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Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Concerning Jane Austen's Marianne Dashwood ('Sense and Sensibility')

Willoughby takes his cue from Marianne. As she is not at all shy or reticent, and he no dunce, he has ample time to decide that her favourite authors, poems, and scenes are just the ones which impress him. Elinor, only half jesting, asks what Marianne had left for the next meeting as she had already disposed of so many subjects of conversations. ‘Another meeting will suffice to explain his sentiments on picturesque beauty, and second marriages..’.

Marianne has to be dramatic. She strikes a pose and tells Elinor she has been unjust: ‘I have been open and sincere where I ought to have been reserved, spiritless, dull and deceitful.’ She goes on with typical adolescent histrionics to say it would have been well enough if she had only spoken of roads and the weather and that only once in ten minutes. The less sensible Mrs. Dashwood chooses to see Elinor's half-reproof as a jest. She herself is pleased with Marianne's delight in conversation with their new friend.

Marianne is a person who believes in telling the truth all the time. This is not a virtue in society. People who believe in telling the truth at all costs can be unwittingly cruel. Truth is fine but tact is a virtue. Telling her mother she does not believe in second marriages when her mother married a man who had been married before was neither tactful nor kind. The way she took Sir John to task for his heavy-handed mentioning of Colonel Brandon is also rude, even if Sir John did not see it.

There is not much wrong with sensibility, although Jane Austen implies that sense is more to be desired. Sensibility is not sentimentality. Sentimentality came later in the Victorian era and was a perversion of sensibility – a mass-produced synthetic display of emotion. Marianne is generous, sincere, loving and amiable but she finds it hard to show moderation in anything.

At one point in the novel, Marianne sees Edward approaching and mistakes him for Willoughby; later she similarly mistakes Colonel Brandon for Willoughby. It seems strange for a woman so in love that she is unable to pick out the body style, horse, or clothes of her man even in a small crowd! No doubt, Jane Austen wants us to see that Marianne’s judgement is so clouded by her romantic outlook that she ‘fills in the blanks’ of Willoughby’s character, by culling from novels and daydreams her notions of the perfect man. It is ironic that she mistakes the truly good men for Willoughby. Perhaps they look very manly at a little distance.

Marianne and her mother have similar characters. Mrs. Dashwood is passionate and imprudent. She says: ‘I have never known what it is to separate esteem from love’. Of Marianne, Jane Austen writes: ‘She was generous, amiable, interesting: she was everything but prudent. The resemblance between her and her mother was strikingly great.’

Both sisters are clever. Two years younger than Elinor, Marianne has not yet acquired her sister's wisdom, thoughtfulness and common sense. She learns from experience. To her credit, she sometimes yields to persuasion by Elinor. But she makes an error of judgement in going off all day alone with Willoughby to look over his relative's house nearby at Allenham, which he expects to inherit.

In Marianne's distress, Elinor counsels her not to give way to grief but to think of others and 'exert' herself. 'Oh! how easy for those who have no sorrow of their own to talk of exertion! Happy, happy Elinor, you cannot have an idea of what I suffer,' says Marianne. Little does she know what Elinor herself is silently enduring.

Marianne's sensibility is not confined to the pangs of love. Like her literary heroines she cultivates an exquisite taste for poetry, music and the picturesque (as defined by Gilpin, the New Forest vicar, whose writings on the picturesque also influenced Henry Tilney's tastes). This was the time when water-colours had become a craze. Artistic tourists attempted on-the-spot watercolours to record what they saw, just as the modern tourist uses a camera. The Society of Painters in Water Colours was formed. Jane Austen enjoyed the picturesque but she could also satirise some of the theorists' ideas – even as early as when writing Lesley Castle. Marianne is full of romantic enthusiasm and innocence. It is typical that she feels she knows Willoughby fully after just one week. He has encouraged her tastes.

Marianne feels the greatest pain when slighted by Willoughby. At a party, she sees him with another woman (Miss Sophia Grey, heiress to fifty thousand pounds).

Her face is crimsoned over, and she exclaims in a voice of the greatest emotion, 'Good God! Willoughby, what is the meaning of this? Have you not received my letters? Will you not shake hands with me?'

Elinor would never get into such a humiliating situation. She would never have written the letters Marianne wrote and she would not have betrayed emotions publicly.

At her worst, Marianne Dashwood causes distress to others, mainly because she lacks stoicism. However, we must admire the consistency with which she sticks to her principles. A sensible person will sometimes tell a white lie. Marianne would never do so.

'What a sweet woman Lady Middleton is!' said Lucy Steele.

Marianne was silent; it was impossible for her to say what she did not feel, however trivial the occasion; and upon Elinor, therefore, the whole task of telling lies when politeness required it always fell.

Elinor, confronted with the evidence (provided by Lucy herself) that Edward is engaged to Lucy Steele, can hardly stand; 'but exertion was indispensably necessary, and she struggled so resolutely against the oppression of her feelings that her success was speedy, and for the time complete'.