), possesses “an informed, well-regulated mind” (17).  Marianne’s beauty, like that of the heroine of sensibility, is read as the outward sign of her inward self:  “Her features were formed with delicate symmetry, her blue eyes swam in sensibility, and the beautiful transparency of her complexion seemed designed to convey to the admiring beholder every varying sentiment of her mind” (17).  She is a female Quixote, “an attentive reader of memoirs and adventures,” who has internalized “all the soft feelings and highly refined sensibilities of the respective heroines” (26–27).

In West’s novel the courtship narratives are also set up in oppositional terms.  Mr. Pelham, rejected because he doesn’t satisfy Marianne’s expectations of “that kneeling ecstatick tenderness, that restless solicitude, that profound veneration” characteristic of “men, who really love,” displays “manly sense,” and is devoted to duty, integrity, and fortitude (29–30).  Instead, Marianne finds a lover in Clermont, who rescues her from an accident; Clermont—a name out of the pages of romance—is styled her “preserver” (115), the very word Margaret Dashwood uses to describe Willoughby (SS 55).  Like Austen’s Marianne and Willoughby, West’s Marianne and Clermont are propelled by tastes “strikingly alike” (SS 56):

Never was such a wonderful coincidence of opinion!  Both were passionate admirers of the country; both loved moonlight walks, and the noise of distant waterfalls; both were enchanted by the sound of the sweet-toned harp, and the almost equally soft cadence of the pastoral and elegiack muse; in short, whatever was passionate, elegant, and sentimental in art; or beautiful, pensive, and enchanting in nature.  (Gossip’s Story 117)

In accord with the conventions of the didactic, anti-Jacobin novel of the 1790s, Marianne’s marriage to Clermont is a failure.  On the other hand, Louisa admires and then loves Pelham but, like Austen’s Elinor, outwardly represses her love until, late in the novel, at the deathbed of her father, Pelham discovers a love for her.

In addition to the plot involving the paired heroines, Sense and Sensibility echoes A Gossip’s Story in other, less central ways.  Louisa’s initial suitor, Sir William Middleton, has, Willoughby-like, seduced a Miss Morton and had two children by her.  The novel also considers the relative values of “wealth” and “competence” and treats with irony the sentimental image of the cottage.  Further, even some of the texture of Austen’s novel—its contrast between the quiet sufferings of Elinor and the raucous gossiping of Barton Park and London—may be derived from A Gossip’s Story:  West’s novel is narrated by Mrs. Prudentia Homespun, one of a group of local spinsters known as “the scandalous club” (9).  Gossip and rumor help to power the tragic arc of West’s marriage plot.2

But the differences between West’s novel and Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, published fifteen years later, in 1811, might be more revealing.  Tompkins sees A Gossip’s Story as “not exactly the source but the starting-point of Sense and Sensibility,” in fact “a rescue expedition” (“Elinor and Marianne” 33, 38).  “Elinor and Marianne,” Austen’s original title, emphasizes individual relationships and gestures toward character, perhaps toward psychological complexity, much more than does the oppositional and abstract Sense and Sensibility.  Austen’s heroines are not West’s simple opposites, her minor characters not merely black or white figures designed to expose the heroines’ flaws or virtues.  While Mrs. West announces that “moral improvement is the avowed end” of her novel (5), Jane Austen is about something more complex, resistant to easy encapsulation—perhaps the very quality that encourages adaptation.

Indeed, Austen’s initial readers responded to her creation of character.  Charlotte, Princess of Wales, reacted enthusiastically: “you feel quite one of the company.  I think Maryanne & me are very like in disposition, that certainly I am not so good, the same imprudence, &c, however remain very like (qtd. in Le Faye 188).  Although The Critical Review and The British Critic acknowledged, respectively, the “excellent lessons . . . , the useful moral” and the “sober and salutary maxims of the conduct of life” conveyed in Sense and Sensibility, The Critical Review noted that the characters were “naturally drawn, and judiciously supported,” while The British Critic praised the author’s “intimate knowledge of life and of the female character” (Critical Review 149; British Critic 527).  Even Jane Austen, in her most specific comment about the novel, focuses on character:  to Cassandra she writes, “I think [Mrs. Knight] will like my Elinor, but cannot build on any thing else” (25 April 1811).

That response to Austen’s creation of character—something she’d pay attention to also in the Opinions of Mansfield Park and Emma that she collected—factored into the creation of and the responses to early adaptations.  The actress Rosina Filippi, in her 1895 introduction to Duologues and Scenes from the Novels of Jane Austen, praises Austen for characters that “assume shape, form, and colour; her plots are human, her people are alive” (vi).  And in a 1930 comment on “Some Characters in Jane Austen Interpreted by Other Hands,” R. Brimley Johnson wrote, “we should be only grateful, I think, for the chance of entering once more into such delightful company” (230).  Adaptations, then, depend on our desire to spend more time with these characters, to engage and re-engage with them in a variety of forms.  Or, as Linda Hutcheon puts it, “[T]he conservative comfort of familiarity is countered by the unpredictable pleasure in difference” (173).

In her new book, The Making of Jane Austen, Devoney Looser points out that the “characterizations and visual patterns [of contemporary film adaptations] are almost always indebted to earlier films, dramatizations, and even book illustrations” (3).  In the case of Sense and Sensibility, we also see film versions informing later stage productions and even novels.  As Hutcheon suggests, “Often, the audience will recognize that a work is an adaptation of more than one specific text” (21).

The first adaptation of Sense and Sensibility listed in David Gilson’s A Bibliography of Jane Austen is Filippi’s collection of scenes, designed to be staged in drawing rooms.  Precisely a century before Austenmania, Filippi urges, “I am convinced that Jane Austen as a play-wright will fascinate her audiences as much as she has her readers as a novelist” (viii).  From Sense and Sensibility Filippi provides the scene in which John and Fanny Dashwood systematically reduce their obligation to the Dashwood women.  The deliciously satiric dialogue makes this scene consistently the most faithfully adapted of the novel.

But it’s the unfaithful that interests me.  It’s clear that, to use a phrase Hutcheon appropriates from Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene, adaptations can have an “infective power” (qtd. in Hutcheon 176).  I’m interested in the way this infection seems to have spread and what it might suggest.  Although there are for obvious reasons many similarities in these adaptations, there are a few patterns that seem particularly insistent:  the loving emphasis on landscape and domestic architecture; the newly vibrant character of Margaret; and the redefinition of the novel’s heroes, culminating in the rewriting of the crisis of the novel, the scene of Marianne’s illness and apparently imminent death. 

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It’s a critical truism that Jane Austen spends little time—particularly compared to some of her contemporaries—describing clothing, interiors, or landscapes.  We hear of Norland Park’s dead leaves, the wood that John Dashwood plans to cut down, the land he wants to enclose.  Barton Valley gets more description as “a pleasant fertile spot, well wooded, and rich in pasture” (33).  Barton Cottage, new, “comfortable and compact,” is depicted, with irony, in terms of what it is not:  “as a cottage it was defective, for the building was regular, the roof was tiled, the window shutters were not painted green, nor were the walls covered with honeysuckles” (33).  The sketch of its size and layout distinguishes it from Norland, and the description of the “[h]igh hills . . . immediately behind, and at no great distance on each side; some of which were open downs, the others cultivated and woody” as well as the prospect that “commanded the whole of the valley, and reached into the country beyond” (34) sets up the scene for Marianne’s fall and allows the ironies of Marianne’s argument with Edward about the picturesque.


Elinor riding with Edward in the 1995 Sense and Sensibility.  

Austen adaptation over the last twenty years is in large degree a romance with the English landscape.  (JASNA’s annual tours of England, in which properties used in film and miniseries often figure, might provide additional evidence for this contention.)  Starting with the Emma Thompson/Ang Lee film, landscape and houses have become central to Austen adaptations.  The 1995 film provides a spring landscape at Norland through which Elinor and Edward can wander on foot and on horseback as their relationship blossoms.  Thompson mentions Lee’s interest in the interiors: “For Ang, the house is as important a character as the women” (237).  The beauty of these scenes predominates.  The shots of Norland’s interiors are gorgeous and elegantly framed, showing high ceilings and doorways that lead to a series of spacious, jewel-toned rooms.  Barton Cottage, though initially gray and overgrown, has its own beauties.  Rather than setting Barton “four miles northward of Exeter” (29), this version moves it to the coastal wetlands where Margaret can play and Marianne can cut rushes.  The cottage’s spaces are smaller than Norland’s but still picturesque, with casement windows opening to the garden.  Though Elinor mentions a chimney that smokes, in a film that feature is unlikely to trouble the viewer.

It’s difficult to over-estimate the impact of the Thompson/Lee film on the adaptations that followed.  In the 2007 BBC version, Norland is larger and more splendid though less beautiful, and the spring chillier, judging by the characters’ wind-whipped cloaks.  Despite Andrew Davies’s insistence on difference, this Barton is even closer to the sea, on what he describes as “the wild north Devon coast,” where the Dashwoods feel “the full force of Atlantic gales” (Interview):  Marianne spins in the rain at the edge of a cliff and falls to a ledge beneath; Elinor withdraws into a sea cave to nurse her pain.  This Barton Cottage is bleaker than its novel and film ancestors—older, with a troublingly uneven roof line, perched on cliffs overlooking the rocky shore, where the crashing waves underscore the Dashwood sisters’ emotional turmoil.  As the family makes its peace with the exile from Norland, they transform the rooms, hanging Elinor’s drawings and paintings on the walls, stringing shells to decorate inside and out (an import, it seems, from the 1995 version).  Other spaces are eroticized:  at Allenham Marianne and Willoughby stroke fabrics and the staircase railing as a prelude to caressing each other; in a complementary scene at Delaford, Brandon leaves Marianne in the library, with a pianoforte, to finger the books and then the keys: “Come and find me when you’re ready,” he tells her.


Margaret hanging shells in the 2007 Sense and Sensibility 

Joanna Trollope’s Sense and Sensibility also highlights and eroticizes the landscape and the stately homes that decorate it.  The novel opens with a description of the “paradise” lost: “gently undulating sweeps of green; . . .romantic but manageable stretches of water; . . . magnificent stands of ancient trees under which sheep and deer decoratively grazed” (3).  Fanny and John’s possession involves the transformation of Norland into something designed and modern (14)—and perhaps into an upmarket bed and breakfast (17).  The Barton landscape—resituated to its original location north of Exeter—is remarkable, “with woods climbing up behind [the cottage], and the forked valleys falling away dramatically in front” (65).  Barton Cottage, however, “raw and new looking,” recently built as a vacation rental, is without romance, notable for “its astonishing situation” and “its uncompromising banality of design” (65).  By contrast “the fairy-tale house of Allenham” appeals to Marianne even before she meets Willoughby:  “something about the romance of that old, quiet house in its valley caught nostalgically at Marianne’s throat and made her abruptly feel tears rising” (86).  Trollope qualifies (if not disrupts) the nostalgic desire for romantic fantasy on the part of characters and readers:  Delaford has been repurposed as a home for those dealing with the problems of addiction; at the end, Mrs. Dashwood, oppressed by the remoteness of Barton and feeling a desire to re-engage with life, plans to move to Exeter (27677).

Even the stage versions find a way to evoke the audience’s fantasy relationship to the landscape they can’t see, despite the suggestive, moveable windows that fluidly define space.  Jory’s stage directions require “blue skies,” and Marianne’s first words are about Norland’s “gardens in bloom” (5); the Bedlam productions of Hamill’s version evoked this England with panoramic photographs of skies and green rolling hills along the walls and scenic flats.  But in the Bedlam version the gesture toward those landscapes was undercut by other aspects of the staging:  “it’s meant to be a bit of a funhouse” (7), Hamill explains, and the furnishings sped and spun across the stage, often while occupied.  Rather than the ordered, traditional world represented by the stately home and its furnishings, the world of this production was impermanent, chaotic, even disorienting.3

Of all these adaptations, Kandukondain, Kandukondain most challenges the way house and landscape come to define and to romanticize relationships.  The film depicts the lushness of the fields around the ancestral home as well as, Bollywood style, transporting characters and viewers in musical fantasy sequences to the pyramids of Egypt and a Scottish castle.  Again the estate’s new owners plan renovations, this time including a coffee bar.  The consequent exile moves the family to an unfriendly cityscape and lives of urban poverty; eventually, however, Sowmya (the Elinor character) earns enough to qualify for a home loan.  When the brother is killed by a falling beam during the renovations of the ancestral home and the women inherit the property, both Sowmya and Meenakshi (the Marianne character) refuse it:  “Men should marry us for who we are, not our possessions or property.  Give this house to some charity.” The rejection of nostalgia for their new independent identities makes Kandukondain, Kandukondain, at least in this regard, closest in spirit to the critique of the economies of the marriage market offered by Austen’s novel.

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The transformation of Margaret provides another means by which to characterize adaptations.  Austen’s Margaret is almost dispensible, certainly summarily dismissed by the narrator:  “Margaret, the other sister, was a good-humoured well-disposed girl; but as she had already imbibed a good deal of Marianne’s romance, without having much of her sense, she did not, at thirteen, bid fair to equal her sisters at a more advanced period of life” (8).  She reveals the existence of a “Mr. F—” to Sir John and Mrs. Jennings, is with Marianne when she falls (but is unable to act usefully), serves as Mrs. Dashwood’s excuse to encourage Elinor and Marianne to London, and maintains a strict silence when Edward Ferrars pays a visit in the novel’s antepenultimate chapter.  At the conclusion we’re told that “fortunately for Sir John and Mrs. Jennings, when Marianne was taken from them, Margaret had reached an age highly suitable for dancing, and not very ineligible for being supposed to have a lover” (431):  in other words, Austen opens fertile ground for another courtship plot.

This path was explored in Margaret Dashwood, or Interference (1929) by Jane Austen’s great-great-niece, Mrs. Francis Brown (born Edith Charlotte Hubback).  Her Margaret Dashwood, now seventeen years old, is “an observer of life”:  “She was the youngest of three daughters, not so accomplished and self-reliant as Elinor, not so handsome and impulsive as Marianne, and less attractive than either, if to be immediately noticed is to be attractive” (1).4  She wants to travel, even, she remembers, “enjoy[ing] the journey” from Norland to Barton (5).  At the end of the novel, Margaret elopes to Scotland to marry a naval officer “employed on a guardship off Malta for some years,” so that “Margaret [has] her wish of travelling” (219).

Emma Thompson’s Margaret is younger than Jane Austen’s—eleven years of age—and also a would-be traveler or, as Edward describes her, “an adventurer.”  At first she’s hidden, withdrawing under a library table, pulling the atlas she’s been studying part-way in after her.  She is verbally forthright, and she energetically fences with Edward.  Her treehouse—which Thompson describes as “palatial” and “Not quite what I had in mind” (217)—is one of the wonders of Norland, suggesting an attempt to create an alternate structure, an alternate world in a society in which houses pass to the men.  One of the improvements made to Barton Cottage by the end of the film is a new treehouse—almost a crow’s nest—for Margaret, who looks from it with her spyglass.

Margarets treehouse

 Margaret's treehouse at Norland in the 1995 Sense and Sensibility


Margaret's treehouse at Barton Cottage in the 1995 Sense and Sensibility 

Davies’s Margaret seems inspired by the Thompson version.  She too is younger than Austen’s character; she too hides under furniture (in this case a bed) with a book; she rides with Edward.  Though there’s no treehouse, she sits up in a tree, listening to Elinor and Marianne.  She does provide, in this version, more opportunity for Elinor to express gentleness.  And she underscores one of the frustrations of the novel:  “I wish I was a man.  Girls can never do anything.  Men can ride about the country and do things.  And girls just sit and wait for things to happen.”

Other versions of Margaret pick up her difference from her sisters and also present her as explorer:  in Kandukondain, Kandukondain she is an aspiring scientist, who wants to marry a Nobel laureate.  Hamill’s stage version presents another childish Margaret; this one visits puppies with Edward (17) and looks for a place to set up her telescope (20).  Jory’s stage version cuts her from the cast list, but the question of her whereabouts serves a comic leitmotif.  “Where is Margaret?”  In her treehouse (79), with the horses (15), outside making a garden for her doll (25), chasing the sheep (65).  Though absent in this version, she is nonetheless actively and energetically so.

Joanna Trollope again moves in the particular direction of updated fidelity to Austen’s text.  Mags is thirteen, unhappy to be leaving her friends and school, attached to her iPod.  A “mildly rebellious” teenager (9), saying, according to her sister, what “shouldn’t” be said (7-8), she provides an opportunity for Elinor to articulate one answer to the problem of the novel.  She asks Elinor if “we have to have boyfriends”:  “‘Not,’ Elinor [says] carefully, ‘if it doesn’t suit us to’” (194).  Mags too is provided with a tree house (66), this one at Barton Cottage.  Again the treehouse serves as a place for her to withdraw, an unfeminized room of her own.  In an odd turn, when Edward finally proposes to Elinor, Mags offers her treehouse as a place for them to have privacy; decorated for the occasion with candles in jars, it recalls the Pemberley illuminated with tea lights of the 2005 Pride & Prejudice.  The iconography suddenly co-opts the novel’s stated resistance to romance.

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Few readers swoon over the ending of Austen’s Sense and Sensibility in the way they often do over that of Persuasion, or Emma, or Pride and Prejudice.  One reason, of course, is the unswoonworthy nature of either Edward Ferrars or Colonel Brandon.  Edward is set up in negative terms:  “not recommended . . . by any peculiar graces”; “not handsome”; “too diffident,” with manners that “required intimacy”; but giving “every indication of an open affectionate heart” and a good understanding improved by education (18).  Edward appears most often in a melancholy mood; he has, as he acknowledges, no purpose or direction.  If readers are inclined to believe Edward worthy of Elinor, it’s because she herself believes that he is.

Thompson’s Sense and Sensibility, of course, casts the beautiful Hugh Grant as Edward, providing a boost of appeal.  He is diffident and stammering but often playful and good with children (specifically kind to and understanding of Margaret).  More important, he is emotionally available to Elinor—at least until he unaccountably withdraws.5  Successive Edwards are clearly affiliated with Thompson’s model.  All Edwards now must show their nurturing side with children, a feature, as Devoney Looser wrote in 1996, of the “new man” (166).  And Hugh Grant’s dithering is often integral to the character.  In Hamill’s stage directions, Edward is described as “awkward, shy, but fundamentally sweet,” and when in his first appearance he drops pen and paper, it is “very endearing” (13).6

Much less comic, Trollope’s Edward is diffident and unhappy, “a bit of a failure” (21).  The novel provides a psychologically driven explanation for his behavior—that he was “neglected and bullied” at home (265) and wants to act in opposition to the values of his materialistic family.

The other strain of Edwards follows R. Brimley Johnson’s 1930 comment about Brown’s Margaret Dashwood, or Interference:  “we welcome the extra manliness here granted Edward Ferrars” (237).  Andrew Davies’s concern was how to make the men appear more worthy of the heroines (Interview).  While his Edward is sometimes diffident, he has a wider emotional range:  a more confident sort of playfulness than his progenitor as well as a darker and more physical shade to his melancholy—as indicated in the scene in which he furiously chops wood.  Most significant, Davies directly shows us Edward’s strength of character as he stands up to his mother:  “If you send Lucy away, mother, I must go too,” he says.  Jory’s Edward also gets that opportunity:  “Nothing will prevail on me to give up this engagement.  I will stand to it, cost me what it will” (55).

An additional feature belonging to the construction of most of these Edwards is the token Elinor receives from him.  Thompson acknowledges that in Austen’s novel “Edward and Brandon are quite shadowy and absent for long periods.  We had to work hard to keep them present even when they’re offscreen” (269).  Similarly, Davies remarks that Edward “needs to give [Elinor] something for us to remember him by because it’s quite a long time before he appears again” (Interview).  The Thompson version first solved this problem with a monogrammed handkerchief that Edward hands to a quietly weeping Elinor, who is listening to Marianne play their father’s favorite song; the handkerchief serves as an objective correlative for Edward:  one is cherished by Elinor; another is flaunted by Lucy Steele.


Edward's handkerchief in the 1995 Sense and Sensibility 

In the Kate Hamill version, Edward mops the ink he’s spilled with a handkerchief; in Elinor’s hands—and as she drops it—that inky square of fabric weaves together the comic and emotional threads of the play.  Davies makes the token a less intimate one: a guidebook to local plants, Flora Devoniae.  Joanna Trollope—looking back at the ring Austen’s Lucy gives Edward—provides identical rings for Elinor and Lucy.  Although the tokens represent Edward’s emotional attachment, their duplication in most of these versions also calls into question their reliability.

Colonel Brandon, at least for readers of Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, does not carry as much negative baggage as Edward though introduced with the same level of enthusiasm:  “silent and grave,” he is “not unpleasing” (40); “though his face was not handsome his countenance was sensible, and his address was particularly gentlemanlike” (41).  These, of course, are initial reactions.  Elinor later defends him to Willoughby and Marianne as “‘a sensible man, well-bred, well-informed, of gentle address, and I believe possessing an amiable heart’” (61).  His narrative of the two Elizas and his gift of the Delaford living to Edward provide more evidence of his valuable qualities.  The adaptations strengthen these obvious qualities and emphasize his military background.  Thompson recognizes Brandon’s strengths but also his relative absence from the narrative:  “Brandon is . . . the real hero of this piece but he has to grow on the audience as he grows on Marianne” (269).  Davies increases the sense of Brandon’s virility by filming his triumphant duel with Willoughby.

The problem for adapters, however, seems to be how to account for Marianne’s transfer from Willoughby to Brandon.  Austen treats this aspect of her conclusion with irony.  For Elinor and Edward the marriage of Brandon and Marianne is ranked with the wish for “rather better pasturage for their cows” (425):  “They each felt his sorrows, and their own obligations, and Marianne, by general consent, was to be the reward of all.”  Asks the narrator, affecting comic helplessness, “[W]hat could she do?” (429).  Although Marianne’s “whole heart became, in time, as much devoted to her husband, as it had once been to Willoughby” (430), the narrator stipulates that she gives herself to Brandon “with no sentiment superior to strong esteem and lively friendship” (429).  The adaptations tell a more conventionally romantic story that, in Kristin Flieger Samuelian’s terms, “fill[s] in some of its more uncomfortable gaps—as for instance, where Marianne is translated into a married woman and the mistress of an estate virtually overnight, the narration of which focuses almost exclusively on her husband’s desire” (154).  To use Deborah Kaplan’s term, Austen’s narrative has been harlequenized (178).

In all of these adaptations, Brandon’s love for Marianne happens at first—or almost first—sight, usually while she is playing or singing.  In Austen’s novel Mrs. Jennings is the promoter of the love-at-first-sight narrative; when Mrs. Dashwood later picks it up, Elinor perceives “not the language, not the professions of Colonel Brandon, but the natural embellishments of her mother’s active fancy, which fashioned every thing delightful to her, as it chose” (381).


Colonel Brandon sees Marianne in the 1995 Sense and Sensibility 


Colonel Brandon watches Marianne in the 2007 Sense and Sensibility 

Beginning with the 1995 film, the strategy for conveying Marianne’s love for Brandon is two-fold:  present scenes showing the course of Marianne’s changed appreciation of Brandon; and transform Brandon into Marianne’s true preserver.

In the 1995 version, some of Marianne’s change involves her own self-reflection and activity (she now does the family’s accounts), but Brandon is shown reading poetry to a convalescent Marianne and disappearing to London to send her a pianoforte and music.  According to Samuelian, “Thompson’s rendering of the gradual softening of Marianne toward Brandon, culminating in her radiant happiness at the wedding that closes the film, not only distributes the happiness evenly between both lovers but locates its origins in the courtship rather than in the institution that courtship traditionally supports” (155).

Subsequent adaptations follow this lesson.  In both Kandukondain, Kandukondain and Davies’s 2007 version, Brandon resumes and intensifies a relationship established early in the story.  In the Tamil film, Bala gives Meenakshi an instrument soon after they meet and encourages her to study music; she eventually is the one first to profess her love.  In Davies’s version, the relationship between Brandon and Marianne, centering on music, is interrupted by Mrs. Jennings’s teasing and Willoughby’s appearance; later, on hearing the story of Eliza, Marianne calls Brandon “the true romantic,” and their love plot is resolved before Elinor and Edward’s.  In Jory’s version, Marianne speaks Brandon’s name “in the depth of her fever” (65) and later offers her him her hand, thanking him for “so many services”:  “I no longer seek torrential feeling, sir.  I have a great warmth toward constancy” (68).  She herself speaks a first-person version of Austen’s “Marianne Dashwood was born to an extraordinary fate” paragraph (Austen 429; Jory 69).  In Hamill’s stage version, Brandon reads Shakespeare to Marianne, and she tells him that its rhythm “matches precisely the beats of the human heart” (76).  Trollope’s Marianne and Brandon share their feelings about—and value for—their first loves (346); Elinor and Edward predict the result, given that “Marianne can’t do anything by halves, and certainly not loving” (362).

Almost all of these conclusions rest on perhaps the most major change: to the circumstances of Marianne’s illness.  In Austen’s novel, the party reaches Cleveland on a “fine and dry” morning (344), allowing Marianne “all the happy privilege of country liberty, of . . . free and luxurious solitude” (343); those “solitary rambles” are gently censured as “indulgence” (343).  That evening, however, “a settled rain” prevents a further walk.  “Two delightful twilight walks on the third and fourth evenings, . . . especially in the most distant parts . . . , where there was something more of wildness,” as well as the “still greater imprudence” of not changing her stockings (346), leads to a cold.  Over the course of a couple of days Marianne’s cold develops into an infection.


Marianne walks into the storm in the 1995 Sense and Sensibility 

In the adaptations the crisis of Marianne’s illness is usually revised not only to make it a certain, highly dramatic, and censurable consequence of Marianne’s despair over Willoughby but to give Brandon the central role of rescuer.  This revision begins, of course, with Emma Thompson’s version.  Kate Winslet’s Marianne steps from the carriage, and, as the storm develops and then rages, walks, automaton-like, through the grounds of Cleveland, toward a view of Combe Magna; Brandon seeks her and carries her back.7 


Brandon rescuing Marianne in the 1995 Sense and Sensibility 

Davies’s version repeats this pattern:  Marianne leaves the carriage to walk, the rain begins, Brandon notices her absence and sets out after her—this time on a white horse.


Brandon seeking Marianne in the 2007 Sense and Sensibility

Kandukondain, Kandukondain’s Meenakshi is delivered by Bala from the flooded sewer into which she’s been sucked.  In Jory’s play there’s a similar pattern without the sturm und drang (59).8

The prevalence of the rescue plot in these adaptations points most clearly to their distance from Austen’s Sense and Sensibility.  Austen, of course, is deeply skeptical of the rescue fantasy.  In this novel, Willoughby’s rescue of Marianne leads to disappointment, sorrow, and almost to death.  Brandon’s rescues of the two Elizas are limited in their success.9  Andrew Davies has spoken of the dangers of emotional and erotic openness, shown for us in his initial scene, in which Willoughby seduces the fifteen-year-old Eliza Williams.  Marianne, as this version very graphically suggests, may well fall as far.  It’s interesting that in these adaptations there is more of an emphasis on Marianne’s need for rescue; her own strength, her own resources are not enough.  And once she has fallen, once she has been rescued, there’s also the desire to show her awakening to a new life—not a new moral life as much as a new emotional life.

In Recreating Jane Austen, John Wiltshire points to the fact that there are “cultural and ideological implications” to the difference between books and films or moving pictures.  He notes “that films and television serials are predominantly visual media, that they must largely therefore signify emotion by symbol, by expression and action, that the interiority of their characters is represented through such signs rather than through language, that they encourage the gaze rather than the immersed reader’s imagination” and that “transcoding from one to the other system of signs may involve effects that, in some instances, are incommensurate” (4).  Emma Thompson’s diaries indicate an awareness of and sympathy with Austen’s resistance to the codes of romance—of the “harder-edged [financial] reality” behind Mrs. Dashwood’s “romantic visions” (217), of the novel’s question, “can love survive without money?” (225), even a suspicion of “the sentimentalized ‘close’ family who are always caressing each other” (217).  That awareness translated into attempts to mitigate the romance: for example, Thompson’s reduction of the luxury of the picnic before Barton Cottage (234); or Lee’s removal—from a scene that did not make the final cut—of two swans who, when Edward and Elinor kiss, “float into the shot as if on cue” (228).10

But as Wiltshire suggests, sign systems are slippery.  Thompson fears that the procession from the church after the wedding will look “too much like a double wedding.”  She adds, “Depressing thought—too neat” (231).  And the script calls for Brandon’s “throw[ing] a large handful of sixpences into the crowd” “[a]ccording to the custom of the time” (202).  This symbol—the concluding image of the film though not of the screenplay—might have underscored Austen’s representation of the financial realities for women and the way those realities underline the courtship plot.  Instead, those coins are transformed into something beautiful, a shower of silver.  Romance is validated, and the harsh economic underpinnings of marriage elided, as the screenplay makes clear:  “The coins spin and bounce, catching the sun like jewels” while “the wedding procession makes its glorious way from the church” (202).

break graphic

In 1994, one year before the Thompson/Lee Sense and Sensibility, Joan Aiken published Eliza’s Daughter, her continuation of Sense and Sensibility.  Her novel rejects a romantic reading of Austen.  Now in their early thirties, Edward is “stocky, fair-haired but already turning grey, with a long, careworn, weather-beaten countenance,” and Elinor, whose hair is “streaked with grey” and clothes are “shabby,” has a “worn, spiritless air” and looks “haggard and anxious” (75); their daughter, Nell, is an unpleasant social-climber.  Elinor and Marianne are, unhappily, separated since Brandon has rejoined his regiment, returning to India with Marianne.  Margaret (Mag), “whimsical, freakish, over-emotional” (99), has become a teacher at a school in Bath.  Eliza Williams (later known as FitzWilliams), the title character, the daughter of the second Eliza by Willloughby, has largely been left to fend for herself; once placed as a day pupil in a school, she moves—often subject to sexual predation—from Bath, to London, to a country house as the guest of a nobleman who had kept her mother, and then through war-torn Portugal.  Although there’s a measure of romance in the disposition of property—Brandon leaves Delaford to her—this novel refuses the conventional ending to the courtship plot.  Instead Eliza, pregnant (but declining to name, even for the reader, the father), determines that her daughter “will be a child of the wild”: “All she will derive—all she will need—from her father, will be freedom” (316).  Eliza herself may “take to writing novels” (316).  Aiken’s 1994 novel shows the influence of late twentieth-century feminism more than any of the adaptations that follow it.11  It’s an open question whether such an adaptation would have been written in the wake of the 1995 Sense and Sensibility.

So we move from West’s didactic novel about a female Quixote to Austen’s, in which the Quixotism has been muted, though Marianne Dashwood’s enthusiasm for the rhetoric of sensibility is central to her character.  Austen critiques Marianne’s show of sensibility even as she represents its pain.  In later versions, ironically, the romantic enthusiasm that characterizes the Mariannes becomes the property of the adapters.  And while they create in Margaret a girl who would venture outside the confines of Barton, the enclosures of the romantic plot operating for her sisters seem to render those possibilities doubtful.  In a recent article in the American Scholar, William Deresiewicz writes, “Austen wrote back to her favorite books, so it makes perfect sense that she constructed her own so as to invite us to do the same” (90).  Maybe we need to remind ourselves that—as Hutcheon points out—adaptations are “not vampiric,” that they don’t “draw the life-blood from [their] source and leave it dying or dead,” that they might even “give it an afterlife it would never have had otherwise” (176).  But are these adaptations doing anything more than validating the kind of romance that Austen inflects with a measured skepticism?  Daniel Mangiavellano points out that we can return from an adaptation of Austen’s novel “better prepared to visualize” an aspect of a character—though of course that new reading we’re able to visualize may or may not wholly accord with Jane Austen’s novel.

In the 1790s, West’s novel provided a model for the good but also for the very bad that could happen.  After Austen, reveling in the romance of the artfully natural landscape, of unlimited possibilities for women, of the certain happiness of marriage, these adaptations embrace nostalgia as a stay against a chaotic and unfriendly world.



1There are, of course, by now too many adaptations to deal with in the scope of an essay of this size.  I’ve ignored illustrations and the manga and comic-book versions of Sense and Sensibility.  (For a discussion of the manga and comic versions and how they too have been influenced by the 1995 film, see Tsugumi Okabe.) I’m also skipping over the 1971 and 1981 BBC versions.

2In Kate Hamill’s version, a chattering chorus referred to in stage directions as “the Gossips” amplifies, to mainly comic effect, this element Austen adapted from West.

3A video posted on Bedlam’s website suggests some aspects of the staging—though not the purposely disorienting speed:  http://bedlam.org/shows/sense-sensibility-2016/video/. There’s a little more velocity in the video for the production at the Folger: https://www.folger.edu/events/sense-and-sensibility.

4R. Brimley Johnson’s judgment is interesting in its analysis—and toleration—of the change in Margaret: “I think, whether intentionally or not, Mrs. Brown has made Margaret a little more ‘modern’ than Marianne and Elinor, or indeed than any of Jane Austen’s heroines; in as much as observing the inconvenience of frankness in her elders, she deliberately conceals her thoughts” (236). 

5Thompson compliments Hugh Grant’s interpretation of the character: “So light and yet very much felt. He’s made Edward rather troubled and halting, almost a stammerer. It’s particularly good because it illustrates how relaxed he feels with Elinor, with whom he can be both funny and fluent” (220).

6The Bedlam production doubled the characters of Edward and Robert Ferrars, giving a kind of comic (rather than ironic), physical form to what Celia Easton has called the novel’s “joke of substitution.”

7On Willoughby’s “rescue” of Marianne at the beginning of the film, Thompson observes, “The image of the man carrying the woman is horribly effective. Male strength—the desire to be cradled again? Had sage discussion [with focus puller] . . . about allowing all those politically incorrect desires their head. I’d love someone to pick me up and carry me off. Frightening. Lindsay Doran [the producer] assures me I’d start to fidget after a while. She’s such a comfort” (250).

8In Trollope’s version, significantly, the girls’ father, “young Henry Dashwood,” is an object of the rescue plot, saved from penury by “Old Henry Dashwood, . . . part of that nostalgic and romantic belief in the power of dreams” (5).

9Consider the rescues in other novels. Darcy’s rescue of Lydia results only in a patched up marriage characterized by indifference. Emma’s expectation that rescue naturally results in love (Mr. Dixon’s rescue of Jane Fairfax; Frank Churchill’s rescue of Harriet Smith) is chastised. When love does result, as in the case of Harriet Smith’s love for Mr. Knightley, it is revealed as foolish and transient.

10“‘Get rid of them,’ says Ang. ‘Too romantic’” (228).

11According to Lizzie Skurnick, “Aiken’s tributes don’t so much enlarge Austen’s world as they allow us to see how large that world is” (12).

Works Cited
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