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Goodness Without Beauty: Mrs. Jennings as a Hidden Mother Figure in Sense and Sensibility

Sisterly relationships form the heart of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, but in a novel about growing up, the relationships between mothers and daughters are almost equally important. Two mother figures, Mrs. Dashwood and Mrs. Jennings, shape the character and future of Marianne, the novel’s sensibility-filled main character. Although Marianne is Mrs. Dashwood’s daughter, for a significant portion of the novel, it is Mrs. Jennings who serves as a mother figure to her. Their relationship is complicated; Marianne does not recognize Mrs. Jennings as a mother figure, and even considers her to be worthless. Through the two women’s interactions, Austen causes readers to wonder whether Mrs. Jennings is truly the “motherly . . . sort of woman” she is described as (113), and, if she is, whether her parenting of Marianne is more effective than Mrs. Dashwood’s. Mrs. Jennings’s eventual success is an uneven triumph: her guidance has helped to set Marianne free from an excess belief in romance, but she is unable to escape the social structures that keep others from recognizing the value of her assistance.

Mrs. Jennings treats Marianne very differently than Mrs. Dashwood does. Mrs. Dashwood is sympathetic to a fault; Marianne’s sister Elinor laments her excess of emotion (6) and refusal to press Marianne about her relationship with John Willoughby (58). Mrs. Jennings, on the other hand, is not filled with romantic feeling but with “jokes and laughter” (26). Instead of humoring Marianne, she teases her and tries to assist her in the most prosaic way possible. She wields food and wine to alleviate all ills (141), treatments detested by a girl who believes beauty, romance, and goodness should always be intertwined.

Readers might expect Marianne to criticize Mrs. Jennings for her lack of appropriate sensibility. After all, she lambasts two unromantic men, Edward Ferrars and Colonel Brandon, for that reason. Poor Edward has “something wanting” and “no taste” because he does not share Marianne’s passionate love of music and literature (13); he is far too pedestrian for her. Her opinion of the Colonel is no less severe: he is practically ancient at 35 and has the misfortune to be afflicted with “rheumatism” (29). Marianne believes that his marriage would be a “commercial exchange” (29), not a romantic connection. Mrs. Jennings, however, receives a different kind of censure. Marianne homes in on her lack of sincerity, crying, “[her] kindness is not sympathy; her good nature is not tenderness. All that she wants is gossip...” (147). Marianne believes she has identified a fatal flaw in the older woman’s character: because Mrs. Jennings’s personality is less polished than the young woman’s own, she cannot truly and deeply feel.

Austen, however, subtly brings out the irony in this view. It is not Mrs. Jennings’s heart but Marianne’s that is “hardened” during their interactions (147). Austen reveals traits in Marianne that she disdains in the older woman. Just as Mrs. Jennings cannot see the contradiction and impropriety in her character, Marianne cannot see the insincerity in her own: she criticizes Mrs. Jennings unless she needs something from her. When Mrs. Jennings offers to take Marianne and her sister to London, for example, Marianne says she “could put up with every unpleasantness” from her (114), indicating her desire to use Mrs. Jennings’s good nature for her own ends—parallel to the way she claims Mrs. Jennings employs kindness to advance gossip. Tellingly, Marianne’s criticism abates only when it serves her own interests.

Marianne’s dislike belies the similarities between the two women. Marianne and Mrs. Jennings share a shortcoming—they are oblivious to their effect on others—but those around them perceive the two women differently because of it. They both commit social improprieties throughout the course of the novel. Marianne utters mild invectives (123, 129), ignores anyone she dislikes (40), and writes letters to a man she is not engaged to (136), while Mrs. Jennings is similarly loose with her tongue (106), pries into others’ romantic lives (27) and shouts at friends through windows (78). One, however, has the advantages of youth, beauty, and position to blur her faults, while the other is old and ungenteel. Upon their first meeting with Marianne, readers learn that she is “generous, amiable, interesting” (6). Mrs. Jennings, on the other hand, is “merry, fat, elderly” (25) and “rather vulgar” (26). By placing these characters in close proximity, Austen presents a parallel between the two even as they continually misunderstand each other.

Despite the similarities in the way Marianne and Mrs. Jennings disregard propriety, it is one of the major differences between the two that allows Mrs. Jennings to provide effective guidance to the younger woman: the difference in their views on love. Marianne believes that love is something lofty, and that she must find someone who “enter[s] into all her feelings” if she is to be happy (14). Mrs. Jennings, on the other hand, compares love to legs of mutton (144). Two worldviews about marriage could hardly be more different. When it comes to romance, Marianne is sensitive, emotional, secretive; Mrs. Jennings is teasing, vulgar, and garrulous. Yet her eminently practical view of life and marriage makes her useful. It is Mrs. Jennings who cares for Marianne when she is ill, demonstrating “real kindness” in her resolution to stay with the sufferer (225). Mrs. Dashwood, on the other hand, only appears after the danger has passed. This lateness is the culmination of her inability to help throughout the rest of the novel: she refuses to press Marianne about Willoughby, and during Marianne’s first bout of despair when he leaves, she only deepens Marianne’s grief (61).

Mrs. Jennings, on the other hand, tries to elicit information about the engagement between Marianne and Willoughby through her teasing. After Willoughby casts Marianne off, she attempts to comfort Marianne in the only way she knows how, with “sweetmeats and olives, and a good fire” (141). This focus on the physical, while presented as faintly ridiculous, is important. Marianne’s walks in the perpetually rainy countryside contribute to her later illness; a dose of Mrs. Jennings’s practicality could have prevented the sickness entirely. More broadly, following Mrs. Jennings’s example might have prevented much of Marianne’s heartbreak. Although Marianne does not realize it at the time, Mrs. Jennings gives the advice that proves true in the end: “[Willoughby] is not the only man in the world worth having” (140), she says, reminding Marianne that her broken heart will not last forever. She was the first to predict Marianne and Colonel Brandon’s marriage—and her teasing foreshadows Marianne’s fate. She is present during all of Marianne’s trials in the novel. Although her exterior is foolish, there is a thread of wisdom in her actions. She, not Mrs. Dashwood, performs her parental duty.

Why, then, is Marianne unable to see Mrs. Jennings’s worth? One reason comes from her blindness to the humor in the world. Because she believes beauty is essentially serious, she repeatedly fails to appreciate what is funny. Early in the novel, when she, Edward, and Elinor are looking out at the landscape, Edward places practicality over beauty in the list of items he appreciates in a view of the countryside (72). While Elinor recognizes this as teasing, and “only laugh[s]” at his commentary (72), Marianne is offended by Edward’s lack of love for beauty. She is filled with “amazement” at this flaw in his character and feels “compassion” for her sister (72). She does not get the joke. Similarly, Mrs. Jennings has “natural hilarity” (143). Elinor frequently laughs about her foibles, which allows her to look past Mrs. Jennings’s outer foolishness and see her good heart. After Edward has been disowned by his mother, Mrs. Jennings offers to let him stay with her. Elinor then “thank[s] her for such kindness” but “smile[s] at the form of it” (196). Marianne cannot do this; just as she takes love as all-or-nothing, first love or no love, she takes character as all-or-nothing, fully wise or fully foolish. She cannot perform the balancing act required to extract the wisdom from Mrs. Jennings’s advice.

Yet the results of Mrs. Jennings’s life and counsel show that there is wisdom in her approach. Although she is not necessarily a classy, socially polished mother, she is, by the standards of her time, an economically successful one. During the Regency era, marriage was “almost a necessity” for women (Bailey). Additionally, for women with no fortune such as the Dashwoods, marriage could be “a solution for financial difficulties” (Bailey). The mark of a successful Regency mother, then, was one who provided her daughters with economically favorable marriages. Mrs. Jennings does so. While Austen’s acknowledgment of this fact is rather tongue-in-cheek—she explains that Mrs. Jennings’s daughters are “respectably married” and she has “nothing to do but marry all the rest of the world” (27)—this proclamation proves true in the limited world of the Dashwood’s social circle: Marianne weds Colonel Brandon, whom Mrs. Jennings was the first to pronounce “very much in love” with her (27).

Marianne’s feelings for Colonel Brandon, at least at first, do not match his regard for her. By marrying him, Marianne does not follow the path of breathless romance that she and her mother expect, but instead the path of tempered happiness and at least relative contentment that characterizes Mrs. Jennings’s daughters. Although many readers find Marianne’s marriage disappointing, this is not necessarily because it is a bad match. Instead, it is the kind of practical connection that characterizes the marriages of the Lady Middletons and Mrs. Palmers of Jane Austen’s world; it’s not the marriage readers expect for a heroine, true, but it fulfills the purpose that a match must for Regency women with few other options. As Mrs. Jennings says, “he was rich and she was handsome” (27). For her, there is nothing more that a girl could want.

Mrs. Jennings’s focus on the practicality and surface qualities of a marriage—wealth and beauty—is shown in her daughters’ marriages as well as Marianne’s. The marriages of Lady Middleton, Mrs. Palmer, and Marianne all share one characteristic: they are defined by contrast. Lady Middleton is “a mother” (24), a giver of life, totally contained within the domestic sphere, while Sir John, her husband, is “a sportsman” (24), a taker of life, one who exists outside the realm of the home. And while Mrs. Palmer is “totally unlike” her sister, she is also unlike her husband—she is “uniformly civil and happy” (79) where he is “grave” and unwilling to please (78). Marianne’s marriage is similarly defined. She is young and vibrant whereas Colonel Brandon, at least in her eyes, is old and worn out. Through the parallels between these pairs, Austen sets up Marianne’s marriage as a conventionally good match, regardless of the feelings of the parties involved. And her wedding adds another pair to the list of women Mrs. Jennings has seen “respectably married” (27). By helping produce a marriage for Marianne that follows the pattern of her daughters’ own marriages, Mrs. Jennings implicitly serves as a mother to her.

But even though Mrs. Jennings provides the practical elements of Marianne’s marriage, her “motherhood” does not entirely explain Marianne’s happiness with Colonel Brandon. Marianne’s marriage is most reminiscent of Mrs. Palmer’s, a woman who miraculously manages to be excessively “good humored and merry” with an exceedingly grumpy husband (81). Much to Elinor’s astonishment, Mrs. Palmer seems to be truly happy in her marriage. Marianne is similarly happy with a man that she previously disdained. Austen, when summing up Marianne’s fate, explains that “instead of remaining even for ever with her mother,” her “whole heart became…devoted to her husband” (279). Metaphorically, the first statement becomes true when Marianne leaves for London with Mrs. Jennings and lives under her mentorship. The second statement proves true as she follows Mrs. Palmer’s path as a wife. What Mrs. Palmer accomplished with humor, she accomplishes with deep feeling; like Mrs. Palmer, she comes to accept an advantageous social match—orchestrated, at least partially, by Mrs. Jennings—by throwing herself whole-heartedly into the marriage and determining, one way or another, to be happy. As shown by Lady Middleton—who has an insipid, quiet, merely tolerable life—the happiness of the wife in one of Mrs. Jennings’s matches depends on her own character. Marianne follows the path of Mrs. Palmer, not Lady Middleton, by forming her own happiness in the economically and socially advantageous marriage that Mrs. Jennings desires for her. It is Mrs. Jennings’s implicit motherhood that provides a solid foundation on which to build joy and love.

In addition to her implicit motherly role in Marianne’s marriage, Mrs. Jennings explicitly takes on the role of a mother when Marianne is ill. She tries to “supply to [Marianne] the place of the mother she had taken her from” (225). Marianne’s illness marks a turning point in the novel. Coming near the point of death makes her understand, among other realizations, that she has behaved unfairly toward Mrs. Jennings, and when the two part, Marianne takes a “particular and lengthened leave” of the older woman, full of “respect and kind wishes” (250). This parting is reminiscent of a parallel parting in the beginning of the book, when Marianne and Elinor leave with Mrs. Jennings to go to London while their mother remains behind. Then, Marianne's grief was “excessive” upon leaving her mother (115); now, her spirit has tempered, and she can express similar sadness without overwhelming displays of emotion.

Symbolically, Mrs. Jennings’s time as a mother figure ends when Marianne learns the lessons she tried to impart. Just as Mrs. Jennings predicted, Marianne recovers from her heartbreak and re-enters society. In fact, she is no longer a younger copy of Mrs. Dashwood. Because of what she has learned from Mrs. Jennings, Marianne is ready to cyclically return to her mother. She leaves Mrs. Jennings and returns to her home with Mrs. Dashwood, completing the circle that opened when she left for London. This journey allows Marianne to cast off many of her romantic tendencies. Her future lies in her decision not to be a heroine. In the beginning of the novel, she idolizes works by romantic authors like Cowper, who wrung every drop of romance out of his characters’ lives (14). This is the path that Mrs. Dashwood, whom she left behind on her journey to London, would have had her follow. Through Marianne’s illness, when she is attended by Mrs. Jennings, her future changes; she first accepts the role of a spinster devoted to family life—similar to the role the widowed Mrs. Jennings plays—and then accepts a marriage that is placid, happy, and even loving—but not bursting with romance.

Marianne’s future fits the mold of the one Mrs. Jennings, not Mrs. Dashwood, lays out for her. Fittingly, Marianne’s happiness as Colonel Brandon’s wife is secured by the very traits that made her scorn Mrs. Jennings in the first place: she “could never love by halves” (279), just as she could never judge character by halves. In the end, then, Mrs. Jennings’s surrogate motherhood has proven successful: she has seen Marianne both rich and happy, mirroring and surpassing the lives of her own daughters. Although it can be difficult at times to see it beneath her rough exterior, Mrs. Jennings has shown herself to be truly “motherly.”

Yet even after all her efforts, Mrs. Jennings still fails to attain this status in Marianne’s eyes. As Marianne leaves Mrs. Jennings to return to Mrs. Dashwood at the end of the novel, her “particular and lengthened leave” is due to “a secret acknowledgment of past inattention” (250), not a true regard. While the ever-perceptive Elinor, who looks past social status to see character, has come to “really love” Mrs. Jennings (225), Marianne still sees the widow as a product of her social status: useful, but too vulgar to be a mentor—much less a mother. By giving Mrs. Jennings a subtle, secret motherhood—an almost paradoxical role for one of the least subtle characters in the book—Austen hides worth beneath a layer of roughness and ridiculousness. Mrs. Jennings doesn’t suddenly attain a veneer of polish that makes her beloved by all. Instead, through her hidden motherhood of Marianne, Austen highlights the sometimes-conflicting forces of true worth and social class and allows vulgarity and goodness to coexist.

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