Be Sensible, Young Lady!
Jane Austen’s first published novel, Sense and Sensibility, tells the story of two sisters of contrasting personalities, practical Elinor and emotional Marianne Dashwood, whose father’s death leaves them without the fortune necessary to attract desirable husbands. Many critics have viewed the book as Austen’s wry commentary on popular 18th-century novels of sensibility, which celebrate the power of emotions rather than logical reasoning. Without taking sides, this map explores an eternally debatable dichotomy.
The contradiction between common sense and emotional sensibility, which gives Jane Austen’s first novel its title, was in the forefront of 18th-century cultural debate. Sense and Sensibility’s protagonist, Elinor Dashwood, keeps her emotions contained; her sister Marianne believes feelings should be expressed no matter the cost. Elinor is sensible and proper and feels duty-bound not to distress her family, often at the expense of her own happiness. Marianne is passionate and romantic and sees no point in concealing her feelings. When she falls in love with handsome John Willoughby, she scorns the social mores that require her to moderate her expressions, and she is humiliated when he breaks her heart.
A larger recurring theme in Austen’s work is women’s relative lack of power. The late Mr. Dashwood could not bequeath his estate to his wife and daughters due to entailments that restricted inheritances to males, and his son and heir refuses to help. The ladies get by in much-reduced circumstances under Elinor’s careful management. Austen wrote this novel before her own father died; when he did, she and her sister and mother found themselves in a similar position. The Austen men came through, however, each contributing to the women’s livelihood.
In Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen cleverly mocks the novels of sensibility popular in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. They often feature emotional heroines much like her Marianne Dashwood, such as the title character of Fanny Burney’s Evelina (1778), a country-bred girl making her debut in aristocratic London society. Or their heroines are pictures of perfection, even more so than Elinor Dashwood, such as the title character of Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (1740); accomplished, beautiful, dutiful and religious, these “too perfect” heroines always do the right thing and are rewarded with a perfect husband. Pamela even remakes her libertine “hero” into the husband her goodness deserves—as the novel’s subtitle, Virtue Rewarded, implies.
Austen didn’t like flawless heroines. “Pictures of perfection,” she wrote, “make me sick and wicked.” Nor did she care for stereotypical overly sensitive heroines, who often come to a bad end. Austen’s work mostly concerns characters who learn how to change their thinking, often moving from an extreme to a more moderate position. Emotional Marianne learns a bit of sense, and rational Elinor learns to let go occasionally, such as when she weeps uncontrollably upon learning that her true love may be realized.
The cult of “sensibility” arose in the late 17th century with John Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding, which claims humans acquire knowledge best by experiencing feelings. Later writers extrapolated this, saying acute emotions made for better people, with stronger morals and the ability to understand higher concepts. By the late 18th century, when Jane Austen was writing Sense and Sensibility, this idea was greeted with skepticism, and excessive sensibility was considered dangerous, especially to young women. Feminist Mary Wollstonecraft argued that its emotional toll prevented women from using their intellect to the fullest. Sensibility was also associated with the ideas behind the French Revolution, which the English feared would spread, and with unrestrained female sexuality, also considered dangerous.
In Austen’s time, novels weren’t proper reading material for impressionable girls who might emulate the heroines. Novels of sensibility, whose protagonists experience everything emotionally, were particularly pernicious. Samuel Richardson’s tragic, virtuous heroine in Clarissa (1748) is drugged and raped; similar to the near-fatal grief of Austen’s Marianne Dashwood after her heart is broken, Clarissa’s emotions overwhelm her—but unlike Marianne, Clarissa cannot recover. Austen gently parodies such novels, creating characters whose sensibility ennobles them yet subjects them to emotional collapse and exploitation.
In her first meeting with John Willoughby, the man who will break her heart, Marianne Dashwood ascertains that they both dislike the poetry of 18th-century writer Alexander Pope, which is too rational, they feel, for emotional people to admire. Written in a lighthearted, mock-heroic style, Pope’s famous poem The Rape of the Lock tells the story of beautiful, spoiled Belinda and the two curling tendrils of hair at the nape of her neck that prove too tempting for the dastardly Baron. Sneaking up on her at a party, he cuts one off, thus precipitating a major scandal—locks of hair were prized and given as love tokens.
Sense and Sensibility’s romances also involve wayward locks. Marianne freely gives one to Willoughby despite their brief acquaintance. It is later returned under distressing circumstances, revealing the imprudence of her impulsive, loving gesture. The object of Elinor’s unexpressed affections, Edward Ferrars, wears a ring containing a tiny plait of hair—a type of jewelry common in the early 19th century. Elinor suspects the hair is hers, even though she hasn’t given it. She believes Edward, like the Baron, must have acquired it through underhanded means. Unlike Belinda, however, Elinor is pleased.
Jane Austen’s novels are set during the British Regency (1811–1820), when the Prince Regent George IV ruled in place of his father, the mentally unstable George III. Austen has sometimes been criticized for not writing about the era’s Napoleonic wars or its social ills, focusing instead on people and relationships. But Austen’s novels incorporate numerous historical circumstances of her time and class that particularly affected women, including the ruination caused by illegitimate pregnancy; the disgraced position of “fallen” women, whose loss of virginity is public knowledge; unfair inheritance practices, such as entailments restricting estates to male heirs; and social customs governing the type of work gentlefolk could perform. Austen does not directly condemn these situations, but she does present them clearly and unromantically, allowing readers to form their own opinions. Austen’s contemporaries would have understood the social and economic constraints put upon women, but modern readers may be excused for asking, “Why didn’t they all just get jobs?” A woman of the gentry class, to which nearly all of Austen’s characters belong, wouldn’t seek paid employment unless she had absolutely no other choice, as the jobs open to women were badly paid and unpleasant.
The Georgian era (1714–1837) encompassed the reigns of the five Hanoverian kings of Great Britain and Ireland, who were Germans by birth or ancestry: George I, George II, George III, George IV and William IV. It was a time of great change, the beginning of the agricultural and industrial revolutions. England also gained territory and colonies (notably India, in 1757), lost its American colonies (1776), staved off Napoleon’s army (1803–1814) and abolished slavery (1833). Yet the period didn’t provide greater opportunities for everyone. In Jane Austen’s time, women of the gentry—i.e., the nonaristocratic landowning class—received a very restricted education. They were taught to read music (for singing and playing piano or harp); drawing and painting in watercolors; modern languages, usually French and Italian; basic world geography; plain sewing, what was needed to make and mend clothing; and decorative needlework such as embroidery and netting. These “accomplishments,” as they were called, were considered all that was necessary to make a good wife for a wealthy man. A woman who read extensively or learned classical languages, as men did in school, might have been looked down upon as a bluestocking—a woman so bookish as to be unfeminine.
Perceived as frailer, the feminine character was considered ill-suited for serious academics in the early 19th century, and the curriculum designed for women was limited to softer “accomplishments” meant to make them more attractive to potential husbands. Most girls studied needlework, drawing, some performing arts, practical languages and a limited amount of geography and mathematics.
Some women discovered a real talent for these fields, as Sense and Sensibility demonstrates. Piano playing and singing are as important to Marianne Dashwood as they were to her creator, Jane Austen. An excellent musician, Marianne performs not only to attract a husband but because her sensitive, romantic nature feels a true emotional connection to the music. Her passionate playing attracts a man who breaks her heart, as well as the one who wins it—an occupational hazard. Rational Elinor Dashwood doesn’t seem to derive much emotional satisfaction from her drawing, even though people praise it. The girls’ brother, John, exhibits it in a comical attempt to convince a family friend to marry Elinor, but John views her artwork in much the same way people considered most ladies’ accomplishments: not as the production of an artistic soul but simply as husband bait.