Both Jane Austen and her contemporary feminist theorists, one may argue, came to Sense and Sensibility from particular class positions and with particular ideological perceptions. This is not to say, however, that the writing or its readers uncritically accept those positions and perceptions. Using a concept of feminist theory, readers can unpack what might seem a main discourse – the novel’s endorsement of class-based, masculinist and heterosexual paradigms. The text also endorses the responses of readers in conflict with that discourse. In other words, Sense and Sensibility offers the hegemonic paradigms but also offers opposing paradigms, thereby opening a space for the feminist theory to weigh, argue with, counter and/or accept the possibilities of the text. Such a reading of Jane Austen can also unpack several vexed areas of the critical discourse on Sense and Sensibility. Is the novel radical or conservative in its class politics? Is it feminist or antifeminist in its gender politics? This paper will consider feminist theory in relation to Jane Austen`s novel, Sense and Sensibility.
A feminist critic of any major author or work may tell more about the critics and historians than it does about the work itself. Those values and artistic strategies that served as lenses for an author and his or her generation look much more like mirrors to later readers and theorists. Such is the case with eightieth century novelist Jane Austen and specifically with her first published novel, Sense and Sensibility. From its first publication to the modern time, feminism theorists have shaped this novel reflecting their relationship with its genre and context. The fact that Sense and Sensibility has made such a permanent dialogue with feminist theorists speaks well of its perfect accomplishment. Yet this novel, which Austen chose for publication in 1809-1810, has been read for nearly two centuries in the shadow of the widely famous Pride and Prejudice that was published in 1813. In comparison to Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility figures rarely in general discussions of Austen’s writing.
The first critical responses by which the novel was evaluated are consistent with our present understanding of the eighteenth-century world. There were two unsigned reviews of Sense and Sensibility, one published by the Critical Review in February 1812, the other by the British Critic in May of the same time. Both reviewers laud the novel for presenting a moral lesson to female readers on the dangers of gratifying one’s sensibility at the expense of good sense. The Critical Review writes about Sense and Sensibility as one of the few “genteel, well written” novels of that day. The British Critic reviewer advises the novel to “female friends,” who “may peruse these volumes not only with satisfaction but with real benefits, for they may learn from them, if they please, many sober and salutary maxims for the conduct of life, exemplified in a very pleasing and entertaining narrative” (Southam 40).
In the end of the twentieth century, Austen’s contexts have become stranger and feminist theory more liberally applied to the reading experience. Marilyn Butler’s nice work, Jane Austen and the War of Ideas, presents an elaborate account of various political and historical dimensions of literature in Austen’s time. She places Austen in relation to several literary movements: the sentimentalists, the Jacobins and the anti-Jacobins. For Butler the moralizing oppositional structure in Sense and Sensibility transcends its artifice to show not simply differing temperaments but rather the demonstration of two conflicting ideologies. Elinor, the conservative, anti-Jacobian, is meant to “typify an active, struggling Christian in a difficult world” ((Southam 192). Marianne lives in the world more intuitively, as a sentimentalist or pre-Romantic might. The lesson she learns, partly from Elinor’s influence, is to leave self-worship in order to recognize a larger moral authority.
Claudia Johnson directs the political-historical theme more firmly into a feminist context. By joining the political and the sexual, she can re-examine what she considers simplistic or anachronistic approaches to the conservative reformist discussion inspired by the French Revolution. For Johnson Sense and Sensibility critiques the conservative ideology “thought an examination for the morally vitiating tendencies of patriarchy” in ways that she finds radical ((Southam 78). In the past twenty years or so, there has also been much critical re-examination of Jane Austen’s class position, as both a woman and a writer. As early as 1953, Donald Greene drew attention to both the many links between Austen’s family and the British aristocracy and Austen’s consciousness of those links.
Margaret Kirkham called the position that Austen represents traditional society and ethical orientation into question, first by situating Austen in the context of the radical feminists of the 1790s and then by claiming that for a woman “to become an author was, in itself, a feminist act” (33) during this period and that Austen’s heroines exemplify “the first claim of Enlightenment feminism” by acting as “independent moral agents” ((Southam 84, 83). Mary Poovey added class into such a feminist analysis. She demonstrated the problematics of moral agency when claimed by ladies – that is, women of the gentry rank. Looking into Austen’s class and gender values is further complex: ideological contradictions, latent in the cultural role of the Proper Lady, surface when a Proper Lady like Austen becomes a Woman Writer. And these uncertainties and contradictions are symptomatic of rifts not only in Austen’s novels and culture but in Austen criticism.
Rather than be annoying of such contradictions in the criticism, readers can use them to consider contradictions in the class and gender politics promulgated by Sense and Sensibility. To do so requires first thinking of the position of women writers in the early nineteenth century. Austen published Sense and Sensibility in 1810. Why was there gap of almost twenty years between inception and publication? Kirkham argues that Austen “felt ready to publish, but nothing came of those efforts” (Southam 48) in the following year initiated an increasingly chilly climate for women writers. Although a great many women had rushed into print by the end of the eighteenth century, the “authority” of “the woman as moralist,” one effect of the Wollstonecraft scandal was to pressure women writers into the role of moralist. In other words, the very “ubiquity of the moral imperative for women” (Southam 29) functioned as a form of authority but also as a constraint.
Of course, as Austen’s own characterization of Sense and Sensibility suggests, the book seems “rather too light and bright and sparkling” to fall into the category of didactic Proper Novel. And as Kirkham points out, political and gender conservatives such as Richard Polwhele might have considered just this “’sparkle of confident intelligence’” a sign of the antididactic, of the author’s feminist critique of masculine culture. Nevertheless, Austen was subject to many of the same pressures toward didacticism as other late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century women writers, and Sense and Sensibility copes with these pressures in the oscillation between radical and conservative ideologies that were noted in the beginning of this work. Hence, Austen may be seen as “at once authorizing and enacting a resistant reading of her own text” (Southam 36).
Since the late 1970s, feminist theory has been a powerful and shaping force in Jane Austen criticism. Patricia Meyer Spacks The Female Imagination (1975) helped make feminist theory as a mode. Arguing that Austen’s heroines are the first in English fiction to undergo change, Spacks reads heroine’s development as a “paradigm of adolescent potential fulfilled.” Marianne discovers the positive advantages of maturity over childishness, even in a society whose rigidities offer protection to the continued immaturity characteristic of most of its members. Marianne is in some degree a study for Anne Eliot in Persuasion. She resembles Anne in gentle character, upright principles, constancy of emotion, and patient endurance of suffering. The difficult task of repressing sensibility is thrown upon her, and the necessity of contrast with the impulsiveness of her mother and sisters gives her advice sometimes too much of a monitorial character. Never was the relation of mother and daughters more charmingly depicted than here.
A modern novelist would have given Marianne a more adventurous experience, would have made her an actor as well as a sufferer, and exposed her inexperience, if not her virtue, to more fiery temptation. But Jane Austen does not deal with fiery temptations, and the virtue of her heroines is well guarded. But she could not have quizzed Marianne’s sensibility so deliciously if she had not had a sympathetic understanding of it, and if there had not been a share of it in her own composition. Marianne cannot be satisfied with Edward Ferrars as a brother-in-law; he read Cowper in so tame and spiritless a manner that she felt for her sister most severely.
It would have broke my heart, had I loved him, to hear him read with so little sensibility. Mama, the more I know of the world the more I am convinced that I shall never see a man whom I can really love. I require so much! He must have all Edward’s virtues, and his person and manners must ornament his goodness with every possible charm (18).
Ellen Moer’s Literary Women: The Great Writers (1977) also pointed to the value of a feminist perspective in reading Sense and Sensibility. She calls for attention to what had been overlooked by male critics: “Austen’s concern with the economic aspect of a man’s professional choice -to put it bluntly, the question of his income” (Wiltshire 106-107). Similar questions of the social and cultural conditions that frame marriage for women are raised in Rachel Brownstein Becoming a Heroine (1982), which gives Sense and Sensibility a central place in representing a woman’s complete fulfillment in her union with a man. However, Brownstein argues that this love story “figures forth the novel’s fantasies, that character determines fate, that virtue is rewarded, that to know oneself is to know and control one’s destiny.” But this is “art not life”; in fact, “happiness is a matter of chance quite as Charlotte says” (134). Finally, Nina Auerbach Communities of Women: An Idea in Fiction (1978) examined the Dashwood household in contrast to the March household in Little Women and claims that Austen offers a negative version of female community, one in which “the malevolent power of the mother is ennobled by being transferred to the hero, and the female community, an oppressive blank in a dense society, is dispersed with relief in the solidity of marriage” (Wiltshire 55).
Julia Prewitt Brown Jane Austen’s Novels (1979) also early pulled together several strands of feminist theory in a complete analysis of Austen’s novel, which makes a strong argument for Austen’s stature as a major novelist. Brown argues convincingly against a long-standing critical thought that because Austen was ignorant of the great world, her Sense and Sensibility mainly deal with trivial subject matter but in a nontrivial way. Pointing to the antitheses that ground that idea Brown describes Austen as the first writer “to fully assert the cultural significance of marriage and family, their role in social and moral change” (1), the first to record the “shift from a tradition-directed to an inner-directed society” (Lambdin 19). Sense and Sensibility demonstrates through its characters the necessary ties between past and present, the moral tradition for the present justified by past actions and amotions. Brown’s study of Sense and Sensibility is somewhat distinctive because it finds marriage and domesticity appropriate goals for the novels’ heroines. It is not surprising, therefore, that a decade later Brown worries that feminist theory has greatly devalued rather than revalued Austen as a writer.
Sense and Sensibility means to be a story of eventual recovery and happiness. This is a story which moves from innocent Sensibility to experienced Sense. Therefore, Austen’s version of the female Awakening goes contrary to post-Romantic expectations. Instead of coming to realize the thwarted sexual nature of her own sensibility, Marianne will grow out of her private love for Willoughby. She comes to accept marriage based on “no sentiment superior to strong esteem and lively friendship.” She gets a knowledge of herself which is that commanded by the society around her, and which is also that of Austen’s curt and realist prose at the end. Marianne’s development from love to “lively friendship,” from illness to health, from egocentric Sensibility to conforming Sense, also takes the form of a development from private inarticulateness to public speech.
There is an interesting episode after Marianne’s recovery, in which she and Elinor return to the place of her first fall. She says:
“There, exactly there”—pointing with one hand, “on that projecting mound,—there I fell; and there I first saw Willoughby” (344).
But the sign of her recovery comes a few lines later, where she admits to Elinor, “I can talk of it now, I hope, as I ought to do” (344). While her fall has taken the form of a lapse into Silence, inarticulateness, and raving, her recovery and reintegration in society through marriage take the form of submission to the prescribed language of conventional morality: “I can talk of it now. . . as I ought to do.” The reaction against sentimentalism and the novel of sensibility in the late eighteenth century, of which Austen is a prime example, usually works by a reassertion of “the ethical sense” against “unlimited toleration” and sympathy. For Austen, however, “the ethical sense” is no more (and no less) than conformity to a certain public language. Unlike her two surrogates, Marianne does return to the public world of community, respectability, and Sense. She returns from Silences and learns to “talk.”
As in so many of her novels, Austen’s conclusion in Sense and Sensibility is perfunctory and swift. However, it is precisely in these last pages, in her speech to her once Romantic heroine, in her detached and public tidying of events, and in her tone of realism and worldly wisdom, that Austen’s Silences become deafening (Wiltshire 89). At the point where she most severely claims the victory of Sense, she undermines that victory with things unsaid. The following is a passage in which the future of Marianne becomes assured:
… to see Marianne settled at the Mansion-house was equally the wish of Edward and Elinor. They each felt his [ Colonel Brandon’s] sorrows and their own obligations, and Marianne, by general consent, was to be the reward of all. With such confederacy against her … what could she do? (378)
Mary Jacobus summarizes when she writes:
The feminine takes its place with the absence, silence, or incoherence that discourse represses … [adding that] here again there’s a problem for feminist criticism. Women’s access to discourse involves submission to phallocentricity, to the masculine and the Symbolic; refusal, on the other hand, risks re-inscribing the feminine as a yet more marginal madness or nonsense (Wiltshire 87).
The answer must be not to choose, but to play out the choice: the choice of making. Marianne escapes from the language of Sensibility only to be tamed and punished by the public language of Sense. What appears to be, on the surface of the novel, an escape from her own emotions, or a growth into knowledge and experience, is in fact only a more complete affirmation of the social irrelevance of her voice. “With such confederacy against her … what could she do?” Silences, in Sense and Sensibility, represent the protest of “the feminine,” but also, in the end, her punishment. Jane Austen’s splendour lies in the fact that, beneath her artistic championing of Sense, she can make the readers hear those Silences that always lie on the other side of it.
Austen’s novel gave men and women new ideas about the society they lived in. She included a wide variety of ideas about how to understand themselves and behave toward one another. In an age of novel detractors, who feared the novel was dangerously influential, especially for impressionable women readers, Jane Austen wrote her own novel in reaction to conservative ideas about gender roles and relations. Notable as her first work, Sense and Sensibility reveals Austen’s feminist impetus and intentions. In Sense and Sensibility, Austen revises established novel conventions to take issue with conservative ideas about women, defends novel readers and novels written by and about women and proposes a new feminist theory standard for novel heroes and heroines that she makes pointedly relevant to novel readers. With Sense and Sensibility, Austen locates herself in the centre of a current debate within and between novels about women’s true senses and emotions and proper role with purpose to include other novelists and novel readers in dialogue and debate.
Austen, Jane. (1988). Sense and Sensibility. Oxford University Press: Oxford, England.
Lambdin, Laura Cooner. (2000). A Companion to Jane Austen Studies. Greenwood Press: Westport, CT.
Southam, B. C. (1995). Jane Austen: The Critical Heritage. Vol.: 1. Routledge: New York.
Wiltshire, John. (2001). Recreating Jane Austen. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, England.