Lucinda Elliot

‘Sense and Sensibility’ by Jane Austen: Some Thoughts on the Main Characters

On the characters in ‘Sense and Sensibility’, I have already commented on my liking for both the primary heroine, Elinor and the secondary one, Marianne.

In some ways I prefer Elinor to ‘Pride and Prejudice’s’ Elizabeth Bennett, as she seems less taken over by Edward than Elizabeth is by Mr Darcy. For instance, towards the end of ‘Pride and Prejudice’ Elizabeth has to remind herself that Mr Darcy ‘has yet to learn to laugh at himself’ and while I have no doubt that Elizabeth does to some extent teach him, it sounds, given his stately airs, something of an uphill task; I always feared that she would lose some of her liveliness in being too dutiful.

Edward Ferrars is a far less overwhelming personality than the imperious Mr Darcy, and is anything but proud; when he escapes the determined clutch of the terrible Lucy Steele, he castigates himself heartily to Elinor for his foolishness in ever becoming engaged to her: – ‘I had nothing in the world to do, but to fancy myself in love; and as my mother did not make my home in every respect comfortable…it was not unnatural for me to be very often at Longstaple, where I always felt myself at home, and was sure of a welcome…Lucy seemed to me then everything that was amiable and obliging. She was pretty, too –at least, I thought so then…’

Edward is a likable enough hero, but sadly, as he had to compete with the witty and showy Willoughby for the reader’s attention, doesn’t shine in comparison. However, I like his blunt remarks, which the more urbane Colonel Brandon would avoid, as when he is responding to Marianne’s enthusiasm over the view of Barton Valley: –

‘Amongst the rest of the objects I see before me, I see a very dirty lane.’

It has sometimes been observed by literary critics that it is difficult to write a character who is good and interesting, but I think Edward Ferrars is an excellent example of how this can be done; his faults of diffidence and shyness, his weakness in continuing to see Elinor, though he knows that he is falling for her and has to honour his engagement to Lucy Steele, make him very human; he is undoubtedly a good character of whom I always wished we had seen more in the story.

Elinor’s quite sense and detached humourous observation (in effect, Jane Austen’s own) are highly admirable, but even given that she is meant to be unusual, she is too mature outlook for nineteen.

Marianne’s opposite qualities, her passionate commitment to emotional honesty and her determined espousal of the romantic in paining, literature and real life are equally appealing, but disgusted by equivocation as she is, she can be unfeeling and even rude ( by the standards of the genteel of the time; compared to our own, she has advanced social skills). The task of placating and listening to people Marianne considers beneath her notice in one way or another usually falls to Elinor. For instance, when Edwaard’s disagreeable mother and sister are making inividious comparisons between Elinor’s art work and that of an heiress they hope he will court, she exclaims: –

‘This is admiration of a very particular kind!! What is Miss Morton to us? Who knows and who cares for her? It is Elinor of whom we think and speak’.

Marianne at the end of the novel has become too saddened, too sedate as a consequence of her heartbreak by Willoughby for the reader not to feel a sense of loss. As one famous critic has mentioned, even her speech patterns change to the harmonious. It is true that the account of her accepting Colonel Brandon is given indirectly, which, as I have never been able to take to the worthy Colonel, I found a relief.

Everything is cleared up fairly quickly: – ‘Marianne Dashwood was born to an extraordinary fate; she was born to discover the falsehood of her own opinions, and to counteract, by her conduct, her most favourite maxims. She was born to overcome an affection formed so late in life as seventeen, and with no sentiment superior to strong esteem and lively friendship, voluntarily to give her hand to another!…whom, two years before, she had considered too old to be married, — and who still sought the constitutional safeguard of a flannel waistcoat!’

At thirty-five plus, Colonel Brandon would be too old for Marianne even if he was a far livelier character and that flannel waistcoat always just about finishes him as an appealing partner for such a girl for me.

As I have said in a previous post, I consider the ending to the story highly disappointing, as I did with ‘Mansfield Park’. Whether Jane Austen’s sister and confidante Cassandra (who expressed the view of myself and countless others before me, two centuries earlier over the desirability of Fanny Price marrying Henry Crawford, not Edmund Bertram) wished Marianne and a chastened Willoughby in the end to be brought together, I don’t know; but Jane Austen was nothing if not severe about rascals and took the view that they could cause only misery as husbands, not possibly, qualified happiness.

Jane Austen condemns Willoughby to resignation in an unhappy marriage with a bad tempered wife he doesn’t even like; he’s already confessed that he finds the idea of Marianne marrying Brandon torment: ‘His punishment was soon afterwards complete in the voluntary forgiveness of Mrs Smith, who, by stating his marriage with a woman of character, as the source of her clemency, gave him reason for believing, that had he behaved with honour towards Marianne, he might at once have been happy and rich.’

Jane Austen, with her incomparable irony, suggests as a sop that: ‘his wife was not always out of humour, nor his home always uncomfortable’. In other words, this was the case more often than not.

It is an irony that Jane Austen is seen as a writer of romances, when her own outlook on marriage, and the undesirability of marriage without a comfortable income, was highly practical and very much typical of the era, and the part of society, from which she came. Mr Darcy without at least a competence should have been politely and regretfully dismissed by Elizabeth Bennett.

4 Responses

  1. I like what you have said here (I always had a sneaking liking for Ferrars) but I think seeing Austen as a writer of “romance” genre is more than ironic- it’s inaccurate and does the writer a huge disservice. As you know she is one of the reputable writers trotted out by romance apologists. I don’t think her agenda is “boy meets girl” it’s more social critique and showing the places of (relatively privileged) women. Marriage is a huge part of that because those women have few options available to them but the interactions and character flaws are what makes the books readable and rereadable when a Mills and Boon pretending to be made in the same image would be thrown across the room in disgust without being finished even once!

    I thought you were a bit harsh on Brandon initially but as you point out Marianne is 17!!!!! Then again with my modern sensibilities I would be horrified that she is marrying anybody whatsoever. lol

    1. You are so right, Steff, and I should have emphasized more in my initial post how Jane Austen is quite wrongly co-opted by writers of romnance attempting to elevate the genre into the realms of respected literary fiction, and that one of the most mistaken ideas here is that it is valid to overlook the restricted role of women in Regency times in evaluating her novels. I have always been rather sourly amused by the conviction of so many of the readers of romance that they would somehow have belonged to the gentry or the upper class by right, too, and this has much to do with the politically reactionary nature of so much historical romance.

      I have often thought myself I am a bit too harsh on the good old Colonel – but the age difference is the worst thing about it. Elinor says earlier, ‘perhaps thirty-five and seventeen had better have nothing to do with matrimony together’.

      On romance roots – have you ever come across the purely terrible stuff, romantic melodramas, written by the Victorian best seller Charles Garvice? It is clearly where the roots of modern day romance originate, not Jane Austen,and I’d say that his heroes were a great influence on those of Georgette Heyer.
      I recommend ‘The Outcast of the Family’ and ‘Just a Girl’ for a great laugh; he used a limited number of variables for the same basic story, which he told again and again, and made a fortune. You can upload them on for free.

  2. As far as the reactionary politics goes, the logic goes something like this “the servants are invisible and insignificant, I am not invisible or insignificant, therefore I would clearly be gentry back in Jane Austen’s day”. I must admit I thought the same way at one point. But you make a good point

  3. Hello, sefrozitits. Sorry to be so late in replying, I’ve been away. Yes, I see what you mean. I think one of the problems with the class aspect in literature is that it isn’t mentioned (except in the various strata within the upper levels) and so there is an incredible blindness in many readers of historical novels to the fact that the huge majority of the population were of the servant and peasant class in Jane Austen’s time, both in the UK and in mainland europe), and so they imagine themselves in Elizabeth Bennet’s position as ‘poor’ in comparison to Lady de Burgh, say, and not as one of the servants, which would be more realistic, but then there are very few novels by female novelists of the Georgian and Regency periods which are about servants, and the ones that are (ie, ‘Pamela’) are all about a girl of low status marrying a man of higher status, not a man from her own strata of society.

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