by O.W. Firkins
Part I: The Novelist
Chapter I: Sense and Sensibility
Sense and Sensibility* belongs to a very old type of story--the story of brotherly (or sisterly) contrast. In Hebrew narrative it is as ancient as Cain and Abel, and receives the countenance of Jesus himself in the parable of the Prodigal Son and his brother. In classical and modern drama it lengthens chainwise and spreads fanwise in a long descent from Menander to Terence, from Terence to Moliére, from Moliére to Sheridan (with his griding Surfaces) down to a success not two years old in the commercialized drama of our American metropolis. On the sisterly side the theme reaches at least as far back as Martha and Mary in the New Testament, and comes down to yesterday in the Marta y Maria of Valdés and the Constance and Sophia of Amold Bennett in the Old-Wives' Tale. The Austen mark is pleasantly conspicuous in the fact that the two sisters contrasted in this novel are both virtuous and affectionate women; they differ only in the degree in which they permit judgment to control feeling.
The conduct of the novel is careful and successful, though far from blameless. Two sisters, Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, expecting offers of marriage from two young men, are forsaken by their lovers without declaration or explanation in the first half of the book. The retirement of the two cavaliers induces a languor or slackness in the middle of the narrative comparable to the effect of the departure of the masculine element on a social assembly. For this shrinkage of interest the redress offered by the conclusion is imperfect.
But the stories claim amore complete analysis. Elinor Dashwood learns that Edward Ferrars, who has made tacit love to her, is bound by an early and secret engagement to a young woman of inferior breeding called Lucy Steele. The secret is divulged; the young man is promptly disinherited by his vindictive and grasping mother; and he prepares by marrying the girl to try how far the fulfilment of duty can console its victim for a blighted love and a vanished income. Extrication comes from a novel quarter; the brother who has stripped him of his inheritance unexpectedly relieves him of his bride. The supplanter is decoyed into a secret marriage, and the release of Edward Ferrars is followed by his betrothal to Elinor and the reluctant forgiveness of the thwarted mother. The average novelist would call this material interesting, and the author of Vanity Fair would have lingered and luxuriated in the story of the arts by which the young girl substituted the rich brother for the poor one. Not so Miss Austen. She dislikes, or merely tolerates, this material. She is as slow in getting up to it and as quick in getting away from it as the decencies of the situation will permit. Two-thirds of the book is over before the divulging of the engagement which would start the interest for the average reader is accomplished, and the decisive events are narrated at second-hand in the briefest summary in the impatient conclusion of a somewhat leisurely and ambling tale. The haste was probably due in part to Miss Austen's discontent with the makeshift expedient by which she cleared the path of Elinor and Edward to their deferred and improbable happiness. She was also not indisposed to evade the direct treatment of crises, as her management of the Lydia--Wickham affair in Pride and Prejudice clearly shows.
The conduct of the other story is subject to equal, if different, strictures. John Willoughby Leaves Marianne Dashwood without making the offer to which his whole behavior has served as prelude and promise. Marianne follows him to London. Her disillusion is then effected by a series of incidents which are not uninteresting, but are at once so obvious and so meagre as to retard the speed and contract the volume of the narrative. Another suitor has been provided for Marianne in the person of an amiable and melancholy Colonel, twice her age and the object, at his first introduction, of her untiring and unsparing raillery. The renovation of Colonel Brandon in the esteem of Marianne might have seemed a seductive theme to a novelist who in Pride and Prejudice was to lavish time and pains on the rehabilitation of the rejected sind discredited Darcy. But in Sense and Sensibility Miss Austen has stayed her hand. The embellishment of the Colonel is incidental and perfunctory; it consists chiefly in his bestowal of a rectory upon Edward Ferrars--a point of only indirect concern to Marianne--and his fetching of Mrs. Dashwood to her daughter's sick-bed. The courtship is unhesitatingly shirked; Miss Austen, for all her implacable worldly sense, may have been woman enough to shrink from detailing a process by which ayoung girl was induced to marry a middle-aged gentleman who is the domicile--I had almost said the sepulchre--of all the virtues.
Sickness is a classic expedient for reviving our interest in heroines who are slipping into insignificance, and Miss Austen likes sickness for its own sake she delights in its respectability. Accordingly Marianne, who seems likely to fall into abeyance in the last third of the story, is saved from this calamity by taking to her bed. It is only fair to this illness to note that it disappears with the most obliging celerity as soon as it has accomplished the rather trifling errand for which its presence was invoked. That Marianne should be sick in a house not her own whence the whole family, with the exception of a grandmother who is half a guest, have fled at the mere pronunciation of the name "typhus," appears forced in an author so studious of the normal as Miss Austen. The change of domicile is intended chiefly to provide an excuse for a penitential visit on the part of the mercurial and dashing Willoughby. He makes an explanation to the placable Elinor which he has the impudence, and Miss Austen the courage, to present as a defense of his behavior.
The two stories, as the outline shows, are essentially distinct; they are bound together after a fashion, however, by the intimacy of the two sisters who scarcely leave each other's sides, and there are one or two secondary ligatures. Colonel Brandon, for instance, who is Marianne's suitor, is destined for Elinor by the prevalent opinion of the circle in which they move. As we have seen, itis Colonel Brandon who provides the rectory for Edward Ferrars. The interval between the two plots is lessened, or at least blurred, by the likeness of the two situations and the identical moral which is deduced from the contrasted behavior of the two sisters. I may remark here that the difference between Elinor and Marianne, whether in conduct or fortune, is probably not so wide as Miss Austen in the zeal of tutorship intended that it should be. Marianne's palpable indiscretions, the private excursions and the letters to Willoughby, are productive of no palpable misfortune. Her real error consists in the surrender of her heart without guarantees, and the guarded and provident Elinor has made the same mistake. A few months of anguish is the sum total of Marianne's penalty, and the endurance of a very little less is all the reward that Elinor reaps for the persevering exercise of the whole troop of circumspect and heedful virtues. It may be said in Miss Austen's defense that the support her narrative gives to the virtues is no more uncertain or unequal than the support they commonly receive from that lukewarm and hesitating moralist that we call life.
To return to the handling of the story. The volume of the two plots is small, and the reader who recails the plethora of minor incident, the incessant meetings and partings, the fuss and bustle, which mark the London section of the novel will be puzzled to relate this superAux of exertion to this shortage of Accomplishment. The truth is that Miss Austen's main end is the exhibition of life and character forl their own sake, and her specialty is not the great scene--hardly even the deciding or impelling scene--but the normal social occasion. The multiplying of these occasions without too rigid a scrutiny of their actual contribution to the outcome has resulted in a feebler story and a better novel. It is notable that side by side with this slackness in the pursuit of relevance there is an extreme, almost an extravagant, interest in the development of minor trains of consequence. Here is a little catena. First, John Dashwood meets his sister Elinor in a jeweler's shop. Second, he calls on her the next day. Third, he asks Elinor to take him to the Middletons. Fourth, he recommends his wife to call on the Middletons. Fifth, his wife complies. Sixth, friendliness results. Seventh, the Dashwoods invite Lady Middleton to their home, where Mrs. Ferrars is staying. Eighth, the Misses Steele, who have been invited to stay with Lady Middleton, hasten their acceptance. Ninth, they are included in the Dashwood invitation. Tenth, Lucy Steele meets Mrs. Ferrars. Miss Austen revels in this sort of generalship; her own temper has points of contact with that of the satirized Mrs. Jennings. On the other hand, Colonel Brandon's supposed courtship of Elinor has almost no bearing on the outcome of the story. Willoughby's seduction of Colonel Brandon's ward is material only in the clearer revelation it affords of the infamies of that young wastrel's character. The utility of the Palmers appears to be confined to the provision of a house in which Marianne can be sick, the Colonel assiduous, and Willoughby histrionic. If Miss Austen had been a man, she would have enjoyed the vocation of a courier. To see people from place to place, to provide for their entrances and exits, and to get as much out of them as an adroit use of these opportunities permits would have given point and vivacity to life.
Miss Austen is unable or unwilling to dispense with the friendly offices of coincidence. Coincidence had not in her day fallen into that sere and yellow leaf to which the frost of latter-day criticism has reduced the green of its abundant foliage. In this novel Mr. Robert Ferrars is seen by chance in a jeweler's shop. Mr. John Dashwood is seen, equally by chance, in the same place. Edward and Lucy call on Elinor by chance at the same time. The encounter of the man-servant with Lucy Ferrars at Exeter is one of those alms of destiny to which the poverty of novelists is perennially grateful. I may add that the servant's mistake as to the identity of the bridegroom is one of those borrowings from farce which a novelist of Miss Austen's calibre in our own time would find incompatible with selfrespect. Far worse is the misunderstanding between Mrs. Jennings and Elinor in Chapter XL, where Elinor is talking about the gift of a rectory and Mrs. Jennings about an offer of marriage. Here the stale devices which realists contemptuously allow to farce prolong through a conference of appreciable length a misconception to which the bluntness of actuality would have put an end in sixty seconds.
I pass to an estimate of the characters. Elinor Dashwood is the personification of good sense and right feeling, and the instructress by precept and example of her impetuous and incautious mother and sister. The hardships of such a position are manifest, and nothing less than Miss Austen's wit and vitality could have extricated Elinor from the straits into which she is thrown by Miss Austen's irrepressible didacticism. "He really is not disgusting," said Gwendolen Harleth of Grandcourt, and insisted that the praise was generous for a man. The critic is half disposed to say of Elinor Dashwood: "She really is not disagreeable," and to say that for a paragon of discretion the praise is munificent. Our liking passes through crises at every turn, and its final safety is a form of miracle. The reader is aided by the fact that under Miss Austen's convoy he takes up his abode in the mind of Elinor, and a well-bred person feels a difficulty in quarreling with his hostess. Elinor, moreover, has strong affections and even keen sensibilities, though, like captive princesses, the most they can do is to flutter a signal or drop a rose through the gratings of the tower in which her judgment has confined them. Possibly another help is her practical helplessness in many cases. Her temper is less rigid than her ideal, or what we may venture to call her own version of her temper. She seems, at first sight, a bureau, an official headquarters, to which all questions are automatically referred for instant and final adjudication. But, however rigid, her judgment, her conduct abounds in compliances.
Elinor accompanies Marianne to London against her judgment. She is diplomatic in her treatment of her brother, of Fanny Dashwood, of the gadfly Lucy and of the buzz-fly Miss Steele. She does not openly protest against Marianne's letters to Willoughby. She accepts the hospitality of the Palmers in opposition to her initial prejudice. She hears Willoughby after her indignant refusal to hear him, and, by one of the subtlest touches in the book, allows herself to be swayed in his favor by the romantic charm of his person and manners. Miss Austen is after all so much wiser than her superflux of wisdom would suggest. The truth is that the novelist is as intensely social as she is conscientious, and if the essence of conscience is inflexibility, the essence of society is compromise. The rational woman is provisionally rational and ultimately woman.
Elinor is much better than her ungrateful rôle; Marianne is not quite so good as her vocation. She is imagined strongly, but thinly and brokenly as it were. She suffers from that glaze of formality which in Miss Austen's work overlays the really formal and the really informal characters alike. The twentieth century hardly knows what to do with a young woman to whom apostrophes of this type are feasible:
And you, ye well-known trees--but you will continue the same.--No leaf will decay because we are removed, nor any branch become motionless although we can observe you no longer.In lines like these the satirized Mrs. Radcliffe is vindicated--or avenged. Even where the heart is stirred, the creaking of the eighteenth-century stays in which its throbbings are confined is distinctly audible.
"Nor I," answered Marianne with energy; "our situations then are alike. We have neither of us anything to tell; you, because you communicate, and I, because I conceal nothing."The pitiless Taine remarked of Pope's Eloisa to Abelard that Abelard would have cried out "Bravo" at certain passages, and on reaching the end would have reversed the letter to see if "For press" were not added to the superscription. If Marianne wrote as she talks, one could almost forgive a similar levity in Willoughby.
Deep passion is not Miss Austen's strong point, and Marianne's suffering has the vague though real impressiveness of a house of mourning which the spectator views from the remoteness of the pavement. As her business is largely to suffer, the resulting exclusion is considerable. The need of keeping her imprudences within strictly respectable limits has shortened the span of the character, and, as I have already intimated, her speedy recovery does not conduce to the energy of the thesis.
The first effect of Willoughby, as he comes dashing into the story with spurs jingling and bridle-bells tinkling, like a youthful chevalier, is distinct and promising. But with this first sharpness of impression Miss Austen's proficiency ceases. Her knowledge of a bad man was decorously limited. George Eliot in Tito or Grandcourt would spell you out a bad man, word for word and letter for letter; Miss Austen keeps warily aloof from the lip of the crater. She knows Willoughby's manners and that part of his temperament to which manners are the clew. She is not withheld by any visible squeamishness. Her account of Willoughby's worst offense is handled with a frankness and a discretion and an absence of any consciousness of either frankness or discretion which, in relation to her sex and epoch, is notable and laudable. The awe, the mystery, which encircle sex are entirely absent; her disapproval is emphatic, but her coolness is immovable. Willoughby is a trumpery character. The curvettings and bridlings with which he dashes upon the stage in the outset of the story arouse a distrust which is rather confirmed than lessened by the final caracole of his repentance. Miss Austen leaves us at last with the impression that his desertion of Marianne and his betrayal of Eliza are criminal at best, and that, in an unpolished or unhandsome man, they would have been totally unforgivable.
Edward Ferrars is placed in direct contrast to Willoughby. Willoughby is gloss without substance; Edward is substance without gloss. The difficulty with Edward is that the absence of plumage is so much more demonstrable than the presence of marrow. Edward has the ill luck to be compelled always to carry a shyness which needs no nursing into situations which supply it with the most liberal encouragement. He is inactive and largely invisible; and when he is dragged upon the stage by the inexorable Miss Austen, his chief aim is to conceal his mind from the friends to whom he has been obliged to expose his person. His adhesion to the pestiferous Lucy seems a dismal if not a truckling type of virtue, and the American reader is not propitiated by his naïve view of the ministry as a steppingstone to a living in the double sense of a rectory and a livelihood. It is quite true that in this view of the church as a refectory he has the cordial support of his patroness, Miss Austen.
Colonel Brandon is the last of the three men in the story to whom the office of lover and suitor is committed. He is hampered in this function by an accumulation of years which exposes him to the contempt of romantic young women of eighteen. Colonel Brandon is thirty-five, and the touch of rheumatism from which he suffers is confessed by the novelist with a candor which may be classed with the heroisms--not to say the heroics--of conscientious realistic treatment. That touch of rheumatism is felt in Colonel Brandon's gait throughout the story. He is a very good, indeed a very eacient, man, if the only sound test, the test of deeds, be a applied to his character, but we feel always that he is bandaged. He is the most recurrent, yet the most unobtrusive, of characters, and the reader starts at the perception of his arrival as he might at the discovery of the nearness of some quiet person who had entered the room on tiptoe. Even at the very end of the tale he can hardly be said to have laid aside his muffler; we know the facts, but we do not know the man. It is natural that he should be drawn to Marianne rather than to Elinor, between whom and himself is the obvious bond and the impalpable barrier of a precise conformity of tastes and principles. It is not so easy to understand his final conquest of Marianne even with the aid of a proviso that Marianne accepts him in the first instance on the unromantic basis of grateful friendship and esteem. Discretion that is to be made amiable to indiscretion might surely assume a livelier and courtlier shape than it wears in the sedate--almost the lugubrious--Colonel.
Miss Austen's tolerance of inconsistency is evident in the changes undergone by two characters, Mrs. Jennings and Mr. Palmer, in the shifting exigencies of a varied novel. Mrs. Jennings as we first see her, is a vulgar gossip, wholly foolish and wholly contemptible. In the course of the story she becomes a convenience to Miss Austen, and Miss Austen is too robustly English to view any convenience with unqualified contempt. Mrs. Jennings is revamped. Her cheap good-nature is changed to an endearing benevolence; the folly which had pervaded and constituted her character is reduced to a tincture that makes her virtues pardonable by making them diverting. The change in Mr. Palmer, while much less conspicuous, is even more violent. When we are first introduced to this extraordinary person, the only characteristic he exhibits is a brutal and supercilious rudeness, and that characteristic is pushed to an extreme from which anybody but a demure and discreet clergyman's daughter engaged in the writing of realistic novels would have shrunk. Later on, when Mr. Palmer has a chance to be useful, half his brutality is obliterated at a stroke. These alterations are instructive. In Miss Austen's comic delineations the character is spitted on a trait, and the trait is abnormally sharpened for the due performance of this trenchant office. This may pass, if the handling is brief and includes no diversity of functions. A person may stand on his peculiarities, as he may stand on the tips of his toes, for a little while, if he is content to do practically nothing else. But there is nothing like prolonged contact for the taming of superlatives, and nothing like variety of function for abatement of the rankness of caricature. Miss Austen's changes are tacit acknowledgments that the unrevised Mrs. Jennings and Mr. Palmer were libelous.
This confession really involves the whole prolific and interesting group of characters in Miss Austen for which the formula is the raising of a single trait to the highest power and the iteration of that trait with tireless insistence. People are not like that, whatever Smollett and Dickens and Miss Austen may think. The arbitrary modification of full-blown or full-grown characters is one of the artistic sins that spot the record of Dickens. I will take an illustration from that novel of Dickens which reperusal has lately freshened in my memory, the Tale of Edwin Drood. The lawyer, Mr. Grewgious, in that book is pure fool and butt in the extravagant and irrational scene in which he is first introduced to the amused but protesting reader. Later on, Mr. Grewgious's help is wanted by Dickens in some rather delicate transactions in the conduct of which a character and brain are indispensable. The equipment of Mr. Grewgious with these desiderata is carried out without hesitation or delay. Unsightly tricks of this sort excite the liveliest indignation in admirers of the authoress of Sense and Sensibility.
Mrs. Jennings has two daughters, Lady Middleton and Mrs. Palmer. They are like each other only in their brainlessness, Lady Middleton's folly taking the form of an inane silence, Mrs. Palmer's that of inane speech. Mrs. Palmer is the smarter performance, Lady Middleton the truer success. Mrs. Palmer's drivel is incessant and her good-nature is swashing, but beside her husband--and she is tactful enough never to leave his side--her very insipidities are lustrous. Lady Middleton has not the air of the woman of fashion she is presumed to be, at least not of the woman of high fashion; the middle tone in her, if I may venture the pun, is very noticeable. But the suggestion of well-bred and tranquil ineptitude by a very few strokes is expert; and as her specialty is silence she is not subject to that continuity in self-betrayal which is the retribution of loquacity in Miss Austen. Her husband, Sir John Middleton, is described by Goldwin Smith as "halfway between Squire Western and the country gentleman of the present day." This is gracious, almost obsequious, to Squire Western. Possibly as a, social datum it might be approved by a committee of historians, but I find nothing in my own impression of Sir John to indorse it. I cannot think, with Goldwin Smith, that the character is hinged on its vulgarity. The hinge is brainless good-nature, and in the deft though sparse drawing I seem to feel that this good-nature is reciprocated by Miss Austen, who is less violent than usual in her chastisement of the brainlessness.
Fanny Dashwood is inhumanly simplified, and the same process that robs her of nature endows her with liveliness, if not with life. Her business is to clutch at property and to maltreat her husband's relatives, and in the pursuit of this vocation she is not allowed even those passing furloughs which Thackeray: permits to Blanche Amory or Becky Sharp. John Dashwood, her husband, is a curious study. In him the crudities and delicacies of Miss Austen's handiwork are seen in operation side by side. He is a fool who talks; that is tantamount to saying that he is his own target, and his marksmanship is so expert that he is left at the end of the exhibition completely riddled by his own bullets. The crudity lies in that uniformity of method which never permits him to open his mouth without, so to speak, swallowing his own character. The delicacy lies in the art with which his own view of his character is suggested at the same time that the utter falsity of that view is laid bare to the least wakeful reader. The ground, the texture, of his character is selfishness and worldly greed, but there is a lining of decency, humanity, and self-respect, and the lining is very thick and very soft. That is the delicate and worthy task--to portray inside of the fool and knave the man who is like ourselves in every point but the excess of his knavery and folly. The combination of abilities and ineptitudes in John Dashwood is mysterious. Here is a man of excellent business judgment, of perfect social tranquillity, of faultless ease in the handling of unexceptionable English; yet he is the dupe of the flimsiest pretenses and blind even to those inconsistencies which his own circle must have trained itself to perceive. He complains of poverty in the same breath in which he offers proofs of riches. He thinks a woman who invites two girls to spend a few weeks at her house in London is under a moral obligation to remember them in her will. I have no first-hand knowledge of England; in America folly is more symmetrical.
To Mrs. Dashwood, the mother, who is an unregenerate, or, if the reader pleases, an undegenerate, Marianne, Miss Austen is, for tactical reasons, rather inattentive; but the brand of truth which she exhibits seems to me more delicate than that which I find in the fuller portraitures of the younger women. The two daughters are encumbered by the necessity of serving at the same time as the poles of an antithesis and the stays of a thesis; Mrs. Dashwood has the leisure and freedom to be herself.
I am not sure but the best-drawn character in the book is Lucy Steele. She finds the spot of vindictiveness in the gentlest reader, for her business throughout the book is to provide distress for Edward Ferrars and Elinor Dashwood, to the first of whom she serves as barnacle, to the second as gadfly. An early and heedless engagement has bound the scrupulous and submissive Edward to this incubus, and placed his honor between him and his later and lasting love for Elinor Dashwood. Lucy Steele is single-minded, courageous, and resolute. She is without manners, without affection, and without conscience. She is capable of meanness, hypocrisy, and treachery. At the same time it is impossible to detect in Lucy the smallest trace of harlotry, of Bohemianism, or of disorder. She is privateer, but not buccaneer. Her , means and her ends alike find harborage within the securities and the decorums--those securities and decorums which so often serve as shelter to worse deeds than the deeds to which they serve as barrier. A Frenchman could not have so neatly separated the manceuverer from the adventuress.
We see Lucy only in her relations with Elinor Dashwood--relations in which her confidences are unmeasured, her attitude dissembling, and her jesuitry extraordinary. In the skill with which she is drawn there are occasional lacunae. Lucy is supposed to talk bad English, but the stuff or tissue of which her English is composed is not bad at all. On the contrary, it is very good English upon which patches of vile English have been.purposely and inexpertly sewed. A second mistake, already mentioned, is the final stroke by which Lucy, having jilted Edward to marry Robert, allows Elinor to imagine that the marriage has gone forward without change of bridegrooms. This seems an overdraft on the badness of a character which has met all its obligations to the evil principle with the most commendable punctuality and exactness. The stroke, even if natural, seems artistically wrong. A touch of malignity is as injurious to the artistic perfection of the pure self-seeking embodied in Lucy Steele as a touch of benignity would have been.
Lucy has a sister, Anne Steele, a scatterbrain, frankly vulgar, who may be said to reek with goodnature. Her conversation is an unceasing current in which she not merely swims but splashes. She is drawn with a precision which by no means excludes gusto. Robert Ferrars, on whom Lucy is finally bestowed, has every claim to that privilege which imbecility and vanity can confer. He is hacked out with the broad-axe, but the vigor of the axeman's stroke is unmistakable.
*The dating of Miss Austen's novels is not altogether precise, but it seems generally agreed that Sense and Sensibility represents an earlier formation, if not an earlier date, than Pride and Prejudice. A review of this novel is therefore the natural introduction to a survey of her work. At the outset, however, I shall gratefully avail myself of the succinct and useful summary in which Mr. R. Brimley Johnson has snooded up, if I may risk the word, the dishevelment of priorities in which the composition and publication of Miss Austen's fictions is involved. "Pride and Prejudice, written between October, 1796, and August, 1797, first published in 1813, and a second edition the same year, third edition, 1817; Sense and Sensibility, written in its present form between November, 1797 and 1798, though a portion was extracted from an earlier manuscript, in the form of letters, entitled Elinor and Marianne, first published in 1811, second edition, 1813; Northanger Abbey, written during 1798, and first published in 1818; Mansfield Park, written between 1811 and 1814, and first published in 1814; second edition in 1816; Emma, written between 1811 and 1816, and first published in 1816; Persuasion, written between 1811 and 1816, and first published in 1818."
This text was originally digitized by Catherine Dean for her "Jane Austen E-Texts, Etc." website, and is archived at Molland's with Ms. Dean's permission.