June 2011 meeting: Secondary sources on Sense and sensibility

Brandon visits Marianne, engraving by CE Brock from Ch 46 of Sense and Sensibility, (Jane Austen N...

Brandon visits Marianne, engraving by CE Brock from Ch. 46 (Public Domain, via Wikipedia)

With thanks to members Jenny, Bill and Sarah for this cobbled together report.

Due to overseas travels, winter chills and special anniversaries, it was a smaller group than usual which met in June to discuss secondary sources on this year’s focus book, Sense and sensibility. Nonetheless, those who attended did manage to cover some interesting ground.

Bill looked at a small part of Richard Jenkyns’ book A Fine Brush on Ivory concerning the question which must, he said, be the ongoing topic for millions of school and undergraduate essays:

Did JA believe sense is right and sensibility wrong?

Jenkyns, he said, suggests she was not quite in control of her technique. Jenkyns also proposes that it is an artefact that we tend to think sense is favoured because Elinor is the ‘focaliser’. This structural feature of the novel, he says, distorts our understanding of what Jane Austen was about, because if you read the novel carefully you see that she mocks too much ‘sense’ and also makes it clear that Elinor did not lack sensibility. Jenkyns also discusses the different meanings of “sensibility” in 1811.

Another member had researched several sources on that issue of endless debate:

Why did Marianne marry Brandon or more to the point what was JA thinking.

Here is what she prepared for the meeting:


[This of course begs the question that it is disappointing!]

A problem with Jane Austen’s writing is that it is often so dense with meaning and subtle humour that critics and readers alike come up with wildly differing theories about her intentions.

Sense & Sensibility seems to many unsatisfactory, especially in its conclusion. Richard Jenkyns believed that: “the author does not seem to have the working out of the story perfectly under control.” (p.37) However the American professor, Gene W. Ruoff, alerts us to “Austen’s practice in Sense & Sensibility, as it is throughout her novels, to exploit parodically the imbalance between what actually happens and the melodramatic narrative expectations her readers have brought to her fiction. (p. 102)

With this in mind, the idea that Austen wrote Sense & Sensibility as a parody of Richardson’s “Clarissa” throws interesting light on some of the difficulties readers find with the story.

The similarities can be seen in Willoughby’s courtship of Marianne breaking just about all the rules of Regency courtship mentioned by Marilynn Doore: formal means of address, discreet conversation, correspondence and gift giving. Whether there was intimate touching is left to the reader’s imagination. Willoughby instead of pursuing her relentlessly, flees from her and rebuffs her publicly. This is followed by a near fatal illness, Willoughby’s attempt at expiation and the “arranged” marriage with Brandon.

Jenkyns’ sees Brandon as “the most Byronic figure in Jane Austen’s entire cannon – the man in the flannel waistcoat.” (p.188). However, all his heroics happen off stage. The non eventful duel with Willoughby contrasts with that of Lovelace and Col Morden in Italy, during which the former receives mortal wounds. Willoughby is not quite a Lovelace but his confession is that of a sociopath pleading sympathy and entirely centred on self. (Ray p. 11) Both stories involve families whose only interests are in furthering their wealth and status by whatever means.

If we view Sense and Sensibility in this way and are mindful of Hilary Mantel’s belief that Austen’s genius lies “in the capacity to make a text that can give and give, a text that goes on multiplying meanings” (p.76) the seeming awkwardness that some find in the text is easier to understand.

Along the way, Austen makes fun of romance – love at first sight (Marianne and Willoughby compared to Brandon’s devotion), elopements (Brandon and Eliza defying his father), not to mention Marianne rhapsodising about the countryside due to her love of Cowper and Thompson versus Edward’s dour comment about mud.

Elinor’s ability to bear outrageous fortune with “the fortitude of an angel” is played for the humour with the exchanges between Elinor and Lucy similar to the duel of words between Elizabeth and Darcy. She is a much better support to Marianne than Clarissa’s friend.

Marianne constantly misunderstands Brandon as compared to Clarissa being duped by Lovelace. Marianne thinks his sincere appreciation of her musical ability is estimable even though “his pleasure in music, though it amounted not to that ecstatic delight which alone could sympathise with her own.” (p.68) She condemns him for talking about flannel waistcoats “invariably connected with aches, cramps and rheumatism and every species of ailment that can afflict the old and the feeble.” (It has been suggested that the colonel may have resorted to such garments because he felt the cold in England after living so long in India.) We need to remember, of course, that Marianne is only 17. She hates his frequent visits unaware they are due to his concern for her welfare.

On hearing the story of the two Elizas and the duel, her attitude changes so that she no longer avoids him and speaks to him with “a kind compassionate respect.” She even manages a pitying eye and gentleness of voice. And the final triumph along the “romantic” path is reached when Colonel Brandon is assured “that his exertion had produced an increase in goodwill towards himself. Finally when Marianne bursts into tears over Mrs Ferrars unkind treatment of Elinor, Colonel Brandon quite loses control and “rose up and went to them without knowing what he did.” And so it goes on with Austen tantalising us with luke warm statements and denying us any direct speech between the pair.

The parody continues with the confederacy of Edward, Elinor and Mrs Dashwood feeling Col. Brandon‘s “sorrow and their own obligations, and Marianne by general consent, was to be the reward of all.” Not as with Clarissa’s family endeavouring to get control of her fortune but still a sacrificial heroine of sorts.

Marianne’s devotion to Brandon grows out of strong esteem and lively friendship, while Brandon patiently waits for her to recover from her first love. Marianne’s experience with Willoughby, the influence of her sister and the serious reflection she indulged in after her illness, perhaps led to her using sense in making her decision to marry Brandon. She was duly rewarded, instead of “falling sacrifice to irresistible passion as once she had fondly flattered herself with expecting.” (p.367)


  • Austen, Jane, Sense & Sensibility, Penguin Books 1969-1975
  • Doore, Marilyn, Love and Courtship in the Time of Jane Austen, Suite 101.com
  • Jenkyns, Richard, A Fine Brush on Ivory, Oxford, 2004
  • Mantel, Hilary in Literary Genius ed. by Joseph Epstein, Haus Books, London 2007
  • Ray, Joan Klingal, “The Amiable Prejudices of a Young (Writer’s) Mind, The Problems of Sense and Sensibility”, Persuasions on-line V.26 No 1 (Winter 2005), Jane Austen Society of North America
  • Ruoff, Gene W. Jane Austen’s “Sense & Sensibility”, Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1992

One Response to June 2011 meeting: Secondary sources on Sense and sensibility

  1. jessiet1 says:

    A great post, especially for those of us who were not able to be at the meeting – my thanks to those who put it together. S&S has always been my ‘least-liked’ JA novel but the comparison with ‘Clarissa’ is interesting and throws up food for thought. I don’t think I can agree with ‘Marianne’s devotion to Brandon’ though – maybe that will develop in their future life but I can’t feel that her almost contempt for him could so quickly become ‘devotion’.

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