Sense and Sensibility could serve as title to all Austen’s novels. In each, sense and sensibility – reason and emotion, reflection and instinct – contend with each other, the question of the proportions to which they should ideally be blended forming the backbone of the narrative. But, as the very clear dichotomy of the title implies, in no other novel are the two presented in such clear contradistinction to each other. Elinor Dashwood clearly represents sense, and her sister Marianne sensibility: there appears little if any intersection between the two. Most of the other characters, too, are presented as being on one side or the other of the divide, and if the purpose is indeed to find a judicious balance between the two, the dice does frankly seem somewhat weighted: for sensibility, even when belonging to people who are decent and likable – the Dashwoods’ mother, Mrs Jennings, Marianne herself – invariably leads people astray: it inevitably leads to the forming of wrong judgements, misperception of reality, and seeing the world, disastrously, for what it is not. And, inevitably, it is left to sense to make amends.
Misperceiving reality is, of course, a recurring theme in Austen. Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey misperceives reality – not necessarily because she is foolish, but because she is inexperienced, and trusting; but she grows through experience, and, by the end of that novel, can temper her youthful sensibility with a grown-up sense. As ever, it is left to sense to make amends, to put things right. But this is not to disparage sensibility: far better, after all, the trusting and affectionate sensibility of a Catherine Morland, helpless and vulnerable though it is, than the mercenary sense of an Isabella Thorpe.
In Sense and Sensibility, however, the two qualities are presented as a clear-cut dichotomy, and this creates certain problems – the principal one being that it becomes very difficult to present sensibility as anything other than merely silly and frivolous. Not that sense is always admirable: the Dashwood sisters’ half-brother and his wife display a “sense” of sorts in their money-grubbing meanness, and are repulsive. Equally repulsive is the vulgar Lucy Steele, possessed, as was Isabella Thorpe, merely of a “sensible” self-interest, unmediated by a humanising sensibility. But the principal representative of sense here is Elinor Dashwood, and so irreproachable is she in all that she says and does and thinks that, in comparison, the characters on the “sensibility” side of the divide cannot but appear foolish. By the end, Marianne, like her predecessor Catherine Morland, acquires sense to balance her sensibility: Elinor, however, requires nothing to complete her person; and the symmetry promised by the title seems, as a consequence, inevitably compromised. For while Austen could understand the importance of blending the two, her own sympathies, one strongly suspects, remain on the side of sense rather than of sensibility.
In her later novels, Austen knew better than to be so schematic. Elizabeth Bennet or Emma Woodhouse are allowed to misperceive reality not because excess of sensibility has rendered them foolish, but because they are complex, fully-rounded characters who, like the rest of us, can be blind in certain respects, though intellectually vivacious in others. And in her last completed novel, Persuasion, Austen allows sensibility to triumph and to bring fulfilment where, previously, mere sense bereft of sensibility had provided but unhappiness and barren frustration. But there is little here of any of that: here, sensibility leads one astray, and sense puts things right. However, it is easy to forget that, for all its accomplishment and sophistication and passages of often starling psychological insight, Sense and Sensibility is but the writing of one still starting out on her literary career: although the novel was published in 1811 when Austen was 36, an early version of it had existed when she was merely 20, and it seems more than likely that this early version had been drafted out when she was but a teenager. The precocity of such an achievement is breathtaking, especially when one considers that Austen was breaking new novelistic ground. Of course, since we do not have that early draft, there is no way of determining what elements of the novel we have now are the product of a teenage prodigy, and what is the product of a more mature artistic sensibility: I rather suspect that the schematic nature of the characterisation is a leftover from the earlier work. But the depth of insight that overlays the schematic outline is exceptional. Take, for instance, that startling moment when Mr Willoughby explains why he cannot be reconciled to Colonel Brandon, whom he has injured:
“… But I will not stay to rob myself of all your compassionate good-will, by shewing that where I have most injured I can least forgive.”
Perhaps, in a later novel, Austen would not have made Mr Willoughby so self-aware as to realise this truth about himself, but the insight that we are least capable of forgiving those we have most injured remains remarkable, and one of which even Tolstoy may have been proud. Indeed, it crops up in one of Tolstoy’s later masterpieces:
[Tsar Nicholas] had done much harm to the Poles and to explain this it was necessary to believe all Poles were scoundrels.
– Chapter 15 of Hadji Murat by Leo Tolstoy, translated by Paul Foote
The entire chapter in Sense and Sensibility where Mr Willoughby explains himself to Elinor is extraordinary. A character previously shown merely as a heartless cad is now shown as a flawed being aware of his flaws, and suffering as a consequence. This could easily have appeared an afterthought on the author’s part, an extra chapter gratuitously added to make the characterisation somewhat less schematic than it would otherwise have been; and, indeed, this is how it would most likely have appeared in the hands of a lesser writer. But not here. The depiction of Mr Willoughby as a man who himself suffers is certainly unexpected, but its effectiveness and credibility indicate that this revelation of depth had indeed been prepared for.
Like Mr Willoughby, Colonel Brandon also has a scene in which he reveals himself to Elinor – her ever-present sense forever inspiring trust in others – but the person he reveals is one who is suffering not for flaws in his character, but, rather, for cruel circumstances in the face of which his rectitude has been helpless. Colonel Brandon’s narrative, like Mr Willoughby’s later in the novel, is deeply felt, but, unlike Mr Willoughby’s, his sense keeps his sensibility in decorous check. And Edward Ferrars, too: he had, some years ago, contracted himself unwisely as a consequence of a youthful infatuation, and, as with Catherine Morland, it was his inexperience rather than his lack of intelligence that had led him astray; but he is determined to accept, as honour dictates, the consequences of his error, even though he is aware that this determination can lead only to unhappiness. In short, as with Colonel Brandon, his sensibility is held permanently in check by his sense. Austen does, very subtly, allow us to see the extent to which both these characters suffer as a consequence of their moral rectitude, but in neither instance is there any danger of sensibility overturning sense; and this is presented as entirely admirable. As ever, it is sense that is seen as bringing order to the world, and sensibility as unbalancing it.
There is another respect in which sense and sensibility stand in opposition to each other: Austen was writing at the height of what we now term the “Romantic era”, and, although an admirer of Walter Scott, Austen’s outlook was closer – much closer, one suspects – to the ethos of classicism. In an earlier post on this blog (to which I will not link as I have changed my mind significantly on certain matters since writing it), I had described Austen as a writer who, despite the times in which she lived and wrote, had not “a single Romantic bone in her body”. This is not true: an author utterly lacking in Romantic sensibility would not have been capable of writing Persuasion, which depicts romantic love and sexual attraction vividly, and with utter conviction. But it is true, I think, that her leaning was towards classicism: it was this leaning that led Charlotte Brontë famously to dismiss Austen as “bloodless”. Of course, compared to the Brontës, just about any writer could be described as “bloodless”. The criticism is unfair: Austen had the finest understanding of human emotions, and even, perhaps, of human passions, but her aesthetic preferences were, I think, classical, and she would have regarded too open and too uninhibited a display of emotion – such as Romantic writers had no scruple in depicting – as indecorous.
In this context, it is not hard to see sense and sensibility as representing, respectively, Classicism and Romanticism. Austen had already poked gentle fun in Northanger Abbey at the excesses of Romanticism, and here, she allows the very sensible Edward Ferrars to disapprove of various Romantic tropes:
“You must not inquire too far, Marianne — remember, I have no knowledge in the picturesque, and I shall offend you by my ignorance and want of taste, if we come to particulars. I shall call 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. You must be satisfied with such admiration as I can honestly give. I call it a very fine country — the hills are steep, the woods seem full of fine timber, and the valley looks comfortable and snug — with rich meadows and several neat farm houses scattered here and there. It exactly answers my idea of a fine country, because it unites beauty with utility — and I dare say it is a picturesque one too, because you admire it; I can easily believe it to be full of rocks and promontories, grey moss and brush wood, but these are all lost on me. I know nothing of the picturesque … I like a fine prospect, but not on picturesque principles. I do not like crooked, twisted, blasted trees. I admire them much more if they are tall, straight and flourishing. I do not like ruined, tattered cottages. I am not fond of nettles, or thistles, or heath blossoms. I have more pleasure in a snug farm-house than a watch-tower — and a troop of tidy, happy villagers please me better than the finest banditti in the world.”
Unmistakably, sense here is enlisted on the side of Classicism, and against Romanticism. Given how sense is allowed to triumph over sensibility in virtually every aspect of the novel, and especially in characters who are presented as admirable, it is hard not to conclude that this is where Austen’s own sympathies lie.
But what then of sensibility, which Austen knew had to be part of a well-balanced life? We have, I think, to wait for her later novels for this. The proper integration of sense and sensibility is, at this stage, still work in progress. What we do get here is, nonetheless, a novel of tremendous charm and of acute psychological insight, and a pointer to greater achievements still to come.