This is in followup to my post yesterday in which I speculated that the Prince Regent bought the first copy of Sense and Sensibility not for his own reading pleasure, but as a cautionary tale as to the grave dangers of excess sensibility, to be “administered” to his “Marianne Dashwood”-like 16 year old daughter Princess Charlotte, as a “cure” for that same “disease”.
In my earlier post, I wondered
Critical Review Feb. 1812 review of Sense and Sensibility:
“…We are no enemies to novels or novel writers, but we regret, that in the multiplicity of them, there are so few worthy of any particular commendation. a genteel, well written novel is as agreeable a lounge as a genteel comedy, from which both amusement and instruction may be derived. Sense and Sensibility is one amongst the few, which can claim this fair praise. It is well written; the characters are in genteel life, naturally drawn, and judiciously supported. The incidents are probable, and highly pleasing, and interesting; the conclusion such as the reader must wish it should be, and the whole, is just doing enough to interest, without fatiguing. It reflects honour on the writer, who displays much knowledge of character, and very happily blends a great deal of good sense with the lighter matter of the piece. The story may be thought trifling by the readers of novels, who are insatiable after something new. But the excellent lesson which it holds up to view, and the useful moral which may be derived from the perusal, are such essential requisites, that the want of newness may in this instance be readily overlooked. The characters of Ellen and Marianne are very nicely contrasted; the former possessing great good sense, with a proper quantity of sensibility, the latter an equal share of the sense which renders her sister so estimable, but blending it at the same time with an immoderate degree of sensibility which renders her unhappy on every trifling occasion, and annoys every one around her….
…Mrs. Dashwood, the mother of these daughters, possessed an eagerness of mind, which would have hurried her into indiscretions, had it not been somewhat checked by her good disposition and affectionate heart. Elinor, the eldest daughter, has a strong understanding and cool judgment, an amiable temper, with strong feelings, which she knew how to govern. Marianne's abilities are equal to Elinor's: she is sensible and clever, but so terribly impetuous in all her joys and all her sorrows as to know no moderation. She is generous, amiable, interesting, and every thing but prudent. Her sensibilities are all in the extreme. The reader will form a judgment of the character of Mrs. Dashwood and Marianne by the following:
‘On Mr. Dashwood's death, Elinor saw, with concern, the excess of her sister's sensibility: but by Mrs. Dashwood it was valued and cherished. They encouraged each other now in the violence of their affliction. The agony of grief which overpowered them at first, was voluntarily renewed, was sought for, was created again and again. They gave themselves up wholly to their sorrow, seeking increase of wretchedness in every reflection that could afford it, and resolved against ever admitting consolation in future. Elinor too was deeply afflicted, but still she could struggle, she could exert herself. She could consult with her brother, could receive her sister-in-law on her arrival, and treat her with every proper attention, and could strive to rouse her mother to similar exertion, and encourage her to similar forbearance.'
Such is the difference exhibited between Sense and Sensibility. We will make another extract on the subject of love, and then our fair readers will have a pretty good idea of what is wanting in the person and sentiments of a lover to please such a romantic enthusiast as Marianne Dashwood, of whom we fear there are too many, but without her elegance and good sense, who play with their feelings and happiness till they lose the latter, and render the former perfectly ridiculous and contemptible. Marianne and her mother are speaking of a gentleman who is in love with Elinor: her mother asks her if she disapproves her sister's choice.
‘Perhaps,’ said Marianne, ‘I may consider it with some surprise. Edward is very amiable, and I love him tenderly. But yet-he is not the kind of young man-there is a something wanting-his figure is not striking; it has none of that grace which I should expect in the man who could seriously attach my sister. His eyes want all that spirit, that fire, which at once announce virtue and intelligence. [Janeites are familiar with the rest of Marianne’s speech about Edward’s poetic shortcomings]”
Thus argues this fair enthusiast at the wise age of seventeen. This lover of her sister, whom Marianne thinks wants so much to make him to her mind, is endowed with sense, goodness, and every qualification which renders a man amiable, except that he could not read Cowper and jump through the ceiling with the violence of his feelings. He also had another fault. He thought, that a person might fall in love more than once in his life, which Marianne held an utter impossibility; nor was he any admirer of dead leaves, which excited in the breast of Marianne the most transporting sensations. She exclaims: ‘How have I delighted as I walked, to see them,' (the dead leaves), ‘driven in showers about me by the wind! What feelings have they, the season, the air altogether inspired!’
The gentleman had, at the same time, no knowledge of the picturesque, which Marianne considered an indispensable ingredient in a lover and a husband. He called hills steep, which ought to be bold, ‘surfaces strange and uncouth, which ought to be irregular and rugged, and distant objects out of sight, which ought only to be indistinct through the soft medium of a hazy atmosphere.’ In the jargon of landscape scenery, Elinor's lover was a mere ignoramus; he gave things, objects, and persons, their proper names, a crime which could not be overlooked. . . . .
…In the friendly attentions of this family and the society they meet at Barton Park (the seat of Sir John), Mrs. Dashwood and her daughters regain their cheerfulness, and, in a short time, our fair Heroine of Sensibility meets with a gentleman, who exactly meets her ideas of perfection. Mr. Willoughby, possesses manly beauty, uncommon gracefulness, superior gallantry, and fascinating manners. In short, Marianne and Willoughby are strikingly alike. They are equally enthusiastic, equally romantic. In the portraiture of Marianne’s and Willoughby's attachment, the merit of the novel is principally displayed; and it furnishes a most excellent lesson to young ladies to curb that violent sensibility which too often leads to misery, and always to inconvenience and ridicule. To young men who make a point of playing with a young woman's affections, it will be no less useful, as it shows in strong colours the folly and criminality of sporting with the feelings of those whom their conduct tends to wound and render miserable. Such is the conduct of Willoughby after securing the affections of Marianne; being, as far as he is capable, in love with her, and giving herself and her family every reason to think his attachment honourable and unshaken, he finds it inconvenient, from his embarrassed affairs, to marry a girl who has only beauty, sense, accomplishments, and a heart, glowing with the most ardent affection, for her portion. He leaves her with an idea that he will soon return, but afterwards marries a woman for money, that he may continue to enjoy those luxuries which he cannot find it in his heart to relinquish. The sensibility of Marianne is without bounds. She is. rendered miserable, and in her peculiar temperament, this misery is extravagantly cherished, whilst Elinor, who has her own love-difficulties to encounter and her own-sensibilities to subdue, has the painful task of endeavouring to alleviate her sister's grief, which preys upon her health so much, that she is soon reduced to the brink of the grave. The patience and tenderness of Elinor during the long illness of her sister, and the knowledge of her bearing up in so exemplary a manner against the disappointments and mortifications which she has had to endure, sink deep into the mind of Marianne. Her confinement produces reflection, and her good sense at length prevails over her sensibility. After a time, she marries a most amiable man, who had long loved her, and whom, in the height of her delirium of sensibility, she could not bear even to think on for the very wise reason, that he was five and thirty, and consequently in Marianne's ideas of love, had 'outlived every sensation of that kind. In her notions, at that period, a man, at the advanced age of five and thirty, could not have any thing to do with matrimony.’ Marianne sees the fallacy of all this nonsense, and becomes a good-wife to this old gentleman of thirty-five, even though he declares it was necessary for him to wear a flannel waistcoat to prevent a rheumatic affection in one of his shoulders…”
It is fascinating, then, to think about S&S was seen by some of its early readers as a kind of well-written conduct book, designed to scare young women of a Marianne-like tendency out of their sensibility. That, to me, was the “cover story” of S&S, how Jane Austen managed to get it published, even though, as I’ve often argued, I believe that Marianne, and not Elinor, is Jane Austen’s own true alter ego in S&S, and that on a deeper level, S&S’s primary theme is the hypocrisy of powerful men and their female collaborators, and the heroism of female rebels like Marianne. Of course, had the Prince been aware of that deeper subtext, it would have been the last novel in the world he’d have wished to buy for his daughter to read!
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