Persuasions #12, 1990                                                                                                                                            Pages 10-18


Jane Austen as an Historical Novelist;

Sense and Sensibility



Department of English, Columbia University, New York, NY


It is a pleasure and a privilege for me to address the Jane Austen society.  The pleasure lies in the opportunity to talk about Jane Austen’s art.  The privilege is that my students at Columbia may be nearly as intelligent as you people, but they aren’t nearly as well informed about Jane Austen.

I’m going to take advantage of this – for me – unusual situation of talking to a well-read audience.  I’ll speak mostly about Sense And Sensibility, Austen’s first published novel, but I want you to be thinking about her last, Persuasion, especially resemblances between Marianne Dashwood and Anne Elliot.  The history I will be discussing is both in Austen’s novels and of them.

Although no one seems to have noticed, the two heroines I mentioned are surprisingly alike – granted differences in their ages and experience.  Everyone comments on the “autumnal” tone of Persuasion, and Marianne is Austen’s most notorious admirer of dead leaves.  More strikingly, Marianne, until brainwashed in the concluding chapters of Sense and Sensibility, is a firm believer in the impossibility of second attachments – precisely the view of Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth.  “There could have been no two hearts so open, no tastes so similar, no feelings so in unison, no countenances so beloved” – that sounds like Marianne Dashwood speaking of Willoughby, but it is Anne Elliot remembering Frederick Wentworth.

I want to suggest that such connections are not just funny coincidences.  They are, in fact, almost inevitable, once we recognize what Jane Austen was up to.  What she was up to was the writing of historical novels.

That probably sounds odd, maybe even perverse.  Most of us associate historical fiction with hyped-up trashiness antithetical to Jane Austen’s quietly elegant art.  But scholars identify the inventor of historical fiction as Sir Walter Scott, Jane Austen’s exact contemporary and warm admirer.  And although imitators of Scott have produced mountains of biodegradable schlock, his best romances are far closer to Austen’s novels than to works that keep the Literary Guild prosperous.  But there are two kinds of historical fiction.  There is a story, a history, of the past – Scott’s interest.  And there is a story, a history, of the present, but the present seen as an ongoing process of social developments and deteriorations.  That’s Jane Austen’s focus: the present as historical process.

History, after all, is change, change in society, change in people.  Jane Austen is interested in the present because she perceives it to be a process of transformation.  Just because it happens to be her present isn’t a cause for her to celebrate it – just as Scott was principally interested in the past not because he wanted to wallow in nostalgia but because history revealed how societies and individuals had changed.  Both Scott and Austen – and they are much more alike than many people realize, cannily intelligent, humorous, and (most rare) civilized people – both Scott and Austen are concerned more with the sheer facts of social transformations than with telling us how things ought to change – or ought to have changed.  But both are biased toward the underdog, the losers, the people formal and official history ignores.  Their histories are of people suppressed.  For Scott, that meant attention to peasants, fisher-folk, gypsies, serfs, Highlanders, Jews, and, vis-à-vis England, Scotland.  For Jane Austen the underdogs were women – the majority underclass of Regency England.

From an historical perspective, this interest of Scott and Austen in social change from the vantage point of victims and losers makes perfectly good sense.  After all, they lived through the most radical and far-reaching transformation in Western culture since the Neolithic age, one that brought many of the underclass to the top of society.  The change from an agriculturally based civilization to an industrial one, what we call the Industrial Revolution, was an infinitely greater upheaval than, say, the Christianization of the Roman Empire.  And the political revolution was almost as awesome – we are only now feeling the later effects of that democratizing.  What has been happening in Russia, Poland, Czechoslovakia recently are just the later waves of that revolution WE started in this country, giving articulation to the self-evident truth that all men are created equal and are equally entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – to which ideas the best of humankind for two hundred years have mutually pledged their lives and sacred honor.  The students in Beijing last spring didn’t know those final words of our Declaration of Independence, but they acted them out.

The mandarins of academia, however, have so far noticed only that Jane Austen almost never directly comments on the so-called great socio/political events of her time.  I think that precisely because she perceived so clearly – and felt so strongly – the profundity of the changes her world was experiencing, seeing and feeling with all the terrible acuity of the socially disadvantaged, seeing from the perspective of a woman in rigidly patriarchal society, for these reasons Jane Austen wasted few words on corn laws, Napoleon, or gas lighting.  These were superficial symptoms of the profoundest processes of historical change.  Austen’s novels are enduring novels because they dramatize the deepest causes and the most far-reaching consequences of fundamental, not superficial, innovations in social existence during her epoch, to which I believe the origins of our own social behavior are to be traced.

If you think I’m just trying to pass off on you some kind of uptown paradox, let me suggest an analogy for understanding why Jane Austen’s intense historical vision is embodied in her tales of the commonplace lives of insignificant country girls.  The analogy is the electron microscope.  This is a device by which biologists have in recent decades enormously expanded our comprehension of life processes.  The electron microscope allows intensely narrow focus, not just on cells but on cell-parts and tiny bits of those parts.  The electron microscope has enabled biologists for the first time to understand the normal working of healthy organisms and causes for their malfunctionings – the gross symptoms of which everybody can see, but whose real causes until recently were utterly mysterious.  The electron microscope is the best metaphor for Jane Austen’s method – because her method is intense focus on events very minute and seemingly unimportant so as to bring to light the elemental workings of society.  Let me give you a tiny illustration from Sense and Sensibility.  John Dashwood tells his sister Elinor cheerfully that he and his wife have put up a new greenhouse at Norland, adding casually: “The old walnut trees are all come down to make room for it.” (226)  There is the history of modernism in one sentence.

I suggest that Austen’s attention to seemingly trivial features of the most ordinary girls getting married in small country villages is a technique for revealing the truly significant, because underlying, changes that characterize the society of her day.  Against these shiftings the so-called great events that fascinate journalists and academic historians who are, after all, mostly men – shrink to genuine triviality.  Simply: Austen can probe so deeply only because she focuses with such intense narrowness, with her lighting from below.  Sense and Sensibility, because it is early work, somewhat crude and flawed in plot structure (though of course, as we know, superior to the fiction of almost every other novelist) gives clear insight into a necessity of Austen’s art – a necessity whose preciousness becomes fully distinct when we turn to Persuasion.  In the latter novel we observe that the world that has come into being in just six years since we left Norland is a world surprisingly foretold by the experiences of Marianne Dashwood.  And we then recognize that Marianne’s world is the beginning not only of Anne Elliot’s, but also of our world.  After all, Jane Austen’s present is our past.  And because her art penetrates so deeply into the workings of her society’s self-transformations, her fiction today reveals the historical origins, and therefore in a special way, the historical meaning, of those pressures and faultlines characteristic of the unstable structure of our contemporary life.

What Jane Austen analyzes most effectively are the deepest implications and farthest ramifications of the way we talk, the significance of ordinary and commonplace uses of language.  Austen understands that what people want to do, and what they want to believe, is vividly highlighted by the fashion in which they modify the received meanings of words.  Social existence is determined less by what things are, than by how we speak of them and what values we thereby bestow on them.  That’s what makes it social existence.  The classic physical example of this attributive power is money, which, particularly in its paper or plastic forms, has no intrinsic value whatever.  Jane Austen enables us to see that the same is true of all social discourse by which we arrange our lives.  In ordinary conversation, words mean what we have agreed to believe they should mean.  How we use words, therefore, reveals the fashion in which we feel the restrictions of our mutual agreements – as well as the fate of our preferences and yearnings.  Thus, what people mean by the words they use when they talk about how much money they need, or want, exposes, to the penetrative, electron-microscope eye, the structuring of emotional forces that determine social processes far more significantly than do reports of wages, studies of market values, or economic analyses.  What we say about money tells how we distinguish our necessities and perceive the requirements of our social life.

In Vol. I, ch. 17 of Sense and Sensibility, for instance, Marianne asks, rhetorically:

“What have wealth or grandeur to do with happiness?”

“Grandeur has but little,” answers her sister Elinor, “but wealth has much to do with it.”

“Elinor, for shame!  Money can only give happiness where there is nothing else to give it.  Beyond a competence, it can afford no real satisfaction.”

“Perhaps,” replies Elinor, “your competence and my wealth are much alike.  Your ideas are only more noble than mine.  Come, what is your competence?”

“About eighteen hundred or two thousand a-year.”

Elinor laughs.  “Two thousand a year a competence!  One thousand is my wealth.”

I’ve played this game with my students, translating into contemporary financial terms – if you change to dollars and multiply Jane Austen’s figures by 100 you get a reasonable equivalent.  I ask the students to define what’s affluence, what you have to make to be wealthy.  I’ve discovered that my students think that a family of four whose income is 250,000 dollars a year is edging up toward affluence.  As someone who has supported a family of five on a professor’s salary I find their idea, well, noble.  Because no more than Marianne are the students just greedy wretches – their feeling about what is needed for comfort, security, and the basic decencies of life is, like Marianne’s, more demanding than mine or Elinor’s.  Like Marianne, who thought riding horses a necessity, my students need automobiles, and VCRs, and a scattering of condominiums – or they believe they do.  And the truth is that for human beings believing you need something is usually the same thing as actually needing it.  And that is not entirely a regrettable trait.  It is not a bad thing for people to want a good deal, to expect a lot.  Because Elinor is right; money does have a lot to do with happiness – as anybody who has ever lived without enough money knows all too well.  But my basic point is not merely that the soul is an expensive thing, but that if one attends carefully to the way seventeen-year-old girls are using familiar words, one may discover a lot about what forces are really driving a society.  If you are shrewd enough, the language of teenagers will tell you the truly important things that are going on now – things that economists and sociologists only laboriously unearth much later and then rebury in piles of useless statistics and ugly jargon.

A trickier revelation through language-use is provided by Marianne’s detestation of another kind of jargon.  The particular slang at issue happens to be that of the picturesque, a popular way in 1811 of talking about landscape.  Marianne observes that


“admiration or landscape scenery is become a mere jargon.  Every body pretends to feel and tries to describe with the taste and elegance of him who first defined what picturesque beauty was.  I detest jargon of every kind, and sometimes I have kept my feelings to myself, because I could find no language to describe them in but what was worn and hackneyed out of all sense and meaning.”  (97)


Marianne must be silent because she won’t dirty her mouth with other people’s misuse of words.  But this is absurd.  The only language we have is the one others use and misuse.  There can be no such thing as a private language.  And yet, I think we can sympathize with Marianne’s contradictory frustration.  She wants to confirm or protect the uniqueness of her experience.  Because uniqueness gives her experience its authenticity.  And Marianne is nothing if not genuine.  And she is right – her most intense personal experiences are being trivialized and commercialized by her society.  We have to sympathize with her desire to preserve the authenticity of intense personal feelings against a world that increasingly stereotypes them, turns genuine experience into clichés and formulae.

It is clear, I hope, that I think Marianne has been somewhat roughly handled by critics.  Jane Austen, to be sure, handles her own heroine rather roughly.  But Austen handles all her characters roughly.  She never allows them excuses for moral lapses.  She understands, of course, the reasons for their unfortunate behavior.  She is aware, for instance, that Marianne is only 17, and a bit spoiled by her mother, and very, very ignorant.  But for Austen, youth is never an excuse.  Everybody past childhood, say about age 13, is regarded by Austen as a responsible moral agent, capable of acting with ethical correctness.  Of course, almost nobody in her novels does act correctly.  That – alas – makes her a realist.  But every character, even Robert Ferrars or the Reverend Mr. Collins, is assumed to be a responsible individual who could act rightly – and therefore can be held fully accountable, whatever his causes or motives – for not doing so.  “A grown man,” says Mr. Knightly to Emma when she tries to excuse Frank Churchill, “A grown man can always tell the truth.”

It is strange, isn’t it, how that little sentence jars, how little we like being reminded that we always do have that option: we could tell the truth.

Marianne, you’ll notice, does try to tell the truth.  And her fault is not her youth, but a moral blindness to which she finally confesses, calling herself to severe account.  The cause, which neither she nor the author presents as excusing what she’s done, is Marianne’s underestimation of how dangerous is the world in which she must live.  It is a dangerous world, especially for a woman, since it is very much a man’s world, a patriarchal world, and one in which life expectancy was a little under 40 years.  Let me just refresh your memory as to the first four paragraphs of Sense and Sensibility, which give a more chilling picture of sudden death, male caprice, and female victimization than any recent propaganda for NOW.


The late owner of this estate was a single man, who lived to a very advanced age ….  [At the death of his sister, who served as his housekeeper and companion], he invited and received into his house the family of his nephew Mr. Henry Dashwood, the legal inheritor of the Norland estate, and the person to whom he intended to bequeath it.  In the society of his nephew and niece, and their children, the old Gentleman’s days were comfortably spent.  The constant attention of Mr. and Mrs. Henry Dashwood to his wishes, which proceeded not merely from interest, but from goodness of heart, gave him every degree of solid comfort …. and the cheerfulness of the children added a relish to his existence.

By a former marriage, Mr. Henry Dashwood had one son … amply provided for by the fortune of his mother ….  By his own marriage … he added to his wealth.  To him therefore the succession to the Norland estate was not so really important as to his sisters; for their fortune … could be but small ….

The old Gentleman died; his will was read; and like almost every other will, gave as much disappointment as pleasure.  He was neither so unjust, nor so ungrateful, as to leave his estate from his nephew; – but he left it to him on such terms as destroyed half the value of the bequest ….  [To] his son, and his son’s son, a child of four years old, it was secured, in such a way, as to leave to himself no power of providing for those who were most dear to him ….  The whole was tied up for the benefit of this child, who in occasional visits with his father and mother at Norland, had so far gained on the affections of his uncle, by such attractions as are by no means unusual in children of two or three years old; an imperfect articulation, an earnest desire of having his own way, many cunning tricks, and a great deal of noise, as to outweigh all the value of all the attention which, for years, he had received from his niece and her daughters ….

Mr. Dashwood’s disappointment was, at first, severe; but his temper was cheerful and sanguine ….  But the fortune, which had been so tardy in coming, was his only one twelvemonth.  He survived his uncle no longer … [and only ten thousand pounds] remained for his widow and daughters.


Jane Austen writes as a woman in a society in which power, religious, economic, educational, social, is overwhelmingly a male prerogative.  Which explains why Austen’s most despicable characters are WOMEN, women who have lucked into money and power.  Mrs. Ferrars, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, Mrs. Churchill, for example, have internalized, as we now say, the patriarchal ethos.  Like slaves vested with authority on slave ships who became the most inhuman tyrants to their fellows, Austen’s empowered women are morally the most frightful figures – thereby revealing their creator’s true opinion of the dangerousness of the patriarchy in which she had to live.

To develop this point would require another lecture.  But I do want to suggest its importance, since I can’t find enough professional feminists who recognize the profundity of Austen’s criticism.  Most interesting in the novels are not the obviously despicable women such as those I’ve just mentioned, but those who are in many ways good and attractive.  Mrs. Jennings in Sense and Sensibility, or Lady Russell in Persuasion exemplify the corruption worked even on decent, good-hearted women empowered by a patriarchal system.  But of course the spectacular case is Emma Woodhouse.  Emma is, so far as I know, the most fully empowered heroine in all nineteenth-century fiction – and nobody makes more mistakes, particularly in not doing right by others of her own sex.

But I must resist Emma’s fascinations.  My point tonight is that young women in Austen’s novels confront a world in which they can expect to be victimized, a treacherously dangerous environment, even when it seems beneficent.  Elinor, Marianne’s elder sister, who has been thrust into the position of responsible parent, appreciates these dangers.  She is wiser than Marianne, more prudent.  But people who think Jane Austen is showing Elinor simply to be right and Marianne simply wrong should stick to simpler authors – Tom Wolfe or Enid Blyton perhaps.  We who are more sophisticated know that we like the girls in different ways, and find each troubling in different ways.  But indubitably it is Marianne who gives the novel its verve and bite.  The proof of this is that the heroines of the subsequent novels, with Fanny Price possibly an interesting exception, are more like Marianne than Elinor.

The crucial point, however, is that though all Austen’s heroines have sisters, Sense and Sensibility is the only novel whose dramatic action pivots entirely on the relationship of two sisters.  Elinor of course is prudent and cautious to the edge of hypocrisy, while Marianne recklessly seeks instant gratification of personal desires.  Elinor, aware of the vulnerability of moneyless girls in a patriarchy, possesses feelings that may be as strong as her sister’s, but she conceals them.  She is able to conceal them without becoming a mere hypocrite, because, first, she diffuses her feelings more, and, second, she exerts herself so strongly.  She is conscious of what she suppresses and why she suppresses it, and consciousness requires energy.  Elinor is so nearly, but not, a hypocrite because she is so little repressed in the modern sense, victimized by her unconscious.  Elinor does display more energy than Marianne, which we tend to overlook because Elinor’s energy goes into the control and directing of feelings, rather than mere flamboyant display of them.  Elinor is correct when she observes that Marianne, despite her exhibitions of her sensibility, is not really “lively.”

In the climactic confrontation between the two girls the significance of these differences is articulated, though for many critics the pages might just as well have been blank.  Let me try to fill in the blank for you.  In Vol. III, ch. 1, Elinor explains to Marianne that for four months she has known that the man she loves, Edward Ferrars (God knows why she loves that wimp, but never mind), is engaged to another woman, Lucy Steele.

Marianne is amazed, crying:

“Four months!  So calm!  so cheerful! – how have you been supported?”

“By feeling that I was doing my duty,” replies Elinor.  Something of what is implied by “duty” – a word surprising and foreign to most of my students – we learn when Marianne exclaims again:

“Four months – and yet you loved him!”

“Yes,” replies Elinor, “but I did not love only him.”  That is marvellous.  “I did not love only him.”  And Elinor goes on eloquently to describe a very powerful vision of the ramifications of love’s energy, concluding: “And after all, Marianne, after all that is bewitching in the idea of a single and constant attachment, and all that can be said of one’s happiness depending entirely on any particular person, it is not meant – it is not fit – it is not possible – that it should be so.”  (262-3)

So much for conventional storybook romancing.  Only what about Anne Elliot just six years later?  For her, everything depends on Frederick Wentworth alone, and we admire and cherish Anne Elliot for the singleness of her emotional commitment.

To understand Austen’s seeming self-contradiction, we have to attend to still another stunning revelation in Sense and Sensibility only a page beyond that I have just read.  Defending her behavior as both right and necessary, Elinor details the anguish it caused her.

“If you can think me capable of ever feeling,” she says to her sister, “surely you must suppose that I suffered now.  The composure of mind with which I have brought myself to consider the matter, the consolation I have been willing to admit, have been the effect of constant and painful exertion; they did not spring up of themselves.”

Marianne’s response so far as I can tell has escaped critical commentary, crucial though her response is.


“Oh, Elinor,” she cries, “you have made me hate myself …. Because your merit cries out upon myself, I have been trying to do it away.”  The tenderest caresses followed this confession.


Let me notice the last sentence first – you people will be aware of how rare in Austen’s novels are any references to touching of any kind.  Caresses are virtually unheard of.  Clearly this is a crucially significant moment for Sense and Sensibility.  It is significant because it is a confession of jealousy, a revelation that the sisters are animated by what modern psychologists so elegantly call sibling rivalry.  “Because your merit cries out upon myself, I have been trying to do it away.”  Of course.  Many readers have found wise, prudent Elinor rather hard to take.  Think how much harder for her younger sister.  And how should Elinor, who has to take responsibility for the family, how should she feel, when every time a man appears he instantly falls for her younger sister?

Of course Elinor and Marianne hate each other.  Of course they also love each other profoundly.  That is what makes the problem.  Rivalry with somebody you don’t care about is just a silly game.

It is, you will notice, Marianne who confesses.  She is the one who asks forgiveness – a request which offends modern readers.  We don’t understand forgiveness, which only embarrasses us if we consent to suspend our disbelief in its possibility.  So we don’t appreciate the social function of forgiveness.  By asking for forgiveness Marianne releases the expression of the sisters’ love – which has been largely suppressed throughout the novel – and so produces those unusual caresses.  In regard to the specific circumstances, Marianne has judged her sister wrongly, but Marianne is the activating character, and it is through Marianne that Austen depicts the origin – remember my electron microscope – the origin of what we now call the culture of narcissism.  Because, of course, that love for only one implies the primacy of self-gratification.

I think what Marianne displays for us, first of all, is why narcissism is attractive, attractive in every sense.  Because the odd fact is that narcissistic people often are attractive to others.  And surely a determination to insist on the value of intense personal experiences is a foundation of our democratic social system, founded on the pursuit of happiness.  Moreover, Jane Austen through Marianne enables us to recognize that in the world just emerging in her day and painfully familiar to us, narcissism has become a kind of necessity.  Many of us are narcissists because narcissism is enforced upon us by the nature of our societal structures.

What I mean is shown by Anne Elliot, surely as sensitive and responsible a heroine as Jane Austen portrays.  But Anne’s only salvation lies in the love of a single person.  Anne is the subtlest, morally finest, and most truly feminine of Austen’s heroines – and she is totally isolated within her society.  She has no home, really – there is no possibility of genuinely satisfying occupation for her – there is almost no one with whom she can share the subtle nicety of her perceptions and judgments and exquisite musical taste – except Captain Wentworth.  And their life together is explicitly defined as isolated – a pair-bonding against the rest of an uncomprehending society.  Anne’s marriage is not like the marriages of the other heroines – which were sacraments affirming their participative re-engagement into the social mainstream.

Elinor is right – one should exert oneself to love more than one person.  But everything about the conditions of modern life makes that exertion fruitless.  Families disintegrate, social relations become increasingly depersonalized and systematized – so one’s “duty,” Elinor’s favorite word, can increasingly be only to oneself.

Let me be clear about the argument: I don’t say that Jane Austen is recommending this state of affairs.  She is not saying that we ought to be narcissists.  She is simply describing why it is that we are, all of us today, more Marianne than Elinor.  Personally, Jane Austen must often at least have leaned toward Elinor’s side.  Surely she knew the value of loving more than one.  But Austen’s honesty, a grown woman who always tells the truth, her greatness, is her recognition that given the transformations of the society of her time, not only Elinor can be right.

Marianne is not merely perverse, nor is she merely guilty of a youthful indiscretion.  She attracts us because she embodies a potent, perhaps even a frighteningly potent, actuality at the very heart of post-eighteenth-century social existence.  This life, the life of our society, esteems and values individuality, defends, as does our Bill of Rights, the sanctity of the individual as individual.  The price of that commitment to the superior significance of any and every single citizen to unreasonable demands by bureaucratic government – the price is the fragile, provisional, isolated happiness of Anne Elliott – who, as the last paragraph of Persuasion tells us, must fear for her husband as none of the other heroines have had to fear for theirs.  The price of the truly cultured individuality of Anne Elliot, which is grounded in her intense emotionality, that price of individuality, is anticipated by Marianne Dashwood: it is the necessity of confronting constant fear.  Fear must be constant, because nothing can be secure in a culture of narcissism, in a world dedicated to the supremacy of individuality.  What we can learn from Jane Austen is that it is not threats of physical disaster that makes us insecure, that primarily fuels anxieties.  Earthquakes or nuclear war are less dangerous than the fate of our singular emotional investments, because these are not, and now cannot be, diffused among many people, nor anchored in socially stabilized systems of duty.  I believe that Jane Austen teaches us the hard lesson that it is not right, it is not fit, it is not meant to be – yet it is possible – that in the modern world we seldom can love more than one.

 Talk delivered to JASNA, New York City Chapter, January 25, 1990.

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