Persuasions #12, 1990 Page 60
The Fall on High-church Down in
Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility
In Jane Austen’s novel Sense and Sensibility, the future of Marianne Dashwood and John Willoughby is figuratively foretold in the literal events of the characters’ first encounter. Like a vision from the Delphic oracle, the scene on High-church Down metaphorically predicts Marianne’s plight at the hands, or more precisely, in the arms of Willoughby. The description of the countryside, the manners of Marianne and Willoughby, and the reaction of her sister Margaret foreshadow Marianne’s seduction, Willoughby’s deception and the Dashwoods’ compliance.
The description of the setting captures Marianne’s energy and optimism, as well as the sensuousness of the pending encounter, while simultaneously predicting the turbulence and resulting disgrace of the relationship. Marianne is “invited” by the beauty of the downs “to seek the exquisite enjoyment of air on their summits” (40-41). Jane Austen evokes the elements of a seduction – invitation and enjoyment – to lure Marianne beneath the threatening sky. With characteristically unquenchable optimism, Marianne declared “that the day would be lastingly fair, and that every threatening cloud would be drawn off from their hills” (41). Her declaration applies both to that day on the down and to her perceptions of her affair with Willoughby, about both of which she is mistaken.
When the rain does come, Marianne and Margaret’s reaction to it parallels the family’s reaction when Willoughby’s betrayal can no longer be denied: “Chagrined and surprised, they were obliged, though unwillingly, to turn back, for no shelter was nearer than their own house” (41).
Marianne, the epitome of sensibility, seizes the storm as an excuse to cast propriety aside and run down the hill. Marianne’s flight, characterizing her emotional excess, leads to her fall. It is important to note, that carried by her own momentum, Marianne does not fall to the bottom of the hill. Willoughby “took her up in his arms without farther delay, and carried her down the hill” (42), metaphorically deepening Marianne’s fall from High-church Down. The name of the hill itself implies a fall from grace – or, at the least, a fall from propriety.
If the fall of High-church Down is recognized for what it is, a statement of things to come, the scene precludes any suspense as to the success of Marianne’s relationship with Willoughby. The event, however, suffused in the causality typical of the Dashwoods’ existence, lacks the telltale signs of an obvious symbol and discretely implants itself in the mind as a portent of what is to come.
Austen, Jane. Sense and Sensibility, ed. R.W. Chapman, 3rd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1933).