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“The Old, Well Established Grievance”: Generational Conflict in Austen’s Sense and Sensibility

In Livia Arndal Woods’s essay, Generations in, Generations of: Pregnancy in Jane Austen, Woods makes the astute observation that Austen’s heroines in “their preparations for the role of domestic soldier” are marked “not only as women distinctly of their class, gender, and race but also as distinctly of their generation, women more genteel in act and intention than their mothers” (134). These two groups, Austen’s heroines and their mothers, are separated by more than the usual generational gap. A century and its mores divide them. Characters like Mrs. Bennet, Mrs. Moreland, Lady Bertram, Mrs. Price, Mrs. Dashwood, and Mrs. Jennings spent their entire youth, and faced their own “marriage market,” completely in the 18th century. Their daughters are facing a marriage market in a new century of quickly changing values and manners. Sense and Sensibility, a novel Austen began in the late 1700s and revised and published in 1811, spans two centuries as well. It is, Diane Shubinsky argues, Austen’s most eighteenth-century novel (1). In this novel, perhaps more than in any of her others, we see Austen dealing with the theme of generational conflict. There are three sets of mothers and daughters in the novel and a fourth unusual intergenerational domestic pairing. All four groups offer instances of disharmony that through further examination will give insight into Austen’s conception of generational difference and filial independence in her work. In Sense and Sensibility, Austen delineates a generational shift between eighteenth-century women and their nineteenth-century daughters that shows a nineteenth-century move towards a greater emphasis on gentility, calm manners, and a respect for the privacy of one’s neighbors.

The first pair, Mrs. Dashwood and her eldest daughter Elinor, are an example not of differences in taste or manners so much as in judgment. Elinor is, famously, the novel’s most sensible character, and Mrs. Dashwood shares a tendency towards too much sensibility with her middle daughter, Marianne. Elinor’s relationship with her mother is characterized as one of gentle influence. In fact, she is introduced by Austen as:

Elinor, this eldest daughter whose advice was so effectual, possessed a strength of understanding, and coolness of judgment, which qualified her, though only nineteen, to be the counselor of her mother, and enabled her frequently to counteract…that eagerness of mind in Mrs. Dashwood which must generally have led to imprudence. (Austen 6)

Their relationship from the outset is framed as one of opposition. Elinor works to “counteract” her mother and the narrator is clearly on her side. Elinor must constantly check her mother’s financial excesses to keep their family within their income. Mrs. Dashwood struggles to find a house to move to from Norland because “her notions of comfort and ease” are in conflict with “the prudence of her eldest daughter, whose steadier judgment rejected several houses as too large for their income, which her mother would have approved” (Austen 14). Despite their small income, the text hints that Mrs. Dashwood would also have kept their carriage, which would have required them to pay for the upkeep of the horses needed to draw it, as well as numerous servants had not “the discretion of Elinor prevailed” (Austen 26). In this Elinor has more success than in her attempts to exhort her mother to exert her matriarchal authority over Marianne when Marianne’s sensibility threatens to destroy her happiness and health. Elinor remonstrates with her mother to ask Marianne if she and Willoughby are engaged, but Mrs. Dashwood responds, “I would not ask such a question for the world…it would be most ungenerous. I should never deserve her confidence again” (Austen 81). Mrs. Dashwood’s notions of parental duty run more along the lines of friendship: she worries about retaining Marianne’s confidence. Elinor instead wishes that her mother believed it her duty to exert her matriarchal authority in a way that would promote greater mental fortitude and emotional health in Marianne. Austen’s narrator sides with Elinor, remarking, “Common sense, common care, common prudence, were all sunk in Mrs. Dashwood’s romantic delicacy” (Austen 82). In this formulation the daughter is on the side of the wise, maternal virtues, while the mother is on the side of a characteristic usually considered the prerogative of youth. Ruth Perry suggests that this difference of opinion regarding motherly duty is itself a generational change. The “evolving expectations [of women’s domestic roles] suffused the roles of wife and mother with new meaning” she writes in Novel Relations, seemingly agreeing with Arndal Wood’s conception of “domestic soldiers” (227). The nineteenth-century woman faced higher expectations of her maternal performance. In her implied criticism of her mother’s parenting, Elinor reveals herself to be a proto-Victorian, moving towards the cult of domesticity.

Austen’s second mother-daughter pair, Mrs. Jennings and her daughter Lady Middleton, exemplify a generational difference in manner as well as in values. Of Lady Middleton the text says, “Her manners had all the elegance which her husband’s wanted…though perfectly well bred, she was reserved, cold, and had nothing to say for herself beyond the most common-place enquiry or remark” (Austen 31). Compare this to the novel’s introductory description of Mrs. Jennings:

Mrs. Jennings, Lady Middleton’s mother, was a good humoured, merry, fat, elderly woman, who talked a great deal, seemed very happy, and rather vulgar. She was full of jokes and laughter, and before dinner was over had said many witty things on the subjects of lovers and husbands. (Austen 34)

Elinor and Marianne, the younger generation, though not inclined to approve of Lady Middleton, find her “more agreeable than her mother” even if this is only because she talks less (Austen 53). This confederacy of daughters value circumspection. To be a busybody and a gossip trouble them more than it does Mrs. Jennings.

Lady Middleton and Mrs. Jennings clash most frequently when the latter’s gossipy curiosity and want of self-restraint cause her to make ill-bred remarks. When Mrs. Jennings attempts to wheedle the name of Elinor’s favorite young man out of Margaret, Lady Middleton comes to Elinor's rescue with an interruption about the weather intended to change the subject of conversation. Her motive here is given as “her ladyship’s great dislike of all such inelegant subjects of raillery as delighted her husband and mother” (Austen 59). She also intervenes on Colonel Brandon’s behalf after Mrs. Jennings tries to force a disclosure of the nature of the letter that requires him to go to town immediately (Austen 62). In fact, almost the only interactions between Lady Middleton and Mrs. Jennings the text records are instances of Lady Middleton’s attempts to put an end to her mother’s indelicate public conversations. When Mrs. Jennings begins a discussion about Colonel Brandon’s allegedly illegitimate daughter, “Lady Middleton’s delicacy was shocked” and to dismiss the subject, “she actually [takes] the trouble of saying something herself about the weather” (Austen 64). The moments of her mother’s conversation that Lady Middleton “can not endure” are clues to the modern reader about the manners of the day. “Natural daughters” are clearly one such subject. Mrs. Jennings’s open discussion of her younger daughter’s pregnancy is another example. Because the text tells us “Lady Middleton could no longer endure such a conversation, and therefore exerted herself to ask Mr. Palmer if there was any news in the paper,” we understand that even though pregnancy is not an inherently taboo subject in the twenty-first century, it was one in the nineteenth (Austen 102). Lady Middleton extends a privacy to the affairs of Colonel Brandon and Mrs. Palmer that her mother sees no need for. Her motives for extending this privacy need be no more compassionate than a desire to preserve herself from the discussion of inelegant topics, but the material effect of her manners spares Colonel Brandon and her sister from the gossip of their neighbors.

Lady Middleton’s values differ from her mother’s because she places elegance above all other social virtues. Mrs. Jennings’s values are far more egalitarian. When threatened with a visit from the Miss Steeles, young women whom she has never met, Lady Middleton is distraught:

Their being her relations too made it so much the worse; and Mrs. Jennings’s attempts at consolation were therefore unfortunately founded, when she advised her daughter not to care about their being so fashionable; because they were all cousins and must put up with one another. (Austen 111)

Mrs. Jennings’s powers of penetration, so sharp in the discovery of flirtations, fail her when it comes to understanding her daughter and her concerns. She completely misses Lady Middleton’s deep fear of discovering, and being forced to acknowledge, connections that will in any way taint her reputation for elegance. Mrs. Jennings’s concern for her broader extended family also marks her as an eighteenth-century lady while her daughter’s more narrow domestic allegiance marks her as more of a nineteenth-century one. “Like her eighteenth-century predecessors,” Ruth Perry notes, “Austen contrasts conjugal loyalty with loyalty to a wider network of consanguineal kin” (142). Broader loyalty to birth family, siblings as well as spouses and children, was a decidedly eighteenth-century virtue, according to Perry. The nineteenth century witnessed the narrowing of this web of allegiance to the conjugal hearth. Her narrower scope of allegiance separates Lady Middleton from her mother.

Mrs. Ferrars and her daughter, Mrs. John Dashwood, are second only to Mrs. Dashwood and Marianne in filial unity, but even they display a difference of manners. The dinner given by Mr. and Mrs. John Dashwood for the Middletons features two examples of slight difference between Mrs. Ferrars and her daughter. The first involves the discussion of the respective heights of Harry Dashwood and William Middleton, the children of Mrs. John Dashwood and Lady Middleton. Austen writes that the party was divided: “The two mothers, though each really convinced that her own son was the tallest, politely decided in favor of the other. The two grandmothers, with not less partiality, but more sincerity, were equally earnest in support of their own descendant” (Austen 216). From this exchange, the reader learns that Fanny is more willing to make concessions to politeness than her mother. In a century that ushered in an increasing sense of social mobility, manners became the criteria by which social worth was evaluated. Rank and title have less and less finality in determining the social class system. In fact, “Within decades of Austen’s composition, Britain’s middle classes became more self-consciously bourgeois” (Goodlad 62). Fanny’s higher valuation of the rule of politeness shows her understanding that the social position of her family is more subject to change than her mother believes it to be. Later, when Mrs. Ferrars gives in to her dislike of Elinor and her wish to discourage her from any pretensions to a match with her son Edward, Fanny cannot go along with her mother completely, though she agrees in principle, because the rules of politeness hold more sway with her than they do with her mother. Though Mrs. Ferrars initially desired to see the screens painted by Elinor before she learned who created them, she dismisses them without a second look when she realizes they are Elinor’s handiwork. Mrs. Ferrars’s rudeness draws a blush to her daughter’s cheek and wrings from Mrs. John Dashwood an attempt to encourage her mother to be more civil. “They are very pretty, ma’am—an’t they?” Fanny prompts her mother (Austen 217). Though her true descendent in selfish ill-will, Fanny has acquired a more polite manner than her mother. This politeness links Fanny to her other nineteenth-century generational peers in Austen’s novel, Lady Middleton and the Dashwood sisters.

The final grouping of generational disharmony pits Mrs. Jennings against Elinor and Marianne. Their residence with her in London gives scope for their myriad generational differences of manner and opinion. Mrs. Jennings’s constant raillery vexes Marianne and causes even Elinor distress. Since she has successfully married off her own daughters, her raison d’etre is “to marry all the rest of the world.” Austen tells us, she misses “no opportunity of projecting a wedding among all the young people of her acquaintance” (Austen 36). In short, she is a busybody. Marianne Dashwood is particularly disgusted by Mrs. Jennings. She declares to Elinor, “If the impertinent remarks of Mrs. Jennings are to be the proof of impropriety in conduct, we are all offending every moment of all our lives. I value not her censure any more than I should do her commendation” (Austen 66). Impertinence, in this case, stems from Mrs. Jennings's nosey efforts to discover where Willoughby and Marianne went when they rode off in his carriage together. She actually forces her maid to make inquiries of Mr. Willoughby’s groom. This is evidence of Mrs. Jennings’s serious disregard for the privacy of her neighbors. All their business is fair game in her eyes. Though Mrs. Jennings’s behavior seems relatively harmless, the narrator goes to great lengths to show that her raillery and gossip cause actual emotional pain. In response to Edward’s question about whether or not the Middletons are pleasant people, Marianne replies, “No…we could not be more unfortunately situated” (Austen 85). While this is certainly hyperbolic language, and Elinor points out how much kindness the Middletons have shown the Dashwoods, Marianne mournfully reminds her of “how many painful moments” the sisters also owe to their neighbors (Austen 85). Marianne and Elinor suffer at the hands of Mrs. Jennings mostly because they are intensely private. Though Marianne shows everything she feels, she dislikes being the subject of gossip. Elinor’s more studious avoidance of showing any of her feelings betrays an even more intense desire for the respect of privacy from her neighbors.

The novel’s generational conflicts show women finding fault with the manners and decisions of their mothers as their own manners grow more genteel. Whether this will last them their whole lives is unclear. As Colonel Brandon warns Elinor, “When the romantic refinements of a young mind are obliged to give way, how frequently are they succeeded by such opinions as are but too common, and too dangerous!” (Austen 55). Are the generational conflicts of Sense and Sensibility common cases of children rebelling against the manners and beliefs of their parents, or are they evidence of a more lasting and widespread change in the manners and values of the gentry? Throughout Austen’s work, “all the heroines have the makings of being better mothers than their own” (Benson 124). This improved parenting seems likely due to a change in generational values. Lauren M. E. Goodlad argues that Sense and Sensibility documents a turn towards Victorian era values. She writes, “As Marianne at last attains the self-mastery long exemplified by Elinor, learning to find ‘her own happiness in forming’ the happiness of her husband, she anticipates Victorian culture’s mythologization of Englishwomen’s selfless domesticity” (73). Elinor and Marianne, as well as Lady Middleton and Mrs. John Dashwood, will almost certainly find their identity in being good wives and better mothers. All four women promise to be inspiring or troubling examples of the cult of the domestic.

Sense and Sensibility marks a generational break in values between the eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries. Austen’s nineteenth-century daughters, embodied in Elinor, Marianne, Lady Middleton, and Fanny Dashwood, show an increased concern with polite, calm, and private manners when compared with their mothers. This difference is not merely the rebellion of children against parents, but instead shows Austen’s novels to be a reflection of permanently changing social and familial philosophies in the Napoleonic era, presaging more extreme changes in the Victorian period.

Works Cited
  • Austen, Jane. Sense and Sensibility. New York: Penguin Books, 2018.
  • Benson, Mary Margaret. “Mothers, Substitute Mothers, and Daughters in the Novels of Jane Austen.” Persuasions 11 (1989): 117-124. Print
  • Goodlad, Lauren M.E. “England’s ‘Glorious “Middle Way”’: Self-Disciplinary Self-Making and Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility.” Genre (Norman, Okla.) 33.1 (2000): 51–81. Web.
  • Perry, Ruth. Novel Relations: the Transformation of Kinship in English Literature and Culture, 1748-1818. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Print.
  • Shubinsky, Diane. “Sense and Sensibility: An Eighteenth-Century Narrative.” Persuasions On-Line 20.1 (1999) Web.
  • Woods, Livia Arndal. “Generations in, Generations of: Pregnancy in Jane Austen.” Women’s Writing: the Elizabethan to Victorian Period 26.2 (2019): 132–148. Web.
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