Last month, we reported on Volume 2 of our current slow read of Austen’s first published novel, Sense and sensibility. Here is our report on Volume 3.
As usual, different members responded quite differently to this volume, but the result was a fascinating discussion. One member felt more strongly than she had before that the novel reveals signs of being a very ‘young’ work. She was conscious of the characters being manoeuvred rather than evolving naturally as they do in her later novels. She also quoted Patrick Piggott, whose focus was music in the novel:
Jane Austen’s first published novel, with all its irony, humour and youthful vitality, is, on the whole, a sad story. Marianne’s extreme ‘sensibility’ is not the cause of her misfortune, it only increases its degree, and one is left uncertain whether the authoress herself believed that a refined susceptibility to the effect of music on the emotions was more likely to undermine the nerves, and therefore the strength needed to overcome life’s difficulties, than to provide a sensitive soul with a valuable means of consolation and support when weighed down by affliction.
Some members thought about the work’s overall trajectory. One commented on how long the resolution took after Marianne recovered enough to travel back to Barton Cottage: so many loose ends were tied up and commented on.
Another noticed how Elinor and Edward’s romance was stretched out until last minute, with Marianne and Col. Brandon wooing constantly in the background. She likened Marianne and Col. Brandon’s relationship to an arranged marriage. Marianne esteemed Col. Brandon and was fond of him rather than was passionate – but “became devoted in time”. Marianne changes much over the course of the novel. She matures through realising what Elinor had experienced with such forbearance. Sickness also gave her time to think. This member suggested Austen was contrasting romantic passion with calm longstanding devotion. She also compared Col. Brandon and Marianne, to Fanny Price and her devotion to Edmund, reminding us of the time it was going to take for Edmund to fall in love in love with Fanny.
What was Austen saying about love, she asked? In this case, she seems to be saying that it developed over time. She left the reader to decide how long it would take Fanny’s Edmund!
A couple of members were interested in the heroes. Why did Austen create such ordinary flawed men for her heroines to marry. They are not Alan Rickman or Hugh Grant, one said, but sort of depressives. The Dashwood girls, she said, seem to be condemned to mundane marriages while Lucy Steele continues to succeed in charming everyone through her scheming. Is this fair? Marilyn Butler, in fact, has written that Austen would have appreciated the irony that a work so sceptical about romance could be declared one of the best romance novels.
Another member’s mind followed similar lines of thought. Austen, she suggested, portrays a microcosm of humanity from her first novel. They are peopled with flawed, real characters representing complex humanity (unlike the black-and-white characters of her Gothic precursors.) Mrs Jennings, the gossip, for example is interfering but kind and tolerant, and the aloof Mr Palmer comes to his own in his own home. Even Willoughby presents himself as a “blockhead … [but] not been always a rascal” and we are (almost) inclined to agree. Certainly, Austen lets him have a decent life. Meanwhile, the heroes, Edward and Col. Brandon are not exciting, sweep-you-off-your-feet types. Edward is quiet, reserved, and Col. Brandon is middle-aged (for the times) and serious.
So then, the question again, why such heroes? And what did Austen mean by the strange implication that Marianne is “the reward of all” (though she will become “devoted in time”). Is this fair? And, is Elinor’s fate fair? What is Austen saying? Life isn’t fair? Ha! Or, in the realistic world she was creating, was she wanting to describe “real” love that is based on genuine feeling combined with appreciation of the personal values that make a person worth loving?
Others were particularly taken by certain themes or ideas being explored. Gossip, for example.
Gossip, Eavesdropping and Cross Purposes
One member wondered how Mrs Smith hears about Willoughby’s indiscretion, which resulted in her realising that although Sense and sensibility is often called a novel of secrets, it also contains a remarkable amount of gossip. Mrs Jennings is the most obvious conveyor of gossip but there are many other instances.
Concerning Mrs Smith and Willoughby, for example, had Colonel Brandon informed her about her cousin’s seduction of Eliza Williams. Perhaps not, but when Willoughby visits Cleveland, having learned of Marianne’s illness, he tells Elinor that ‘Mrs Smith had somehow or other been informed, I imagine by some distant relation whose interest it was to deprive me of her favour, of an affair, of a connection – but I need not explain myself further’. So, self-interested gossip from an unknown person (unknown to us, but perhaps known to Willoughby) plays a significant role in the plot of the novel.
Such gossip also accounts for two other important events: Sophia learns of her fiancé’s attachment and, jealous, dictates his letter to Marianne; and Willoughby learns of Marianne’s illness from Sir John Middleton and decides to visit her at Cleveland.
Our member went through Volume III, identifying the many places where gossip plays a role in the development of the plot, including the way Lucy and Edward’s secret engagement is divulged and to whom, and who tells whom what about reactions to the engagement.
Besides playing a role in the plot, gossip can also reveal character, our member said. Nancy Steele shows no shame, for example, in eavesdropping and then sharing what she’s heard. Mrs Jennings also tries to overhear a conversation between Col. Brandon and Elinor, but, rather than gossip about it, she uses what she thinks she’s heard to inform her discussion with Elinor, which results in a humorous – for the reader – conversation.
Towards the end of the novel, gossip, resulting in a misunderstanding about who has married whom, creates dramatic tension when Edward suddenly arrives, intending to propose to Elinor, little knowing that they believe he is already married. Our member questioned whether there is more gossip in this novel than in Austen’s other novels. Her unscientific internet search suggests this is possible!
She also said that it’s worth considering what gossip actually is – when is it helpful, a passing on of useful information, and when is it harmful?
All things worth exploring another day…
Another member was drawn to Mrs Jennings. She reminded us that in Vol I we are introduced to Mrs Jennings, who is staying at Barton Park with her daughter and her son-in-law Sir John Middleton, as ‘a good humoured, merry, fat, elderly woman, who talked a great deal, seemed very happy and rather vulgar’. Not a flattering or appealing description. Someone you would choose to know? We are also informed she is a widow with an ample jointure who has lived to see her two daughters respectably married and now has ‘nothing to do but to marry all the rest of the world’.
She has an ear for gossip and loves to tease young women about their attractions to young men at the frequent social occasions which Sir John loves to arrange. ‘She was remarkably quick in the discovery of attachments…’ Mrs Jennings comes across as not much more than an inquisitive busybody enjoying her stay in the country and the rather superficial social activities of the Middletons.
However, in Volume III, Austen gives her a larger role in the movement of the story, and we see and appreciate her values and her better qualities in putting those values into practice.
Her status as a widow with an ample jointure (meaning she’s well off) allows her the freedom to act on her own behalf, recognised as a ‘person’ under the law, rather than as an agent of an husband. Her thoughtfulness and generosity are displayed in her invitation to Elinor and Marianne to spend the season in London with her at her residence.
Our member felt that Mrs Jennings assumes a pivotal role in the story from this point, being involved in most of its ensuing developments.
We now see her in her well-located Berkeley Square house – ‘handsome and handsomely fitted up, and the young ladies were immediately put in possession of a very comfortable apartment’. She efficiently runs her household, attending to her affairs and ensuring every attention is paid to her guests, seeing them out in society and appropriately chaperoned when she is unavailable to accompany them. The author portrays her as a very different character from Vol I’s garrulous gossip.
Her close friendship with Col. Brandon (permitted by her widowhood?) continues in the city and is significant to the movement of the story.
Of course, she is still curious about everyone, especially their attachments, and wants to gather information, but we also see her support for people of a moral conscience and for those who behave honourably and with integrity. She is disdainful of Fanny Dashwood and Mrs Ferrars, despising their valuing of money and greatness. She is more than only a busybody.
Marianne and Elinor gradually warm to her. She shows immense kindness and thoughtfulness to Marianne in her despair over Willoughby’s behaviour and is a constant support to both young women. She moves with the party to ‘Cleveland’ and continues to contribute to their comfort and wellbeing. Her widow status and comfortable resources enable her continued freedom to move around at will.
In other words, the author transforms her from a fairly minor and perhaps unattractive character at the beginning, until, later in the novel, when she assumes a central role in the playing out of the story.
Ian Watt sees her role as providing the main educative process in modifying Marianne’s and Elinor’s extremes of sense and sensibility:
She has all Sir John’s indiscriminate cheerfulness, her tactless curiosity and thoughtless gossip, begin by offending Elinor and Marianne even more deeply; yet by the end of the novel they have learned that the uncultivated Mrs Jennings has the essence of what really matters as regards both sense and sensibility. Once her intellectual judgments (sic) are made, and her benevolent feelings are engaged, she acts disinterestedly and energetically, siding with Elinor and Marianne against the wealth and the family connections of the Dashwoods and the Ferrars. Even before then, her “naturalness” and her “blunt sincerity” have implicitly corrected Marianne’s erroneous assumptions about the proper relationship between marriage and money, for she at once assumes that the very modest income of Edward Ferrars’s living at Delaford will not and should not be any obstacle to the marriage of lovers. Her head and her heart combine to point out that the lovers must merely make do with less.
Another member took a different approach again, and explored the theme of money. Volume III, she said, shows the final impact of the theme of money, and she demonstrated her ideas through two characters, in particular, Lucy Steele and John Willoughby. Both reveal the importance of money to living in high society.
Lucy Steele uses many techniques to charm and ingratiate herself into ‘polite society’. Both the Steele sisters shamelessly flatter those above them. Through constant and judicious attention, and sacrificing their dignity and integrity, they ‘buy’ their way into polite society. In Chapter 50, she is rewarded by marriage with Robert Ferrars, and thus gains the long sought after money and social status.
Similarly, John Willoughby throughout the novel shows how men can be just as devious in their need for money and social status. He displays the qualities of a charming, but morally shallow, character. In Volume III, Chapter 46 Willoughby explains his treatment of Marianne. This chapter may offer Elinor, and the reader, a sympathetic look at Willoughby. However, in the end, his superficial show of remorse and guilt leaves the question of whether he is truly genuine. The need for money is at the heart of all his decisions; he really cares little for anyone who may fall under his spell.
A member suggested that one of the novel’s themes is the triumph of kindness, generosity and charity (seen in characters like Sir John Middleton, Col. Brandon, Mrs Jennings, and Charlotte Palmer) over greed and self-interest (seen in characters like Willoughby, Lucy Steele, Fanny and John Dashwood).
An enjoyable and enlightening slow read.
- Butler, Marilyn. Jane Austen and the war on ideas. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987.
- Carson, Susannah (ed) ‘On Sense and Sensibility’, in A Truth Universally Acknowledged (p. 52-3). Particular Books, Penguin Group (Australia), 2010
- Mijares, Jackie. ‘Mrs Jennings and “The Comfortable Estate of Widowhood” or The Benefits of Being a Widow with a Handsome Jointure’. Persuasions Online, Vol 38 (10), Winter 2017
- Piggott, Patrick. The Innocent Diversion: a study of Music in the life and writings of Jane Austen. Moonrise Press, 2010.