My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Watching this film [Sense and Sensibily, dir. Ang Lee, 1995], I was forcibly remind of Camille Paglia’s unfashionably neo-conservative thesis that western art is a pagan battleground between the phallocentric Apollonian quest for control and the horrors of Dionysian disorder, the chthonian female swamp.
—Graham Fuller, “Cautionary Tale” (Sight and Sound, March 1996)
Published anonymously in 1811, Sense and Sensibility is Jane Austen’s first major novel. Austen revised the text over more than a decade, transforming it from an epistolary fiction in the 18th-century style to the book we now have—formally, a modern novel narrated in the restricted third-person point of view focalized through a central character. This character is Elinor Dashwood, the “sense” (or prudent, rational self-control) of the title. Her younger sister Marianne, by contrast, stands for “sensibility,” a word connoting a range of emotions and values comprising the sentimentality of the 18th-century novel and the passionate subjectivity and nature-worship of the Romantic movement.
The sisters find their values in conflict when their father’s death leaves them and their mother at the economic mercy of their elder half-brother and his ungenerous wife, who inherit their estate. They soon move, at the invitation of their mother’s cousin, to a small cottage. Despite the family’s economic decline, Elinor and Marianne attract the attentions of several apparent suitors: Edward Ferrars, their wicked sister-in-law’s brother, sets his sober sights on the elder sister, while both Colonel Brandon, a stolid 30-something soldier, and the young and dashing Willoughby, attend to the passionate Marianne. The ensuing narrative works out, with the logic of a word problem, the resolution into symmetrical couples and households of these initially unruly erotic vectors. The scene shifts to London and back again; there are crises and revelations—Edward is betrothed to another, the vulgar and unsuitable Lucy Steele; for his part, the irresistible Willoughby predictably proves the rakehell of the seduction novel. Elinor suffers in silence; Marianne languishes in full view of all.
Elinor’s mind is Austen’s almost exclusive focus (except when she takes the popular novelist’s anti-aesthetic license to shift viewpoint to generate suspense), because the older sister’s adherence to her social duty and her reasonable control of her emotions despite all impediments to her happiness—in short, her good sense—model for readers the rational conduct Austen wishes them to adopt. Despite Marianne’s lively sentiments and her excellent taste (“And books!—Thomson, Cowper, Scott—she would buy them all over and over again…she would have every book that tells her how to admire an old twisted tree”), she must be disciplined by Elinor’s example and transfer her affections from the dissolute young Willoughby to the dependable colonel, despite his being twice her age (the colonel’s daughter, by the way, was also seduced by Willoughby in what might be a plot twist too far):
“Do you compare your conduct with [Willoughby’s]?”
“No. I compare it with what it ought to have been; I compare it with yours.”
But the novel would never get moving without Marianne’s passions, just as Elinor’s sense without Marianne’s sensibility would be too barren to serve Austen’s ideological project—to unite a broad and dominant English middle class, encompassing the lower nobility and those newly enfranchised by money and professional status, by shared values of rational affect centered in the household under female management. Austen’s later work more effectively unites sense and sensibility in a single heroine, at least as the culmination of her journey, most brilliantly in Emma Woodhouse and most poignantly in Anne Elliott.
Despite its organizational rigor—and this is a tightly, even perfectly-constructed novel—Sense and Sensibility never quite gets the emotional balance right: we have one heroine who is all mind and another who is all body. It is as if a single protagonist were divided into two characters, with Elinor abstractly mentating upon her own emotions as they lodge in and disrupt her sister’s errant corpus. The novel is plotted according to the upheavals of Marianne’s body, from the twisted ankle that sets the Willoughby plot in motion to the nearly fatal “putrid” fever that makes her see reason at last. As Tony Tanner points out in his brilliant essay on the novel, Marianne’s stifled scream, when she discovers Willoughby’s betrayal, is the novel’s heart, its most eloquent if pre-lingual testimony to the sensibility sense represses:
[O]n opening the door, she saw Marianne stretched on the bed, almost choked by grief, one letter in her hand, and two or three others laying by her. Elinor drew near, but without saying a word; and seating herself on the bed, took her hand, kissed her affectionately several times, and then gave way to a burst of tears, which at first was scarcely less violent than Marianne’s. The latter, though unable to speak, seemed to feel all the tenderness of this behaviour, and after some time thus spent in joint affliction, she put all the letters into Elinor’s hands; and then covering her face with her handkerchief, almost screamed with agony.
Tanner defends Marianne’s Romanticism and suggests that Austen in part shared it (“we should remember that Marianne’s favourite writers were also Jane Austen’s”), even as the severe author nevertheless refuses the Romantic-Satanic expedients of rebellion or exile in favor of advocating for a society that would attain emotional balance through a rational precision of language. For Tanner, Austen commends this social arrangement by a rather punitive immuring of Marianne’s passion within the ideological architecture of the novel (“one might think that something is being vengefully stamped out”), but he praises Austen nevertheless for encoding into her fiction with an almost Freudian insight all that organized society quells and subdues.
Later writers would take up the hint, for aesthetic and political purposes the reverse of Austen’s. Austen herself will develop the use of focalized narration begun in Sense and Sensibility into the free indirect discourse that makes Emma a formal paradigm of the modern novel. A century after Austen, free indirect discourse—the third-person narrator’s adoption of the inner language of the characters—will overspill the banks of reasoned storytelling to become less the proverbial streams than the spates and torrents of consciousness we find in Dorothy Richardson, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and other modernists. Marianne’s revenge on her deviser is to undermine from within the narrative method meant to secure the authority of Elinor’s perspective.
The passionate individual in despite all of reason commandeers the novel, and the novel’s 20th-century abandonment of the marriage plot is a concomitant of its modernist commitment to desire, this in tandem with a middle class reproduced less and less solely in the domestic sphere. By the time Toni Morrison rewrites Sense and Sensibility as Sula in 1973, neither reader nor writer doubts that the eponymous anarchic “sister” Sula is in the right, and the socially reasonable one (named Nel, a plausible diminutive of Elinor) the victim of a respectable death-in-life that has throttled all love and ardor.
Today we have replaced Austen’s socio-sexual contract—rationally feeling man provides rationally feeling woman a household, in return for which she proffers the intimate superintendence that legitimizes middle-class power—with the one foretold by Woolf and codified by Morrison on the utterly sympathetic behalf of social elements Austen haughtily ignores (the queer, the colonized, the marginalized). Yet just as Austen didn’t intend for her innovation in the form of the novel—free indirect discourse—to aid the triumph of an individualism she otherwise feared, so Woolf and Morrison might hesitate before the world their own innovations have helped to materialize. Now desiring individuals, liberated from the heterosexual bourgeois household and almost from gender itself, atomized in metropolitan space, form temporary contracts in a gamified and pornified virtual marketplace that funds (where it is not funded by credit) the means of social reproduction in the academic diaspora of broader “online.” This is the state of middle-class woman now (and “middle-class woman” is more a class category than a gender one: if you’re reading this—or, indeed, writing it—the term applies to you).
Marianne Dashwood (or Lily Briscoe or Sula Peace) has triumphed: today, she issues defenses of desire on podcasts and Patreon and posts pictures of her swollen ankle and putrid tonsils for the fetishists among her OnlyFans subscribers. If Elinor still functions as her conscience, she does so in the administrative bureaus of the corporation and university—human resources, diversity and equity—where her job is to intercept and interdict threats to the untrammeled unfolding of Marianne’s consciousness. This metamorphosis has undoubtedly liberated the individual from the stifling convention of bourgeois domesticity, but is the place where it has installed her now, where she must sell soul and body by algorithm just to stay alive, any less a prison?
The measure of Austen’s disinterested genius, the reason she’s been hailed as a creative mind universal as Shakespeare’s, in spite of her deliberately restricted social canvas and her sometimes indecently exposed political designs, is that even her apprentice novel contains such extraordinary multitudes.