Thursday, May 21, 2020

Marianne Dashwood

Marianne (Kate Winslet) and Elinor (Emma Thompson)

 [Image source: . From Ang Lee's 1995 movie adaptation of Sense and Sensibility.]

Two sisters; the sweet-tempered elder one is fond of drawing, the passionate younger one plays the pianoforte. That's the premise of Ann Radcliffe's A Sicilian Romance (1790). But contrasted sisters feature in many other novels of the 1790s, too.

In Radcliffe's novel the lead role in the story is very definitely taken by the younger sister Julia; after the first couple of chapters Emilia is given nothing further to do, and is finally consigned to a future in the shadows, a premonition of Sonya's fate in War and Peace. Anyway, Jane Austen reverses the emphasis. She presented Sense and Sensibility (1811) principally from the viewpoint of the elder sister, Elinor Dashwood. A balanced view of the book should probably focus much more on Elinor. Yet it's Marianne who asks the questions, who bothers us, and who gives this Jane Austen novel its distinctive flavour.

Marianne's sensibility, or rather her belief in the sensibility valorized by novels, is extreme. For Marianne is doctrinaire on these points; "her opinions are all romantic", Elinor tells Colonel Brandon (Ch 11). In that respect Sense and Sensibility, specifically Marianne's part in it, continues the critical examination of current literary values that was played out by Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey (written 1798-99).

The practical difference between the sisters is perhaps better stated without using the words of the title. The sisters aren't enormously different in either sense or sensibility. But Elinor, we are told at once, has a "coolness of judgment" that contrasts with the "eagerness" and "imprudence" manifested both by Marianne and their mother (Ch 1). In a precisely similar situation, i.e. an agreeable admirer who doesn't declare himself, the sisters behave in opposite ways. Elinor, re Edward Ferrars, doesn't allow her feelings full rein (Ch 4). Marianne, re Willoughby, does just that (Chs 9 - 16).

"I do not attempt to deny," said she, "that I think very highly of him -- that I greatly esteem, that I like him."
   Marianne here burst forth with indignation --
   "Esteem him! Like him! Cold-hearted Elinor! Oh! worse than cold-hearted! Ashamed of being otherwise. Use those words again and I will leave the room this moment."
   Elinor could not help laughing. (Ch 4)

And we laugh too, at this early juncture. A younger sister (Marianne isn't yet seventeen) may harmlessly give vent to vehement opinions, prejudices that are essentially literary, particularly in a matter where her own heart isn't engaged and she isn't called on to act.

Those literary prejudices continue to operate in her early opinion of Willoughby: "His person and air were equal to what her fancy had ever drawn for the hero of a favourite story" ... "that is what a young man ought to be. Whatever be his pursuits, his eagerness in them should know no moderation, and leave him no sense of fatigue" (Ch 9).

There's still some laughter in the next dialogue of values between the sisters, but it's getting more strained. Sarcasm? Reductiveness? Neither sister can be quite exonerated from those charges.

"Well, Marianne," said Elinor, as soon as he had left them, "for one morning I think you have done pretty well. You have already ascertained Mr Willoughby's opinion in almost every matter of importance. You know what he thinks of Cowper and Scott; you are certain of his estimating their beauties as he ought, and you have received every assurance of his admiring Pope no more than is proper. But how is your acquaintance to be long supported, under such extraordinary dispatch of every subject for discourse? You will soon have exhausted each favourite topic. Another meeting will suffice to explain his sentiments on picturesque beauty, and second marriages, and then you can have nothing farther to ask." --
   "Elinor," cried Marianne, "is this fair? is this just? are my ideas so scanty? But I see what you mean. I have been too much at my ease, too happy, too frank. I have erred against every common-place notion of decorum; I have been open and sincere where I ought to have been reserved, spiritless, dull and deceitful: -- had I talked only of the weather and the roads, and had I spoken only once in ten minutes, this reproach would have been spared." (Ch 10)*

Elinor's unprompted comment, offered under the guise of playfulness, contains at least two grains of sand. One of them Marianne doesn't notice; the implication that Willoughby's expressed opinions chime in all too neatly with Marianne's own, that he follows her lead and, in consequence, shouldn't be taken on trust. (And, in fact, we soon see that he's loose with the truth; he "does not dislike" Colonel Brandon, and almost immediately afterwards claims the privilege of continuing to dislike him as much as ever (Ch 10).)

 The other is an older sister's mockery of the limited range of a younger sister's preoccupations. (It's the same kind of joke about the young that the narrator (or Elinor?) makes re Sir John's entertainments: "in winter his private balls were numerous enough for any young lady who was not suffering under the insatiable appetite of fifteen". After all, Marianne isn't so much beyond that age.)

In Marianne's reply, perhaps the word "reserve" is the key term here. For Marianne it's plainly pejorative, like the other three adjectives she uses, "spiritless, dull and deceitful". But "reserve" might also describe Elinor's behaviour throughout the novel, and particularly, of course, in regard to the undeclared Edward Ferrars of that earlier conversation.

Yet Elinor too sees "reserve" as a word with a negative valency. This is a joint judgment by the sisters, on Lady Middleton:

Her manners had all the elegance which her husband's wanted. But they would have been improved by some share of his frankness and warmth; and her visit was long enough to detract something from their first admiration, by shewing that though perfectly well-bred, she was reserved, cold, and had nothing to say for herself beyond the most common-place inquiry or remark. (Ch 6)

Later, Elinor reflects on the nature of Lady Middleton's reserve: "Elinor needed little observation to perceive that her reserve was a mere calmness of manner with which sense had nothing to do" (Ch 11).

Reserve must not be cold; frankness and warmth are positive goods; but reserve arising from sense (prudence, discretion, sensitivity to others' feelings, propriety) is a practical good, a necessity. Thus, Elinor and Colonel Brandon, the moral grown-ups of the novel, both in their beliefs and in their behaviour. Here they are talking about Marianne's "romantic" opinions:

". . . A few years however will settle her opinions on the reasonable basis of common sense and observation; and then they may be more easy to define and to justify than they now are, by any body but herself."
   "This will probably be the case," he replied; "and yet there is something so amiable in the prejudices of a young mind, that one is sorry to see them give way to the reception of more general opinions."
   "I cannot agree with you there," said Elinor. "There are inconveniences attending such feelings as Marianne's, which all the charms of enthusiasm and ignorance of the world cannot atone for. Her systems have all the unfortunate tendency of setting propriety at nought; and a better acquaintance with the world is what I look forward to as her greatest possible advantage." (Ch 11)

To which Colonel Brandon makes this enigmatic addendum:

". . . but a change, a total change of sentiments -- No, no, do not desire it, -- for when the romantic refinements of a young mind are obliged to give way, how frequently are they succeeded by such opinions as are but too common, and too dangerous! I speak from experience. I once knew a lady who in temper and mind greatly resembled your sister, who thought and judged like her, but who from an inforced change -- from a series of unfortunate circumstances" -- Here he stopt suddenly . . .  (Ch 11)

The story he refers to is eventually narrated in Vol II Ch 9. But to dread youthful romanticism being succeeded by misery and even by "falling" (as happened to the not-very-similar Eliza) is scarcely an argument in favour of that romanticism.

But still, for all her bad manners, for all her wilful wrongness, for instance about the weather (twice with very fateful effects), there's some deep things to be said for Marianne's ardour, though Brandon doesn't quite manage to say them. Without her emotional candour and her eagerness, what is life for? It cannot be just a matter of prudence and reserve, of crossing the Ts, of negotiation and maintenance, of avoiding a mess. Marianne's imprudence and refusal to hold back gives meaning as well as trouble to the lives of those around her, and when she looks back on it from her own respectable married existence it may continue to give meaning to that, too.


* The subjects of literary discussion between Marianne and Willoughby are men: Pope, Cowper, and Scott. Scott is an interesting inclusion; he couldn't have been a topic of general conversation until 1805 at the earliest, so Austen is stretching the chronology of a tale that was originally composed and set in the late 1790s. Perhaps Austen was bent on including a current author; Cowper had died in 1800. 

After Northanger Abbey, Austen tended not to name woman authors. (The play Lovers' Vows is immensely important to Mansfield Park, but we never hear of Elizabeth Inchbald.) It's as if Austen formally cedes the traditional claim that creation is an essentially male affair. But the concession is subversive. It, so to speak, clears the decks for the real literary debate to which Sense and Sensibility contributes; a debate taking place between woman authors. The irony in Elinor's reductive report cuts not only at Marianne's youthfully limited interests but also, I sense, at the male authors under review. The gentle implication is that these official bastions of the world of letters, precisely because they are men, don't actually have much to contribute to the deeper concerns of Austen's novels. If they did, she wouldn't name them. 

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