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Women, Wollstonecraft, and Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility

Updated on July 15, 2012

Sense, Sensibility, and Slyness: The Necessity of Cunning in an Inequitable Society

“My own sex, I hope, will excuse me,” writes Mary Wollstonecraft in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, “if I treat them like rational creatures, instead of flattering their fascinating graces, and viewing them as if they were in a state of perpetual childhood, unable to stand alone” (285). Marianne Dashwood, through most of Jane Austen’s Senseand Sensibility, seems just such a perpetual child, lacking any concept of sense or prudence and abandoning herself alternately to self-indulgent, rapturous highs and self-pitying, funereal lows, even to the point of self-debilitation, based on the state of her relationship with John Willoughby. While Marianne’s passions lead only to self-harm and the harm of those close to her, her sister Elinor’s quiet and practical endurance of similar trials produces no real benefit beyond an avoidance of unnecessarily exacerbating the situation. In fact, it would seem that the only young woman in the novel possessing any real influence over her marital future is Lucy Steele, who maintains her influence only through resorting to amoral manipulation and cunning, flattering those who can help her and securing the Ferrars fortune through the seduction of first the elder Ferrars brother and then the younger. In Austen’s England, women, granted little power over their own circumstances, are only able to exercise any real control through what Wollstonecraft called “a little knowledge of human weakness, justly termed cunning, softness of temper, outward obedience, and a scrupulous attention to a puerile kind of propriety will obtain for them the protection of man” (288). Thus, although the novel ends in advantageous marriages for Elinor, Marianne, and Lucy, it is neither Elinor’s sense nor Marianne’s sensibility which determines this happy outcome, but the actions of the other characters, not the least of which is Lucy’s scheming duplicity.

At first appearance, Marianne Dashwood’s excessive sensibility seems thoughtless, gratuitous, and highly destructive, both to herself and to those around her. Disposed to indulging her immediate feelings instead of her rational faculties, Marianne comes to quick judgments about the people around her. She is quick to judge those “who [do] not talk as fast, and admire what she admires as rapturously as herself” to be passionless and “reserved” (93). Such is her immediate judgment of the grave and practical Colonel Brandon, who at thirty-five years old seems old and “infirm” to Marianne (39), although she resolves to “make every allowance for the colonel’s advanced state of life which humanity required” (37). Also judged passionless is Elinor’s love interest Edward Ferrars, whom she notes “has no taste for drawing” (21), and whose “eyes want that spirit, that fire, which at once announce virtue and intelligence. And besides all this… he has no real taste” (19). From this premature conclusion, based largely on Edward’s shyness, Marianne determines that “[she] shall never see a man whom [she] can really love,” as “He must have all Edward’s virtues, and his person and manners must ornament his goodness with every possible charm” (20). This hasty statement is almost immediately disproven when she falls nearly instantly in love with Willoughby, reasoning to Elinor that “Seven years would be insufficient to make some people acquainted with each other, and seven days are more than enough for others” (60).

Marianne loves Willoughby fully and blindly, changing her resolution to “make every allowance… which humanity required” (37) for Colonel Brandon’s age and instead agreeing with Willoughby that Brandon is “just the kind of man… whom every body speaks well of, and nobody cares about; whom all are delighted to see, and nobody remembers to talk to.” (52). She raptures in Willoughby’s good taste, which she convinces herself is “strikingly alike [to hers]. The same passages were idolized by each—or if any difference appeared, any objection arose, it lasted no longer than till the force of her arguments and the brightness of her eyes could be displayed” (49, italics added). Also in lovestruck abandon, she indiscreetly ventures to Allenham with Willoughby (68-69), grants him a lock of her hair (61), and nearly accepts his extravagant gift of a horse, only finally and regretfully refusing it at Elinor’s insistence that their mother could not possibly afford to keep it (59-60).

Marianne’s happiness with Willoughby is fragile, however. When Willoughby is sent away to London by Mrs. Smith, “Marianne would have thought herself very inexcusable had she been able to sleep at all” (83), and she wallows in “indulgence of feeling… [playing] over every favourite song that she had been used to play to Willoughby… till her heart was so heavy that no farther sadness could be gained… She spent whole hours at the piano-forte alternately singing and crying” (83). She is rendered worse still when she learns that Willoughby has abandoned her for a wealthy heiress, Miss Gray, addressing Willoughby “in the wildest anxiety” (168) and making a spectacle of herself by falling into “exclamations of wretchedness” (168) in the middle of a party. In her wild and unrestrained grief, she neglects and denounces friends, treating Colonel Brandon without the slightest regard and declaring that Mrs. Jennings simply loves gossip and “only likes me now because I supply it” (190).

When Marianne learns that Elinor has secretly endured a similar ordeal to her own, knowing Edward to be betrothed to another, but not saying a word, both to keep her promise of confidentiality to Lucy and to prevent her family and friends from becoming upset, she repents of her “barbarous” self-indulgent behavior (147) and later resolves to use “the same eager fancy which had been leading her to the extreme of languid indolence and selfish repining” for the worthy and practical task of “[dividing] every moment between music and reading… determined to enter on a course of serious study” (320). In following this more mature course of behavior, Marianne has grown and matured. She is endowed with the ability to endure adversity without engaging in self-destructive behavior or hurting the people around her, just as her sister does. However, this seems to be the extent of the Dashwood sisters’ ability to advance their own interests.

Neither Marianne nor Elinor is able to sway through the strictest discipline or the wildest passion the decisions of the key players in their romantic lives, beyond the mere inspiration of affection. Marianne’s devotion, sincere and whole-hearted as it is, cannot keep Willoughby true to her where money is a concern, and although her letters and passionate outburst at the party inspire both guilt and explanation (303), they can do nothing to actually change the situation. Meanwhile, Elinor’s strict silence on the subject of Edward’s engagement, while practical and a positive reflection on her disciplined character, seems a mere uncomplaining, passive acceptance of her situation. Proper and prudent Elinor is better off than Marianne in only the single respect that she does not worsen her situation by dwelling on her own misery or hurting her friends. Having no power to make the situation better, she merely refrains from making it worse.

Indeed, in Elinor’s case, even Edward seems helpless to influence the situation, being bound by honor to his prior engagement to Lucy, who stayed with him for a time after his disinheritance and “so earnestly, so warmly insisted on sharing [his] fate, whatever it may be” (341), that he could see no possible motive for her actions beyond pure and simple affection. Later she shows that she suffers no such scruples herself, and leaving Edward, who has faced disownment and disinheritance for her sake, with merely a brief letter to inform him of her decision, she marries his brother and is thus able to claim the greater part of the Ferrars fortune.

While Marianne’s behavior is highly emotional and may seem imprudent in the extreme, behaving with more sense, as does her sister Elinor, amounts to little more than calm and passive acceptance of whatever may occur. In a world ruled by men and by strict standards of proper behavior, it would seem that woman’s only power, outside of widowhood, lies not in prudence or passion, but in the exercise of “cunning, the natural opponent of strength” (Wollstonecraft 286). Lacking the benefit of position, wealth, or education, it is Lucy, the most deprived of the book’s prospective brides, who exercises such cunning habitually, as a learned and natural part of her character, and thus Lucy who is able to manipulate the situation to her desired conclusion, with Elinor’s happy ending a mere side-effect. As the society of Sense and Sensibility seems to reward manipulative scheming over virtue, we can only hope that Lucy gets her just deserts in the “ill-will continually subsisting between Fanny and [herself]… as well as the frequent domestic disagreements between Robert and [herself]” (351).

Works Cited

Austen, Jane. Sense and Sensibility. London, England: Penguin Books, 1995.

Wollstonecraft, Mary. "A Vindication of the Rights of Woman." The Longman Anthology of British Literature: The Romantics and Their Contemporaries. 2A. 3rd ed. Eds. Susan Wolfson and Peter Manning. New York: Pearson Education, Inc., 2006. 281-303.


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