Saturday, March 18, 2017

Lessons from Sense and Sensibility

"Lucy does not want sense, and that is the foundation on which every good thing may be built..."

Sense and Sensibility, published in 1811, was Jane Austen's first published novel.  Austen wrote it when she was just nineteen years old.  

The novel focuses on two sisters: Elinor and Marianne Dashwood.  It is a story of their relationship, as much as it is of their various romantic entanglements and heartbreaks.  

With the title such as it is, it is tempting to quickly classify Elinor as "sense" (meaning prudent) and Marianne as "sensibility" (or emotional).  Yet, as I made my way through Austen's debut work, I was struck by the character of Elinor.  While governed by good judgement, Elinor was not lacking in emotions.  Rather, her sense aptly governed and guided her feelings--not stifling them, but keeping them controlled.  

To elaborate, Elinor, in my opinion, does not fit the dichotomy of sense only; she feels the whole range of emotions, too.  And it is the precisely the fact that she does experience such ardent feelings--and still keeps her passions checked--that makes her a heroine.  

Mrs. Dashwood is a woman very much driven by emotion, a trait Marianne inherits.  Finding herself between two emotional women, Elinor assumes the office of practicality (not a very rewarding job) and continually checks both of them in their fervor.  

Elinor, this eldest daughter whose advice was so effectual, possessed a strength of understanding, and coolness of judgment, which qualified her, though only nineteen, to be the counsellor of her mother...She had an excellent heart;--her disposition was affectionate, and her feelings were strong; but she knew how to govern them...

Elinor begins to develop feelings for Mr. Edward Ferrars and Marianne is quick to confront her about them.

"I do not attempt to deny," said she [Elinor], "that I think very highly of him--that I greatly esteem him, 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."

Marianne labels Elinor "cold-hearted" for her caution in her emotions toward Edward.  Elinor, not certain of how reciprocal the feelings were, would go no further in encouraging her heart.  To Marianne, however, this was near blasphemy.  How could love be measured or careful?  How could proper social etiquette check the ardor of love? 

When she falls in love with dashing Willoughby, Marianne has no reserve.  She gives her whole heart to him, holding nothing back.  

When he was present she had eyes for no any one else.  Every thing he did, was right.  Everything he said, was clever.  If their evenings at the park were concluded with cards, he cheated himself and all the rest of the party to get her a good hand.  If dancing formed the amusement of the night, they were partners for half the time; and when obliged to separate for a couple of dances, were careful to stand together and scarcely spoke a word to any body else.  Such conduct made them of course most exceedingly laughed at; but ridicule could not shame, and seemed hardly to provoke them. 

Elinor, in her sense, seeks concrete evidence of the integrity of Willoughby's apparent devotion to Marianne.  Feelings are not enough; there must be action, commitment, the practical steps that speak love just as loud as words or romantic gestures.  Was there an engagement?  Had Willoughby pledged his life to Marianne, or was he playing with her open, unguarded heart?

When Willoughby leaves abruptly and later reveals he is engaged to another (more affluent) woman, Marianne is thrown into the depths of despair.  The fervency of her attachment is felt equally in her separation from Willoughby.  As she previously had had eyes and conversation for no one but him, she now equally remains aloof and dismal, her despondency governing all her actions and thoughts.

Yet, Marianne is not the only to endure heartbreak.  Elinor learns that Edward has been secretly engaged, a commitment he cannot break though it was entered into many years prior and he does not love his betrothed.  Elinor was sworn to keep this knowledge confidential and thus must bear her sorrow and heartbreak silently and alone.  

From their [her mother and Marianne] counsel or their conversation she knew she could receive no assistance, their tenderness and sorrow must add to her distress, while her self-command would neither receive encouragement from their example nor from their praise.  She was stronger alone, and her own good sense so well supported her, that her firmness was as unshaken, her appearance of cheerfulness as invariable, as with regrets so poignant and so fresh, it was possible for them to be.

Elinor's emotions are not outwardly noticeable: they cannot be, as she is sworn to secrecy.  Thus, she must keep the conversation going when Marianne silently stares out the window.  She must smile when Marianne frowns.  And when Elinor eventually is able to disclose Edward's engagement, it is she who must comfort Marianne, who is overwhelmed with horror and grief at the news.

Elinor was to be the comforter of others in her own distress, no less than in theirs...

Elinor could be aptly commended for being a person of sense.  But I think her greatest attribute is conducting herself with poise, strength, and courage when simultaneously feeling the same--arguably, stronger--emotions than Marianne.  Consider that Marianne bore her own grief; Elinor carried sadness for both of them ... and could still smile when necessary.

To classify Elinor as unfeeling, uptight, and stuffy who is all prim and proper without passion is to do a great injustice to Austen's character.  Between Elizabeth Bennett, Emma Woodhouse, Anne Elliot, Fanny Price, and Elinor Dashwood, it is Elinor that I admire the most.  Her strength of character under great duress is incredible and, while her mind governs her passions, she simultaneously has a heart that generously loves--loves her man of interest, her sister, and, indeed, even her enemies.

Elinor is sensibility, governed by sense.  And that is the best one could be.

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