Austen began writing Elinor and Marianne as an epistolary novel in 1795. It was published as Sense and Sensibility in 1811. The novel set the tone for many of Austen’s titles: defiance of the social and economic barriers to marriage and the desire of women to marry for love. In the novel, Elinor and Marianne possess parallel experiences: They both fall in love with men who cannot commit to them. Needless to say, Elinor Dashwood epitomizes the concept of “sense” in her dealings with the world, while her sister Marianne models the concept of “sensibility.” In the novel, Elinor displays reason and propriety, while Marianne purports spontaneity, self-indulgence, and a lack of decorum.
One thing that is often confused by the modern reader is the contextual meaning of “sensibility” during Jane Austen’s time. “Sensibility” was a 15th Century word. Instead of meaning “an understanding of or ability to decide about what is good or valuable,” as we use it today, the word took on the meaning of a “peculiar susceptibility to a pleasurable or painful impression” or “refined or excessive sensitiveness in emotion and taste with especial responsiveness to the pathetic.” (Merriam-Webster)
Austen’s novels criticized the novels of sensibility of the late 1700s. “The sentimental novel or the novel of sensibility is an 18th Century literary genre which celebrates the emotional and intellectual concepts of sentiment, sentimentalism, and sensibility. Sentimentalism, which is distinguished from sensibility, was a fashion in both poetry and prose fiction beginning in the eighteenth century in reaction to the rationalism of the Augustan Age.
Austen wrote her novel at the turn of the 19th Century between what is known as Classicism and Romanticism. Austen was always aware of those who came before her, and she acknowledges the 18th Century novels she read voraciously as having a distinct influence on her generation. The novel reflects the change in the literary landscape with the turn of the 19th Century. Austen does not draw the characters of Marianne and Elinor in straight lines. Elinor expresses reserve, but she has her passionate moments. Marianne is headstrong, but not totally lacking in sense. It is as if Austen is arguing for a balance between sense and sensibility in our lives and that being too much of one is an error. Elinor and Marianne learn from each other and achieve happiness in that way.
“Sentimental novels relied on emotional response, both from their readers and characters. They feature scenes of distress and tenderness, and the plot is arranged to advance emotions and not to promote the action. The result is a valorization of “fine feeling,” displaying the characters as a model for refined, sensitive emotional effect. The ability to display feelings was thought to show character and experience, and to shape social life and relations.” (Wikipedia)
Generally speaking, readers and film adaptations accept Elinor as displaying the acceptable manners of the time. In modern terms, some feel Marianne’s open expression of her feelings is healthier than Elinor’s suppression of emotions. One thing that REALLY drives me nuts in this novel is Elinor remains a static character throughout. As a teacher of English for some four decades, I taught my students that the main character is a dynamic one. It is almost as if Austen provides a bit of overkill of the concept of “sense” in the form of Elinor’s character.
I know many remain interested in Elinor’s struggles to know happiness, but I find myself more concerned with Colonel Brandon’s “stuffiness.” When I first read the book (long after I read Pride and Prejudice), I was as irritated as Marianne with Elinor’s evaluation of Edward Ferrars.
“What a pity it is, Elinor”, said Marianne, “that Edward should have no taste for drawing.”
“No taste for drawing,” replied Elinor; “why should you think so? He does not draw himself, indeed, but he has great pleasure in seeing the performance of other people, and I assure you he is by no means deficient in natural taste, though he has not had opportunities of improving it. Had he ever been in the way of learning, I think he would have drawn very well. He distrusts his own judgment in such matters so much, that he is always unwilling to give his opinion on any picture; but he has an innate propriety and simplicity of taste, which in general direct him perfectly right.”
Marianne was afraid of offending, and said no more on the subject; but the kind of approbation which Elinor described as excited in him by the drawings of other people, was very far from that rapturous delight, which, in her opinion, could alone be called taste. Yet, though smiling within herself at the mistake, she honoured her sister for that blind partiality to Edward which produced it.
“I hope, Marianne,” continued Elinor, “you do not consider him as deficient in general taste. Indeed, I think I may say that you cannot, for your behaviour to him is perfectly cordial, and if that were your opinion, I am sure you could never be civil to him.”
Marianne hardly knew what to say. She would not wound the feelings of her sister on any account, and yet to say what she did not believe was impossible. At length she replied —
“Do not be offended, Elinor, if my praise of him is not in everything equal to your sense of his merits. I have not had so many opportunities of estimating the minuter propensities of his mind, his inclinations and tastes as you have; but I have the highest opinion in the world of his goodness and sense. I think him everything that is worthy and amiable.”
“I am sure,” replied Elinor with a smile, “that his dearest friends could not be dissatisfied with such commendation as that. I do not perceive how you could express yourself more warmly.”
Marianne was rejoiced to find her sister so easily pleased.
“Of his sense and his goodness,” continued Elinor, “no one can, I think, be in doubt, who has seen him often enough to engage him in unreserved conversation. The excellence of his understanding and his principles can be concealed only by that shyness which too often keeps him silent. You know enough of him to do justice to his solid worth. But of his minuter propensities, as you call them, you have from peculiar circumstances been kept more ignorant than myself. He and I have been at times thrown a good deal together, while you have been wholly engrossed on the most affectionate principle by my mother. I have seen a great deal of him, have studied his sentiments and heard his opinion on subjects of literature and taste; and, upon the whole, I venture to pronounce that his mind is well-informed, his enjoyment of books exceedingly great, his imagination lively, his observation just and correct, and his taste delicate and pure. His abilities in every respect improve as much upon acquaintance as his manners and person. At first sight, his address is certainly not striking; and his person can hardly be called handsome, till the expression of his eyes, which are uncommonly good, and the general sweetness of his countenance, is perceived. At present, I know him so well, that I think him really handsome; or, at least, almost so. What say you, Marianne?”
“I shall very soon think him handsome, Elinor, if I do not now. When you tell me to love him as a brother, I shall no more see imperfection in his face, than I now do in his heart.”
Elinor started at this declaration, and was sorry for the warmth she had been betrayed into, in speaking of him. She felt that Edward stood very high in her opinion. She believed the regard to be mutual; but she required greater certainty of it to make Marianne’s conviction of their attachment agreeable to her. She knew that what Marianne and her mother conjectured one moment, they believed the next — that with them, to wish was to hope, and to hope was to expect. She tried to explain the real state of the case to her sister.
“I do not attempt to deny,” said she, “that I think very highly of him — that I greatly esteem, that I like him.”
Marianne here burst forth with indignation —
“Esteem him! Like him! Cold-hearted Elinor! Oh! worse than cold-hearted! Ashamed of being otherwise. Use those words again and I will leave the room this moment.” Elinor could not help laughing.
There is a bit of Elizabeth Bennet in this passage. Elinor does not admit loving Edward; she also does not permit herself to think she is in love with anyone. Edward is as reserved as is Elinor. Being reserved in nature is a subject Austen returns to in Emma. What the reader discovers is the “reserved” displayed by Elinor and Edward and by Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill is not real.
Despite her vow not to love a man who does not love her in return, Elinor convinces herself that the ring he wears contains a lock of her hair. She does not openly mourn Edward’s loss, but she does think upon him often.
Lucy Steele’s revelation that Lucy and Edward are engaged is enough to shake Elinor from her delusions of marriage to Edward. Elinor is wise enough to see through Lucy’s manipulations. Elinor continues to hide her feelings for Edward from all, especially Lucy, who would celebrate Elinor’s hopes being dashed.
Unlike Marianne who openly flaunts her interest in John Willoughby by writing the man letters, Elinor hides her disappointment and devotes her attentions to Marianne’s misery.
Marianne chastises Elinor for the expectation of Marianne’s “sense.” Marianne claims her own despair superior to anything Elinor might feel for Edward’s betrayal. “Always resignation and acceptance! Always prudence and honor and duty! Elinor, where is your heart?”