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|Of sensibility and suchlike
Written by Anselm
(9/8/2009 12:12 p.m.)
in consequence of the missive, Another underline - Sensible Marianne, penned by Barb JA
I think the tenor of the postings in this thread shows a sensibility of the dangers inherent in using a modern dictionary to find the meanings of words used some two centuries ago. Meanings change, and the only dictionary that will go some way towards providing them as they were is the Oxford English Dictionary (and I'm afraid I do mean the full, 58 million volume work or its online incarnation, as opposed to any shorter editions). This is because of its historical approach to the uses of words that are still in current use. I don't know if our American cousins have an equivalent, but I guess it wouldn't apply to an English author in any case.
The best way I've found of tackling this subject is to find essays that treat it in some detail. Two have been especially helpful to me in this regard. John Mullen's essay "Psychology" (in Jane Austen in Context (ed. Janet Todd), part of the Cambridge complete Austen) deals substantially with the word "sensibility" as it was understood around JA's time. The word was originally used in a purely physical sense ("I was sensible of pain when I stubbed my toe"), but by the eighteenth century it was being used to refer to abstract feelings and emotions, as in my use of it in the first sentence of the preceding paragraph. Jane Austen was writing at a time when it had become the hallmark of gentility, having acquired connotations of a refined discrimination (in other words, a heightened awareness) of one's own and other people's feelings. For people of Jane Austen's time, this word would have had a particular aesthetic application - hence the emphasis on the lack of sensibility shown by Edward in his attempts to appreciate Elinor's drawing and to read Cowper in Chs. 3 and 4.
In fact, in some quarters it had gone somewhat overboard. "Sensibility" had become hypersensibility, which resulted in artificiality and mere fashionable excess. This seems to be what Jane Austen was satirising in this novel, in such passages as Mrs Dashwood's and Marianne's agony of grief...voluntarily renewed,...sought for,...created again and again (end of Ch.1). Their masochistic indulgence in their sorrow is one of the practices of what I think had by then become a fad. This is not to say, of course, that these responses were not deeply felt, but it does imply that they weren't personal, in the same way that Christians devoutly believe in their doctrines, not because they have independently arrived at them but because they have chosen to adopt them as if they had.
Jane's satirical approach may also have been encouraged because after 1794 the term "sensibility" had become associated with revolutionary Jacobinism and individualism.
Mullan reveals that the associated term "feelings" was even more recent, having been coined in the 1770s, around the time of Jane Austen's birth. It is in this sense that Elizabeth Bennet uses it to castigate Darcy's apparent "selfish disdain of the feelings of others".
Raymond Williams' essay "Sensibility", partly reproduced in the 2002 Norton critical edition of S&S, expands on this and the allied term "sentimental", which did not have the negative connotations it does today.
For me, the usual (and partly discredited) opposition between Marianne's "sensibility" and Elinor's "sense" therefore doesn't work, because they are not equivalents. "Sensibility", in the form shown by Marianne and her mother, is an emotional (and by extension moral) faculty. "Sense", on the other hand, is a pragmatic approach to the world. It is Marianne's sensibility that leads to her lament over the trees of Norland on her last day there. It is Elinor's sense that makes her reject so many properties as unaffordable for them. The two don't actually match, never mind being comparable, much less capable of being discriminated between.
Sorry it's been such a long post.
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