At the outset I should say that I think that Jane Austen's early novel Sense and Sensibility would have worked better for me if Elinor Dashwood had ended up marrying Colonel Brandon instead of that insignificant microbe, Mr. (Edward) Ferrars. The novel is a contrast between common sense and romantic sensitivity, sure, but the right-hand side of my brain wants a clear win for common sense, and that means that the romance should be closed with a wedding between the two protagonists for common sense, Elinor and the Colonel. The latter is reserved. The narrator says,
For that matter, the left-hand side of my brain is not happy about Brandon marrying Marianne, and that is not entirely a matter of the age-difference. Elinor is "only nineteen" at the start of the novel (6); Marianne is a little younger and Margaret is thirteen (7); Marianne has not yet turned seventeen six months after the novel opens. The widowed Mrs. Dashwood comments to her daughter Marianne about the chances of being loved: "Remember my love, that you are not seventeen. It is yet too early in life to despair of such an happiness [romantic love]. Why should you be less fortunate than your mother? In one circumstance only, my Marianne, may your destiny be different from her's [sic]!" Mrs. Dashwood is referring to being widowed prematurely. If Brandon ultimately marries Marianne when say, 38, and if Marianne is say, 19, then the age difference would be the same as Marianne's calendar age. Brandon is too experienced for Marianne.
It is not news that the ending of Sense and Sensibility is all wrong. Within a very few days of the book's first coming on the market, leaders of opinion were saying that it had an untidy ending--Lady Bessborough wrote that it ends stupidly. Marghanita Laski notes in Jane Austen and her World,
The first time I read this work, I thought time and time again that I was picking up hints that Elinor would marry Brandon although her first, and immature, love was Mr. [Edward] Ferrars. Consider this first strong hint in Chapter Eleven: "In Colonel Brandon alone, of all her new acquaintance, did Elinor find a person who could in any degree claim the respect of abilities, excite the interest of friendship, or give pleasure as a companion. . . . Colonel Brandon, unfortunately for himself, had no such encouragement to think only of Marianne, and in conversing with Elinor he found the greatest consolation for the total indifference of her sister" (55).
Austen gives us a sketch of Brandon quite early on, in Chapter Seven. Brandon is almost taciturn; he is the strong, silent type. He is a romantic, and although I have lost the reference, I have read a theory that all army officers are romantics at heart, looking for dragons to slay and fair maidens to impress. Be that as it may, Brandon soon falls in love with Marianne; indeed, his friend Sir John Middleton points this out to the Dashwood women as early as Chapter Nine: "Poor Brandon! He is quite smitten already, and he is very well worth setting your cap at, I can tell you, in spite of all this tumbling about and spraining of ancles [sic]" (45).
Elsewhere, Brandon is said to have "about two thousand" pounds of annual income from his rural property, Delaford (223). I gather from The Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen that the average annual income for the Austen women was less than a quarter of that: "Austen speaks from experience. . . : it [£500 a year] is the sum, even a bit more, that she and her mother and her sister had to live on after Mr. Austen's death" (136).
The Delaford rectory, i.e., the Church of England living as parish priest at the Colonel's disposal, will be worth less than "two hundred and fifty [pounds per annum]" (374). However, in his essay on money in the Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen, Edward Copeland reminds us that Edward and Elinor will "marry on £850 to £900 a year" (138). So, Elinor and Edward will have an annual income of less than half of what Elinor and Brandon would have had. One of the "stupid" parts of the ending is that Edward and Elinor have not even sufficient grazing for the number of cattle they need (S&S 375). They will be lucky to have a single horse and a gig for basic transport.
I find it difficult to attempt a pen-portrait of Elinor, largely because I think Austen skimps on her description(s) of her. Perhaps Elinor, although not a shy moppet like Fanny Price, is a little immature and undecided about where her priorities lie. It is only in her dialogues with Marianne and Lucy Steele, I suggest, that we are able to come to grips with Elinor's character. Elinor has a quick mind, a good grasp of practicalities, little of the romantic but rather a female version of a sense of honor.1 The trick question I have posed myself is this: does she fall in love with that Ferrars chap or does she delude herself about that? I shall come back to this right at the end.
As with all her army-officer characters, Austen tells us nothing about Brandon's service, promotions, or intentions. I have had to fill this in for myself on a speculative basis. Brandon did not join the Indian Army in the manner in which unrequited lovers joined the French Foreign Legion in fantasy and occasionally in fact. Brandon had a good contact and was able to pull strings to join the Honourable East India Company's very own large private army. He would have spent a few months at the outset learning how to speak a little Hindustani and how to get along with the native officers, havildars (non-coms), and so on. It seems he exchanged units to remain in India, so he came to India in a British Army unit. What neither army lacked was engagements, i.e., active service such as skirmishing and some sieges, but occasionally a fairly bloody battle.
Brandon is not only a survivor, he did well enough to obtain promotion, and quite likely prize-money, which would mostly go on buying his next promotion, although Brandon as a sensible man would set aside a certain amount for the proverbial wine, women and, song. Brandon rises to at least a Majority, and perhaps a Lieutenant-Colonelcy, but not to command of a regiment, for if he had done that, he would almost certainly have stayed in India to become a nabob by the use of corrupt influence.
Austen asks us to consider Brandon's status as a gentleman, re-examine it, turn it inside out, and think about it again. The subplot about the two Elizas (Williams) is a contrast between a licentious and libidinous Willoughby and a "caring and sharing" Brandon. Well, Brandon is hardly a SNAG (Sensitive New Age Guy), any more than I am, but I think that Jane Austen wants us to see that Brandon did all that a reasonable man could do, and went further, into the region of a gentleman's code of honor, by fighting a duel with the cad Willoughby. Austen is so unaware of duelling and "Code Duello," however, that she does not make Willoughby delope. Deloping was the firing of ones pistol up into the air, away from ones opponent, to acknowledge the truth of the accusation(s) made by ones adversary. Austen is quite unrealistic in having both men come away unwounded, and it seems that she does not see that her plot requires more. It is more likely that she would not have known about the code of duelling.
The Eliza Williams subplot starts with the aborted picnic to Whitwell in Chapter Thirteen. Brandon has to go urgently to London, and, as we learn later, the problem is that the younger Eliza has been seduced and abandoned by Willoughby. Mrs. Jennings keeps her ear to the ground, as the saying goes, and she puts in Elinor's shell-pink ear the nasty tale that Brandon has a "natural" daughtera bastard (66). Mrs. Jennings is not entirely a figure of fun.
Consider another hint that Elinor is coming to value Brandon as she perhaps should. In Volume III, Colonel Brandon gives the living of Delaford to the near-destitute Edward Ferrars, simply because he thinks Ferrars has been badly treated by his mother. Elinor enthuses over his gentlemanly and generous behavior near the start of Chapter Four: "There are not many men who would act as he has done. Few people who have so compassionate a heart. I was never so astonished in my life" (285). This passage might even have been intended in an earlier draft as the point where Elinor turns from Ferrars to Brandon.
At the following point, the first time I read Sense and Sensibility I was almost sure that Elinor had come round to valuing Brandon over Ferrars. It is also in Chapter Four of Volume III, in a dialogue between Mr. Ferrars and Elinor, that her regard seems most in evidence:
Readers must think about Elinor and how she has been brought up. She is a daughter of the gentry, growing up in large country houses on landed estates. She is not of the next lower social category, who supply the clergy, country lawyers, estate managers (stewards and bailiffs), and to whom Jane Austen herself belonged.
The wife of a country parson had to minister to the physical needs of the parishioners on a day-to-day basis. This was over and above the labor-intensive work our great-grandmothers had to do just to keep a house running and its people fed and clothed. Elinor, the parson's wife, would have perhaps two servants, a girl and an older woman. With this small force and having no time to herself once the babies started coming, Elinor would have been run off her feet.
Consider Elinor's life-style as mistress of Delaford: she would have the "quiet, at-home pleasures" of a smaller country home, perhaps a manor-house (Copeland 136). Her life will not suddenly be blighted if the potatoes in her kitchen-garden turn green or black. I surmise that Delaford would have espalliered fruit-trees, so Elinor would get fruit on her table earlier. We are told that Delaford has "stewponds" where fish are raised, so her children could have a more varied diet (197). If she wants a birdbath or another garden-seat, her husband can have an outdoor servant or a tradesman in a nearby town build and install it. As Raymond Chandler said in a totally different context, "It is the little things that count."
Elinor was born and raised to marry a gentleman, but why would she pick Mr. Edward Ferrars? I think it was a case of falling in love on the rebound when mourning the lost love of her father. Although Austen puts forward Elinor as an exemplar of common sense, Elinor's self-analysis is not up to the task of showing her that it was a bad idea to allow herself to fall in love with Edward, because Edward Ferrars at that time had made no effort to become independent of his mother. However, Brandon and Elinor were alike and would have made a suitable match. It is a great novel, with a carefully-constructed set of characters, but it is a pity that the heroine married the wrong man.
1 Volume III, Chapter One has this passage about Elinor's keeping her promise about Lucy's "engagement" to the elder Ferrars brother: Elinor to Marianne: "--No, Marianne.--Then, if I had not been bound to silence, perhaps nothing could have kept me entirely--not even what I owed to my dearest friends--from openly shewing that I was very unhappy" (264).