PERSUASIONS ON-LINE V.37, NO.1 (Winter 2016)

Curious Distinctions in Sense and Sensibility

Ethan Smilie

 

Ethan Smilie (email: esmilie@udallas.edu) holds a Ph.D. in literature from the University of Dallas.  Curiosity is his main research interest, and he has published papers on Chaucer and Milton.  He teaches English and Humanities courses at Neosho County Community College in Kansas.

 

curiousity abounds in Sense and Sensibility, with its object being anything from the relative heights of two children, one of whom is not present, to the love interests of a multitude of men and women.  Led by Mrs. Jennings, most of the characters display a great deal of curiosity.  Though curiosity—the meaning and legitimacy of which were in flux during Austen’s day—is an attribute easily discernible in many characters (and conspicuously absent in Marianne), the extent, objects, means, and ends of their curiosity vary greatly.  Austen uses these differing depictions of curiosity to establish the boundaries between its vicious and virtuous forms.

 

Throughout most of the history of western thought before Austen’s day, curiosity was considered a vice.  This view was held in the classical world at least as far back as Socrates, and Christian writers followed their classical predecessors by warning about the dangers of curiosity.1  Medieval thinkers, especially Augustine, Bernard of Clairvaux, and Thomas Aquinas, defined curiosity, or curiositas, as a vice against temperance, an excess of studiousness.  For Aquinas, synthesizing previous thought on the matter in the Summa Theologiæ, curiosity entailed seeking trivialities, knowledge for the sake of pride, “the truth above the capacity of [one’s] own intelligence,” and knowledge for the sake of an improper end (2-2.167.1).

 

During the Renaissance, views of curiosity began to change, and for Enlightenment thinkers “curiosity” often denoted a virtue.  Hobbes and Hume, as well as others less well-known, praised curiosity.  Thomas Percival, for instance, whose A Father’s Instructions Austen owned as a child, explains that the greatest minds were curious and very observant and advises his reader to be attentive “to every event which occurs, and to all objects which surround you!  Suffer nothing to escape your notice!  The minutest substance, or the most trivial incident, may furnish important knowledge, or be applied to some useful purpose” (97).2  Books filled with extracts dealing with a wide variety of subjects, like Isaac D’Israeli’s Curiosities of Literature, also owned by Austen, indicate the Enlightenment drive for widespread knowledge and investigation.  Plentiful and precise observation is inseparable from the eighteenth century’s conception of curiosity.  Samuel Johnson defines “curiosity” not only as “inquisitiveness,” but also “nicety,” “accuracy,” and “exactness,” and in Rambler 103 he writes, “Curiosity is one of the permanent and certain characteristicks of a vigorous intellect.  Every advance into knowledge opens new prospects, and produces new incitements to farther progress” (184).  The rise in popularity of cabinets of curiosities—like that with which Mr. Woodhouse is entertained at Donwell Abbey (Emma 393), or like Captain Harville’s “ingenious contrivances and nice arrangements” of “curious and valuable” items from his travels (Persuasion 106)—is further indication of the perceived merits of curiosity in Austen’s day.

 

With the Enlightenment’s new conception of curiosity and its emphasis on inquisitiveness and investigation, conditions were conducive for what preceding thinkers would have considered detriments of the vice of curiositas.  Perhaps not surprisingly, then, Johnson, in the same essay quoted above, warns,

 

There is no snare more dangerous to busy and excursive minds, than the cobwebs of petty inquisitiveness, which entangle them in trivial employments and minute studies, and detain them in a middle state between the tediousness of total inactivity, and the fatigue of laborious efforts, enchant them at once with ease and novelty, and vitiate them with the luxury of learning.”  (187)

 

James Fordyce in his Sermons to Young Women, though acknowledging that the desire for knowledge “wisely applied” is worthwhile, says that curiosity has long been a just topic of satire because women who have unformed minds “show such amazing eagerness to be acquainted with every minute particular in the life, character, dress, fortune, and circumstances of others” (2.8.21-22).  Fordyce also links an inordinate desire of knowing with pride, observing that “our First Mother was betrayed by the pride of knowing.”  Adam Smith, in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, warns against “troublesome and impertinent curiosity to pry into those secrets of our neighbours which they have very justifiable reasons for concealing; and, upon many occasions, it requires prudence and a strong sense of propriety to govern this . . . and to reduce it to that pitch which any impartial spectator can approve of” (7.4.28).

 

In Sense and Sensibility, Austen portrays characters who are very observant and curious in the improper ways criticized by some Enlightenment thinkers, exemplifying what earlier thinkers would have considered the vice of curiositas.3  Austen portrays the problems that can attend curiosity, though she also acknowledges the great merits of properly aimed inquisitiveness and observation.  Ultimately, she shows that curiosity, though it can be virtuous, has vicious forms of excess and deficiency.

 

There can be no doubt that Mrs. Jennings is curious.  Inquisitiveness is her immediate reaction to anything and everything.  She desires knowledge to which she is not privy, and to satisfy her curiosity, she will employ any means.  Isobel Armstrong points out, “She has used two servants to discover what she wants to know [that Marianne visited Allenham].  There is a violence about this episode, a seeking for power, which goes beyond the good-natured joke” (86).  Mrs. Jennings is also more than content with knowledge gained by gossip.  Marianne’s complaint contains some truth:  “‘All that she wants is gossip, and she only likes me now because I supply it’” (228).  Mrs. Jennings also seeks knowledge for the sake of pride, reminding one of Fordyce’s association of curiosity and pride.  She shows off such knowledge when everyone has returned to Barton Park after driving about in the country, triumphantly telling Marianne and Willoughby, “‘I have found you out in spite of all your tricks.  I know where you spent the morning’” (79).  She indulges in curiosity for the sake of what she perceives to be the good of others—marriage.  Nonetheless, though generally not malicious in intent, her curiosity is detrimental, often causing distress to those about whom she speculates.  Mrs. Jennings displays a remarkable ability to be overly curious about some matters but not curious enough about others:  sometimes she relies on a first impression or immediate conclusion and ceases to be her curious self.  For instance, sure of Marianne and Willoughby’s inevitable marriage, she displays no concern or inquisitiveness about Marianne’s diminishing appearance during the days after arriving at Berkeley Street.  She even fails to observe Marianne’s “death-like paleness” upon receiving a letter from Willoughby, and, immersed in measuring yarn, she cannot “see any thing at all” of “Elinor’s distress” that mirrors her sister’s (206).4  This lack of curiosity (about more important matters) can be as much a flaw as inordinate curiosity.

 

More observant than Mrs. Jennings is Anne Steele, whose curiosity is perhaps the nicest—scrupulously and minutely accurate, at least in terms of observing physical appearance—and also the most trivial:

 

Nothing escaped her minute observation and general curiosity; she saw every thing, and asked every thing; was never easy till she knew the price of every part of Marianne’s dress; . . . and was not without hopes of finding out before they parted, how much her washing cost per week, and how much she had every year to spend upon herself.  (282)

 

In addition to trivial knowledge, Anne seeks forbidden knowledge, which is why she must resort to eavesdropping.  Ultimately, Anne’s curiosity, like that displayed by Mrs. Jennings, causes pain, as it confirms what Elinor had “already foreseen and foreplanned,” the impending marriage of Edward and Lucy (313).  Anne uses the knowledge she gains eavesdropping to inform Elinor that Edward loves Lucy so much that he is willing to break off the engagement for her sake (309-11).  She is happy to tell Elinor about Edward’s willingness to sacrifice his own good for the sake of Lucy’s.  This revelation is indicative of one of two possibilities:  first, though she is inordinately desirous for information, she is not curious about such information once she gets it, as she does not suspect that Edward might have other motivations for breaking off the engagement; or second, if she does suspect that either Elinor or Edward is in love with the other, then she reveals knowledge gained by curious means in a way she surely knows will inflict pain on Elinor.

 

In either case, the knowledge gained and revealed illegitimately is painful, but, unlike Anne, Elinor takes pains “to spread as little as possible intelligence that had in the first place been so unfairly obtained” when Mrs. Jennings inquires about their conversation (313).  Elinor reveals only “such simple particulars, as she felt assured that Lucy, for the sake of her own consequence, would chuse to have known” (313).  From Elinor’s perspective, despite Lucy’s tendency to flaunt her attachment to Edward, there is some information that Lucy may not want revealed:  the knowledge her curious sister has gained could prove injurious to Lucy as well as to Elinor.

 

Motivation primarily distinguishes Lucy Steele’s curiosity from that displayed by her sister and Mrs. Jennings, for Lucy’s curiosity is most clearly employed for proud, selfish, and malicious ends.  Besides going to inordinate lengths for information to which she is not privy (according to Anne, she has hidden in closets and behind a chimney-board to eavesdrop [311]), she uses her curiosity for selfish ends that cause injury to Elinor.  Lucy’s goal while speaking to Elinor shortly after arriving at Barton Park is to inform Elinor of her engagement with Edward.  Indeed, she accepts the loss of some propriety, as Adam Smith warned would happen, by being overly inquisitive about Mrs. Ferrars.  She apologetically declares, “‘I hope you will do me the justice of believing that I do not mean to be impertinent’” (147).  This declaration is surely meant to provoke Elinor’s curiosity, but it fails to do so:  Elinor only “made her a civil reply, and they walked on for a few minutes in silence” (147).  Once it is clear that she will not be able to reveal her engagement to Edward in response to Elinor’s curiosity, she proceeds to reveal the knowledge with the ostensible motivation of not appearing “‘impertinently curious’” (147).  That is, to justify what she assumes Elinor perceives as her impertinence, she must reveal that she is engaged.  The revelation of the engagement allows Lucy to evaluate Elinor’s interest and concern in Edward’s affairs.  This conversation, therefore, allows Lucy to see what sort of competitive threat Elinor has been and could be as well as to reduce whatever threat there may be by cementing her claim to Edward.  Though the topic of Mrs. Ferrars is insufficient to provoke Elinor’s concern, news of the engagement and its confirming proofs—the portrait, the lock of hair, and the letter from Edward—do succeed in instilling wonder in Elinor, enabling Lucy to estimate Elinor’s interest in her fiancé.

 

When, after revealing the engagement, Lucy returns to her first tactic of impertinent questioning, this time the questions are more clearly aimed at causing pain.  Her questions put Elinor in the shoes of Edward’s fiancée:  “‘What would you advise me to do in such a case, Miss Dashwood?  What would you do yourself?’” (153).  Assuredly, Lucy observes the pain she inflicts on Elinor:  in their next conversation, “her little sharp eyes full of meaning,” she says to Elinor, “‘I do assure you, . . . there seemed to me to be a coldness and displeasure in your manner, that made me quite uncomfortable.  I felt sure that you was angry with me’” (167).  Explaining that Edward was sad to leave her in order to visit Elinor, Lucy asks, “‘Did not you think him dreadful low-spirited when he was at Barton?’” (153).  And finally, Lucy asks whether Elinor noticed the lock of hair she had given Edward (154-55).  Ultimately, Lucy’s curiosity is tied up with her pride and jealousy.  She is proud to be Edward’s fiancée, especially since she knows Elinor’s interest in him, and her impertinent questions highlight the fact that it is she, and not Elinor, who is engaged to Edward.

 

In volume two, Lucy’s curiosity is answered by Elinor’s, but Elinor’s thoughts leading up to their next conversation serve to show the differences between their forms of curiosity.  When Anne first indicates that the Steeles know Edward, Elinor is immediately curious.  (It is a fine joke of Austen’s that this is the only point in the novel where Mrs. Jennings is not curious [145].)  Nevertheless, Elinor is not overwhelmed by her own curiosity.  She retains her propriety and does not immediately ask questions.  Elinor does lose some self-control in private; at first she only thinks of herself, harboring resentment toward Edward.  Her pride has been injured, and she certainly could use curiosity as a means of finding out more information with which to fuel her resentment, for Lucy surely would have been forthcoming with additional details.  As Marianne indulges her own sorrows, Elinor could seek more facts from Lucy to increase her justified resentment.  Instead, she uses curiosity in a more charitable manner.  She asks herself, “Had Edward been intentionally deceiving her?  Had he feigned a regard for her which he did not feel? Was his engagement to Lucy, an engagement of the heart?” (159-60).  When Elinor analyzes these questions, her resentment toward Edward turns to pity, and more questions lead her to believe that he will never be satisfied with Lucy.  Thus, during Elinor’s next meeting with Lucy, when it is her turn to be curious, her questioning has a much different motive.  Elinor “wanted to hear many particulars of their engagement repeated again, she wanted more clearly to understand what Lucy really felt for Edward, whether there were any sincerity in her declaration of tender regard for him” (162).  Though Elinor is far from disinterested, her questions are not aimed at injuring her interlocutor or boosting her own pride but at finding out more information about Edward, for whom she is concerned.

 

Luckily, it does not take much prompting to get Lucy talking on the subject.  She admits that she is jealous and that her jealousy has led to suspicion and minute observation (169).  Of course, her confessed jealousy is once again intended to arouse Elinor’s.  The conversation continues with Lucy again asking Elinor for her unbiased advice, even claiming that she will break off the engagement immediately if Elinor suggests it.  Missing no opportunity to inflict harm with her curiosity, Lucy then asks Elinor whether she will be in town during the winter, using Elinor’s denial to reveal that she herself will be meeting Edward there.

 

Though not devoid of self-interest during this conversation, Elinor benevolently seeks more information about the pitiable state of a loved one and displays the same benevolent curiosity throughout the novel.  Though benevolent, Elinor is by no means weak.  She can explain Edward’s merits to Marianne because she has “‘seen a great deal of him, [has] studied his sentiments and heard his opinion on subjects of literature and taste’” (23).

 

Elinor considers herself a nicer observer than Mrs. Jennings.  Her opinion about the seemingly discourteous Mr. Palmer develops over time:  “Elinor was not inclined, after a little observation, to give him credit for being so genuinely and unaffectedly ill-natured or ill-bred as he wished to appear” (129-30).  At Cleveland, Mr. Palmer is in fact pleasant and gentlemanlike.  Elinor seems, unsurprisingly, to be a better observer of Mr. Palmer than his own wife.  And her observations of Brandon stand in contrast to those of Mrs. Jennings, who is assured of his attachment to Elinor:  that Brandon makes Elinor his confidante, “his open pleasure in meeting her after an absence of only ten days, his readiness to converse with her, and his deference for her opinion, might very well justify Mrs. Jennings’s persuasion of his attachment, and would have been enough, perhaps . . . to make [Elinor] suspect it herself” (345-46).  Elinor, however, “watched his eyes” and could discern in them a lover’s concern for Marianne (346).  Hina Nazar points out that Austen attributes to Elinor the kind of curiosity that is “described in the language of the novel as her habitual ‘attentiveness,’” and that “this kind of interest in others deepens rather than weakens judgment” (148-49).

 

It is important to note, however, that Elinor does not indulge her curiosity about matters that do not affect her or her loved ones, that people want to keep secret, or that could cause pain.  For instance, Elinor refrains from indulging in curiosity as Brandon alludes to an obviously painful time in his past.  When he abruptly stops himself, “Elinor attempted no more” although “Marianne, in her place, would not have done so little.  The whole story would have been speedily formed under her active imagination; and every thing established in the most melancholy order of disastrous love” (67).  It is not that Elinor possesses no interest or concern in the story, for when Brandon brings it up again and doubts Elinor remembers their truncated conversation, Elinor responds, “‘Indeed . . . I have not forgotten it’” (232).  The same ability to rein in curiosity is displayed when Brandon leaves Barton Park unexpectedly:  “Elinor, though she felt really interested in the welfare of Colonel Brandon, could not bestow all the wonder on his going so suddenly away, which Mrs. Jennings was desirous of her feeling; for besides that the circumstance did not in her opinion justify such lasting amazement or variety of speculation, her wonder was otherwise disposed of” (83).

 

Elinor can control her curiosity even when it is provoked in regard to a loved one, for her wonder at this point is “engrossed by the extraordinary silence of her sister and Willoughby on the subject [of Brandon’s sudden departure], which they must know to be particularly interesting to them all” and by the fact that they have not declared their engagement (83).  She can refrain from asking her sister whether she is engaged to Willoughby.  Though Elinor longs to have confirmation of the engagement and addresses the problem with her mother, she refrains from seeking that confirmation herself, not knowing how Marianne would take such questions, for after Willoughby leaves Barton the “slightest mention of any thing relative to Willoughby overpowered [Marianne] in an instant” (95).  Elinor’s curiosity is for the sake of Marianne:  she will not engage in any questioning that could hurt her.  As Elaine Bander notes, “Elinor’s ‘wonder’ is entirely consumed by her sister’s mystery, but unlike Mrs. Jennings, she wonders in silence” because “delicacy prevents her from questioning her sister” (126).  It is only after Marianne is shattered by Willoughby’s letter that Elinor will indulge her curiosity, bringing up the engagement to Marianne and reading the correspondence between her sister and Willoughby.  This rein on curiosity for the sake of propriety could not have been performed by Mrs. Jennings or the Steeles.

 

Elinor is particularly curious about and observant of Willoughby, though not inordinately so or for selfish or vicious reasons.  More than anything, it is a concern for her sister that leads her to observe and wonder about Willoughby.  That being said, his first appearance to the Dashwoods would have stirred curiosity in almost anyone.  When he and Marianne enter unexpectedly into Barton Cottage, “Elinor and her mother rose up in amazement at their entrance, and . . . the eyes of both were fixed on him with an evident wonder and a secret admiration” (50).  Willoughby is made still more interesting by his exit during a heavy rain (51).  Upon seeing Sir John, Elinor, Marianne, and Mrs. Dashwood all question him about Willoughby.  Though Mrs. Dashwood and Marianne quickly conclude that he is “faultless,” Elinor’s curiosity leads her to observe carefully and speculate about him (58).  She concludes that he has

 

a propensity . . . of saying too much what he thought on every occasion, without attention to persons or circumstances.  In hastily forming and giving his opinion of other people, in sacrificing general politeness to the enjoyment of undivided attention where his heart was engaged, and in slighting too easily the forms of worldly propriety, he displayed a want of caution which Elinor could not approve, in spite of all that he and Marianne could say in its support.  (58)

 

After Willoughby’s sudden departure from Barton, Mrs. Dashwood and Elinor are both curious to know the cause.  Within a half of an hour, Mrs. Dashwood has come to her conclusion and shares it with Elinor.  Though acknowledging the likelihood of her explanation, Elinor keeps on wondering.  She is particularly curious because she has been so observant:  for the first time she has seen that Willoughby is not telling everything that is on his mind.  Elinor is “‘startled . . . by the alteration in his manners,’” noting that “‘he did not speak like himself, and did not return [Mrs. Dashwood’s] kindness with any cordiality,’” and proceeds to speculate as to why he has acted in this manner (94).

 

Elinor usually does not rely on or trust her immediate conclusions, first impressions, and emotions.  Wanting a “more particular account of Willoughby’s general character,” when she learns that the Palmers are from Cleveland (132), she asks Mrs. Palmer about him.  Expecting to see Willoughby in London, Elinor resolves to gain “every new light as to his character which her own observation or the intelligence of others could give her” and to watch “his behaviour to her sister with such zealous attention, as to ascertain what he was and what he meant” (181).  Still curious to know his character even after his engagement is announced, Elinor questions Mrs. Jennings about Miss Grey.  At Cleveland, she listens to Willoughby in part because of her curiosity, and this sustained curiosity pays off for Marianne.  Thereafter, she can satisfy Marianne’s longing to “‘know his heart’” (393).

 

Curiosity for Elinor is a virtue.  Indeed, the lack rather than the excess of curiosity is more troubling.  It is when Elinor feels “instantaneously . . . satisfied” that the lock of hair on Edward’s finger is hers (114) that she fails to judge accurately.  Elinor notes this flaw in herself, which results when she does not give herself “‘time to deliberate and judge’” (108).  This failure to be inquisitive, she acknowledges, can lead to “‘a total misapprehension of character in some point or other’” (108).  She recognizes that coming to conclusions without being curious enough to observe closely all the pertinent factors can be dangerous; for this reason Marianne, she believes, needs “‘a better acquaintance with the world’” (66).  As Susan Morgan suggests, Elinor acknowledges “the incomplete and imperfect state of our knowledge of other people” (125).  Thus, after Willoughby abruptly leaves Barton, she can continue to wonder at his departure long after her mother has come to a settled conclusion.  With a sense of curiosity about how things are in the world and the observation of the world that follows from it, one can sharpen one’s first impressions.

 

Lack of curiosity can therefore be a vice, and lacking in curiosity throughout most of the novel is Marianne.5  Like her mother, Marianne has a tendency to rely on first impressions and immediate conclusions.  Their conjectures turn into beliefs, without any further aid of evidence.6  Marianne is not “nice” enough nor exact enough in her observation of the world.  She is not curious enough about her own impression of second attachments to observe that her own mother was in such a relationship and that she herself is a result of it.  Most importantly, Marianne is not a nice enough observer of Willoughby.  Elinor jokingly suggests that Marianne need only know his opinion of Cowper, Scott, Pope, picturesque beauty, and second attachments to know all that is important about him.  Once Marianne quickly and superficially conjectures that he is perfect, she soon believes it (64).  For Marianne, “‘It is not time or opportunity that is to determine intimacy;―it is disposition alone.  Seven years would be insufficient to make some people acquainted with each other, and seven days are more than enough for others’” (69).

 

Marianne will rarely take the time to be curious about anything, unless she is forced to by Elinor.  She considers the financial ramifications of receiving a horse, for example, only after Elinor forces her to.  Lacking what Morgan identifies as Elinor’s acknowledgment of “the incomplete and imperfect state of our knowledge of other people” (125), Marianne does not possess the curiosity to examine Willoughby’s character more completely.  Or, as Inger Brodey puts it, “The fixity of her rigid code of life keeps her from being open to experience and enables her to see only what fits into her pre-existing categories” (118).  Marianne’s adherence to the Cult of Sensibility, Brodey concludes, does not cause Marianne to become “more generally observant and ‘sensible,’” but much less so (119).  After all, Marianne has “no eyes for any one else” (64).  Her fascination and obsession with Willoughby prevent her from being sensible of and taking into account other people and facts, including those that could shed further light on Willoughby himself.  She displays the type of intellectual negligence that Johnson describes in Rambler 103 as resulting from “a predominant passion,” as when “a lover finds no inclination to travel any path, but that which leads to the habitation of his mistress” (186).

 

Lack of curiosity also helps to account for Marianne’s social improprieties.  She has no desire to know how her words or actions will affect others.  Marianne is, in fact, as selfish as the overly curious characters examined above.  How does Marianne know she is honest and acting in the right?  She knows by sensing that it is right.  Visiting Allenham, for instance, is pleasant, so there is no need to analyze whether it could have been in any way improper.  When Elinor asserts “‘that the pleasantness of an employment does not always evince its propriety,’” Marianne responds, “‘On the contrary, nothing can be a stronger proof of it, Elinor; for if there had been any real impropriety in what I did, I should have been sensible of it at the time, for we always know when we are acting wrong, and with such a conviction I could have had no pleasure’” (80).  Her indecorous visit to Allenham, Elinor observes, “‘has already exposed [Marianne] to some very impertinent remarks’” (80).

 

Whereas lacking certainty enables Elinor’s curiosity, the certainty provided by Marianne’s first impressions and emotions prevents curiosity.  Marianne, as Morgan suggests, “affirms the conventions of romantic sensibility because of the formal certainty they provide, not because she is more passionate than her sister, but because she is less imaginative and less brave” (120).7  Austen shows that too much faith in one’s own emotions can discourage curiosity.

 

Only when Marianne begins to suspect that her beliefs are wrong does she become curious, and in a manner lacking all propriety.  When Willoughby does not act as Marianne expects him to, when he does not answer her letters, she is desperate to know why.  Upon first seeing him in town, she exclaims, “‘Good God! Willoughby, what is the meaning of this?  Have you not received my letters?  Will you not shake hands with me?’” and further asks, “‘But have you not received my notes? . . . What can be the meaning of it?  Tell me, Willoughby; for heaven’s sake tell me, what is the matter?’” (201).  Needless to say, Marianne is now genuinely curious about Willoughby and is so until, and maybe even beyond, Elinor’s narration of his confession.

 

Marianne is also curious when she learns that her impression that Elinor is unfeeling is incorrect.  When Elinor reveals that she has known of Edward’s engagement for four months, questions pour from Marianne’s mouth:

 

“How long has this been known to you, Elinor?  has he written to you?”

“Four months!—Have you known of this four months?”

“What!—while attending me in all my misery, has this been on your heart?—and I have reproached you for being happy!”

“Four months!”—cried Marianne again.—“So calm!—so cheerful!—how have you been supported?”

“Four months!—and yet you loved him!”(296-97)

 

Marianne seems to take Elinor’s example to heart, as her daily plan for her future at Barton, including a newfound sense of duty to her family, appears to be modeled, though in her own excessive style, on Elinor’s.  To apply a Socratic dictum, one can only be curious when one knows oneself to be ignorant.  With her gained experience and the realization that she was (and still is) ignorant about many things, Marianne is able to reconsider the merits of second attachments and flannel-waistcoated gentlemen.

 

In Sense and Sensibility, Austen takes a middle path in regard to curiosity.  That is, like most Enlightenment thinkers, she recognizes curiosity’s powerful possibilities, but she does not wholeheartedly endorse such inquisitiveness.  Instead, she preserves an earlier wariness toward curiosity, acknowledging its tendency to lead to self-aggrandizement and maliciousness.  Nonetheless, she portrays the equally dangerous results of a deficiency in inquisitiveness.  Ultimately, Austen indicates that curiosity, so esteemed by many Enlightenment thinkers, must be moderated and employed for proper ends so as not to lead to the destructive results fostered by its excesses and deficiencies.

 

 

Notes

 

1. See Xenophon’s description of Socrates in Memorabilia (4.7.6).  For the best summary of western thought on curiosity, see Paul Griffiths’s The Vice of Curiosity: An Essay on Intellectual Appetite.  See also Dennis Quinn (25-29).

 

2. In his poem “Lines written in the Autumn of 1817 after a recovery from sickness,” Austen’s brother James shows that he was influenced by the Enlightenment’s emphasis on inquisitiveness and keen observation:

To analyze, transmute & reproduce

With chemic science, the component parts

Of earth, air, water, & to ascertain

By fresh experiments, the latent powers

Of the metallic produce of the mine,

To some affords a never failing source

Of innocent delight.  (250-56)

 

3. The frequency with which Austen uses curiosity and its variants does not vary widely throughout her novels.  Though certainly I take the spectrum of inquisitiveness to be an important idea examined in Sense and Sensibility, the role of curiosity in Austen’s other novels deserves analysis, especially given Austen’s clear interest in the nature of perception and judgment.  Raimund Borgmeier argues that the novel’s “procedural suspense” fosters curiosity in the reader.

 

4. Karen Stohr accounts for Mrs. Jennings’s vicious actions despite her “moral worth” (383-87):  “A useful way to explain her failings is to say that Mrs. Jennings suffers from an impoverished moral imagination.  Insofar as she imagines the effects of her actions on others at all, she does so only minimally, and she doesn’t attend to any evidence that would disconfirm her views of her remarks as being generally well-received” (385).

 

5. Deborah Weiss offers a related distinction between Elinor and Marianne, providing a fine discussion of the relation of epistemology and ethics in the novel, contrasting Marianne’s more deductive tendencies with Elinor’s inductive tendencies, and showing how the former lead to ethical failures and the latter to success.

 

6. First impressions are not always wrong.  After all, at Norland Marianne conjectures that Edward and Elinor will be married.  Likewise, Mrs. Jennings, upon witnessing Marianne and Brandon first meet, immediately suspects he is in love with her, and it only takes his listening to Marianne play the pianoforte a second time for her to become “perfectly convinced” (43).

 

7. Morgan argues, “What Marianne insists on through the conventions of sensibility is the absolute quality of her own perceptions and the infallibility of personal knowledge.  Her ‘systems’ involve a concept of knowing in which truth is the same as intense feeling.  Marianne thinks she cannot be wrong. . . . This means that what Marianne can immediately see of the world around her, other people’s expressions of themselves, are all of them there is to know” (121).

 

 

Works Cited

 

Armstrong, Isobel.  Sense and Sensibility.  London: Penguin, 1994.

Aquinas, Thomas.  Summa Theologiæ.  Trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province.  5 vols.  Allen, TX: Christian Classics, 1981.

Austen, James.  “Lines Written in the Autumn of 1817 after a Recovery from Sickness.”  The Complete Poems of James Austen, Jane Austen’s Eldest Brother.  Ed. David Selwyn.  Chawton: Jane Austen Society, 2003.  88-99.

Austen, Jane.  The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Jane Austen.  Gen. ed. Janet Todd.  Cambridge: CUP, 2005-2008.

Bander, Elaine.  “Gossip as Pleasure, Pursuit, Power, and Plot Device in Jane Austen’s Novels.”  Persuasions 23 (2001): 118-29.

Borgmeier, Raimund.  “‘Everything in Such Suspense and Uncertainty’—Suspense in Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility.”  Sense and Sensibility, with an Introduction and Contemporary Criticism.  Ed. Eleanor Bourg Nicholson.  San Francisco: Ignatius, 2014.  369-82.

Brodey, Inger.  “Adventures of a Female Werther: Jane Austen’s Revision of Sensibility.”  Philosophy and Literature 23.1 (1999): 110-26.

Fordyce, James.  Sermons to Young Women, in Two Volumes.  3rd ed.  1766.  Rpt. in Female Education in the Age of Enlightenment.  Vol. 1.  London: Pickering, 1996.

Griffiths, Paul.  The Vice of Curiosity: An Essay on Intellectual Appetite.  Winnipeg: Canadian Mennonite UP, 2006.

Johnson, Samuel.  “Curiosity.”  A Dictionary of the English Language.  London: Times Books, 1979, 1755.

_____.  Rambler 103 (12 March 1751).  The Yale Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson.  Vol. 4.  Ed. W. J. Bate and Albrecht B. Strauss.  New Haven: Yale UP, 1969.  184-89.

Morgan, Susan.  In the Meantime: Character and Perception in Jane Austen’s Fiction.  Chicago: UCP, 1980.

Nazar, Hina.  “The Imagination Goes Visiting: Jane Austen, Judgment, and the Social.”  Nineteenth-Century Literature 59.2 (2004): 145-78.

Percival, Thomas.  A Father’s Instructions.  London, 1781.

Quinn, Dennis.  Iris Exiled: A Synoptic History of Wonder.  Lanham: UP of America, 2002.

Smith, Adam.  The Theory of Moral Sentiments.  1759.  Ed. D. D. Raphael and A. L. Macfie.  Oxford: Clarendon, 1976.

Stohr, Karen.  “Practical Wisdom and Moral Imagination in Sense and Sensibility.”  Philosophy and Literature 30.2 (2006): 378-94.

Weiss, Deborah.  “Sense and Sensibility: Uncertain Knowledge and the Ethics of Everyday Life.”  Studies in Romanticism 52.2 (2013): 253-73.

Xenophon.  MemorabiliaXenophon in Seven Volumes.  Vol. 4.  Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1979.  1-359.

 

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