Friday, 29 July 2016

Jane Austen's 'Sense and Sensibility': Scheming Willoughby?

What follows is mere speculation. But maybe you will find it plausible.

It is possible to theorise that Willoughby's encounter with Marianne might not have been the haphazard knightly rescue that it seems, and that there is a carefully constructed 'back-story'. The following chronology is not at all apparent when you read the novel straight through.

Brandon in Chapter 31 recounts how Eliza as a child would frequently visit him at Delaford. There was local gossip that Eliza was Brandon's love child. So it is entirely possible that Willoughby, who had been visiting Allenham every year, had been aware of Eliza, and her connection to Brandon, for a very long time, maybe even years. It is even possible they encountered each other, at least forming a talking acquaintance, and maybe Willoughby marked her as a future conquest if the right circumstances were to arise. It is even possible that Brandon and Willoughby crossed paths during that time, and Willoughby developed an antipathy for Brandon based on Brandon's reputation as an impeccable gentleman.

Skip ahead. Eliza disappears in February while staying with her friend's father in Bath (is that the opportunity Willoughby has been awaiting?) and is missing for eight months. During that eight months, it is clear that it is Willoughby who takes Eliza with him to some place and leaves her pregnant, then deserts her (perhaps as soon as she advises him that she is pregnant), without ever having told her his address (so Brandon reports in Chapter 31). If that is in fact true, and is not a fib told by Eliza to forestall a confrontation between Brandon and Willoughby, then this means that Willoughby had always kept the door open to doing exactly what he did, which was to abandon Eliza if she became pregnant. This is a damning bit of evidence of his mind-set, because it would otherwise have been the most natural thing in the world for him to tell her where he was from, and to learn that she in fact had visited her uncle there many times during her youth. If he did not do that, it means he has been up to no good from the first moment.

In Chapter 6, the Dashwoods arrive at Barton Park in early September, while Eliza is still missing. Within a day or two after their arrival, Sir John makes their acquaintance. We then read ‘and as he attended them to the drawing room [he] repeated to the young ladies the concern which the same subject had drawn from him the day before, at being unable to get any smart young men to meet them’. They would see, he said, only one gentleman there beside himself, a particular friend who was staying at the park, but who was neither very young nor very gay. He hoped they would all excuse the smallness of the party and could assure them it should never happen so again. He had been to several families that morning in hopes of procuring some addition to their engagements.

Probably Allenham was included in Sir John's local canvass that day. If so, may we speculate that Willoughby, who has just arrived back in the country for his annual visit (coinciding, it seems, with his abandonment of the pregnant Eliza), has heard Sir John talking up the Dashwood girls, and is ready for his next conquest?

Possibly he craftily watches; he waits for an opportunity to make a grand entrance. In Chapter 9, the Dashwoods are well settled at Barton (presumably about September). The girls in one of their earliest walks had discovered an ancient respectable-looking mansion. The whole country about them abounded in beautiful walks. So it was not the first time Marianne and Margaret had walked where Willoughby found her when they met, and he may have had occasions to observe her from a distance while out riding. He was only a few yards from her when the accident happened.

That could be interpreted as suspicious, given that only a short time before, Willoughby has abandoned Eliza and returned to Allenham. He is moving fast, and then fate gives him his opening when Marianne falls in the rain. When the Dashwoods quiz Sir John about Willoughby the next day, he says ‘Willoughby! What, is he in the country?’ This tells us that Sir John knows that Willoughby has been away and came back without warning (of course, he left Eliza in a big rush). ‘Know him? To be sure I do. Why, he is down here every year.’ He then continues his teasing of the girls about catching Willoughby, and adds, ‘Brandon will be jealous if she does not take care.’

He remembers that ‘last Christmas’ Willoughby danced at a little hop in the park. This suggests that Willoughby's annual visits to the country are during the autumn and winter. 

Willoughby is abusive about Brandon from early on: ‘Brandon is just the kind of man whom everybody speaks well of, and nobody cares about.’ (He says this, knowing Brandon is the uncle of the girl he has just seduced and abandoned.)

In Chapter 13, just before the party to Whitwell, Brandon gets the letter from Eliza which was sent by her in October. Mrs. Jennings correctly guesses that the letter that causes Brandon to leave suddenly is from Eliza. But the letter does not name Willoughby as the villain, and so Brandon has no idea (yet) of Willoughby’s guilt.

However, Willoughby is not stupid: he realizes the letter is probably from Eliza, and so he tries to dissuade Brandon from leaving for six hours, and then he makes a snide joke that Brandon has written the letter himself! 

Is he worried that his planned seduction of Marianne, which he perhaps believes is just about to bear fruit, is to be spoilt? He must be annoyed that Brandon is not wasting a moment. That is why Willoughby increases the pressure the next day and takes Marianne to Allenham to show off the house: could it be his desperate attempt to get to her before the game is up. A week later we learn in Chapter 14 that Willoughby was in Allenham a year previously (i.e., the previous October), and we are also told that he learned from his elderly relative as soon as he arrived this year that Barton Cottage was occupied. He says: I felt an immediate satisfaction and interest in the event, which nothing but a kind of prescience of what happiness I should experience from it can account for. Must it not have been so, Marianne?

The next day, Willoughby suddenly leaves, with the excuse that Mrs. Smith has sent him off to town. What has probably happened is that Brandon has written to Willoughby from town telling him that he knows what happened with Eliza and has demanded satisfaction in a duel. Willoughby knows the game is up with Marianne. (The duel between Brandon and Willoughby does take place, by Brandon's own report, when Willoughby returns to town.)

(One wonders, incidentally, whether Mrs. Marianne Brandon would ever receive at Delaford the unfortunate unmarried mother Eliza, and her child fathered by Willoughby. Most probably, Colonel Brandon would not expect her to do so.)