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Sunday, 25 September 2016

Scrappy Footnotes to Jane Austen's 'Sense and Sensibility'

Colonel Brandon has a sister living in Avignon - the only example of Jane Austen's giving a member of one of her central families an address in mainland Europe!

Both in her own life and those of her characters, Jane Austen found no justification for idleness. When Marianne and Elinor settle at Barton, they amaze Sir John Middleton by being always occupied. Elinor draws prolifically, her pictures decorating the cottage. Marianne plays the piano proficiently. Reading is another worthwhile activity, never disparaged when the effect is to improve the mind. Jane Austen's own 'employment' was prolific, not only in her writing, but even in piano-playing or stitching patchwork quilts.

Though the heroines go through Sense and Sensibility enduring one emotional wound after another, they are rewarded with happiness in the end. It is those who have treated them selfishly who ultimately fall hardest, so there is some poetic justice. Mrs. Fanny Dashwood prevents her husband from inviting his sisters to stay by claiming that she wants the Miss Steeles as guests: the outcome is the hysterical scene when she and her mother discover that Lucy expects to marry Edward Ferrars.

Jane Austen likes to see meanness punished: the elder Miss Steele lets slip her sister's expectation of marrying Edward, and the furies descend. Fanny Dashwood falls 'into violent hysterics'. The Steele sisters are packed off. Mrs. Ferrars, after disinheriting Edward, has to endure his brother's marrying the very young woman to whom she had objected as a wife for him.

We should not read this novel primarily as a love story. It is not about Edward Ferrars and Colonel Brandon; it is about exactly what it says – sense and sensibility, in effect self-control. And the experience of all readers must be enriched by the many brilliant scenes in which attempts are made by the selfish or self-centred to warn off, persuade, tease or manipulate persons of stronger principles.

Jane Austen was still mastering the art of economy. Willoughby's bewildering behaviour in leaving Devon so ungraciously is discussed for too long by Mrs. Dashwood and Elinor. Their differing interpretations are quickly established and then padded out by a further thousand words. Chapter 32, a transition between Willoughby's desertion of Marianne and the return of Edward, is another over-leisurely survey of the state of play.

Although she enjoyed gossip, Jane Austen knew it should not be spread recklessly, risking slander. Such is certainly the case when Mrs. Jennings, in Sense and Sensibility, who is essentially a good-hearted woman, tells everyone after Colonel Brandon's surprising departure, that he has a 'natural daughter' - Miss Williams.

Very near the end, Elinor and Edward have 'nothing to wish for but the marriage of Colonel Brandon and Marianne, and rather better pasturage for their cows'.