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Interpretive Ekphrasis and the Marital Marketplace: Elinor’s Drawings in Sense and Sensibility

What immediately strikes the first-time reader of Sense and Sensibility is how much the novel smacks of money. Margaret Drabble, in her introduction to Signet Classic’s edition, asserts that “some of the characters are, even by Jane Austen’s standards, obsessed by money, and the financial map of the plot is extremely complicated” (viii). The novel’s opening chapters are dedicated to the reading of a will, the esoteric legal claims of an estate, and the Dashwood women’s economic fates. Its first lines of internal, narrated, and spoken dialogue all involve money talks, and characters are regularly described in pecuniary terms, such as Colonel Brandon calling Willoughby “expensive” or John Dashwood deciding on Mrs. Jennings’s merit based exclusively on her finances (238). Painstaking details of various estates, inheritances, fortunes, and expenses evince “the incisive ways in which economic motivations are exposed” in Sense and Sensibility, as Alistair M. Duckworth has indicated (82). The novel—with its expansive cast of characters and emphasis on money—reminds us all too soberly that men and women must navigate a marital marketplace, and that that marketplace often has differing sets of values. The visual arts, too, are part of this economy. Elinor’s drawings, which are linked to themes of value and exchange, appear in Norland, Barton, and London, and notably lack any description—there is no visualizing information—so readers are forced to pay more attention to viewers’ reactions and what those reactions expose about their values.1 In Sense and Sensibility, we discover that how one values visual art is a reflection of one’s own values.2

I. Elinor’s Drawings: Norland Park and “Interpretive Ekphrasis”

Elinor’s drawings are first a topic of conversation between Marianne and Mrs. Dashwood while they still reside at Norland Park at the beginning of the novel. This context now allows me to introduce a term coined by Laura Eidt—“interpretive ekphrasis”—which she defines as a “verbal reflection on the image” (50). Eidt conceives of this term for an image discussed in film, such as Girl with a Pearl Earring, claiming that “in addition to the commenting and interpreting voice, the verbalization of the image may add further nuances to it. Often, then, the image may function as a springboard for reflections that go beyond its depicted theme” (51). In other words, when discussing a work of art, we can enhance our understanding of it through conversation and interpretation, possibly—and inevitably—expanding beyond the image’s original depiction. Though Eidt studies interpretive ekphrasis in the genre of film, there is no reason why her incisive argument cannot be applied to literature, where characters likewise discuss works of art.

Elinor as artist and the drawings themselves are both noticeably absent when her mother and sister discuss them for the first time in Chapter Three; therefore, to Eidt’s point, Austen emphasizes who is saying what about them. Indeed Marianne uses Elinor’s drawings “as a springboard” to voice concerns about Edward’s taste, condemning him for not fully appreciating her sister’s art. What she really does, however, is declare her own values in the marital marketplace:

“And besides all this, I am afraid, mama, he has no real taste. Music scarcely seems to attract him, and though he admires Elinor’s drawings very much, it is not the admiration of a person who can understand their worth. It is evident, in spite of his frequent attention to her while she draws, that in fact he knows nothing of the matter. He admires her as a lover, not as a connoisseur. To satisfy me, those characters must be united. I could not be happy with a man whose taste did not in every point coincide with my own. He must enter into all my feelings; the same books, the same music must charm us both.” (20)

These comments say more about Marianne than about Edward’s taste or Elinor’s drawings. She scoffs that his “admiration” lacks connoisseurship because “he knows nothing of the matter”; to her mind, one must enter into complete and total coexistence of taste and feeling with the beloved. Only then can one understand the “worth” of art, books, or music. But if we scrutinize Marianne’s critique, we note that Edward’s “frequent attention” and admiration “as a lover” actually evince the worth of Elinor’s drawings to him in their own right, so Marianne unwittingly describes Edward as a suitor who admires Elinor’s artistic endeavors for their intrinsic value. That is, he respects her talent and artistic pursuits, indicating his virtuous character. The greater implication here is that Marianne does not know herself because when she gets exactly what she claims she wants—a man who allegedly has tastes that coincide with her own, a man who enters into all her feelings and is seemingly charmed by the same books and music—in the embodiment of Willoughby, she is left heartbroken and nearly dies.

II. Elinor’s Drawings: Barton

Sense and Sensibility’s use of interpretive ekphrasis to reveal values is further developed at Barton, where Elinor’s drawings make their material debut. The drawings initially function to establish the new Dashwood home’s security and identity, but gain an audience once the women start receiving visitors. The careful reader is later rewarded to note that soon after moving into Barton cottage, “each of them was busy in arranging their particular concerns, and endeavouring, by placing around them their books and other possessions, to form themselves a home. Marianne’s pianoforte was unpacked and properly disposed of; and Elinor’s drawings were affixed to the walls of their sitting rooms” (35). The sisters carve out their own niches in the cottage with their respective artistic pursuits filling the space. In their first appearance here, Elinor’s drawings are displayed because the Dashwood family values art objects in their domestic sphere, and since they are hung in the sitting rooms, they are meant to be seen.

The next time that Elinor’s drawings are mentioned, her name is not attached to them nor does she make an effort to reveal herself as their artist. A visiting party arrives to the cottage consisting of Mrs. Jennings, Sir John and Lady Middleton, and Mr. and Mrs. Palmer; they are all seated amidst the drawings, but only the latter two engage with Elinor’s artworks.

Mrs. Palmer’s eye was now caught by the drawings which hung round the room. She got up to examine them.

“Oh! Dear, how beautiful these are! Well! How delightful! Do but look, mama, how sweet! I declare they are quite charming; I could look at them for ever.” And then sitting down again, she very soon forgot that there were any such things in the room.

When Lady Middleton rose to go away, Mr. Palmer rose also, laid down the newspaper, stretched himself, and looked at them all round.

“My love, have you been asleep?” said his wife, laughing.

He made her no answer; and only observed, after again examining the room, that it was very low pitched, and that the ceiling was crooked. (125)

Why does Austen have only Mrs. Palmer comment on Elinor’s drawings in this scene, taking into account both Sir John and Mrs. Jennings’s loquacity and that Mrs. Palmer’s comment is initially intended for her mother? Austen perhaps uses the Palmers’ interaction not only to expose their characters—this visit marks their introduction in the novel—but also to show the logical conclusion of competing values in the marital marketplace. Mrs. Palmer’s vapid assessment of Elinor’s drawings as “beautiful,” “delightful,” and “charming” after a cursory glance perfectly illustrates how she is “strongly endowed by nature for being uniformly civil and happy” as well as “a very silly woman” (123, 130). Mr. Palmer—who all the while had been hiding behind his newspaper (the Regency equivalent of scrolling on one’s phone during company)—looks at the drawings at his own leisure in a concerted effort not to give his wife any satisfaction. He refuses to comment on them, choosing instead to insult the home’s architecture, displaying his “air of more fashion and sense than his wife” as well as his “self-consequence” (123). Exposing the Palmers’ characters and interpersonal dynamic in this interpretive ekphrastic episode correlates with Elinor’s subsequent scrutiny of their marriage itself. She observes that for Mrs. Palmer, the “studied indifference, insolence, and discontent of her husband [gives] her no pain” and as to Mr. Palmer, it is “rather a wish of distinction, [Elinor] believed, which produced his contemptuous treatment of ever body, and his general abuse of every thing before him. It was the desire of appearing superior to other people” (129, 130). The Palmers’ approaches to the drawings precisely reveal their approaches to their own marriage, which functions but neither consists of mutually aligned values nor appears happy. Also noteworthy is that in the previous interpretive ekphrastic episodes at Norland, Elinor’s drawings were physically absent, so discussing their worth vis-à-vis a marital partner was hypothetical. Here, in the first interpretive ekphrasis when the drawings are materially present, Austen uses the episode to shift from conjecture to an actual marriage with incommensurate values.

III. Elinor’s Screens: London

Turning to the final interpretive ekphrastic episode involving Elinor’s drawings in Sense and Sensibility, her art will be treated as a conversational weapon that illustrates “the metropolitan values of London: commerce, autonomy, and the marketplace” (Trepanier 65). There is a large dinner party gathered at the Dashwood home, so it will be helpful to acknowledge everyone in attendance first: Mr. and Mrs. Dashwood, Sir John and Lady Middleton, Mrs. Jennings, Mrs. Ferrars, Colonel Brandon, Anne and Lucy Steele, and Elinor and Marianne. Austen once again utilizes interpretive ekphrasis to expose characters’ values, and much of the diction in this scene unequivocally reverberates back to the previous episodes at both Norland and Barton. Recall at Barton that though Elinor was the artist of the drawings, her identity remained anonymous, so the episode exposed more about the Palmers and their marriage. Here, however, Elinor’s hand is recognized, so viewers’ reactions specifically reflect on her.

The screens themselves surface because Mr. Dashwood wishes to show them off to Colonel Brandon. His gesture is not an altruistic one, for he neither values his sister’s art for its intrinsic worth nor because he takes pride in her performance as an artist; no, he does so because he wishes to raise Elinor’s “stock” in Brandon’s eyes. Since he has recently latched onto the prospect that Brandon will court Elinor—viz., that she will no longer be his financial albatross—Mr. Dashwood presents the screens to the Colonel in the hopes of making her appear more desirable in the marital marketplace: “‘These are done by my eldest sister,’ said he; ‘and you, as a man of taste, will, I dare say, be pleased with them. I do not know whether you ever happened to see any of her performances before, but she is in general reckoned to draw extremely well’” (267). John Dashwood “officiously” hawks Elinor’s talents to Brandon, but the Colonel appraises her art in a fashion similar to Edward’s: “disclaiming all pretensions to connoisseurship” yet providing warm admiration (267).

When the screens make their way to Lady Middleton, she plays her typical role as a cipher, and delivers mechanical approval, while Mrs. Ferrars’s “strong characters of pride and ill nature” have occasion to flourish (265). Provided with a fresh opportunity to snub Elinor, Mrs. Ferrars’s initial intrigue over the screens is quickly quelled once she discovers their artist’s identity. The result is an offensive “hum” and perfunctory “very pretty” after refusing even to look at them, thereby communicating to Elinor her disapproval of her as a suitable match for her son in the marital marketplace (268).

Fanny was the one who had “considerately” informed her mother who painted the screens, imbuing the word with double meaning: it is either considerate of her to acknowledge Elinor as the celebrated artist or it is considerate of her to warn Mrs. Ferrars as much lest her mother unwittingly praise Elinor. It turns out to be the latter consideration, and though Fanny blushes for her mother’s rudeness and likely for her own part in it, the “dread of being too civil, too encouraging” is so overwhelming that she immediately catches herself and mentions their preferred match in the martial marketplace, Miss Morton. Doing so realigns her with her mother and simultaneously conveys that she, too, deems Elinor unsuitable for Edward. Mrs. Ferrars, of course, does not miss a beat, and she and her daughter painstakingly emphasize “she”—Miss Morton—in an effort to pit the two women’s artistic talents against each other: “she does paint so delightfully” and “she does everything well” (268). Though Fanny and Mrs. Ferrars gleefully insult Elinor by extolling Miss Morton, there is much more going in this interpretive ekphrastic episode because only Elinor and the reader have a full and complete understanding of what is really being discussed. We know that Colonel Brandon is in love with Marianne, as Elinor herself has ascertained, so Mr. Dashwood’s efforts are in vain. We know that Edward is engaged to Lucy—Fanny and Mrs. Ferrars do not—so their attempt to rebuff Elinor by praising Miss Morton only stings Lucy who is notably silent, for once, during this entire exchange.

Marianne, unsurprisingly, contributes her full emotional force to the discussion about her sister’s screens. There is no evidence in the text that Elinor shared information about Miss Morton and Edward with her sister, so Mrs. Ferrars and her daughter’s (faux) adulations are lost on Marianne, as the narrator subtly suggests: “though she had not any notion of what was principally meant by it” (268). Marianne jumps into the fray because she cannot bear seeing her sister mistreated and wishes to remind everyone that “it is Elinor of whom we think and speak” (268). She then makes a show of admiring the screens for their intrinsic worth, as artworks made by the sister whom she dearly loves (and, ironically, not at all unlike the way that Edward has previously displayed his artistic appreciation).

This is the last time that Elinor’s artworks are mentioned in the Sense and Sensibility and their final appearance not only exposes each character’s values, but also illustrates how art can be treated as a commodity in an urban setting. London, rich with commerce and society, is the place where Elinor’s screens are initially presented by her brother as an asset to be valued in order to raise her “stock.” Since art is an unstandardized good—as opposed to, say, milk—its value depends on its beholder’s values, whether those are technical, emotional, or based on the artist’s prestige or reputation. Elinor’s artworks are not being sold in a marketplace, per se, but Elinor herself is navigating a marital marketplace where she does not have economic freedom. And when presented with the opportunity to assess her artworks, Colonel Brandon’s virtuous character, like Edward’s, does not appraise them as economic assets but as objects to be valued for their intrinsic worth. The marital marketplace in London reduces relationships to commercial transactions, and it is noteworthy that the two heroes of the novel, Edward and Colonel Brandon, who value incommensurate goods—such as care, esteem, merit, compatibility and a commitment to virtue—respectively marry Elinor and Marianne in the country.

IV. Conclusion

Trepanier has made the point that in Emma, the “appropriate marriage of people with similar character and values” ends up taking place, and that statement holds true for the most part in Sense and Sensibility’s marital marketplace as well (71). Lucy and Robert Ferrars, both plagued by self-interest and materiality, end up marrying as the result of mutual flattery and vanity. Willoughby gets stuck in an unhappy marriage with the rich and possessive Miss Grey: “In honest words, her money was necessary to me, in a situation like mine” (372). And Elinor and Marianne both marry men who always valued “multifaceted, incommensurate goods in the world of the marketplace”: “Their resemblance in good principles and good sense, in disposition and manner of thinking, would probably have been sufficient to unite them in friendship, without any other attraction; but their being in love with two sisters, and two sisters fond of each other, made that mutual regard inevitable and immediate” (419). Marianne’s “extraordinary fate” allowed her to see herself more clearly, to see others more clearly, and accordingly—like her sister—to marry a man with mutually aligned intrinsic values.



1Space precludes equal attention to Edward’s miniature, another ekphrasis in the novel, but it is also linked to the same themes, for it is treated as a commodity that is exchanged in the marital marketplace. And Peter Sabor’s contention that pictures “reveal psychological nuances in [Austen’s] characters” is spot-on with regards to SS (214).

2The purpose of this essay is not to focus on the economics of SS from a new historical perspective. That research already exists (see Sheryl Craig’s “‘Wealth has much to do with it’: The Economics of Sense and Sensibility,” Barbara M. Benedict’s “The Trouble with Things: Objects and the Commodification of Sociability,” Elsie B. Michie’s “Austen’s Powers: Engaging with Adam Smith in Debates about Wealth and Virtue,” and Jason Solinger’s “Jane Austen and the Gentrification of Commerce”). My own research leans heavily on that of Lee Trepanier, who states that states that “Austen’s novels are attempts to discover a marriage based on multifaceted, incommensurate goods in the world of the marketplace” (71). Though he focuses on Emma and Mansfield Park, his sharp insights about the realities of the marital marketplace and consideration of relationships as goods is applicable to SS and my interest in the visual arts as part of larger economic forces at work.

Works Cited
  • Austen, Jane. Sense and Sensibilitiy: The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Jane Austen. Edited by Edward Copeland, Cambridge UP, 2006.
  • _____. Sense and Sensibility. Signet Classics, 2008.
  • Duckworth, Alistair M. The Improvement of the Estate: A Study of Jane Austen’s Novels. Johns Hopkins UP, 1971.
  • Eidt, Laura M. Writing and Filming the Painting: Ekphrasis in Literature and Film. Rodopi, 2008.
  • Sabor, Peter. “The Strategic Withdrawal from Ekphrasis in Jane Austen’s Novels.” Icons—Texts—Iconotexts: Essays on Ekphrasis and Intermediality. Edited by Peter Wagner, Walter de Gruyter, 1996, pp. 213-235.
  • Trepanier, Lee. “Marriage and the Marketplace in Jane Austen’s Emma and Mansfield Park.” The Free Market and the Human Condition, Lexington Books, 2014, 61-82.
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