‘Sense and Sensibility’ is novel written at the start of the 19th century whose purpose is to entertain, educate and cultivate moral sentiment and responsibility through a psychologically accurate depiction of the lives and tribulations of the upper middle-classes of southern England, particularly the two sisters Marianne and Elinor Dashwood. The book considers issues of social mobility and its relation to material wealth alongside more a-historical themes such as personal love, responsibility and bonds of friendship and family. Much of this is present in the opening section in which we are informed that the Dashwoods are a loving and close family who have recently lost their father, himself previously a widower.
Much emphasis is placed on the financial position of the family given their inheritance and the potential of the two sisters for marriage. Austen’s portrayal of the conflict between material necessity and ambition, and the quest for personal happiness forms the source of much of the books drama and comedy. Throughout characters are shown as bound to their class positions and the aspirations of those around them. Edward Ferrars’s early dialogues with Elinor over his family’s plans and ambitions for him provides a good example of this. The novel also deals with those aspects of the characters’ lives which lie outside of their agency. Perhaps the most obvious example of this is Marianne’s character arc which sees her going from an impulsive sixteen year old to a mature, but, Austen is keen to emphasise, still loving and vibrant, wife.
An especially interesting character is Willoughby. Initially presented as a young, heroic and passionate figure as he begins a star-crossed relationship with Marianne, the reader witnesses first hand the power of necessity to undermine events as he is forced to leave a seemingly happy situation for unknown reasons. Once the reasons for this are made clear i.e. his own material ambition and murky past which includes the seduction and abandonment of a charge of the novel’s most responsible character, Colonel Brandon, then the reader’s sympathies with him disappear. It is not until the final sections of the novel where he relates his personal history, loaded with regrets over his treatment and loss of Marianne to Elinor that the reader’s sympathies begin to shift back and Austen encourages a focus on a character who is a complex mixture of altruistic passion and a profound narcissism. It is the capacity to at least partially reconcile these two character elements within the institution of marriage which allows the resolution presented in the final chapter of the novel to avoid slipping into a mere melodrama of irresponsibility. It also provides a fitting example of how Austen sees personal freedom and happiness being actualised within existing social institutions.
Overall ‘Sense and Sensibility’ is a funny and acutely observed study of a certain historically conditioned mode of life. It’s tone and emphasis on responsibility may well seem dated to many readers, although the complex psychology of many of the characters, together with Austen’s expert capacity to produce humour and satire from minutely observed social relations enables profoundly joyous moments. Crucially, the novel also contains elements which are deeply sad, and, although the major characters each find a degree of resolution in their lives, Austen is careful to show that there is no necessary connection between the virtue of a person and the rewards which they will receive. The story of Colonel Brandon’s adopted sister who dies as a result of an unhappy marriage and time spent in a debtor’s prison is perhaps the most vivid example of this. It is those characters who are able to reflect on the unhappiness that their conditions cause either themselves or others who are portrayed as most sympathetic, whereas those who fit most easily into the materialistic world of the 19th century bourgeoisie are shown to be hollow, and, whilst perhaps comic, ultimately inessential.
The prime example of the is John Ferrars, in particular his reaction to the news that the Dashwood sisters have been living in a cottage, something that from his perspective is irresistibly quaint, but is in fact a matter of material necessity. Despite this, Austen is keen to show, with perhaps a degree of conservatism, that personal responsibility is paramount in the pursuit of personal happiness, and that , as such the good and happy life may only be lived with a mixture of reason and a capacity to be affected by things. As a result of this the reader’s enjoyment of the novel is likely to be somewhat dependent on the extent to which they agree with it’s view that, in essence, happiness can only be achieved through an appropriate mixture of both sense and sensibility.
- Austen, Jane. Sense and Sensibility. New York: Vintage Classics. 2007