PERSUASIONS ON-LINE V.20, NO.1 (Summer 1999)

Sense and Sensibility: An Eighteenth-Century Narrative

Diane Shubinsky


Diane Shubinsky teaches drama in the English Language and Literature Department at the University of Haifa, Israel.


published in 1811, Sense and Sensibility is the only one of Austen’s novels that can be classified as typically eighteenth century.  Leavis claims the book “is in fact the most Johnsonian of the Austen novels in style” (150),1 while Kirkham feels that the schema “of contrasting heroines . . . was to be found in many women novelists, especially those of an improving tendency” (86).  Kirkham goes on to compare the narrative with Edgeworth’s Letters of Julia and Caroline (1795) and West’s A Gossip’s Story (1796).  Implicit in these comments is the assumption that this novel is more closely linked to the work of her predecessors and less original in approach than the later works.


Although she had written First Impressions and Susan, Sense and Sensibility was the novel upon which Austen chose to stake her future as an author.  Austen personally financed the publication of Sense and Sensibility.  Had the book been a failure, she may never have had the courage to risk either her own, or her relatives’ money again.  P.J.M. Scott feels the decision to publish Sense and Sensibility first was based on the fact that this “was the book which Austen most wished to preserve and disseminate.”2  Another more reasonable explanation, however, particularly in light of the fact that when she originally submitted the manuscript she told the publishers that it was “about the length of Miss Burney’s ‘Evelina’” (Persuasion 362), is that this book was similar in style to the popular novels of that period.  Consequently, she had greater confidence in it succeeding, since unlike her other novels it did not break the accepted narrative mode of the day.


Money is one of the pivots of the plot in Clarissa.  The greed of the Harlowe family and the jealousy because Clarissa was preferred in her grandfather’s will are to a great extent what determine their actions.  In The Mysteries of Udolpho, money is also an axis: for Montoni’s desire for Emily’s property, along with his determination to marry her to a wealthy suitor, contributes to her misfortunes.  Similarly in Sense and Sensibility money is the source of all the action.  This is yet another confirmation that this novel is firmly entrenched in eighteenth-century traditions.  In all of Austen’s later narratives the actions and tensions arise out of the protagonists’ reactions to external events (that is, psychological causes) rather than the external events themselves.  Here, however, external events in the form of a lack of money take the Dashwoods into Devonshire, make Willoughby leave Marianne, and save Edward from Lucy.  And despite their different temperaments, both heroines are forced to sit passively and wait for their circumstances to improve.  They make no decisions, and if Mrs. Ferrars had not given Robert financial freedom, he would not have been able to marry Lucy, which in turn left Edward free for Elinor.3  Elinor and Marianne, by being rather than doing, waiting rather than acting, are very much in line with other eighteenth-century heroines, such as Burney’s Evelina, Edgeworth’s Belinda, and Radcliffe’s Emily.


Yet another aspect of the eighteenth century in this novel is the hint of incest, which was “well established in English novels of the eighteenth century” (Hudson 103).  Irene Fizer, in her article “The Name of the Daughter: Identity and Incest in Evelina,” explains the reason Evelina is so vulnerable: she does not have a father, and therefore “is taken to be a readily available commodity” (89).  Evelina’s gratitude to her father is based on her delight at finally being inscribed into the social and legal system.  Fizer presents Belmont’s dramatic reaction to his daughter as incestuous desire, refusing to recognize Evelina as his daughter, instead seeing in her the body of his dead wife Caroline.  His shunning of her is due to the discomfort he experiences because of this illegal passion.  Thus, while his recognition of her as his child gives Evelina some protection against the dishonorable desire of other men, it also exposes her to Belmont’s illicit desire.  According to Fizer, the fear of breaking the incest taboo is the reason Belmont refuses to have further contact with Evelina and why he happily places her in the lawful hands of Lord Orville.


Fizer’s reading can similarly apply to Colonel Brandon, who finds a reincarnation of the first Eliza in her daughter, who has the same temperament and bears the same fate as her mother.  Colonel Brandon’s response implicitly acknowledges the jeopardy he finds himself in due to this resemblance.  “‘Ah! Miss Dashwood—a subject such as this—untouched for fourteen years—it is dangerous to handle it at all!’” (208).  It is unsafe for him to get too close to the daughter of Eliza, for although she is not his biological offspring, she has been placed in his care and sexual attraction is still prohibited.4  Moreover, the second Eliza is commonly regarded as his child. Mrs. Jennings informs Elinor that “‘[s]he is his natural daughter’” (66).  Thus, on top of the ethical aspects, Colonel Brandon would have two other, almost insurmountable problems to overcome should he wish to marry the second Eliza.  First, society, which generally regards Eliza as his blood relative, and second, Eliza, who must see him as a father figure.  Consequently, “‘little Eliza was . . . placed at school’” (208).  Although the colonel talks of having no home to place her in, nearer the point he has no wife to protect him from the illicit desire that Eliza may arouse in him.


The colonel’s avoidance of Eliza makes him derelict in his duty as a guardian, not only in that Eliza strayed while she was under his supposed protection, but because he took no measures to try to persuade Willoughby to marry her.  But the colonel does not want to see Eliza marry Willoughby any more than he wants to see Marianne married to his rival.  For on seeing Marianne, the colonel beholds an ethical way out of the passion he feels for his ward, transferring his desires to a young woman who is morally available.  The fact that the second Eliza and Marianne are of a similar age and attracted to the same man, Willoughby, further enhances their affinity.  Even her physical decline “brought back [to Colonel Brandon] that resemblance between Marianne and Eliza already acknowledged, and now strengthened by the hollow eye, the sickly skin, the posture of reclining weakness . . . ” (340).  Since mother and daughter have the same name and inasmuch as the second Eliza has also been reduced to “a situation of the utmost distress with no creditable home, no help, no friends . . . ” (209), it is not possible to know with which Eliza Marianne is being compared.


The marriage of Marianne to Colonel Brandon is also more eighteenth century than Austenian.  In her other novels, one of Austen’s most distinct hallmarks is her desire not just to have her heroines marry well in the financial sense, but to have them marry men with whom they have developed a relationship.  Austen’s portrayal of marriage as intimidating is matched by other writers of her age.  In Evelina Mrs. Mirvan is married to an oaf of a man whom she has to endure with silence and patience.  Many of the readers (the women in particular) of Burney’s time would have recognized in the captain the type of husband Mary Hays criticized in An Appeal to the Men of Great Britain (1798): “[The husbands] expect, or affect to expect, that the same sweetness of temper, the same equality and flow of spirits, the same eagerness to please, shall uniformly prevail in the wife, when the amiable, the devoted lover, is metamorphosed into the sullen and tyrannical husband” (Rogers and McCarthy 350).  Nor do the devoted lovers always appear to an advantage in Evelina.  Lord Merton, although engaged to Lady Louisa, attempts to seduce Evelina verbally or even physically assault her: “Lord Merton, hastily following, caught my hand, and saying the day was his own, vowed he would not let me go” (285).  Thus, the nails are in the coffin of Lady Louisa’s marriage even before the event has taken place.


In all of Austen’s mature novels her heroines get to know their future partners slowly and surely.  The men do not marry the protagonists merely because they are pretty; they learn to appreciate their inner qualities as well.  But in Sense and Sensibility the marriage plot fails.  As Mooneyham-White points out in her article “Jane Austen and the Marriage Plot,” between the two couples who end up together in this novel there is no tutelage of one by the other.  Here the only educational experience in the narrative is Elinor instructing Marianne.  “The double bow of moral and sexual conflict has never been tautened between hero and heroine . . . For this reason the marriages have failed to engage the interest of many readers” (78).


The problem is that although marriage is the aim of every female in the narrative,5 the friction is not found there but from the rivalry between the different women.  This total female orientation of the plot reduces sexual tension and accounts for the sterility of which Mooneyham-White complains.  In the later novels, when Austen has found her own voice and style, it is one of the future partners who plays a significant part in the development of the other.6  The mutual respect and friendship that develop between Elinor and Colonel Brandon is never extended, and Austen has him marry a young girl whose sole attraction is her resemblance to others.  Thompson explains how in a typical Austen marriage “the heroine must examine, study and know her suitor rather than trust to her own feelings or worse give in to her (or his) passion” (7).  The men have to go through a similar process.


In this atypical novel, Colonel Brandon’s marriage choice is based on passion.  In the marriage of Edward and Elinor, Austen is closer to the sort of union she develops in her later works; it is based on compatibility of temperament and attitude.  Marianne, who, like other later Austenian heroines, falls for a young but callous man, merely to learn the errors of her ways and acknowledge the greater suitability of the older and more stable man, is different in that she knew and had more in common with the rake than she did with her future husband.  When Marianne and Colonel Brandon marry, she knows very little of him, and he chooses to know even less of her.  Marianne, like many other eighteenth-century heroines, but unlike the typical Austen heroine, undergoes almost no internal change.  Reluctantly she acquires a measure of enlightenment with the help of her sister and still manages to catch a “good” husband—aided by a pretty face that resembles another.  Fortunately Austen outgrew these ideas, and Sense and Sensibility is her only novel that has so much in common with typically eighteenth-century narratives.





1. In plain terms the “Johnsonian” style means didactic, which is not a customary feature in an Austen novel, but is clearly evident in Sense and Sensibility.


2. P.J.M. Scott makes this claim in his book Jane Austen: A Reassessment (London: Vision, 1982).  The word “first” refers to publication, but whether it was actually written first is less clear.  Started in 1795, Sense and Sensibility was revised in 1797, but as Leavis explains, “it must have had a good deal of rewriting by 1811, for the use of Scott as a popular poet, for instance, would have been impossible before 1805” (147).  Moreover, it is impossible to know exactly which book Austen wrote first since she tended to write one story, put it to one side, write another, then return to the original.  Although she sold Susan (later to be Northanger Abbey) prior to Sense and Sensibility, for 10 to Richard Crosby & Co., it was never published, and the rights were bought back in 1816.  In her preface to Northanger Abbey, Austen explains how she has made some changes, but she also requests that the readers take into account that “thirteen years have passed since it was finished.”  Hence Sense and Sensibility can be considered her first work, not just because it was published first, but due to this fact, it was the novel that did not receive the revision of the more experienced writer.


3. If we compare the passivity of Elinor and Marianne with Austen’s most docile heroine, Fanny Price, we can see how external events completely control them.  Fanny is the poor relation who, when made a marriage offer that is better than she could have hoped for, shows that she is not controlled by her circumstances and rejects the offer.  Mr. Collins tells Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice, “‘Your portion is unhappily so small that it will in all likelihood undo the effects of your loveliness and amiable qualifications’” (150).  These facts do not prevent Elizabeth from rejecting the proposal.  Neither she nor Fanny capitulates to the material restrictions of their existence, and hence they break the eighteenth-century mold.


4. Hudson points out how incest was extended in Austen’s period to cover relations via marriage.  Since the first Eliza is a cousin and then the sister-in-law of the colonel, she and her offspring are, strictly speaking, off limits.  What is interesting about these rules is that in her later novels, Austen also has cousins marrying (Fanny Price and Edmund Bertram in Mansfield Park) and in-laws marrying (Emma and Mr. Knightley in Emma).  Whether the rules were changing, or whether Austen was protesting them, is not clear.


5. ven though both Mrs. Dashwood and Marianne deny that marriage is their motive, their behavior belies their words.  Their disavowal has more to do with the vulgar phrasing of Sir John, “‘setting one’s cap at a man’” (45), and the open expression of the sentiment rather than the transaction itself.  So even while Mrs. Dashwood is claiming that catching a husband “‘is not an employment to which [her daughters] have been brought up’” (44), her whole attitude toward and treatment of Willoughby is designed to encourage him to marry her daughter.


6. In the later novels the educational guidance is a prelude to teaching the future spouse how to create a harmonious family, since through marriage the core family is broken up and a new family is created.  Here the core family is not split, and Elinor and Marianne continued “living almost within sight of each other” (380).  Thus the emphasis is placed on the relationship between the two women rather than between husband and wife.  Although female friendship was important to Austen, she never made it paramount in any of her later works.



Works Cited


Austen, Jane.  The Novels of Jane Austen.  Ed. R. W. Chapman.  3rd ed.  Oxford: OUP, 1933-69.

Austen-Leigh, James Edward.  A Memoir of Jane Austen.  1871. Ed. R. W. Chapman.  Oxford: Clarendon, 1926.

Burney, Frances d’Arblay.  Evelina.  New York: Burt, 1900.

Fizer, Irene.  “The Name of the Daughter: Identity and Incest in Evelina.”  Refiguring the Father: New Feminist Readings of Patriarchy.  Ed. Patricia Yaeger and Beth Kowalkski-Wallace.  Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1989.

Hudson, Glenda A.  “Consolidated Communities: Masculine and Feminine Values in Jane Austen’s Fiction.”  Jane Austen and the Discourses of Feminism.  Ed. Devoney Looser.  New York: St. Martin’s, 1995.

Kirkham, Margaret.  Jane Austen: Feminism and Fiction.  New Jersey: Barnes, 1983.

Leavis, Q.D.  Collected Essays: The Englishness of the English Novel.  Vol. I.  Cambridge: CUP, 1983.

Mooneyham-White, Laura.  “Jane Austen and the Marriage Plot: Questions of Persistence.” Jane Austen and the Discourses of Feminism. Ed. Devoney Looser.  New York: St. Martin’s, 1995.

Rogers, Katherine M., and William McCarthy.  Meridian Anthology of Early Women Writers from Aphra Behn to Maria Edgeworth 1660-1800.  New York: Meridian, 1987.

Thompson, James.  Between Self and World.  University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 1988.


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