In this paper I – with the help of two critics – will discuss Sense and Sensibility from the point of view of sexual differences. I shall present my thoughts about woman’s life and how Austen writes about it. Also I would like to discuss the world in which the heroines of the book, Marianne and Elinor, live and whether or not Austen shows any criticism of it. But first, let me give a short summary of the position of women and women writers in the Romantic era.
A woman did not have many rights. She was a legal infant, and her conduct was determined by many rules. She could not enter the professions or study at the university, and society had sketched out the outlines of a perfect woman pretty clearly. To leave political, legal and military affairs – the “masculine sphere” – to men, to regard marriage as the only ambition worth having, to concentrate humbly only on her husband, her children and her home and to behave graciously and elegantly – that was the ideal woman.
The situation was difficult for those women who wanted to write. The easiest way to deal with this – some kind of a compromise – was to write in a way which was publicly considered acceptable, suitable and proper for a woman – if it was an absolute necessity for her to write at all, for of course it would have been far better if she had stayed occupied in some decent woman’s job – like needlework. But as it was, some women did write, although throughout times women have been their own best guardians. The definitions given of themselves, the “proper lady” image has been so well planted that some women have actually firmly believed all the nonsense about certain things not being fit for a woman to know about, look at, discuss, do or write about. Whether Austen conformed to those definitions is arguable, but, to my mind, she did not. She saw and understood the society she lived in and the rules by which it worked, but I claim she did not accept all the rules. I hope that in the end of my essay I have managed to show what has led me to believe that underneath her outward conformity Austen was – in a sense – a feminist, though not an aggressive one.
First I will talk about the relationships between men and women in the book. There seems to be lots of conversations in all of which I find the two sexes to be quite equal. Women’s company is valued and their views and understanding trusted by men; that is, if the person is intelligent enough to say anything worth valuing. Mrs Ferrars, for example, is a powerful character – so not all women were helpless creatures. Nor is the penniless Miss Lucy helpless, quite the contrary, she manages perfectly well, though not by very amiable means. Mrs Jennings is no fragile, elegant and inhibited woman. Miss Elinor is admired not only for her beauty, but also for her mind – her sense and her intelligence. Not all women in this book live only for marriage, although Marilyn Butler claims they do. She says that in Austen’s books “the consummation of a woman’s life lies in marriage to a commanding man”. I would hardly call Edward a commanding man, but Elinor marries him all the same. To my mind Marianne and Elinor are perfectly strong women. After her terrible illness Marianne even says “From you, from my home, I shall never again have the smallest incitement to move” (p. 301). Their grief over Willoughby and Edward is not the kind which springs from the loss of “marriage to a commanding man”, but from the loss of the loved one. Personally, I find their attitudes and reactions perfectly natural and understandable.
Elinor has sharp eyes and on several occasions criticizes men and their habits. The description of the sisters’ visit to Gray’s includes a sentence as follows: “…and the gentleman, having named the last day on which his existence could be continued without the possession of the toothpick case…walked off with a happy air of real conceit and affected indifference” (p. 190). On another occasion, on another meeting with the same gentleman, namely Robert Ferrars, Elinor’s mental comment on his stupid remarks was this: “Elinor agreed to it all, for she did not think he deserved the compliment of rational opposition” (p. 218). But she also criticizes women; the mean, cunning nature of Lucy, the empty headedness of Lady Middleton, the greed of Mrs Dashwood, only to mention a few. The personal critic in the book is not based on sex, it is first and foremost based on the person in question, regardless of his or her sex.
In Austen’s time women were not expected to even think about such men’s things as politics or legal affairs. Austen did not, however, cut these things out of her books. Legal matters, such as entails and other inheritance affairs, are present in Sense and Sensibility, too, since, after all, everybody’s financial situation depends on somebody’s will – and death. Women were quite aware of financial matters – at lest when by that one means other families’ money matters. Men do trust their ability to understand “these things”, and this was proved when Elinor told his brother about Colonel Brandon offering Edward the living. John did not believe her at first but then “Elinor contradicted it, however, very positively; and by relating that she had herself been employed in conveying the offer from Colonel Brandon to Edward, and therefore must understand the terms on which it was given, obliged him to submit to her authority” (p. 255).
The second point which I would like to discuss is the lack of conversation between men recorded in the book. This – and I now quote Margaret Lenta – “was used to be offered as evidence that she was determined to remain within the limits of her experience”. That, like most women writers of her time, she too wanted to restrict herself to “woman’s concerns”. To argue that Austen conformed to the tradition that women were not allowed to observe men closely enough to be able to write properly about things like conversations and so on – that being considered an improper degree of interest in male sex – is absurd, for she lived in a family of five brothers and surely could not have avoided observing that particular sex. Then why did she refrain from recording male conversations?
For most of the book the world and the situations are narrated by Elinor. Through her eyes, through her feelings and reactions we readers experience the book. To record a men’s conversation would mean breaking this view. It seems to me that the question is not about the lack of creative imagination nor about the presence of inhibition, but about faithfulness to herself and to her aims in this book.
What are those aims, then? To try and answer that question I will use two quotations from Margaret Lenta.
Jane Austen does not create a woman’s world – she presents the real world, in which the limits on the conversation are those of the knowledge and interests of the speakers, and she allows us to perceive it through the consciousness of her heroines. Her men, for example, are not creations of female fantasy, where the writer was afraid to know or at least to display knowledge of real masculinity; they are real men, perceived by women.
…previous woman writers had distorted what they perceived into what the world considered a woman should know, whereas Jane Austen has shown the world how it presents itself to woman.
She did not try to picture an ideal world. Austen clearly lets us understand the dark sides of woman’s life in her time. The inheritance always descended from father to son. Good sense was vital to a woman; to let herself be guided by sensibility unmistakably led to some kind of misfortune: the first Eliza died, the second lost her honour and Marianne almost died. She also shows that the world was – and still is – quicker in forgiving man’s foolish and dishonourable behaviour than woman’s. Willoughby got away quite nicely, and despite slight troubles with his conscience in the beginning, lived happily ever after as Austen tells us on page 331: “His wife was not always out of humour, nor his home always uncomfortable; and in his breed of horses and dogs, and in sporting of every kind, he found no inconsiderable degree of domestic felicity”. Even the honest Sir John forgave him, not to mention the forgiveness of Elinor. Poor little Eliza was mentioned but few times, and even the kind and warm-hearted Mrs Jennings led us to understand that, at most, she represented a minor drain on Colonel Brandon’s fortune. Eliza lacks the secure status of a legitimate father and husband and thus possesses no rights.
Jane Austen was conscious of both the good and the bad sides of her society, of men and of women. She has views of what a woman or a man ought to be like but those views do not include any order of hierarchy – such views I think we all have. Austen did not try to change the world she lived in. Maybe she was trying to set an example of women who grew to a moral independence, who had a mind of their own and who perceived the world as it was.
Sense and Sensibility is a novel of love and deception, of kindness and greed, but most of all, of spiritual growth. It is a novel of serious matters dealt with acute irony and sharp humour. To conclude this essay I would like to quote P. M. Spack from her afterword of the book: “By laughter Austen demonstrates the power of private perception and feeling: not to defy external actuality, but to triumph over it by seeing it clearly”.
All the extracts from Sense and Sensibility are from the Bantam Classic edition, 1983.
Lenta, Margaret. “Jane Austen’s feminism: an original response to convention.” Critical Quartely, 23, no. 3, 27-36.
Butler, Marilyn. “Novels for the Gentry.” Romantics, Rebels and Reactionaries.