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|If, however, you aren't looking for such a contrast (loooong!)
Written by Anselm
(9/17/2009 10:27 a.m.)
in consequence of the missive, Sense (Edward) vs Sensibility (Marianne) in Ch 16, penned by Heather Leigh
1. “sensibility” and “feelings”, which are so closely related that they must be treated together. The first term has been discussed above as well as in many other places on this board (can’t think why!). I’ve had a crack at it in another post (“R&S?”), which was a bit scattergun.
Sensibility has to do with a heightened awareness of one’s own feelings and those of others, feelings being an aspect of the human constitution that was coming into sharper focus in the century leading up to the writing and publication of S&S. (Novels were the primary means by which such feelings were explored.) One can, of course, become hyperaware of feelings, especially one’s own, to the extent of even imagining or inventing ones that aren’t there. That way lies hypochondria and a neglect of the feelings of others. One can also take ordinary feelings to a pitch of excess. It is in this second sense that Marianne and her mother indulge themselves in their paroxysms of grief at Henry’s death in Ch.1, and Marianne likewise in Chs. 15 and 16 when Willoughby unaccountably departs. They “bring it on” in conformity to a romantic code of conduct (see 2. below). Elinor’s sensibility is not much less acute: her feelings are strong” enough for her to be "deeply afflicted" by her father's death, and in the first 16 chapters we have noted that her affection for Edward is not diminished by long absence or by his offputting behaviour. It’s the lack of proportion and the masochism involved in wallowing in and prolonging unpleasant feelings beyond their natural duration that she deplores as the novel opens.
This opposition is symbolised by the physical descriptions of the two sisters, to which another poster has drawn attention: Elinor is regular and “pretty” (i.e. classical), while Marianne is “not so correct” but is “striking” and “lovely” (i.e. individually distinguished – see 3. below).
If "sensibility" is considered (as it was at the time) to connote a heightened awareness of the feelings of others, I think Elinor in fact has more of it than does her sister. It is she who governs her own feelings sufficiently to pay attention to her odious step-brother and sister on their arrival, as would have been only proper and polite; she who feels compassion for Colonel Brandon in Ch.11 and is willing to act as a sounding-board for him to express his feelings; and she who is “sensible” enough (i.e. has enough sensibility) to see beyond Edward’s shyness and discern his true worth. Marianne’s hypersensitivity leads her, paradoxically, to insensitivity to the feelings of others like Colonel Brandon, or indeed her own mother when she decides to accept the horse from Willoughby (Ch.12).
2. “romanticism”. See partly the above-mentioned R&Spost. This is an artistic movement in which Jane Austen is sometimes included, although it beats me why. It was a reaction to eighteenth-century rationalism, and was in some ways a continuation of Baroque and even medieval thought. It implies a recognition that humans are not primarily, or certainly not wholly, rational beings – that the world of feelings is just as important, if not more so, than that of reason. I have no doubt that this attitude sprang from 1. above, but it relates to a much wider context than does the personal and interpersonal focus of sensibility. In the context of S&S, romanticism involves a heightened awareness of the non-human world, albeit in a highly artificial fashion. This was why formal Baroque gardens were swept away by the landscape designers Capability Brown and his successor Humphry Repton, who went for a “natural” look, and it was why Gilpin wrote his books on the “picturesque”, which opened people’s eyes to the wild beauty around them. The lovely description of Barton cottage in its setting, man and nature in perfect harmony, owes much of its inspiration to this work of Gilpin, especially the cottage’s “defectiveness” in being “regular” (i.e. built on classical, rational lines) and not rustic enough. In this context, an increased awareness of and fondness for a bygone era was a part of Romanticism, as epitomised in Scott’s historical novels like Ivanhoe. I guess that Barton Cottage’s roof “should” have been thatched, as they were supposed to have been in the Middle Ages.
“Nature”, of course, also refers to human nature. It would have carried connotations of freedom from restraints on the mind and the feelings. In her relationship with Willoughby, Marianne positively flaunts her disdain for “artificial” limitations on thought, word and deed in order to be more in touch with her inner self – more “open and sincere”, where “decorum” would dictate that she be “reserved, spiritless, dull, and deceitful” (Ch.10). Her moral authority is her own inner conviction of “real disgrace...attending unreserve”; if there is no such conviction, she “abhorred all concealment” (Ch.11), claiming the freedom to express the truth irrespective of its “propriety”. This doubtless underlies Marianne’s uninhibited castigation of her host Sir John for an expression which offends her romantic notions of originality and wit. (We should also remember that JA was writing in the immediate aftermath of the French Revolution, and that such ideas would have been seen as dangerous Jacobinism by some conservatives.)
Regarding 1. and especially 2. above, it’s interesting that Marianne, even in the full flow of her romantic ardour, appeals to reason as a justification: for her “to aim at the restraint of sentiments which were not in themselves illaudable, appeared to her not merely an unnecessary effort, but a disgraceful subjection of reason to common-place and mistaken notions” (Ch.11). She is convinced that both reason and feeling are on her side.
3. “originality”, ”individuality” and "genius" is a constellation that forms another aspect of this emphasis on the personal. It is no longer adequate to conform to social convention where that convention outrages inner conviction. The value of an individual’s insight is greater than that of conforming to notions of social respectability. This concept of originality was seen as applying in art as much as in life, which is where the modern concept of "genius" comes in. By its nature, this inner conviction is unique to each individual, and is therefore valuable. Three times in three consecutive chapters Marianne disparages the “common-place” (Chs. 9, 10 and 11). Her individuality is the subject of her lament at the end of Ch.16: “my feelings are not often shared, not often understood.”
Of course, this is highly ironic. Her romanticism is just as highly codified and prescribed as is the “hidebound convention” she derides, as the beginning of Ch.16 makes evident. Here, she’s simply doing what’s expected of her.
Closely allied to this is the concept of “genius”, whose meaning was changing around this time. Marianne uses it in its former sense of a person’s natural bent, talent or taste when she demands of Sir John about Willoughby’s “pursuits, his talents and genius" (Ch.9). However, thanks in no small part to Beethoven, its meaning was becoming extended to its present sense of a rare kind of person with extraordinary talents who expressed themself in a highly characteristic way by saying something “original”. This kind of “genius” was a natural partner and outgrowth of romantic individualism.
For me, it's very interesting to note how some of these faculties are shared by both girls. Elinor has strong sensibilities, stronger in some respects than Marianne, while Marianne calls reason as evidence for her romanticism. Basically, what so many people in the last few decades have noticed seems to be true: it isn't the simple opposition "Elinor = sense / Marianne = sensibility", but its rather a matter of balance. Overall, Marianne is more inclined towards sensibility that is Elinor, who leans more toward sense than does her sister - who, be it noted, is still as "sensible and clever" as her sister (Ch.1).
Finally, isn’t it wonderful how effortlessly and convincingly Jane Austen can combine the conceptual and the real? You could read this novel as a discussion of the relative merits of sense and sensibility, and at the same time as the very human story of the coming-of-age of two young women. For me, Marianne’s aforementioned “my feelings are not often shared, not often understood” is the epitome of this, at least in the first 16 chapters. These words are at once symbolic of the Romantic artist, whose individuality sets them increasingly apart from an uncomprehending and hidebound society, and the very real cry of the typical teenager: “No one understands me”. Words cannot express the miracle of such writing...(sigh!)
Sorry it's been so long - I hope someone else can fill in some of the the huge blanks in this screed! I'm no specialist in this field; I've just read around the topic a bit.
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