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A Romance of Restraint: Jane Austen's Elinor and Edward

Updated on February 3, 2011
Edward and Elinor in Sense and Sensibility (2008)
Edward and Elinor in Sense and Sensibility (2008)

By Hannah P.

Women with a romantic disposition have long considered Jane Austen’s novels as classic. Even the more cynical sort can be drawn into the worlds of Elizabeth Bennet, Emma Woodhouse and Elinor Dashwood. In fact, these stories can often be one’s introduction into the world of period drama. Brontë, Gaskell and Eliot cannot compare to the popularity of Jane Austen and her array of novels. I know for myself that I hadn’t watched, read, or heard much about period drama until the day my mother brought home from the library a copy of A&E’s Pride and Prejudice . For hours my mother, sister and I sat riveted as we watched the story play out. Afterwards, I remember wanting to know more stories like it, and soon we were introduced to Emma, Persuasion , and my personal favorite, Sense and Sensibility.

The male and female leads
The male and female leads

Austen’s story of two sisters, very different in personality, one the embodiment of sense, the other of sensibility, is my favorite because I identify with and admire the characters more than any others of Austen’s fabrication. I especially love the character of Elinor Dashwood; her sensible attitude towards situations, her realistic outlook on life, and the restraint she puts on her emotions are admirable and worthy of imitation by many a girl who wears her heart on her sleeve. This sense carries over into Elinor’s romance with Edward Ferrars, a man who matches her personality, and makes their love story one of suppressed emotion and unexpressed feelings. The amazing 1995 film adaption of Sense and Sensibility (for which screenwriter Emma Thompson won an Oscar) was my first glimpse into the world of the Dashwood’s, followed by a reading of the original novel. While I enjoyed the 1995 film and the book very much, it wasn’t until I saw the 2008 BBC mini-series that I truly fell in love with the story. This film adaptation stood out from everything else because I felt connected to the characters like never before. I also began to see the relationship between Elinor and Edward in a new light. The subtle emotion and tension that was built up throughout the film produced sparks and made the characters more realistic. As a result, I will concentrate my attention on this film and it’s interpretation of Elinor and Edward’s romance.  

The Dashwood's arrive at their new home
The Dashwood's arrive at their new home

It would be unwise for me to launch into an examination of this love story without giving background from which to draw upon. The story begins with the death of Mr. Dashwood, leaving his widow and their three daughters to the mercy of their half-brother John (the only child from Mr. Dashwood’s first marriage) and wife, Fanny. As the only son in the family, John inherits everything, including the estate, Norland Park, where Mrs. Dashwood and her daughters Elinor, Marianne and Margaret live. Having promised to provide for his stepmother and his half-sisters, John instead listens to the selfish advice of his wife and does nothing, leaving them only a small income. Unwelcome in their own house, the Dashwood’s begin to search for a new home. But while they remain at Norland, Fanny’s brother Edward comes for a visit. His visit, though initially unwelcome, proves to be a wonderful change. The Dashwood’s are won over by his kindness, and an attraction between Elinor and Edward blossoms into love.

Edward takes Margaret out riding
Edward takes Margaret out riding

Edward’s fine character is shown from beginning when he first meets the Dashwood family. He stands up for their opinions and ideas (risking the temper of his overbearing older sister), understands and respects the grief that they feel for the passing of their father, and focuses his attention on being a considerate friend to the family. He takes Margaret out for a ride on his horse when her cousin confiscates her pony, indulges Marianne by reading aloud (although she finds fault with his lack of spirit), and takes the time to watch a marionette presentation by the both of them. But it is the relationship between Edward and Elinor that endears him to the family. Seeing the growing affection between the two, Mrs. Dashwood hopes for news of an engagement, and her younger daughters share her feelings. Unfortunately for the couple, Fanny and Edward’s oppressive mother are insistent that he marries someone wealthy or socially prominent… of which Elinor is neither. The objections to the match manifest themselves in a strict warning from Fanny about the standards Edward must live up to in marriage. This warning that finally settles Mrs. Dashwood’s mind about leaving Norland Park, and the family decides to move to a cottage in Devonshire, provided for them by Mrs. Dashwood’s cousin Sir John Middleton.

When examining the kinds of love stories that affect me most, I found that romances like Edward and Elinor’s are the kind that I enjoy best. I enjoy them because they are based on respect, admiration and responsibility, and a love that grows and develops over time. The manner in which they grow to know one another is also worth emulating. Edward and Elinor spend their time together engaged in polite conversation, and get to know one another through their sharing of hopes, dreams and ideals. Because of the recent passing of Elinor’s father, Edward is very considerate of her grieving and empathizes with her because of his own father’s death years before. As a result of his kindness and consideration, Elinor admires Edward, finding in him a kindred spirit.

Separation doesn’t dissolve the relationship between Elinor and Edward. But when he finally visits the family in their new home, they observe a change in him. He now wears a lock of hair set in a ring and behaves discontentedly during the short visit. It is only when the Dashwood’s are paid a visit by a woman from Edward’s past, Lucy Steele, that Elinor learns the reason. Lucy informs Elinor about a secret engagement of long-standing between Edward and herself, crushing Elinor’s hopes and threatening to separate her from Edward forever.

Lucy Steele
Lucy Steele

When examining the kinds of love stories that affect me most, I found that romances like Edward and Elinor’s are the kind that I enjoy best. I enjoy them because they are based on respect, admiration and responsibility, and a love that grows and develops over time. The manner in which they grow to know one another is also worth emulating. Edward and Elinor spend their time together engaged in polite conversation, and get to know one another through their sharing of hopes, dreams and ideals. Because of the recent passing of Elinor’s father, Edward is very considerate of her grieving and empathizes with her because of his own father’s death years before. As a result of his kindness and consideration, Elinor admires Edward, finding in him a kindred spirit.

Though the Ferrar’s family is less than welcoming at the thought of a romance between Edward and Elinor, the secret engagement between Edward and Lucy Steele is the main source of conflict and tension. The fact that Edward is secretly bound in an engagement with a woman “that he had long since ceased to love,” presents an obstacle that both fear will never be overcome. Edward’s morals prevent him from breaking his promise to Lucy, although he loves Elinor instead. This honorable character trait only endears him to Elinor more than ever when she hears of how he refused to break his promise, even on pain of disinheritance. In my favorite scene from the film, Elinor tells Edward, “I wouldn’t think so highly of you if you had behaved differently.”

Much emphasis is placed on the characters’ restrained emotions in this story, so Elinor and Edward’s romance is subtle and understated. Their passionate feelings towards one another are hidden under a polite and calm exterior, something that can be seen through looks, glances and slight actions. There are two scenes in particular that show the oppression of emotion that both characters feel, loving so intensely and yet prevented from expressing it. The first scene takes place in Norland Park’s library, as Elinor is packing to leave. Edward comes in to say goodbye, giving her a small book of pressed flowers as a reminder of his friendship. He says very little in the scene, although he undoubtedly wishes to express his feelings for Elinor. The burden of his secret engagement is unknown to Elinor at that point, leaving her dazed and bewildered after he leaves. Elinor’s confusion is amplified in the second scene, which takes place during Edward’s visit to the Dashwood’s after their removal to the Middleton’s cottage. Previous to calling on the Dashwood’s, Edward had visited Lucy at her home in Plymouth where she had given him a ring. The anxiety and stress that Edward feels over his obligation to Lucy makes his manner gruff and irritable, appearing strange to the unsuspecting Dashwood’s. Elinor finds Edward aggressively chopping wood in the rain the next day, as a relief for his pent-up emotion.


When Elinor finally discovers the reason for Edward’s frustration, she is initially hurt and saddened by his secrecy and that fact that she no longer has any hope for a future together. But her nature is one of forgiveness and compassion, and she doesn’t harbor any bitterness against him. My favorite scene in the film shows Elinor’s forgiving nature. Disinherited by his family for refusing to break his engagement, Edward is left with nothing. Asked to relay a business proposition from a close family friend, a proposition that would give Edward the means to marry Lucy, Elinor sets aside her personal feelings and informs Edward. In the scene they stand several feet apart, framed by the backdrop of two windows, perhaps symbolizing their impending permanent separation. Cordial self-control governs their short conversation, but they still manage to convey a little bit of their regard for one another, even as they say goodbye for what they think will be the last time.

For those who know the story, the joyful resolution of these unfortunate circumstances comes as welcome surprise. Greed becomes Edward’s ally when Lucy lets the desire for wealth govern her choices. Since Edward’s inheritance was given to his brother when his engagement was discovered, Lucy marries him instead. This action frees Edward from his promise, and he immediately rushes to the Dashwood’s cottage with the news. The scene in which he finally reveals his true feelings for Elinor is the most poignant and romantic of the film, a release of all the tension built up over the course of the story. The scene brings with it a sense of relief and delight in the knowledge that these two characters can finally be together. The restraint that ruled their lives threatened to separate them, but sense eventually won out, making Elinor and Edward’s story one of triumph over adversity, and one of Jane Austen’s best romances.

(Originally published in The Costume Chronicles - www.costumechronicles.com- )

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