7 March 2013
These chapters are the set-up. The almost undiluted exposition of the opening few paragraphs – explaining how the social position of the Dashwood sisters and their mother suddenly becomes precarious through no fault of their own – is somehow made palatable, just, by the confidence of Austen’s voice. I’d forgotten that this was the first of her novels to be published (the one she’d written previously, Northanger Abbey, was published posthumously) and I was tempted to dismiss all the early information about relationships and legacies as unimportant: Austen has to bring the family down a few notches in the social scale; end of story. But I suspect she’ll come back to some of the things she sets up early on, particularly the bad behaviour of some of the characters: such things don’t go unpunished in Austen novels. And perhaps one of Austen’s motives for the weight of early exposition is to demonstrate the haplessness of women in early 19th Century middle class society.
There’s both an arbitrariness and an inevitability about the family’s decline. Austen introduces them as characters in someone else’s story, and while the reader becomes lost in the thickets of information about incomes and legacies, it’s easy to imagine how easy it would have been for the Dashwood family to feel equally confused by the swift changes in circumstances. For the first paragraph or two the main character appears to be the bachelor uncle of Mrs Dashwood’s husband, Mr Henry Dashwood. All the Dashwoods – husband, wife and three girls – move in in with the old man when his sister dies, and are the mainstay of his life until he dies ten years later.
It soon becomes complicated. By the third paragraph – I had to read the opening three times – the old man’s fortune, apparently on a whim, is to be left in trust to a four-year-old son of Mr John Dashwood, who is the son of Henry Dashwood by his first wife. (That makes John the half-brother of the sisters. Try to keep up.) This is a ‘severe’ disappointment for Henry Dashwood, but he has an income in place during his own lifetime and expects his wealth to grow sufficiently to provide for his second wife and their daughters. Hah. He dies in paragraph 4, and his estate dies with him. Mrs Dashwood and her daughters are left with enough to live on in a small way, but no more. And all this has happened by the second page of the novel.
Luckily – hah, again – the old man secured a promise from John Dashwood that he would look after them. He intends to do just that – he is rich from his marriage – but… his wife is one of Jane Austen’s monsters. In Chapter 2 we get the set piece scene of her leading him to reconsider. Step by step, she reduces what he is to offer them: a gift of £1000 each is halved, turned into a small annuity, then abandoned altogether. John Dashwood, whose intentions to be helpful were always vague, is no match for his wife. Austen has her using the preposterous argument that their own son might well be impoverished by this drain on their resources – and he is persuaded that any help at all would be a mistake.
It’s become something of a cliché – I’ve been guilty of it myself – to point out with a kind of wonderment that Jane Austen’s novels are all about money. What they actually seem to pivot on is slightly more complicated than that: it’s to do with the extent that different characters admit – to themselves or to others – that, really, it’s only money that counts. Old Mr Dashwood doesn’t realise it, and thought that it will be sufficient to tell his nephew to look after the family who made the last ten years of his life so pleasant. Mrs Dashwood doesn’t realise it, expressing her faith in the notion that love conquers all. No it doesn’t, not in this world – but she, and her second daughter Marianne, rely on what they call their ‘sensibility’. What it seems to mean is a kind of silliness which Elinor, the oldest daughter, is bemused by. ‘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…’ and so on.
By now Mrs John Dashwood can see no reason for not moving into the big house while the widow and her daughters look for somewhere else. It was never going to be easy, but they rub along long enough for Elinor – sensible, thoughtful Elinor – to form an attachment to a frequent visitor, the brother of Mrs John Dashwood. This is Edward Ferrars and, in a quiet way, he seems to be one of Austen’s good sorts. Which means, despite what happens next, that we haven’t seen the last of him. We’ve only really met him through the conversations that the Dashwood girls and their mother have about him – for the excitable Marianne he’s dull and without taste – but it hardly matters. He’s out of Elinor’s league now – something her mother strenuously denies, of course – and anyway, a crisis puts an end to all speculation for now.
Life with the monster is made unbearable through talk of the possible attachment. She has made some fairly pointed comments about how she expects her brother to marry well – that is, into money – and this is enough for Elinor’s mother. She takes offence at the implied slur to Elinor and, without further consideration, decides to take up the offer of a cottage in Devon. They’re out of there.
They’re near the village of Barton, in a cottage rented to them by a distant cousin. This is Sir John Middleton, and both he and his wife are particular types. (I suspect that George Eliot had them in mind with the pairing of Sir James Chettam and Celia Brooke in Middlemarch.) He is generous and amiable, but is only truly happy when hunting, and judges all his male acquaintances according to how well they ride and shoot. Lady Middleton, in her 20s, has no conversation beyond the subject of motherhood in general and her three children in particular. But they know people locally, and the Dashwoods’ lives are soon made interesting through the introduction of two eligible men. One is Colonel Brandon, ‘on the wrong side of’ 35 and who, we later discover, has been unlucky in love. The other is the dashing 25-year-old, Willoughby.
It’s Colonel Brandon who first meets the family and is quietly drawn to the attractions of Marianne. She, not yet 17, considers him elderly, pointedly remarks to her mother and sisters that he is old enough to be her father, and makes it clear that he has no chance. What she doesn’t know is that she’s in a Jane Austen novel, and that a lot can happen in 50 chapters. What she does know is that Willoughby, following a first encounter straight out of the kind of romantic fiction Austen loves to satirise, appears to have no faults at all. Austen does that thing in which she reports on their subsequent meetings, nominally from Marianne’s point of view, but with enough clues to the reader that Willoughby is able, through his natural charm, to have this inexperienced girl see in him exactly what he wants her to see: ‘any young man of five and twenty must have been insensible indeed, not to become an immediate convert to the excellence of –’ of whatever it is that she happens to be enthusing about now.
The relationship between these two is the main thread of these chapters, and Austen-watchers are alert to the clues she offers that it’s highly problematical. There’s something mean-minded about the way Willoughby blithely joins in with Marianne’s mockery of Colonel Brandon, a man who is just about the only person in Devon that Elinor finds interesting. Willoughby, 25, allows Marianne, 16, to behave in public as though they are established lovers – to the extent that it becomes the common belief that he must have proposed to her. The belief is all but confirmed when he drives her in secret to the big house he will inherit on the death of his ageing aunt, and shows her all round it. The biggest clue of all is that neither of them, despite what Elinor calls the openness of their dispositions, thinks to announce that they really are engaged.
Actually that isn’t the biggest clue, because after all these others comes the crisis of Chapter 15. Willoughby is leaving. No, he isn’t coming to tea after all, he isn’t leaving any explanation, he’s simply got to go. The first intimation of this is Marianne, distraught, leaving the cottage. Willoughby is inside, looking dreadful, but all he can say is that he’s been sent to London by the ageing aunt. And then he’s out of there. Is the reader surprised? Not nearly as much as Marianne, whom Austen puts through the requisite period of tears, sleeplessness and loss of appetite that a girl of her ‘sensibility’ is bound to be prone to. The satirical tone might be another clue, that we shouldn’t take any of this too seriously – to be placed alongside Marianne’s wrong-headed notion that once a person has loved, any substitute love in the future is impossible. This is a long-running thread, and we guess it’s there to be proved wrong in the end.
But Willoughby’s behaviour worries Elinor more than anything we’ve seen so far. She talks it over with her mother – and lets herself be persuaded that there is a reasonable explanation. The engagement can’t be announced because Willoughby is dependent on an aunt who, undoubtedly, would be against the match. And when weeks go by without a letter from him, well, Sir John brings their mail and would recognise the handwriting…. You can believe this if you want to and, as I’ve said, Elinor decides to put aside the ‘suspicion of something unpleasant’ that his behaviour brings about. She doesn’t name the suspicion, because she doesn’t have to: Austen’s readers were perfectly familiar with the figure of the young man who thinks nothing of raising a girl’s hopes for the sake of a holiday romance.
(All the time when I read Austen I’m lost in admiration of the way she sometimes builds on, and sometimes plays games with, the reader’s expectations. I’ve written elsewhere about the flattery it’s possible to feel when this perfectly controlled, capable writer drops just enough hints for us to second-guess what the characters can’t. But we need to beware: sometimes she makes sure we guess wrong. Is Willoughby playing fast and loose with Marianne? Or has he genuinely been captivated by her youthful enthusiasm and beauty? You tell me.)
What else in these chapters? There’s Lady Middleton’s mother, Mrs Jennings, a woman of independent means who doesn’t have enough to do. So she gossips endlessly about which of the young people have taken a shine to one another, who might be having money troubles… and so on. Her conversation drives Elinor to distraction, although Austen is far too polite (on Elinor’s part) to say such a thing. But she becomes the voice of Society, commenting on how things appear. It’s because of the people represented by her that the behaviour of Willoughby and Marianne matters in this small world – and she’s a reminder that whatever happens, events are subject to endless speculation. For instance… Colonel Brandon has arranged a treat, but is called away to London on the very morning when a big group of the locals is preparing to set out. What can it be about? Money worries? The health of his cousin Fanny? (Don’t ask.) Or – gulp – is it something to do with Miss Williams, the Colonel’s – double gulp – ‘natural daughter’? We don’t know, but Mrs Jennings is always there, wondering.
Have I said enough for now? Colonel Brandon has a past, but he’s been so vaguely sketched in, often through the highly partial point of view of Elinor’s younger sisters, that it’s hard to tell whether he has a future. And finally – in Chapter 16, once Marianne has got over the worst of her shock – Edward Ferrars appears on the scene. He’s been pushed firmly into the background during the weeks and months that the Dashwoods have been in Devon – Marianne finds it hard to believe how coolly Elinor seems able to contemplate the separation – and when he arrives he isn’t setting anything on fire. He seems uneasy, even more reserved than usual, and… what? Something’s going on. Marianne notices he is wearing a plait of someone’s hair in a ring, which she pretends must be his sister’s. He confirms this, but both she and Elinor really believe it’s Elinor’s . Well, is it? Elinor resolves to get a closer look at it, to check whether it really is the same shade as her own.
One last thing: the way people talk. In Northanger Abbey Austen had spent paragraphs on how certain turns of phrase seem to mark out a certain turn of mind, and I remember ‘amazing’ being held up for particular derision. Now the person who raises the most objections is, perhaps surprisingly, Marianne. She hates stock phrases: ‘“setting one’s cap at a man,” or “making a conquest,” are the most odious of all.’ Austen seems to be making a sly comment on her vehemence when Sir John seems not to have understood at all, and uses exactly those phrases the next time he opens his mouth. But later, when Marianne’s objection is to do with the new fashion for landscape appreciation, we can imagine it’s exactly what Austen herself believes: ‘admiration of landscape scenery is become a mere jargon. Everybody pretends to feel and tries to describe with the taste and elegance of him who first defined what picturesque beauty was.’ Perhaps, in giving these sentiments to Marianne, Austen is gently mocking the bee in her own bonnet.
No she isn’t. Austen. Mocking the bee in her own bonnet. In these chapters there’s a parade of grotesques, and Austen gives them habits of speech that mark them out as unbearable. There’s the constant stream of superlatives, so that anything or anyone is the sweetest, most adorable creature or house or whatever in the world. There are beaux, and conquests – conquests! – to be made. (Whatever must Marianne think?) There are the ungrammatical adverbs – monstrous pretty or prodigious handsome, or whatever. And, most damning of all, there are the grammatical errors. The character most prone to these – ‘my sister and me was often staying with my uncle’ and numerous other atrocities – is the highly suspect Lucy Steele.
In fact, now I think of it, all these crimes are perpetrated by Lucy Steele and her sister, who are the second pair of grotesques to be put on show. I’ll come back to them, because they are important, but it’s worth having a look at the Palmers first. Mrs Palmer is Lady Middleton’s younger sister, and their mother displays her proudly as the second and last of her daughters to be married off successfully. In addition to acting as welcome comic relief following the problematic visit of Edward Ferrars – tell you in a minute – they are also a warning to the curious of what can happen if a man marries without due care and attention. She is empty-headed and silly, a judgment that Austen ascribes to Elinor, who has become by now the arbiter of all matters of taste and social mores. Mrs Palmer does not recognise her husband’s boorishness for what it is, seeing it as his ‘drollery’. But Elinor recognises in him a man who has realised too late that he has married a fool. She is broad-minded enough – Austen’s genuine heroines always tend to be this wise – to hope that although he has made a mistake ‘like many others of his sex,’ he will soon be able to get over it and return to his true nature. But we’ve been warned, and we’ll be reminded of it later.
Before all these new arrivals Austen finishes off Edward Ferrars’ week-long visit to the cottage. Something clearly isn’t right. He’s uneasy and out of sorts at first, and, just as he begins to enjoy himself, he says he has to leave, without really being able to say why. Austen is presenting him as somehow incomplete. He can’t settle to a career – the Church, his favourite option, being considered beneath him whilst all other careers hold nothing of interest for his unassuming ways – and, well, what?
Some of this is finally explained after we’ve been in the company of the Steele sisters for a while. At first, as I’ve suggested, they simply seem to be the next in a line of people held up for judgment. They seem to have no fortune of their own, and have jumped at the chance of a stay at the Middletons’. (They are distant poor relations of Mrs Jennings and Lady Middleton.) They earn their keep by bowing to the children’s whims, speaking and behaving as though they are as besotted by the spoilt brats – Austen is frank about what she thinks of the children – which seems only natural to Lady M. ‘Miss Steele’, the elder sister, is 30-ish, vulgar, and not very bright. The Dashwoods find her conversation excruciating, laced as it is not only with those crimes against English but also with a complete lack of any understanding of social norms. Lucy Steele, 23, is far more intelligent, often trying to smooth over her elder sister’s frequent faux pas. Elinor can see that she might have shown some real qualities had she been given a proper education… but as it is, her conversation is little more tolerable than her sister’s. Ok.
After what seems like an endless round of dull visits spent in the company of these women and the Middleton children – Austen goes a lot further than she needs to with the satire on the doting mother’s blindness to her children’s faults – we’re beginning to wonder where this is leading. And then we find out. The gossipy Mrs Jennings and Sir John have been dropping broad hints that a certain Edward Ferrars is the man that Elinor is interested in. This is mortifying enough for Elinor, uneasy as she still is about his recent visit and his lack of any apparent commitment to her. But it gets worse. After some fishing, Lucy tells her that this same Edward Ferrars is the man she – gasp! – became engaged to four years ago.
Ah. After a few minutes during which Elinor tries to persuade herself that it isn’t true, she is able to piece together what must have happened. Lucy, who is beautiful, must have been a highly attractive proposition at the age of nineteen, and it easy to imagine how she might have persuaded the shy young man that she was just what he was looking for. What she herself is looking for, Elinor – and therefore the reader – does not doubt, is security. Mrs Ferrars, the mother of Edward and his younger brother Robert, would apparently never sanction the marriage. But she is not young, and Lucy is patient. Besides, it would be enough for her if Edward were, say, to go into the Church after all and receive, say, the living at Norland, the family seat now occupied by John Dashwood. Ok….
Elinor does not doubt – and, because of the way Austen is having her carefully piece it all together, the reader again does not doubt – that Edward is very unhappy indeed about all this. (The reader, having been prepared for it, can see it would be like the Palmers all over again.) The plait of hair on his finger, carefully placed there at Lucy’s suggestion, now represents his sense of obligation. And Austen lets us see her manipulativeness at work. She knows, or strongly suspects, that Elinor would have Edward for himself if she could. (Elinor, naturally, is exercising all her powers of ‘sense’ to conceal her real feelings, in a way that Austen openly contrasts with the way that Marianne’s ‘sensibility’ dictates that she should nurture and give voice to her own sense of loss.) She goes as far as to ask Elinor’s advice: should she break off the engagement, for Edward’s sake, because of its hopelessness? Elinor, of course, can say nothing, and avoids such conversations in future.
Chapter 25 is the set-up for what must be the next series of developments. Elinor and Marianne are invited to spend time with Sir John in London, and Marianne jumps at the chance. Her motive is clear, and everything else becomes irrelevant to her: she wants the chance to see Willoughby again. And despite Elinor’s huge misgivings, not least to do with the time she will be forced to spend with Mrs Jennings – Austen spends pages on the arguments she goes through with herself and others – she agrees to go. She even finds herself looking forward to it.
These chapters could be subtitled The Unending Mortifications of the Miss Dashwoods, and I’m beginning to find it easier to believe that this is one of Austen’s early novels. The authorial composure is still there, but… but what? Nothing very surprising happens in the Marianne/ Willoughby thread, which takes until Chapter 30 to become completely unravelled, because the outcome has been signalled so clearly for so long. After this mortification of her sister, Elinor is subjected to a series of encounters that seem designed as tests of her social mettle. From the combined dislike and triumphalism of Lucy Steele to the icy offensiveness of Mrs Ferrars, it’s as though London is full of blackboards with one person after another scratching down them with their fingernails. There are only two exceptions, and those are the increasingly more rounded Colonel Brandon and the dull but inoffensive Edward Ferrars. I’ve stopped reading for a while because, like both the sisters, I’ve had enough of London for now.
When it becomes clear that Willoughby never meant what Marianne thought he did – although, as she admits, he never actually put his supposed feelings into words – she is as devastated as you would expect. But she appears to have had a lucky escape, and Elinor later hears that at least one other girl has not been so fortunate. I’ll come back to that story later. Elinor’s earlier suspicions, as Austen has made sure the reader guessed all along, prove to have been entirely correct – her only mistake having been to let her mother put her mind at rest. But Austen has to make the unravelling seem plausible, so…
…soon after their arrival, Marianne sends a note to Willoughby. There is no reply. Days later he pays a call while they are out, and leaves his card. She writes again , and there is no reply, again. He does not attend a ball to which he is invited and where he knows she will be. And then, at another party, comes the humiliation of their only meeting. He speaks to her formally, does not acknowledge any of her overtures to him, and turns back to his friends. His reply to the letter she dashes off next morning chills Elinor when Marianne shows it to her. Not only is the tone icily formal; he writes of his engagement to another woman.
It gets worse. No matter what spin Elinor tries to put on his behaviour, particularly her conviction that he had a genuine affection for Marianne during their time at Barton, it doesn’t work. While Marianne blindly stumbles about trying to snatch at any possible comfort – the arrival of any letter must mean, surely, that he’s decided to explain how everything has been a mistake and he is about to call and make it all right – Elinor scrutinises his behaviour and finds it wanting in every respect. And then comes the final confirmation of what a rat he is. Not only is his new fiancée ‘worth 50,000’, an aspect of her merits that will not have been irrelevant to him in his notoriously debt-ridden state; Elinor hears a story, from an unimpeachable source – it’s Colonel Brandon, of all people – that he is a vile seducer and has left a protégé of the Colonel’s pregnant. Who would have thought it?
It’s in the telling of this story that the version of the Colonel’s past that Mrs Jennings presented to the Dashwoods proves to be entirely wrong. In other words, she is as unreliable a judge of his character as she is turning out to be of everyone else’s that they meet in London. There is a ‘love-child’, as Mrs Jennings archly refers to her, but Brandon is not the father. He seeks to protect her because… well, it’s complicated. In his youth he had loved a woman who was very like Marianne as she is now. But they were not allowed to marry, and an attempted elopement ended in the disaster of his dastardly older brother marrying her for her money instead. The marriage was loveless, ended in divorce – Brandon had got himself commissioned to serve in India by now – and she had affairs. The first of these led to the birth of the girl he decided to protect after the death of the unfortunate mother.…
Brandon’s behaviour is as selfless as anything that we’ve seen from Elinor in these chapters. And there’s added scandal, all spoken in the Colonel’s careful, understated tones. (In other words, he speaks as decorously and judiciously as Elinor as well.) Recently the girl, now roughly Marianne’s age, went to Bath with a friend… where she was seduced and made pregnant by – guess who. And although it isn’t spelt out, this must have happened just before Willoughby’s arrival in Devon. I told you Marianne had a lucky escape.
There’s more to these Marianne/Willoughby chapters than plot. With the socially and morally impeccable Elinor as the main consciousness guiding us, Austen takes us through the complexities and repercussions of Marianne’s behaviour. Elinor, once she has heard that the engagement never existed, is worried for a chapter or so that Marianne has been indiscreet to the point of blameworthiness. (Austen puts it more elegantly, but that’s what she means.) Everything in the bubble of London society is highly public, and we’ve had Mrs Jennings pronouncing with authority that ‘all the world knows’ of the engagement between Marianne and Willoughby. Her careless behaviour will not look good if it becomes widely known. Ok.
The sisters stay on long after Marianne’s hopes have been shattered – their mother, perhaps rightly, considers that an early return to Devon would reawaken too many memories – and what we now get is a satire of the mores of London society. Elinor, whose finely-tuned consciousness has always been the touchstone of good taste and insight, faces a succession of encounters during which, in different ways, people fail to come up to scratch. We’re familiar with most of Austen’s targets by now, and the contrast between them and Elinor means that the precocious wisdom of her heroine – she’s only nineteen at the beginning of the novel, and there’s been no mention of birthdays – has to carry a lot of moral weight. It can be very solemn, as though Austen isn’t even trying to hide the serious moral purpose that lies beneath the satire.
So, those familiar targets. They are usually at the wrong end of a spectrum that has Elinor and, sometimes, Colonel Brandon at the other. Mrs Jennings is generous and good-hearted, but that doesn’t stop her from being the personification of upper middle class prejudice in this little world, as she was in Devon. Except for the grammatical errors, Austen has given her exactly the same way of speaking as the ghastly Steele sisters, full of the same hyperbole and ‘Lord!’ and ‘prodigious’. It exactly parallels another spectrum that she’s on the wrong end of: insight. She pronounces with authority on everyone and everything in London, and is always wrong.
We know she’s wrong because Austen has already let us in on the truth about the people she likes before the poor woman opens her mouth. (Sir John, in London at the same time, is the male equivalent, though less forthright. He can hardly believe that Willoughby could be a blackguard because he’s such an excellent sportsman.) Austen does this through showing us a character’s awfulness at work: John Dashwood’s grasping obsession with money, Robert Ferrars’ determination to keep up with the latest fashion at all costs, Mrs Ferrars’ pointed rudeness, and so on, and on. Elinor is usually on the receiving end of their small-mindedness, which is confirmed for us as we witness it through her eyes and feel her mortification. And if that sounds a bit moralistic, well, that’s how it often feels: we know exactly how we ought to feel about everyone’s faults.
Lack of insight, vulgar ways of speaking…. These aren’t the only faults that Austen turns the spotlight on, as I’ve already suggested, but I’ve had enough of them for now. There’s a more interesting opposition, the one that gives the novel its title: Elinor’s thoughtful good sense as constantly contrasted with Marianne’s careless reliance on ‘sensibility’. Marianne is not one of the novel’s many monsters or blind followers of the world’s opinion. Austen has clearly got her lined up for a happy marriage in the end, presumably to Colonel Brandon, so there is some heavy-duty education to be gone through. It’s already begun, to an extent. Her surrendering to the demands of ‘sensibility’ hasn’t helped her in any way, leading to weeks of misery; and, once she has heard the Colonel’s story from Elinor she no longer dismisses him as an old bore. Ok.
But what about Elinor? Has her behaviour, the polar opposite of Marianne’s, been any more helpful to her? Sure, she can cope with adversity – the behaviour of Mrs Ferrars, for instance, causes her no distress at all – but she is constantly having to fine-tune every single aspect of what she says, moderate her facial expressions to suit the circumstances, second-guess at every turn the likely effect of any aspect of her own behaviour. It’s as exhausting for the reader – this reader, anyway – as it is for her… and I can’t help wondering whether there has got to be some middle ground.
There’s a set-piece scene in which we see both sisters in trying circumstances. Lucy Steele – whose latest grammatical atrocity is the interesting verb-form ‘to have went away’ – is visiting Elinor when Edward Ferrars arrives. In the tortured conversation that ensues, Elinor has to juggle what she knows about both of them, with no help from either. She decides to leave the putative lovers alone together while she fetches Marianne, and this only compounds her difficulties. Her sister knows nothing of Lucy and Edward’s relationship, welcomes Edward in her generous, open-hearted way as the most important man in her sister’s life…. The encounter can’t go on, and Edward leaves as soon as he can – to Marianne’s surprise, obviously. But there’s got to be another way for both of them, surely?
One thing that any reader of a Jane Austen novel knows is that our favourite characters will get their happy ending. Now, six chapters from the end, there appears to be no prospect of it for Elinor because Edward’s marriage to Lucy seems to be a certainty. Eleanor has been so good at hiding her own feelings about Edward that Brandon asks her to be the bringer of good news for him: he has a small living in his gift that will be just enough for the happy couple to live on. Agonisingly for Elinor, they will be able to marry sooner rather than later. But I’m not wondering whether Edward will be another Mr Palmer, regretting a hasty engagement for the rest of his life. I’m wondering what Lucy is going to do, or what story about her will be uncovered, that will render the engagement null and void. Will it have something to do with that story of Brandon’s about his protégée’s seduction in Bath? (I’m only guessing.)
As for Marianne…. The process of re-education that I mentioned last time has already begun for her. In Chapter 37, she gets a long lesson from Elinor about what she has had to endure over the past four months, a lot of it owing to Marianne’s inability to deal with her own suffering, never mind anybody else’s. Marianne is trying to be a bit more like Elinor now, at least in public, stifling the urge to blurt out everything she’s feeling. Willoughby, in case we were wondering, is definitely not an option. His new wife is not going to die, leaving him her fortune; he, unlike what I’m assuming for Edward, will have to live with the consequences of his own actions for the rest of his life. Because…
…because Austen has long ago started on the other strand that’s necessary for a successful conclusion. Bad behaviour – and the Dashwood sisters witness little else in London – doesn’t go unpunished. I remember in Mansfield Park that the characters who had treated Fanny Price most badly are left to spend the rest of their lives in different kinds of purgatory, while the right-thinking ones get to live in the heaven-like environs of the Park itself. In this novel, Austen start this process in Chapter 37. In fact – I’d not made a big thing of it because I took it to be merely the latest atrocity in a long list – Mrs John Dashwood sets her own punishment in motion in the previous chapter. (In the original three-volume publication, this comes at the end of Volume 2.) In order to avoid inviting the Dashwood sisters to be her guests she invites the Steele sisters instead. Elinor wonders at the favour being shown to them: ‘such a mark of uncommon kindness, vouchsafed on so short an acquaintance, seemed to declare that the good-will towards her arose from something more than merely malice against herself.’ Naïve girl. Elinor’s problem is that she simply doesn’t understand how vile people can be in this world.
Early in Chapter 37 the truth comes out. The elder Steele sister – Anne, aka Nancy, as bad as Lucy in her less scheming, more ignorant way – happens to mention Lucy’s engagement to Edward. The effect on their hostess is instantaneous and comically grotesque. The doctor has to be sent for to pronounce on the appalling effect on Fanny Dashwood – she’ll survive – and the Steele sisters are banished forever, having been given just enough time to pack. We don’t care about this parody of suffering, of course, because her behaviour has become progressively more and more mean-spirited towards the Dashwood sisters as the novel has gone on. She’s brought it all on herself through her obsession with money and the ‘good match’ she’d been planning for Edward, and we rejoice that all she can do is complain.
We would do the same for Mrs Ferrars, Edward’s mother, if she were equally powerless. But she isn’t, and her punishment will have to be deferred for some time yet. She is another type – there are plenty of others in the novel – who puts money and status before anything else. When poor, deluded, honourable Edward refuses to end the engagement she cuts him off forever: she declares that he is no longer her son, and a quick meeting with her lawyer transfers all his inheritance to the foppish Robert. All this is conveyed to the Dashwood sisters by their brother John, who has become a comic grotesque in his own right by now. Money has replaced absolutely every other consideration in his mind by now so, for him, Edward’s mother demonstrates ‘a very natural kind of spirit’. He interprets Marianne’s indignant splutters – ‘Gracious God! can this be possible?’ – as agreement with his own opinion.
So, it’s getting complicated. In proving himself worthy of the love of any good woman – and we know which good woman we’re talking about here – Edward has closed all the doors not only to his own happiness but also Elinor’s. At least, that’s how things stand for now. Ok.
I’m trying to remember how Austen spins all this out into eight chapters…. Some of it is comedy, as provided by the John Dashwoods and Mrs Jennings. There’s a farcical misunderstanding between the latter and Elinor about what Colonel Brandon was so deeply in conversation with her about. (It’s really to do with the living for Edward, but Mrs J interprets snatches that she overhears to refer to the colonel’s future life with Elinor. How we laughed.) There’s Anne/Nancy’s conversation with Elinor about a conversation she overheard between Lucy and Edward. It isn’t comic in itself, and it lets Elinor know that Edward has frankly offered Lucy the chance to withdraw from an unpromising match, but we get comic glimpses inside the mind-set of this lumpish elder sister, and those crimes against English that Austen seems to find so hilarious. Elinor is appalled to discover that the revelations have only come to her through Nancy’s eavesdropping – she remains the arbiter of all moral matters – but at least she knows something to disprove another version of events: Lucy pretends that it is Edward who refuses her own offer to withdraw.
And… what? Elinor and Marianne have had enough of London – it’s nearly Easter by now – and they get the offer of a lift as far as Somerset to stay with the Palmers. (She is as bad as ever, but he has become quite civil by now. Elinor’s hopes that he would be able to come to terms with the reality of his marriage seem to have been fulfilled.) Marianne uses the stay as an excuse to re-kindle thoughts of Willoughby – it’s quite near where he lives – and she is punished for it. She goes out in the cold and damp, to nurse her melancholy thoughts, and it’s the second time her ‘sensibility’ leads to illness. This time it almost kills her, leading to nights of misery for her and Elinor.
The illness is useful for Austen in another way. News of it reaches Willoughby, now married, and he impulsively brings his carriage all the way from London to find out if she is still alive. Chapter 44 consists mainly of his description of the misery he’s brought on himself. Some of it is to do with unlucky combinations of circumstances – his rich aunt hears about the girl he’s made pregnant on the very day he’s decided to declare his love for Marianne, and disowns him when he refuses to marry his victim – but mostly, as he recognises, it’s down to his own weakness. When offered the choice between keeping up his expensive lifestyle or settling down in relative poverty with the woman he loves he gets it wrong. There are more explanations, to do with what seemed to be his unforgivable behaviour in London – I’ll spare you the details, but his new wife comes out of it very badly – and… and what? He’s in purgatory, and he will stay there, imprisoned in a loveless marriage, forever.
Who’s next for sentencing by the unflinching Judge Austen? And what about the rewards for the righteous? We’ll have to wait and see.
Chapters 45-50 – to the end
Unflinching? Whilst Austen the omnipotent is generous to the good guys, amongst the others it’s only Willoughby who really has to suffer. We already know why by the time he’s finished speaking at the end of Chapter 44, but we get a sort of coda in the final chapter. For the rest of his life, Marianne remains ‘his secret standard of perfection in woman’, the one who got away. Austen twists the knife further when his aunt lets it be known that had he done the right thing with Marianne she would probably have relented. He wouldn’t have had to live as a poor man.
Everybody else lives happily ever after as though, in generous mood, Austen sees the well-deserved contentment of her favourites as making enough of a moral point. The others – money-obsessed, ungenerous, conniving – aren’t worth the trouble of being consigned to any of the circles of hell. Let them be comfortable, because having to live out their inadequate, meaningliess little lives is enough of a punishment for Judge Jane.
This is surprising. But earlier, in parenthesis, I remarked that this author knows how to play games with our expectations. The most blatant example is the fate of Lucy Steele. In one of those teasing little episodes Austen goes in for, a servant tells the Dashwoods that he has met her on the road with ‘Mr Ferrars’, to whom she is now married. There are clues, very easy to spot in hindsight, that this does not refer to Edward. In fact, even while she had been supposedly planning a life as a clergyman’s wife, she had really been flattering Robert into submission. This time old Mrs Ferrars can’t do anything about it – she drew up his legal rights too carefully for that – but she can cut him off from her affections. At one point Austen has some fun with the changing personnel who can count themselves as her family, because it’s all temporary. Robert was always the favourite, and soon he is welcomed back. Not many weeks later, even Lucy is accepted, and becomes a favourite. Grudgingly, the old harridan grants Edward a settlement that she considers low, but which is far more than he and his wife-to-be consider sufficient for their prosperity and happiness.
Because, of course, the first thing Edward does when he discovers what Lucy has done is to ride to Barton to propose. Before you know it, they are planning the new garden layout at the rectory and… and so on. Elinor, in the meantime, has learned – how does it go? – a ‘new character of candour’. It seems as though she’s realised that her old circumspect ways didn’t always get her what she wanted…. But her old moralising habits haven’t changed at all. There always comes a point in Jane Austen novels when the judgmental conversations her favourites have – Emma and Mr Knightley, Fanny Price and Edmund – make me want to be sick. I reached that point some time ago with Elinor, who is now very happy to have Marianne promising to be more like her, and to hear her mother admitting that she might not always have been getting everything exactly right. These novels, amongst everything else that they are, are guides to how we should live. Be like Elinor, Austen seems to say, and you won’t go far wrong. (If you’re like Lucy Steele you might get what you’re after, but it won’t amount to a hill of beans. In her marriage she’s Mr Palmer whilst Robert is the brainless Charlotte.)
What else? Marianne is happy, in her new role as sensible person, to stay at home with her mother. But time passes, she reaches the advanced age of nineteen, and Colonel Brandon’s merits become clear to her. And so on. The world turns as it always has, most people live meaningless lives chasing pointless goals based on money and fashion… but somewhere in Devonshire there exists a little bit of heaven. Bless.
(I realise that there’s a thread I haven’t mentioned enough: education. There are the Dashwood sisters, especially Marianne, whose re-education into a better way is one of the novel’s big themes. But there are characters whose lives have been blighted from the start. Edward, educated at home, has no idea of the ways of the world, has too much time on his hands, and becomes engaged to the first girl who sets her sights on him. Lucy herself, Elinor sees early on, only seems uncouth because that is how she’s been brought up: ‘as a companion for half an hour Elinor frequently found her agreeable; but her powers had received no aid from education.’ She has to seek her own success, and gets it – if you can call marriage to a tedious buffoon any kind of success.
But the almost tragic figure is Willoughby. Austen spends more time on his fate than on anybody else’s outside the Dashwood family, especially in the long Chapter 44. He is the archetype of too many young men, as Elinor recognises after hearing the whole story from him. She muses on ‘the irreparable injury which too early an independence and its consequent habits … had made in the mind, the character, the happiness, of a man who, to every advantage of person and talents, united a disposition naturally open and honest…. The world had made him extravagant and vain—Extravagance and vanity had made him cold-hearted and selfish.’ Nasty old place, the world, if you haven’t got someone to guide you.
Elinor, surrounded by people at best guided entirely by sentiment and at worst by fools, is the exception to the rule. She survives because she clearly has more of Jane Austen’s DNA than her mother’s.)