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Sense and Sensibility, Letter by Letter

What do John and Fanny Dashwood look like?  Are they tall or short, slim or heavy?  Do they have light or dark complexions?  Do they dress well according to their rank, or are they slobs?  A second question:  Where do John and Fanny have the talk in which they whittle down the inheritance of John’s stepmother and half-sisters from several thousand pounds to the occasional gift of a pheasant in season?  Chapter 2 of Sense and Sensibility is entirely devoted to this cold-blooded conversation, yet the reader has no idea whether they are sipping tea in the sitting room, riding their newly inherited estate, or strolling among the walnut trees they will later chop down.  One can make a case that they reveal their characters so maliciously that no physical description is necessary.  Yes—but no.  It is hard to see why an author would not set the scene or provide some indication of what two important characters look like.  These are, after all, the basic elements of a third-person narrative.

A strong contrast exists between the missing descriptions of John and Fanny and the succinct but consistent descriptions of other minor characters.  A huge difference also exists between the serviceable descriptions of the minor characters—the Middletons, Mrs. Jennings, the Palmers, et al.—and the indirect descriptions of the major character, Edward Ferrars, in the third and fourth chapters.  We hear only what other people say of him at Norland, along with summaries that touch upon his personality.  As important as Edward is, we never see him in person.  In Mansfield Park, Austen shows Henry Crawford reading Shakespeare so eloquently he nearly melts Fanny Price’s heart.  Why would Austen not similarly show Edward reading Cowper aloud one evening to give readers a look at the hesitant but sensitive protagonist?  Instead, she has Marianne, the next day, complain about his unimpassioned delivery.  In the opening chapters, we hear only an argument between Elinor and Marianne about Edward’s qualities, with contradictory observations that, on the one hand, he was “not recommended to their good opinion by any peculiar graces of person or address” and on the other that “when his natural shyness was overcome, his behaviour gave every indication of an open affectionate heart” (15).  His voice does pipe up once with “surprise and concern” that the Dashwood women are leaving for Devonshire (25).  Until then, the reader has no idea that he is even in the room.  The reader can judge him only by the indirect comments early on and his tongue-tied agitation later.  No wonder Marianne provides a list of his shortcomings and concludes that there is “‘something wanting’” in the young man (17).  Edward is the prime example in the first five chapters of the author telling us about the main characters but barely showing them in action.  Not one of the major characters, in fact, is thoroughly described by the narrator.  Later, the other major character, Colonel Brandon, is also described indefinitely (51).  We learn that Willoughby and the colonel are opposites, but we never see how their differences manifest physically. 

Readers get only one description, this of Marianne’s “striking” form, seen perhaps from Willoughby’s perspective after he rescues her in the storm: 

Her form, . . . in having the advantage of height, was . . . striking; and her face was . . . lovely. . . . Her skin was very brown, but, from its transparency, her complexion was uncommonly brilliant; her features were all good; her smile was sweet and attractive; and in her eyes, which were very dark, there was a life, a spirit, an eagerness which could hardly be seen without delight.  (46) 

That’s it:  the sum total of information about the physical attributes of the main cast. 

Nor do readers get a glimpse of Norland, inside or out, in the six months set at the estate.  In contrast, the Dashwood family’s move brings a sudden wealth of descriptions.  Barton Valley “was a pleasant fertile spot, well wooded, land rich in pasture. . . . High hills rose immediately behind . . . ; some of which were open downs, the others cultivated and woody.  The village of Barton was chiefly on one of these hills, and formed a pleasant view from the cottage windows” (28–29).  And we see the Dashwood family’s comfortable new quarters concretely: 

Barton Cottage . . . was regular, the roof was tiled. . . . On each side of the entrance was a sitting room, about sixteen feet square; and beyond them were the offices and the stairs.  Four bed-rooms and two garrets formed the rest of the house. It . . . was in good repair.  (28) 

What can account for this dramatic difference between the first five chapters, which contain no descriptions of note, and the bright renderings of people and place that begin to pop up like flowers in chapter 6? 

The answer lies in Sense and Sensibility’s origin in the epistolary mode, a novel told in the form of letters.  If you’re a character writing to someone who already knows the person and the place, you have no reason to describe anything to your correspondent.  You will describe a known character only when something changes—e.g., Marianne’s accident.  You will summarize the attitudes and actions of people, as Austen does in chapter 2.  Over her six books, Austen seldom writes lengthy descriptions, and she is inconsistent with character descriptions in the early ones.  A missing description here or there in the novel would not mean much.  But there is no logical accounting for Austen’s systematically describing the minor characters while not describing any of the major ones.  The only plausible explanation for these many discrepancies is that the text originated in the epistolary style and retains many elements from the original version.  The descriptive contradiction is by no means the only indication of the book’s origin.  A deconstruction of Sense and Sensibility’s origin not only explains various weaknesses and inconsistences in the novel, but it also more generally demonstrates how the structure of a novel affects everything about its internal workings, general execution, and development of character.  A “forensic” examination reveals that every unsatisfying aspect of Sense and Sensibility can be explained in terms of its epistolary hangover.  Every satisfying aspect of Sense and Sensibility comes from Austen’s abandonment of that style for straight third-person narrative.

Signatures of the epistolary mode

The epistolary was an early and popular literary convention.  Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (1740), the story of a housemaid dealing with the amorous advances of her employer, created a sensation.  Richardson’s Clarissa (1748) brought readers to tears with the tragic tale of the kidnaping and eventual rape of a naïve but virtuous young woman.  Both books emotionally engage readers through their sharp scenes and crisp dialogue.  Richardson’s approach, writing “to the moment” (Clarissa 721, L224), provides power and intimacy, which are the keys to the style:  one or two main characters telling their own stories in short, personal letters, put down immediately as events unfold. 

Writers began using the style to render more complex situations, as with Frances Burney’s first novel, Evelina (1788), or to use letters primarily to present broad observations on life and manners (Tobias Smollett at times, Elizabeth Meeke almost always).  These other books exposed many limitations of the form:  1) a limited point of view that leads to contrivances in the plot; 2) excessive use of coincidence, which is one of those contrivances; 3) too much development and too many dramatic or philosophical digressions, which overwhelm or distort the concept of letters; or, 4) too little development, which leads to summaries of action rather than scenes showing action. 

First, because the point of view of a letter writer is limited in contrast to a third-person narrator, the epistolary often leads novelists into different mechanisms to bring information to the correspondent so it can be relayed to the reader.  These include such things as stories being told second hand, conversations being overheard and related, or a third party (often a servant) bringing to the letter writer information that has been learned offstage.  Second, the epistolary reinforces the era’s tendency to fall back on coincidence to push forward the plot because coincidence is the simplest way to bring important characters into the letter writer’s sight.  Third, many so-called letter writers in fact write more like novelistic narrators than individuals penning “familiar letters,” as private correspondence was known.  Evelina in the eponymous novel and Jery Melford in Smollett’s The Expedition of Humphry Clinker (1771) are two such.  In these circumstances, the epistolary style becomes a clumsy overlay.  In essence, a regular novel gets buried within an epistolary novel.  Evelina is a prime example of the epistolary novels of the day, succumbing to all the temptations of the convention multiple times, including the heroine’s writing to unbelievable length and detail. 

Humphry Clinker in turn shows the tendency toward exposition of the novel in letters whenever the correspondent goes beyond “the moment.”  More than a dozen letters in Humphry Clinker provide commentary on events of the day, gloss over other activities, and highlight only the most striking moments.  Though this pattern is letter-like, in a novel the short inserted or appended incidents—sometimes only dialogue—are often subsumed within the exposition.  Just a few in Humphry Clinker:  satire on would-be writers, concluding with a chase over purloined boots; general social commentary that ends with a riotous matronly battle over desserts; a history of Scotland in which is embedded a scare that causes Humphry’s hair to stand on end; and the lengthy recapitulation of a man’s life at the end of which the man’s youthful son gropes a woman.  This expositional style is relevant to Sense and Sensibility, as will be shown. 

Fourth, in ironic contradiction to the preceding points about excessive exposition, an author seeking to honor the natural brevity of the epistolary format will summarize events, synopsizing scenes rather than showing characters in action.  Such indirect reports weaken drama because readers cannot experience what the characters are experiencing as incidents occur.  Instead, readers are told of them later and indirectly.  This problem stifled Austen in her early Lady Susan.  The title character attempts to seduce at least three men:  Mr. Manwaring, who is married; Reginald De Courcy, who is heir to a large estate; and Sir James Martin, whom she keeps in reserve until she fails with the others.  We read her telling her friend Mrs. Johnson how she will work her wiles on Reginald, and we read of her satisfactory progress afterward, but we never see her wit or physical behavior as she breaks down the defenses of this good man.  Events with Manwaring are also summarized, and Sir James never appears at all.  The same indirect summary occurs in her casual bullying of Frederica, her daughter.  All the major moments are in the form of reports.  The tendency to summarize rather than to portray action leads to the modern admonishment for novelists to “show, don’t tell.” 

Now, any third-person novel might suffer from one or two of these limitations.  But a third-person novel that contains all of them and that uses each device more than once can be plausibly positioned as epistolary at heart.  Either that, or the author has written a very poor novel or is parodying the form.  What, then, does an epistolary examination of Sense and Sensibility uncover?

Origins in Elinor and Marianne 

We know that Sense and Sensibility, Austen’s first published novel, began as a novel in letters under its original title, Elinor and Marianne.  Austen’s niece, Caroline Austen, says that the manuscript was read in letter form to the family (Austen-Leigh 185).  Sense and Sensibility quotes or cites twenty-one letters, though the number of letters is not necessarily meaningful.  Letters were the main method of communication and would naturally come into play whenever characters are apart.  Austen’s six novels have or reference roughly two hundred letters, putting Sense and Sensibility’s letter content actually below the average of thirty-three.  The issue is whether a letter provides communication among characters or is the mechanism by which the storyline is presented. 

Brian Southam says that “so many traces” of the original epistolary version “found their way through to the second draft,” particularly Marianne’s impassioned outbursts, which read like the correspondence of a romance heroine.  These include her “eulogy” on fallen leaves (SS 87–88), her “hysterical outburst” near the end of the book (345–46), and especially her “‘Dear, dear Norland!’” speech as she wanders around the house the night before the family departs:  “‘Oh! happy house, could you know what I suffer in now viewing you from this spot, from whence perhaps I may view you no more!’” (27; Southam 56).  Another is a possibly leftover reference to Elinor’s correspondent back at Norland, though he admits such a confidante is only hinted at (SS 54).  Southam also says that “Austen seems to have had difficulty in freeing herself from the original design” (57), indicating that Elinor would have been the primary correspondent, though he speculates that Marianne also would have been writing to someone at Norland.  Austen biographer Park Honan mentions similar “minor faults”:  “The author never revised out of the story traces of her ‘Elinor and Marianne’ tale. . . . [S]he did not find it easy to expunge faults from her original epistolary story” (275).  He does not enumerate the faults, and it is not clear whether he is referring to Southam’s observations or his own examination, which is unpresented.  Southam, Honan, and Deirdre Le Faye, in her brief remark about Austen’s being constrained by the form in Lady Susan (89), write as if everyone understood the limitations of the epistolary.  The accepted explanations of the form’s shortcomings, summarized in Ian Watt’s The Rise of the Novel (1957) and elsewhere, include the length of the novels, the repetitions found in many of them, and the characters’ “incessant recourse to the pen” while facing crises (Watt 191).  None of the Austen experts analyzes Sense and Sensibility for its epistolary properties.  This essay seeks to fill the gap.1

A step-by-step analysis 

Austen wrestled with the epistolary form in her juvenilia and in the early Lady Susan.  In Sense and Sensibility, she gave up the mode for good but saved as much of the original material as possible, leaving many indelible marks.  Except for the first paragraph, the opening chapter does not read like what Southam calls a “functional commencement to the new version” (Southam 57).  Rather, it reads like the epistolary recapitulation of family history that Burney presents in letter 2 of Evelina.  The epistolary background also explains the lack of physical description in the rest of the chapter—indeed, in the first five chapters.  As noted, a letter writer will include a description only if the recipient does not know the person.  In Austen’s juvenile Lesley Castle, for instance, Charlotte Lutterell describes the “new Mother in law” (that is, stepmother) to Margaret Lesley, who has not yet met her (MW 119).  But Elinor in Sense and Sensibility would not likely write to someone who did not already know John and Fanny Dashwood.  When Austen converted the novel into third-person form, she probably saw no reason to add descriptions.  The scene was vivid without them.  Discussing their behavior in correspondence would not be an authorial intrusion but a funny characterization, as when Margaret Lesley, having now met her new stepmother, replies by saying she is “not . . . so pretty as you seem to consider her” and that her “diminutive figure” makes her look like “an insignificant Dwarf” (122).  It would be difficult, if not impossible, to manage in a letter the irony of John and Fanny’s whittling away his half-sisters’ inheritance to effectively nothing.  Austen would also have run upon the structural awkwardness of the epistolary form here.  A discussion between John and Fanny over the mail would have lacked force.  So, too, would have been a letter relating the decision to others.  The only other way to present the scene would have been for someone to eavesdrop on the stunning news. 

Another residue of the letter form is the number and length of indirect references to Edward Ferrars, not just in the opening chapters but also when he shows up unexpectedly at Barton in chapter 16.  One could see Elinor and Marianne offering contrasting psychological critiques via the mail about their would-be suitors:  Marianne rapturous over Willoughby while criticizing the dullness of Edward Ferrars, and Elinor in response seeking to persuade Marianne to take a closer look at the staid but dependable Colonel Brandon.  Their separation is implied in the sisterly back-and-forths detailed below.  Overall, the third-person narrative view leans toward Elinor, which should make characterizations of Edward neutral to positive.  Yet the accounts of Edward’s personality are consistently deflated, implying that most of the commentary comes from Marianne’s point of view, likely as originally expressed in letters.  Nothing is demonstrated to mitigate her negative impressions:  “He was confused, seemed scarcely sensible of pleasure in seeing them, looked neither rapturous nor gay, said little but what was forced from him by questions, and distinguished Elinor by no mark of affection” (87).  Doubly interesting is that this passage also contains one of the outbursts identified by Southam as being typical of an epistolary romance heroine, when Marianne rhapsodizes about her “‘transporting sensations’” in seeing the falling leaves at Norland (87–88). 

Conversely, the bright detail of description when the Dashwood ladies enter Barton Valley, typical of Austen’s later novels, is evidence that chapter 6 was the first scene created from scratch in third person. 

A careful examination turns up other distinct signatures of the epistolary mode in the novel.  For lack of formal literary terms, we will categorize such chapters broadly.  Some are “primary” epistolary, meaning they have significant elements directly tied to the letter format.  Other chapters can be termed “referenced” epistolary.  These relate to offstage incidents learned indirectly, as the form often requires.  The third and largest set of chapters might be called “expositional” epistolary, strikingly like what we see in Humphry Clinker:  general exposition with small buried or appended incidents.

Primary epistolary.  These chapters include such things as the indefinite descriptions and actions (already covered regarding the book’s opening section); still-existing correspondence melded into a scene; and long character monologues that likely originated as letters.  Volume 2, chapter 7 opens with Marianne writing a letter.  She then receives a letter, ostensibly from Willoughby, that rejects her.  Three other letters from her to him, equally affectionate and inappropriate, are returned.  The Willoughby letter is presented early, the other three later in the chapter.  This collection could have originally been constructed as a letter exchange, with Elinor’s consolations to Marianne also in written form.  Letters could have revealed the lack of a formal engagement between Marianne and Willoughby, as well as allowing each sister to wonder about his change of heart and Marianne set forth her unhappiness.  Putting Marianne and Elinor together, however, enables the author to unfold Marianne’s restlessness and Elinor’s ineffectual solace.  In real time, readers are as “sick[] at heart” and “almost choked by grief” as either of them (181–82) in a way that could not be felt reading about it indirectly.  The next-to-last chapter, volume 3, chapter 13, contains one letter verbatim, in which Lucy tells of her marriage to Edward’s brother, and quotes two others.  A proposed letter from Edward to his mother is converted to a visit. 

A long set piece of any kind is a good candidate for having begun in the letter format and for remaining substantially like its epistolary progenitor.  Volume 2, chapter 8 features one short and one long monologue by Mrs. Jennings.  Chapter 9 features Colonel Brandon’s seven-page monologue (with five short interjections) on the sad fate of the mother–daughter pair, both named Eliza Williams, and on Willoughby’s ugly history with the younger.  Edward Copeland calls the Colonel’s long monologue one of the “patches of oddly undigested styles” in the novel that “could almost pass” as an inset story in Grandison or Clarissa (lvii).  The chapter after that, 10, paraphrases “long letters” from Mrs. Dashwood in reaction to Marianne’s suffering; these originally could have been quoted directly.  All the news, including Willoughby’s wedding, is described indefinitely, and the Steele scene is tacked on. 

Several letter-like monologues occur in volume 3, chapter 1.  Mrs. Jennings’s oral recounting of Mrs. Ferrars’s rage over the Edward–Lucy engagement stands out as a direct extract from an original letter form.  It is also told second hand as Mrs. Jennings announces, “‘have you heard the news!’”  Instead of Mrs. Jennings bustling in “with an air of . . . hurrying importance” to tell Elinor what happened (257), she could have written in the same impassioned vein.  The entire chapter—Mrs. Jennings tells Elinor, Elinor tells Marianne, and John Dashwood oddly passes through to voice his opinion—consists of long speeches more likely to be written than spoken without interruption.  (The listeners interject brief questions to spur more commentary.)  Mrs. Jennings speaks for four pages (257–60).  Elinor speaks for five pages (260–64), of which the first two are rendered indirectly and the next three broken only by brief prompts from Marianne.  John Dashwood speaks for four-and-a-half pages (265–69) with several promptings by the ladies.  Another tell:  Marianne asks Elinor of Edward Ferrars, “‘[H]as he written to you?’” (262)2 

Volume 3, chapter 10 not only focuses on Marianne but features a five-page monologue as she reflects on her behavior with Willoughby, with brief interjections by Elinor (343–47).  Their lightly sketched walk serves to frame the speech.  The first half of the next chapter, 11, flips the emphasis.  It is Elinor who talks at length and Marianne who interjects (350–52).  These two chapters could represent an original letter exchange. 

Referenced epistolary.  It is a common tactic in the novel of letters that plot-related information is gleaned elsewhere, overheard, or otherwise learned second hand, then narrated in a letter.  The gimmick is necessitated by the impossibility for the letter writer, unlike an omniscient narrator, to be everywhere at once to gather story details.  Evelina, for instance, contains two lengthy scenes in which one friend reports early (22–24) and another friend reports late (327–29) on conversations by prospective suitors about their attitudes toward the heroine.  Coincidences often play a major role in the delivery of such news, especially in Sense and Sensibility.  Colonel Brandon’s overhearing the news of Willoughby’s marriage from two ladies waiting for a carriage, one of whom happens to be the guardian of the bride (198–99), is straight out of the playbook of unlikely epistolary events. 

Mrs. Jennings’s recounting of the Lucy Steele disaster is another example of the convoluted harvesting of second-hand information.  Mrs. Jennings has gone to be with her daughter, Charlotte, who calls for Mr. Donavan, a doctor or apothecary, to treat her sick infant.  Mr. Donavan reassures Charlotte that the child is fine. “‘And so,’” Mrs. Jennings relates, “‘just as he was going away again, it came into my head, I am sure I do not know how I happened to think of it, but it came into my head to ask him if there was any news.’”  She happened to think of it because the plot required her to!  Mr. Donavan, having coincidentally just attended Fanny Dashwood in her hysteria, knows that Lucy Steele’s sister, Nancy, has “‘popt it all out’” to Fanny about Lucy’s engagement with Edward, sending Fanny into angry hysterics and causing her to throw out the visiting sisters.  Mrs. Jennings rushes home excitedly to tell the tale to the Dashwood sisters (257–59).  (Three indirections:  Mr. Donovan to Mrs. Jennings to Elinor to Marianne, a prototypical letter chain as well as gossip chain.) 

Volume 1, chapter 12 brings a series of indirect information.  First, we have the unusual phrasing that Marianne “communicated” to Elinor the news about Willoughby’s intent to give her a horse.  Then, Marianne’s declining of the gift “was all overheard” by Elinor (58–59).  The next day, the youngest sister, Margaret, “related something” to Elinor, that Marianne had given Willoughby a lock of her hair (60).  In the next chapter, Elinor learns that Mrs. Jennings makes “her own woman enquire of Mr. Willoughby’s groom” whether Marianne had indeed joined her suitor on a visit to Allenham (67).  Volume 3, chapter 11 contains the epistolary ploy in which a secondary character accidentally learns of and reveals critical information:  the man-servant Thomas, who has been sent to Exeter, runs into Lucy Steele and finds out that “‘Mr. Ferrars is married’” (353). 

A random turn to almost any letter in Evelina is likely to demonstrate the way she and other authors of the period rely on coincidence to move the plot along.  The heroine unexpectedly but conveniently runs into everyone from her French grandmother to an unknown brother, a potential sister, an estranged father, and every possible marriage partner.  Austen sometimes uses coincidences to set up a story:  all the eligible bachelors, for example, arrive in Meryton within ten weeks of one another in Pride and Prejudice.  The “inciting incident” that opens most novels, however, is a little arbitrary.  A cosmic push is often needed to set events in motion.  And clerical livings always pop up when needed to provide for Austen couples, including in Sense and Sensibility.  Overwhelmingly in her books, however, events move along not because of coincidence but because of the way characters interact.  That’s why it’s so unusual to have not one but three characters—Mrs. Jennings, Colonel Brandon, and Thomas—who happen to be in the right place at the right time to discover and pass on critical information that carries forward the story.  Colonel Brandon eventually hears, or overhears, three offstage conversations relevant to the story.3 

John Wiltshire, reminding us that overheard conversations commonly occur in plays, locates Austen’s use of the overheard remark in the theatrical tradition.  In The Hidden Jane Austen, his chapters on Emma and Persuasion, respectively, investigate the way the heroine’s perception and attention register overheard remarks:  what their reactions say about their psychological states.  In contrast, most of the overhearing in Sense and Sensibility involves not the two protagonists but other characters whose learning moves the plot along. 

Expositional epistolary.  The last of the epistolary remnants consists of a collection of chapters loosely described as “expositional.”  Chapters move from general observations or summarized narrative to short specific events.  Recall that this structure, in which general exposition envelops a few enlivening mini scenes, is a regular feature of any novel in letters that goes beyond immediate “to the moment” events.  Long narratives with few or abbreviated scenes in Sense and Sensibility enable us to deduce the epistolary origin of those chapters.  The transformation to third person results in a hybrid style that contrasts with scenes that were created directly in third person and that contain relatively little exposition.  But the conversion enables Austen to repurpose much of the original letter material and not have to create dozens of new chapters. 

Two such chapters, back to back, form another point-counterpoint between Marianne and Elinor.  Volume 1, chapter 10 begins with four-and-a-half pages of general observations told primarily from Marianne’s point of view about her two suitors.  Willoughby shows up for a two-page scene in which he criticizes Colonel Brandon, “‘whom every body speaks well of, and nobody cares about’” (50).  Volume 1, chapter 11 reverses, opening with three pages of general observations mostly from Elinor’s point of view and concluding with two pages of dialogue with the Colonel in which she finds enough positives to “excite the interest of friendship” (55).  Neither chapter contains much of a scenic setting; most dialogue is disembodied.  The parallelism, as in a pair of reciprocal letters, is prominent.  Even length supports this view:  Marianne’s chapter is longer, representing her more voluble personality. 

A sampling of other general-to-specific chapters includes:

  • Volume 2, chapter 1 opens with five pages of Elinor’s thoughts on Edward’s too-friendly behavior toward her as a secretly engaged man.  Next, in chapter 2, comes a two-page scene involving Lucy Steele that sets up another conversation. 
  • Volume 2, chapter 10 contains five-and-a-half pages on the reaction of Marianne and others to the news of Willoughby’s true nature, to which is attached a brief scene of the Steele sisters arriving in London.  The more important matter, Marianne’s psychological state, is rendered indirectly, while the Steele sisters garner a scene. 
  • Volume 2, chapter 14 goes further, wrapping a scene inside a generalized envelope:  five pages reporting indirectly about Dashwood activities in London, followed by a four-page scene at a musical party in which the sisters formally meet Edward’s brother, Robert, and closing with a summary of the Steele ladies transferring to the John Dashwood house. 
  • Volume 3, chapter 7 includes a general overview of Marianne’s illness, the comings and goings of the doctor, the help provided by Colonel Brandon, told indirectly, and a concluding sentence that sets up action in the next chapter—Willoughby’s arrival.  Many actions are referenced, no actions are shown.

Now, many novels contain a chapter here and there that begins with an overview or summation or other general commentary.  Sometimes these chapters stand alone, and sometimes they include one or more individual scenes.  The technique enables a writer to bridge a period of time or create a transition from one place or situation to another.  Sense and Sensibility, for instance, uses the summary style properly to move the Dashwood girls to London in volume 2, chapter 4, and to Cleveland in volume 3, chapter 6.  What is unique, however, is the sheer number of summary/expositional chapters:  at least ten and possibly up to thirteen of the book’s fifty chapters, comprising roughly a quarter of the content.  Each of the novel’s three volumes includes three or four chapters that follow the general-to-specific pattern, in which long stretches of abstract narration culminate in a brief, lightly sketched scene, perhaps two.  “Embedded” material is often no more than a snatch of dialogue, as in discursive novels in letters. 

This chapter structure is not typical for Austen.  Pride and Prejudice, written in the same general timeframe, contains only half a dozen chapters that open with a summary style, and those chapters are short compared to the ones in Sense and Sensibility Pride and Prejudice’s abstract openings are also short, followed by a lengthy scene, rather than the other way around.  For instance, volume 1, chapter 6 of Pride and Prejudice has a two-page summary followed by a five-page scene in which Darcy first begins to notice Elizabeth, though at his approach she “drew back” (26).  The next chapter has a one-page general opening followed by a six-page scene, culminating in Elizabeth’s visit to Jane, lying ill at the Bingleys’. 

A comparison of two successive chapters in Sense and Sensibility provides a clear sense of the difference between the abstract style tied to epistles and the specific and more satisfying style that originates as a scene.  Volume 3, chapter 7, which tells of the onset of Marianne’s illness, has only indirect narration for the first five pages, one very brief exchange of dialogue, then six more pages of indirect narrative.  The chapter follows the Cleveland transition chapter, which contains no dialogue at all.  In total, only eight lines of dialogue and no real scenes occur across fifteen pages of text encompassing two full chapters (301–16)! 

Standing in stark contrast is the next chapter, volume 3, chapter 8, the tête-à-tête between Elinor and Willoughby.  This passage rivals the first proposal scene in Pride and Prejudice as the most explosive confrontation between two people in Austen’s work.  Elinor does not hesitate to take him to task.  While Willoughby confesses his fault, he also finds ways to mitigate that guilt, or to at least trigger in Elinor a flash of sympathy now and again.  More than once, she is “a little softened” (321).  Like the Barton Valley scenes that follow the book’s murky opening, this vibrant clash appears as if under a spotlight after a thick cloud of general and indistinct narrative.  Some of Willoughby’s explanations come in monologues; after all, he has much to account for.  Elinor has several long rejoinders.  It is possible the chapter originated as a letter exchange between Willoughby and Elinor.  If so, what fireworks go off when Austen puts them physically in the same room:  “‘Thunderbolts and daggers!’” to repurpose Willoughby’s line about the effect of his learning earlier that Marianne had come to London (325). 

Several chapters contain multiple epistolary artifacts. Two examples:  In volume 2, chapter 9, Mrs. Jennings enters with a letter in her hand and Elinor sits down to write to her mother.  Shortly after, the Colonel’s accidental meeting with Mrs. Jennings leads to his monologue about the two Elizas.  In volume 3, chapter 2, Anne Steele not only relates an offstage conversation between her sister Lucy and Edward Ferrars, but Elinor also lambasts her for “‘repeating to me what you only learnt . . . by listening at the door’” (274).  Anne justifies her action by saying Lucy would have done the same thing.  A little later, the incident is confirmed by Lucy’s letter

Tallying the different forms of epistolary—the primary, the referenced, and the expositional—we find that thirty-three or thirty-four of the fifty chapters have a strong epistolary character.  This includes fifteen or sixteen of twenty-two in volume 1; seven of fourteen in volume 2; and eleven of fourteen in volume 3.  In toto, the epistolary comprises roughly two-thirds of the final product.  The other chapters were written directly as scenes, or, of course, some may have been revised so thoroughly that, for all intents, they are new. 

This chapter breakdown indicates that most of the first and third volumes must have already been written before the conversion to third person.  Broadly speaking, the first third of a book (the exposition) introduces the characters and sets the book’s direction.  The middle third (the development) is when a book expands as the characters interact and subplots unfold.  The final third (resolution/denouement) resolves the book’s subplots, funneling the characters to the conclusion. 

Logic suggests that more new scenes would be required in the second section, with the major events now set in motion.  The two main developments involve Willoughby’s betrayal of Marianne and Lucy Steele’s engagement to Edward, the latter of which Elinor learns in the final few pages of volume 1.  It must have been here, while wrestling with the way to take the story ahead, that Austen realizes that what would be presented superficially in letters would be better portrayed in developed scenes.  She breaks through in the most important passages—the last ones with Willoughby and Edward respectively—to provide vivid personal portrayals of the cast. 

Break Graphic true to size

Patterns in the chapters clearly show that Austen converted much of the text from letters to third-person narrative.  Major characters are not described as they would be, at least to some degree, in ordinary third-person narrative.  To an extent not found in any other of her books, Austen uses epistolary plot contrivances, including multiple instances of the overheard and the coincidental, to move the story along.  At least two sets of chapters mirror one another, as if originally a letter exchange.  Many chapters are written in a general, abstract letter style with summaries and indirect characterizations.  About a dozen chapters contain mini scenes appended to long, letter-like discourses.  The nature of these patterns, and the sheer number of them, is unlike anything else in Austen’s oeuvre. 

Why do we care about the change from one form to the other?  First, we know little about Austen’s growth as a writer.  Tracing the original pattern is as fascinating from an historical standpoint as the discovery of different images beneath several of da Vinci’s most famous paintings.  Second, and more important, we can see how the shift from old form to new form improves the final product.  The epistolary works well when it tells a straightforward story happening directly to a small number of characters.  It sparkles through short, personal letters being written “to the moment” as events unfold.  Pamela uses the style successfully, and Humphry Clinker does often enough to carry the reader through the story.  Clarissa uses it to tell a heart-wrenching story of a wronged and fiercely courageous young woman.  But Austen wants to tell complex stories of three or four families in a country village.  The epistolary cannot sustain such narrative weight.  Austen learns that the new chapters containing scenes typical of a modern novel have more energy and verve than the old-style epistolary novel.  The third-person approach exposed to Austen the issues that could be fixed and the opportunities that could be exploited, as action rather than as report.  Austen learned that her future lay not in summations but in scenes. 

Now we arrive at a final question:  Was there a specific circumstance that caused Austen to abandon the epistolary format, or was it the general structural problem that the approach makes it hard to create a believable and natural plot?  For example, this novel would have required a huge cast of letter writers to relate all the incidents, not unlike Richardson’s Sir Charles Grandison.  These would include at least two and perhaps three of the Dashwood women, John and Fanny Dashwood, Willoughby, Colonel Brandon, and Mrs. Jennings, never mind the one or two unnamed correspondents back at Norland.  Or, if the correspondents were limited primarily to Elinor and Marianne (a plausible scenario given the book’s original title), then the monologues of these other characters, often quite lengthy, would have had to be heard, or learned somehow, by one of the two sisters and then “communicated” to the other.  Even in third person, the Colonel’s rendition of the miserable lives of the two abused Elizas lacks some emotional punch because it is related rather than shown.  This second-hand story would become even more diluted in a third-hand rendition in a letter.  It is quite possible Austen realized the weakening effect of the epistolary style while working on the middle section.  Or perhaps her separate struggles with Lady Susan reinforced to her the limitations of the form. 

Austen likely identified individual concerns.  Four scenes, three involving Willoughby, gain dramatically from third-person narration.  The two early chapters in which Willoughby is introduced, 9 and 10, are part of the fresh, lively material set in Barton Valley.  The power of Willoughby’s arrival at the cottage door, the drenched Marianne in his arms, would have been diminished in letter form, and it would have been difficult to include the captivating description of the heroine.  “‘Her . . . complexion was uncommonly brilliant; . . . her smile was sweet and attractive; and in her eyes, which were very dark, there was a life, a spirit, an eagerness’”:  in a letter, would Willoughby have used such language, or Elinor?  Lucy’s revelation to Elinor of her secret engagement with Edward would similarly have fizzled in reported form.  The most powerful scene, the confrontation between Elinor and Willoughby as Marianne lies ill, fairly bursts off the page.  This chapter, unlike anything else in the novel, proves what a scene can do that correspondence cannot.  If the incident existed in epistolary form, Austen must have sensed how weak the rendering was.  (Class exercise:  Recast this chapter into letter form to see how much energy bleeds away.)  One of these major scenes, most likely the last one with Willoughby, halted the delivery of the mail.  Willoughby not only broke Marianne’s heart, but he also broke Austen’s epistolary novel.  Readers should be grateful.  If he had not shattered Marianne’s heart, we would not have a story.  If he had not shattered the letter form, we would not have Sense and Sensibility.


1Southam also believes that First Impressions, the original version of Pride and Prejudice, originated in the epistolary form (58).  Further, Tom Keymer and one or two other critics don’t believe that Sense and Sensibility was ever epistolary.  The assumption is that niece Caroline really meant Pride and Prejudice when she recalled an early epistolary work being read aloud (Keymer 74).  A textual investigation, however, provides more than enough evidence to vindicate an epistolary start for Sense and Sensibility

2As a test of the likelihood that volume 3, chapter 1 is a mirror of its epistolary form, I converted the entire text back to letter form in a few hours.  Most of the work involved the striking of short transitions.  The only difficulty was the need to rearrange and combine the shorter exclamations and injections by Marianne as Elinor tells the story of Edward’s hidden engagement (262–65).  There was a chuckle at Austen’s comment that “Marianne’s feelings had then broken in, and put an end to all regularity of detail” (262).  This is exactly what a writer would think as she is breaking up two long, monolithic letters with the more natural back-and-forth between the sisters enabled by a scene. 

3He also hears, wrongly, that Marianne is engaged to Willoughby and, rightly, that Edward Ferrars has been dispossessed for staying true to Lucy Steele.  I’m grateful to Melissa Anderson for this observation.

Works Cited
  • Austen, Jane.  The Novels of Jane Austen.  Ed. R. W. Chapman.  3rd ed.  Oxford: OUP, 1933-69.
  • Austen-Leigh, J. E.  A Memoir of Jane Austen and Other Family Recollections.  Ed. Kathryn Sutherland.  Oxford: OUP, 2008.
  • Burney, Frances.  Evelina or The History of a Young Lady’s Entrance into the World.  New York: Norton, 1965. 
  • Copeland, Edward.  Introduction.  Sense and Sensibility.  Cambridge: CUP, 2006.  xxiii–lxv.
  • Honan, Park.  Jane Austen: Her Life, Her Art, Her Family, Her World.  New York: Fawcette, 1987.
  • Keymer, Tom.  Jane Austen: Writing, Society, Politics.  Oxford: OUP, 2020.
  • Le Faye, Deirdre.  Jane Austen: A Family Record.  2nd ed.  Cambridge: CUP, 2004.
  • Richardson, Samuel.  Clarissa.  London: Folio, 1993.
  • Smollett, Tobias.  The Expedition of Humphry Clinker.  New York: Rinehart, 1950.
  • Southam, Brian.  Jane Austen’s Literary Manuscripts.  London: Athlone, 2001.
  • Watt, Ian.  The Rise of the Novel.  Berkeley: U of California P, 1957.
  • Wiltshire, John.  The Hidden Jane Austen.  Cambridge: CUP, 2014.
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