“After . . . 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” (Austen 201). When Elinor Dashwood tells her sister Marianne this, she speaks of the “bewitching” romantic ideal “of a single and constant attachment” that is the culprit behind much of the conflict of Sense and Sensibility (201). Yet Elinor’s words could also describe an equally idealized and culpable figure in the sisters’ lives: the mother. Much like romantic partners, mothers are charged with securing a woman’s marital happiness—and what is more, with providing the domestic, social, and financial guidance necessary for her growth. The limits of mothers’ social positions and their own dispositions, however, mean that this ideal cannot—and should not—be demanded from them. In Sense and Sensibility, Austen questions this ideal of motherhood by presenting Elinor with not one perfect mother, but three imperfect mother figures, each of whom represents a sphere of her development: her loving but imprudent biological mother, Mrs. Dashwood, for the domestic sphere; her good-natured but ill-bred guardian in London, Mrs. Jennings, for the social sphere; and her wealthy but proud mother-in-law, Mrs. Ferrars, for the financial sphere. In having Elinor discern between her mother figures’ guidance and flaws—allowing each mother to grow and become an agent of Elinor’s happiness as much as Elinor herself is—Austen proposes that happiness lies not in a single person who fulfills such ideals, but in one’s sense and choices.
From the start, Austen presents no illusions of a perfect mother: Mrs. Dashwood begins the novel newly widowed, with three daughters who have only a thousand pounds each (2). Her precarious position limits her to the only sphere within her control—the domestic—in providing her children with moral support and a loving home. Indeed, she presents “the most loving view of motherhood” in Austen’s novels (Benson). Her reaction when her stepson John and his wife Fanny arrive to inherit Norland Park illustrates her parenting dynamic: she resolves to leave immediately—with her romantic disposition, “any offence of the kind . . . was to her a source of immovable disgust”—but “the entreaty of her eldest girl . . . and her own tender love for all her three children determined her afterwards to stay” (Austen 3). Mrs. Dashwood’s key flaw and strength in this role is her heightened sensibility, which is countered by her love of family—and her eldest girl Elinor’s advice. By making Elinor her mother’s “counsellor”—Elinor “knew how to govern [her feelings] . . . a knowledge which her mother had yet to learn”—Austen establishes that Elinor has as much a hand in securing her and her family’s happiness as her mother does (3).
Despite her position, Mrs. Dashwood is still subject to the same responsibilities as any self-respecting mother: securing suitors and stability for her daughters. The loving sensibility that serves as a warm hearth at home, however, can be an unruly flame outside it. Socially, Mrs. Dashwood is a welcoming host to Edward and Willoughby, but in mingling with her neighbors, “the independence of [her] spirit overcame the wish of society for her children” (70; 58; 31). Most notably, Mrs. Dashwood nearly leads Marianne and Willoughby to scandal by “enter[ing] into all their feelings with a warmth which left her no inclination for checking this excessive display of them” (42). Financially, she “had nothing” and “never saved in her life,” but still favors domestic happiness in judging suitors: “It was contrary to every doctrine of her’s that difference of fortune should keep any couple asunder who were attracted by resemblance of disposition” (1; 23; 11). Though far from being ideal, Mrs. Dashwood is not a failure: throughout Elinor’s disappointments and Marianne’s physical and emotional afflictions, her daughters “exert [themselves] . . . for [their] mother’s sake” (142; 201; 240-241). Yet it is Elinor who fulfills her social and financial obligations; from conversing with John and Fanny to reducing expenses at Barton Cottage, she keeps her mother’s strong sense of family but lets her internal judgment guide her conduct (4; 20). However, sense and independence alone cannot make Elinor her own mistress; her other mother figures provide the external guidance she needs.
The mother’s role in the social sphere is represented by Mrs. Jennings, Lady Middleton’s “good-humored . . . and rather vulgar” mother, when she brings Elinor and Marianne to London. While a widow as well, unlike Mrs. Dashwood, she has “ample jointure,” two “respectably married” daughters, and thus, the mother’s luxury—and misfortune—of having “nothing to do but to marry all the rest of the world” (26; 28). She fulfills this role not through propriety—her “raillery” and “impertinent remarks” mark her as “ill-bred” to nearly everyone—but through sociability (26; 53; 87). Her conversations, connections, and above all, regard for the sisters open up city life (and thus marriage) to them. Early on, however, Elinor recognizes Mrs. Jennings’s limits: “[T]hough I think very well of Mrs. Jennings’s heart, she is not a woman whose society can afford us pleasure, or whose protection will give us consequence” (119). While Mrs. Jennings’s gossip about Marianne’s supposed engagement and jokes about Elinor’s attachments nearly attract scandal, her guardianship in London is an invaluable base for major developments in the sisters’ lives (139; 47-48). Being in London allows Marianne to confront Willoughby, Colonel Brandon to reach out to reveal Willoughby’s past to Elinor, and Elinor to play a role in the aftermath of Edward’s engagement reveal (134-137; 157-163; 221-223).
What elevates Mrs. Jennings from a meddler to a mother is her solicitude for the Dashwood sisters when their relatives—from John and Fanny to Sir Middleton—are occupied. Mrs. Jennings uses the sisters as neither passports to higher connections nor trophies for admiration; she seeks their companionship, even if it comes off as entertainment. Mrs. Jennings’s lack of etiquette might not have given the sisters “pleasure” or “consequence,” but she gave them social mobility (119). In making Mrs. Jennings’s idleness a means for her genuine care for Elinor and Marianne, Austen suggests that one’s flaws and an intersection between the personal and the public life is not only possible, but also necessary in molding motherhood. Yet both Mrs. Jennings’s position and personality limit her form providing domestically and financially. Elinor’s and Marianne’s life with her is one of outings and cards; even the private life of her homely duties with her newborn granddaughter is publicly relayed in “so minute a detail” (129; 191). Her fortune is “ample,” but was earned “in a low way” and will descend to her own daughters, not the Dashwoods (28; 175-176). Despite differing from Mrs. Dashwood, however, Mrs. Jennings still succeeds in “supply[ing] to her the place of the mother she had taken her from” for both Elinor and Marianne (238).
Mrs. Ferrars, Edward’s “headstrong” and “proud” mother, becomes Elinor’s mother-in-law and undeniable—though unintentional—mother figure in the financial sphere (113). While Mrs. Dashwood and Mrs. Jennings display warmth to a fault, Mrs. Ferrars withholds it to a fault and flaunts her wealth instead. Her wish to have Edward “distinguished”—though “—as—[she] hardly knew what”—reveals that her status-consciousness both guides and blinds her in securing her sons’ happiness (11). Despite Mrs. Ferrars’s “spirited determination of disliking [Elinor]”, she unwittingly becomes an agent of Elinor’s happiness through the very foundation of her opposition: her wealth (179). Her controlling Edward’s inheritance delays him from immediately marrying Lucy for fear of being cast off—allowing him to see Lucy’s insincerity and develop a genuine attachment with Elinor instead (113; 10-11). When his engagement to Lucy is revealed, Mrs. Ferrars’s decision to disinherit him makes all her wealth—and thus all of Lucy’s affection—fall on Robert instead, honorably freeing Edward of his engagement and allowing him to marry Elinor (204-206; 278-283).
As she was little more than a name that cast a formidable (yet also convenient) shadow for the novel’s first part, Mrs. Ferrars illustrates that the image of a mother can sometimes have more power than the mother herself. When Elinor notes that Mrs. Ferrars’s being “so imperfectly known to her” makes Mrs. Ferrars “the general excuse for every thing strange on the part of her son,” she reveals more than just Edward’s financial dependence: the more capable and involved a mother becomes in securing her children’s future, the more culpable she is in their failings—even if they are already eligible bachelors (79). Furthermore, Mrs. Ferrars’s own wealth robs her of sincerity within and beyond her home. Domestically, her clear favoritism for Robert makes Edward lament that she “did not make [his] home in every respect comfortable”; she later treats her sons as mere transactions, trading Robert and Edward in Hon. Miss Morton’s hand and her own favor (281; 228-229; 206). Wealth eclipses others’ view of her, and vice versa: socially, she secures respect, but attracts a prideful reputation and self-interested companions such as “cold hearted and rather selfish” John, who only praises her for her generosity because she gives him money, and Lucy, who admires her “kindness” because she favors Lucy at Elinor’s expense (113; 2; 173; 184-185). Even with the financial distinction Mrs. Dashwood and Mrs. Jennings lack, Mrs. Ferrars is unable to be the ideal mother. Yet by “retain[ing] the anxiety of a parent” in looking after her sons’ welfare (in her own way), she secures Elinor’s happiness as well (228).
By placing Mrs. Dashwood, Mrs. Jennings, and Mrs. Ferrars in similar positions—widowed mothers with children of marrying age—Austen highlights the role that differences in money, status, and above all, disposition, have in shaping motherhood in domestic, social, and financial spheres. The mothers who rule with their hearts, tongues, or wealth are equally matched in the novel’s arena of proposals and propriety. Through their children, Austen shows that all spheres can be equally harmful when excessively focused on. Mrs. Dashwood’s two younger daughters reflect her overly romantic sensibility: Marianne bears a “strikingly great” resemblance to Mrs. Dashwood, and as such, her sensibility fuels her “inattention to the forms of general civility” and expenses; even “well-disposed” Margaret has “imbibed a good deal of Marianne’s romance, without having much of her sense” (4; 110; 70-71). Mrs. Jennings’s daughters embody the extremes of social life: Lady Middleton is attentive to propriety and elegance to the point of “cold insipidity,” while Charlotte is good-natured to the point of silliness (27; 83-85). Mrs. Ferrars’s children take on her materialistic pride: Robert is a “great coxcomb,” while Fanny is “narrow-minded and selfish” (114; 2). That each mother is culpable for their own children’s defects but is equally invaluable to Elinor’s happiness suggests that the key to growth lies not only with the mother’s personality, but also with the daughter’s choices.
Just as Edward escapes his siblings’ fate by seeking happiness “in [his] own way,” so does each mother become an agent of Elinor’s happiness only because Elinor is the foremost guardian of her own welfare through her “strength of understanding, and coolness of judgment” (70; 3). She cherishes Mrs. Dashwood without indulging in her sensibility, accepts Mrs. Jennings’s guardianship without falling into her folly, and respects Mrs. Ferrars without being intimidated by her wealth. She does not rely on her sense alone but uses it to discern between each mother’s guidance and flaws. By advising Mrs. Dashwood, accompanying Mrs. Jennings, and encouraging Edward’s return to Mrs. Ferrars, Elinor guides each mother to their happy ending without forfeiting hers (3; 122-123; 289). She is a mother figure essential to Marianne’s happiness as well. Elinor proves that women do not need to turn to an ideal mother or husband to overcome the reality of societal and gender norms. Rather than condemning the mother, Austen challenges the daughter: in her novels, she presents daughters’ journeys of emotional maturity that do not “set motherhood itself in a negative light,” but allow these daughters to become “better mothers than their own” (Benson).
While it seems that only a fulfillment of all three spheres could make a child well-rounded, mothers could hardly provide such when society limited them to one or the other. In a time when women were defined by marriage and motherhood, and when society strictly shut women inside homes and kept men outside them, success in all spheres was never more in demand and never more impossible. The very warmth that makes Mrs. Dashwood homely makes her imprudent in society and finances; the sociability that gives Mrs. Jennings her connections makes her lack substance at home and respect outside it; and the status-consciousness that may have led Mrs. Ferrars to secure her fortune makes her cold as a mother. Despite being known only by their husbands’ names, these mothers still make a name for themselves by growing past their defining traits. Mrs. Dashwood encourages fortitude in Marianne upon learning of Willoughby’s infidelity, and “could be even prudent” when Marianne falls ill (Austen 164; 259). Above all, she admits she “must be answerable” for her own “imprudence” to Marianne, and realizes that she had been “unjust, . . . almost unkind, to her Elinor” by ignoring Elinor’s silent struggles (272; 275). Mrs. Jennings admits that if she had known the truth about Willoughby, she “would not have joked [Marianne] about it for all [her] money,” and in caring for Marianne when she falls ill, proves that she does not like Marianne only for supplying gossip (150; 237-238). Mrs. Ferrars even accepts both her sons back despite their unfavorable marriages, resisting only for fear of “being too amiable” (290). Austen’s novels thus present motherhood beyond standards that “advocated a form of female self-effacement”: while a mother who “exercise[s] her will for her own benefit and pleasure” harms her child, ultimately, “mothers need will, authority, and a sense of self to fulfill the social expectations of motherhood” (Francus). A mother’s personality may be a double-edged sword, but motherhood itself is a two-sided endeavor between mother and child—a dialogue of mutual growth and respect. Austen paints an authentic—rather than a perfect—portrait of motherhood: the paint does not dry with matrimony, and the brush for shaping the future lies in the daughter’s hands.
Much like the romantic partner, mothers are idealized in being responsible for a woman’s happiness. Yet Elinor’s tale gives individuality to the mother and agency to the daughter: it highlights that women’s happiness depends neither on the men who will make them married women nor on the married women who raised them, but on one’s learnings and choices. In presenting Elinor Dashwood with three imperfect mother figures—one each for the domestic, social, and financial spheres of development—and having her discern between their guidance and flaws, Austen allows Elinor herself and all three mothers to become agents of Elinor’s happiness. By the end, Elinor takes the best learnings from each of her mother figures: she has the domestic warmth of Mrs. Dashwood, the sociability of Mrs. Jennings, and the financial stability (if not the wealth) of Mrs. Ferrars. The motherhood of these three figures is not defined by their blood, status, or wealth, but by their genuine care and cooperation. The mothers’ external guidance and good intentions along with Elinor’s internal discernment make both their growth and Elinor’s happiness a reality. As Elinor herself says, the ideal of “one’s happiness depending entirely on any particular person” is both impossible and bewitching—bewitching because it is convenient, impossible because even the best people are flawed (Austen 201). In Sense and Sensibility, Austen shows that perfection, be it in motherhood or marriage, may never be possible—but with sense and sincerity, love and happiness will always be.