Friday, 27 January 2017


What about those astonishingly unobtrusive men - the 'heroes' of Sense and Sensibility? Jane Austen has to keep the two sisters in the foreground. It is their anxieties and suspense that grip us. So we have to share the mysteries surrounding Edward, Willoughby and Brandon. Edward and Brandon can not be expected to shine.

Edward Ferrars is an unlikely 'hero'. No extrovert, he says of himself, 'I have no wish to be distinguished; and I have every reason to hope I never shall. Thank Heaven! I cannot be forced into genius and eloquence.’

Unfortunately for him, Edward's introduction to sexual attraction is Lucy Steele. She, like Mary Crawford, is sexy; and sexy ladies affect the hormones of inexperienced young men. Hormones make poor choices. Hormones are pure nature without the veneer of civilization. Mr. Bennet was so caught in his youth and has regretted it ever since.

Of course, we can accuse Edward of being the dumbest lover ever to win a virtuous heroine in the Austen canon. What folly it is of him to come from the home of his fiancée still wearing her ring with the lock of hair in it! We have to blame either him or the fledgling authoress.

However, when he shows an unheroic 'dejection of mind', he and the author alone know that he is tormented by his foolish teenage engagement to Lucy Steele, from which he is too honourable to extricate himself. Only in re-reading the novel do we notice all the little clues accounting for his gloom: visiting the Dashwood ladies in Devon, 'He looked rather distressed as he added that he had been staying with some friends near Plymouth'. On a second reading, we know who those 'friends' were.

Because of the mystery, Jane Austen felt obliged to keep him offstage throughout most of the novel. In the early chapters, she does not let us hear him speak or see him doing much at all. Instead, Elinor, who has fallen in love with him, makes the case for him. She has to state what his good qualities are.

Marianne also admires Edward’s strengths, embarrassingly and with an unwitting irony during the tense scene with Elinor, Edward and Lucy (Chapter 35). She says of him: ‘I really believe he has the most delicate conscience in the world; the most scrupulous in performing every engagement, however minute, and however it may make against his interest or pleasure. He is the most fearful of giving pain, of wounding expectation….’.

Unaware that Edward feels trapped by his secret engagement to Lucy, Marianne little knows how apt are her words to the present situation.

In the London scenes, too, Edward has to disappear for a long time, with no chance to impress. Elinor and Marianne reach London in Chapter 26. He is not seen until nine chapters later and even then only in that embarrassing situation, with Lucy present throughout.

When Edward turns up in Chapter 48, he again behaves awkwardly, but at least he brings the good news that Lucy has married his brother, and not himself. While Elinor leaves the room, bursting into tears of joy, Edward slinks away to the village. At the beginning of the next chapter we are told 'His errand at Barton, in fact, was a simple one. It was only to ask Elinor to marry him; and,' Jane Austen adds with characteristic archness, 'considering that he was not altogether inexperienced in such a question, it might be strange that he should feel so uncomfortable in the present case as he really did...'. We are told that three hours later 'he had secured his lady' and become 'one of the happiest of men'.

There is potential in Edward. He has fun teasing and sparring with Marianne, first over her attitude to the picturesque and later over the way she has inadvertently revealed her feelings for Willoughby. He reacts rationally to scenery and refuses to be swayed by the Gilpinesque principles she espouses. (Gilpin suggested that cows do not look picturesque if there are more than three in a group. He proposed that painters should depict three together, with a fourth at some distance. Jane Austen uses this idea for a comic purpose in Pride and Prejudice where Elizabeth declines to join the three walkers in the Netherfield Shrubbery because she would spoil their picturesque effect.) Although Edward finds himself ensnared by Lucy and, as a man of honour, refuses to be compelled by his mother to marry the rich Miss Morton, the fact that he tells Lucy it would be 'quite unkind to keep her on to the engagement, because it must be for her loss, for he had nothing but two thousand pounds, and no hope of anything else' shows him looking for a way of extricating himself, with the intention of proposing to Elinor. We also have to admire his spirit in dashing to secure Elinor the instant he is released from his engagement. And he shows himself to be a most talkative and devoted fiancé when he finally has the opportunity of happiness in the last two chapters. (It is understandable that Emma Thompson, in her 1995 film version of Sense and Sensibility, chose to invent numerous extra scenes in which the attractiveness of Edward to Elinor was made obvious.)