“Sense and Sensibility” is a profound achievement of romantic realism. Jane Austen demonstrates that to surrender oneself to romantic sensibility is the highway to ruin, but that the unity of logos and eros is beautiful and wholesome.
Jane Austen, to my mind, was the preeminent romantic realist writer. Born into a modest clerical family, she straddled the social world of the emerging middle class sandwiched between the landed gentry and the toiling underclass. Austen’s experiences in the world of “polite society” and the political scheming of marrying well undeniably impacted her own sense and sensibility when composing her novels which feature female heroines caught in the world of romantic desire, social scheming, wealth, and heartbreak.
Austen lived and wrote during the transformative age of English literature, the Romantic era. It wasn’t yet Victorian, but was well beyond the glittering sun of Elizabethan and Jacobean literature. The Romantic era, much misunderstood and viciously complex, might best be understood—as the historian and philosopher William Barrett wrote—as “the protest of feeling against reason… or the protest on behalf of nature against the encroachments of industrial society.” Romanticism celebrated human passion, nature, and even decadence, against the sterile and stuffy encroachment of industrialization, the phenomenon of mass man, and urban alienation. In this respect, Romanticism was a profoundly reactionary and radical movement, a movement that emerged in reaction to the arrogant hyper-rationalism of Enlightenment.
Yet Romanticism’s rejection of hyper-rationalist industrialism often veered toward an unadulterated celebration of Dionysus. Such figures as John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Lord Byron exemplified this strand of Romanticism not only in their writings but their own personal lives. “Give me Women, Wine, and Snuff… My beloved Trinity,” as Keats ecstatically wrote. The grief of romance was something undeniably celebrated by the more radical romantics; as Lycius says to Lamia in Keats’s brilliant imagination, “Even as thou vanishest so I shall die.”
Sense and Sensibility features two opposite dispositions. An obvious spirit of romantic sensibility carries a part of the story forward, especially in the character of Marianne. But this romantic sensibility that so characterized the Romantic poets and writers who ended up drowning in the sea of pathos, is offset by the good sense and reserved fortitude of Elinor. Both girls, coming of age, desire love. If the gentle reader permits me to alter a famous line of Holy Writ, we might say from Austen’s perspective (though herself unmarried): It is not good for woman to be alone.
The novel opens with a crude and cruel realism that many families have likely experienced. Squabbling over wills and inheritance forces the Dashwood girls into a brief migratory exile. Fanny Dashwood manipulates her husband John Dashwood (himself no saint) into abandoning Henry Dashwood’s insistence on treating his second wife and their children with tenderness, care, and support. But before their departure from Norwood, Fanny’s brother Edward Ferrars falls for the grace of Elinor but remains elusive even though Elinor has been taken captive by his charm and well-mannered spirit.
Unable to remain in Norwood, the Dashwoods travel to Barton Cottage in Devonshire where they ingratiate themselves with the landed gentry and the world of social politics, marriage, and gossip that permeates “polite society.” The world of the landed gentry is not all that it seems. Gossip. Gossip. And more gossip. Balls. Parties. And banquets. Despite the cosmetic grandeur of the lives of the landed gentry, debts, concealment of real emotions and financial disposition, and cutthroat social alliances lurk behind picturesque walks and polite conversation. No doubt Austen learned this firsthand in her own life.
In Norwood, Marianne succumbs to Prince Charming: the dashing, playful, and too-good-to-be-true John Willoughby.
But Marianne’s romantic sensibility is first seen earlier after interrupting her mother and Elinor about the prospects of Elinor’s engagement with Edward Ferrars. Marianne’s reservations toward her sister’s potential engagement is premised on Edward’s lack of emotion. Marianne insists that if he absolutely loved Elinor then he would be more attached, more emotionally unbounded, and more gawking over Elinor’s artistic talent. In short, Marianne believes the romantic danger: True love entails the loss of the self.
Being overwhelmed by the storm of pathos is precisely what happens to Marianne. Although her beauty and talents attract the eye of the reserved and calm Colonel Brandon, she pays no attention to him and is overcome by a torrential sea of emotion at every sight and touch of Willoughby. From his romantic rescue of her after she sprained her ankle on a walk, to his playful, seducing request for a lock of her hair, this supposed knight in shining armor wins over Marianne. So when Willoughby suddenly leaves to London, Marianne explodes. A Category-5 hurricane of emotions overwhelms Marianne, which worries everyone around her.
They saw nothing of Marianne till dinner time, when she entered the room and took her place at the table without saying a word. Her eyes were red and swollen; and it seemed as if her tears were even then restrained with difficulty. She avoided the looks of them all, could neither eat nor speak, and after some time, on her mother’s silently pressing her hand with tender compassion, her small degree of fortitude was quite overcome; she burst into tears and left the room.
Fortune, however, seems to smile on Marianne when she and her sister have the opportunity to travel to London. The lovesick Marianne has written intemperate letters to Willoughby since his departure, and she can now no longer contain her yearnings to see him and feel his touch once more. She, by chance, encounters Willoughby on the streets of London where he is conversing with his new girlfriend. Marianne intrudes, as though the other woman doesn’t exist, only to be rebuffed by Willoughby, which causes her much consternation and grief. She sulks on a bench and attempts to manipulate Elinor into being her messenger to Willoughby so that he might attend to her emotional needs. Austen describes the scene perfectly:
Marianne, now looking dreadfully white and unable to stand, sank into her chair, and Elinor, expecting every moment to see her faint, tried to screen her from the observation of others while reviving her with lavender water.
Marianne has gone from a character with whom the reader sympathizes, to a character about whom the reader now has mixed feelings. The adult side of the reader wants to yell at her to grow up! The sentimental side of the reader still sympathizes with her plight as we relive our first romantic elopement and disappointment. But Marianne does seem to be grossly overboard, floundering in a shallow pond but shrieking and screaming as though she is drowning. Nevertheless, Elinor is always by her side.
As we all know, Elinor represents sense and Marianne sensibility, but it is also true that our male protagonists fit into the same categories. Colonel Brandon, the handsome and virtuous soldier-gentleman on a modest income, is undeniably a man of sense, good sense at that, and good character. Willoughby, as is slowly revealed in the novel and suspected by our own common sense, is a man given over to sensibility. Edward Ferrars, however, is something of an enigma. His reserved demeanor sometimes strikes us as odd. There must be more to him than meets the eye. And as is revealed, he is oscillating between the demands of social sense to marry well and his genuine affections for Elinor.
The twisting currents of romantic sense and sensibility lead the reader down the river of desire in a pleasurable and infuriating read as we wish our heroines to see through the façade of polite society and the landed gentry’s conniving schemes to ensure their social future. Austen does an incredible job at making us wrestle with our own sense and sensibility, the two predominate natures in all humans: common sense and erotic longing. But the good Christian that Austen was, unlike certain Romantic poets, she knew that the harmony of reason and love, of logos and eros, is the true salvific and wholesome force for the human life.
Elinor, then, is the undisputed heroine of Sense and Sensibility. Although she is characterized by sense, she too has the same romantic sensibility we all have, but she subordinates it to the cardinal virtue of fortitude. When news breaks out that Edward is engaged to Lucy, a spoiled and faceless member of the mass landed gentry, it rips her heart in two. But instead of succumbing to a downpour of tears like Marianne, she perseveres. In Elinor’s perseverance we see her mastery of the cardinal virtues, including justice, when she comforts those who have been wounded in life—Marianne and Colonel Brandon.
Marianne recognizes the lovingkindness of Elinor, which always puts others first, during her battles with the illness of a broken heart: “Oh Elinor… you have made me hate myself forever. How barbarous have I been to you!—you who have been my only comfort, who have borne with me in all my misery, who have seemed to be only suffering for me.” Elinor carries her own cross as well as the crosses of others. There is a “silent and strong” spirit in Elinor in the midst of the turbulence of social dislocation, scheming, and romantic heartbreak.
Austen does not shun romantic sensibility outright. She does, however, expose its danger to us. The two characters who are entirely given over to romantic sensibility suffer greatly: Marianne to the point of near death, and Willoughby to the point of life-long unhappiness. Although Willoughby has married for wealth and social perseverance, upon hearing the grave news of Marianne’s illness, he appears again and confesses his sins to Elinor who is the only one with the fortitude and pity to accept Willoughby’s confession without assaulting him.
Willoughby acknowledges the faults of romantic sensibility. Romantic sensibility, taken to its extreme form in the likes of Keats, Shelley, and Byron, is always about the self. Willoughby candidly and crudely reveals this truth. Although he does now recognize that he loved Marianne—or so he claims—his playful sentimentality and hissing seduction of Marianne’s sensibilities was purely for his own pride and pleasure. Willoughby didn’t see the beauty and grace of Marianne; he only saw an object to soothe his yearnings and to inflate his ego. Now he has married someone for no other reason than money. The social dynamics of the landed gentry have crushed the possibility for happiness in love, but Willoughby is not free from his own guilt as his confession to Elinor makes clear.
The grace which characterizes Elinor shines forth once again. She does take pity on Willoughby. He is not so much a bad man as he is a confused man. Here, Austen esoterically comments on the confusion that swept over the Romantics of her time. The Romantic poets are certainly not bad men. But they are confused men. And the happiness they seek to find within themselves cannot be satiated by delusions and appetites. Love is not about the self but about others. This is what Willoughby realized too late, but, by the grace of God, Marianne’s realization did not come too late.
Sense and Sensibility opened with money and rupture. That the novel ends with the reality of love, and perhaps a touch of money, reveals the profound wisdom of Austen standing as a barrier against the hyper-romanticism pervading England and, in fact, the rest of Europe. To surrender oneself to romantic sensibility is the highway to ruin. It ruined Willoughby and nearly killed Marianne.
This is the fundamental difference between the romantic realism of Austen and the sensual eroticism of the romantics. Lycius, as we know from Keats, prophesies his death and dies on a bed of grief, alone and broken. The romantics, however, celebrate this kind of death. It is, to them, a vindication of love and the courage of the erotic. Marianne, too, is ensnared by this poisonous mindset which clouds her better judgment and even destroys the heart of love itself. But there is nothing vindicated or courageous in this outlook. The true vindication of love and courage is in the ability to turn oneself from romanticist grief to a balance of sense and sensibility.
Elinor, after all, upon hearing the news that Edward’s engagement with Lucy has dissolved for monetary purposes, bursts in tears. “Elinor could sit it no longer. She almost ran out of the room, and as soon as the door was closed, burst into tears of joy, which at first she thought would never cease.” Elinor doesn’t succumb to romantic sensibility here. Rather, her heart of romantic sensibility is vindicated and rewarded precisely because of her fortitude, perseverance, and love for others. Edward’s romantic sensibility is made whole with Elinor’s romantic sense. Moreover, Elinor’s sense which has governed her throughout the novel is at last rewarded with the wholesome happiness that comes with the unity of logos and eros as per the original Christian vision. Romantic sensibility isn’t shunned, but it is put in its proper place: in harmony with romantic sense. Rason and love are restored together in balance.
Marianne, too, in overcoming the deadly chains of pure romantic sensibility, comes to love and be happy with Colonel Brandon who has always been there behind the scenes, concerned for her welfare. Colonel Brandon’s quiet love for Marianne reaches fruition as Marianne learns that love is not about a life of eternal youthfulness. Gaining this insight, she escapes the danger of romantic sensibility. The problem with romantic sensibility is that it wants to indulge in perpetual youth; romantic sensibility refuses to grow up and refuses to embrace the cardinal virtues necessary for its wholeness (as witnessed in Elinor). When one cannot grow out of youthful eroticism, one does, of course, die. Forever 21 anyone?
Austen makes this point at the conclusion of her grand work:
Marianne Dashwood was born to an extraordinary fate. She was born to discover the falsehood of her own opinions, and to counteract by her conduct her most favourite maxims. She was born to overcome an affection formed so late in life as at seventeen, and with no sentiment superior to strong esteem and lively friendship, voluntarily to give her hand to another.
Precisely because love is moral and selfless, love is frightening. It is, in fact, cowardice—as Willoughby shows—to hide behind a veil and take advantage of the other. It takes the greatest courage to reach out and embrace the other in love. The self is not lost in the union of two. Rather, the self becomes whole in union with another, and that primordial unity of two having become one is restored.
Austen understood that romantic sensibility, very much a part of our being, is incapable of accomplishing this by itself. As such, her work is a profound achievement of romantic realism. And it is profoundly Christian—something that modern commentators are incapable of realizing and instead indulge their own fantasies which depreciate the great novelist’s insights, wisdom, and message. The story began in death and dislocation but ended in life and unity made possible only by love. Good sense indeed.
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The featured image is “Her First love Letter” (1889) by Marcus Stone (1840–1921) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.