Sense and Sensibility is quite the bag of tricks. Just when you think you’ve made your mind up about the characters, Austen turns round and hits you with perfectly plausible and sympathy inducing explanations for previously questionable behaviour, resulting in a very confused reader by the end of the novel. When I wrote my previous post, I hadn’t finished reading. Now I have finished, and have revisited some sections of the novel, I have found many of my earlier conclusions to be short sighted. How could I have hated Edward so much? And my derision of Willoughby? Well…if anyone can do forgive-me-please puppy dog eyes, it’s him. Plus, I can’t believe I didn’t even mention Colonel Brandon. He is often dismissed as nice but dull, but interestingly, he is the most present of the three main male characters. Austen introduces both Edward and Willougby briefly, then does away with them for the majority of the novel, while the girls are in London. She only brings them back in again, right at the end, has them both deliver speeches that undo their previous wrongs, and then leaves us to come to our own conclusions. Much of what we know and come to believe about Edward and Willoughby is through the experiences of Elinor and Marianne, and the say-so of others. The only male character positioned as a lover of the girls who speaks for himself throughout the course of the novel’s events is Colonel Brandon. Interestingly, though, he is the one who is most forgettable. So, what is going on here? An absent, silent hero, an absent, loveable rogue and a present but forgettable hero. Not the usual ingredients for a satisfying romance, certainly.
Edward Ferrars is the first hero to be introduced to us. Through Mrs Dashwood’s eyes, we are told that Edward ‘loves’ Elinor. However, Elinor acknowledges that she cannot be sure of this, and it’s clear that Edward has never said anything to make Elinor believe he is going to propose to her – this is all down to Marianne and Mrs Dashwood’s romantic ‘sensibility’. Therefore, we can’t be angry at him for his actions, because he hasn’t really been unfaithul or led anyone on – certainly not intentionally, anyway. What we do know for certain about Edward comes from Austen’s dispassionate narrative voice – Edward ‘was not handsome, and his manners required intimacy to make them pleasing. He was too diffident to do justice to himself; but when his natural shyness was overcome, his behaviour gave every indication of an open, affectionate heart’. So, he’s no Prince Charming, but even so, he’s a decent, kind man, who finds it difficult to overcome a natural shyness. Not everyone can be confident and driven, and Edward’s personality and actions have certainly been affected by poor parenting he has received from his nasty mother, who has done everything in her power to prevent Edward from pursuing a path that would suit and please him, resulting in his rather aimless, ineffectual existence. His engagement to Lucy is quite understandable, considering his upbringing, and the fact that he refused to throw her over despite her odiousness and his growing indifference towards her is actually very noble. To those of us who like a bad boy, Edward does come across as a bit of a drip, but really, when you read the text carefully, Austen doesn’t mean for us to come to this conclusion. His quiet, thoughtful, intelligent and caring demeanour is perfect for Elinor, and will also be perfect for his role as a clergyman. However, his lack of consistent love for Elinor, and his willingness to go through with his marriage to Lucy, do leave a bit of a sour note; how much does he really deserve her, and her faithful, steadfast love?!
John Willoughby enters the novel in the traditional role of the dashing hero; he literally rescues Marianne, carrying her back to her house after her fall, and soon makes himself very popular by sharing all of Marianne’s own tastes and enjoyments. Marianne is naive and believes that this is all that matters when it comes to falling in love, and she trusts Willoughby absolutely. It obviously helps that he is handsome and tall and in line to inherit a significant property in the future. Mrs Dashwood, just as she imagines Edward to be in love with Elinor, soon assumes that Willoughby and Marianne have an understanding, and Marianne, quite against the custom of the day, fuels this fire by writing to him once he has gone to London (only affianced couples should write to one another). However, Willoughby is very careful not to ever give Marianne a concrete reason to consider him bound to her, and he never so much as mentions the word marriage. He might have been very flirtatious and affectionate, but he never fully crosses the line. The Dashwoods’ indignation when Willoughby’s true feelings are revealed does have some justification, but really, Mrs Dashwood only has herself to blame for encouraging Marianne without finding out what Mr Willoughby’s true intentions were. The sting in the tale is Colonel Brandon’s revelation that Willoughby ruined his ward; even I can’t explain that one anyway! Willoughby might be contrite at the end, and genuinely regret his treatment of Marianne, but his true colours are revealed in his attitude towards Miss Williams and his refusal to take responsibility for his actions. He is punished by his unhappy marriage, though, and it’s difficult not to feel sorry for him; he at least has a conscience, and attempts to make amends; this is more than the true Austenian rogue, the horrid Mr Wickham, ever does. I couldn’t help but think that he probably would have made Marianne happy if he hadn’t have been ruined by his own expensive tastes and inability to live within his means; he’s not an intrinsically bad person, just a selfish one.
Finally, we have Colonel Brandon. He’s a bit of a Mr Bates (Downton Abbey reference!); you can’t help but want to look after him from the minute he enters the novel. He’s a kind, well liked mid thirty something with impeccable manners and a hinted-at tragic past. He is clearly lonely, and looking for love; he falls in love with Marianne at first sight, but he knows that he stands little chance in comparison with Mr Willoughby, especially as Marianne is nearly twenty years his junior. As such, he never pushes himself on Marianne, or the Dashwoods; he is polite and respectful at all times, and hangs well back from the action. Interestingly though, when Edward and Willoughby are off the scene, during the time when Marianne and Elinor are in London, it is Colonel Brandon who is the family’s mainstay. He supports Elinor during Marianne’s drawn out grieving process, he reveals Willloughby’s true colours, and when Marianne’s health is in danger, he rides through the night to bring Mrs Dashwood to her daughter’s side. He never gives up on Marianne, or loses hope that he might one day come to be loved by her. He is faithful, honest, sensitive and loyal; he also brings up a child who is not his own, despite the inevitable gossip this instigates. In short, he’s pretty heroic. Somehow, though, despite him having all the ingredients of a hero, he never quite comes across as being one in the novel. He is always there, so he becomes a part of the furniture. His age and his lack of ‘sensibility’, passion, or dashing qualities make him seem dull, especially when we are supposed to consider him a suitable match for the effusive, teenaged Marianne. Only when Marianne has had her eyes opened and her spirits dampened by Willoughby does he suddenly become an appropriate suitor. There is no real romance involved at all in their marriage, and it feels more like an arranged match than an act of love. While Austen is clearly saying that successful marriages aren’t all based on whirlwind romances, she makes this marriage into a convenient transaction that Marianne seems to be bullied rather than voluntarily entered into. Colonel Brandon is very nice, of course, but Marianne wanted so much more; can we as readers be truly satisfied with her fate? I’m not sure that I am.
Sense and Sensibility is a very uneven novel, and the set up of having Marianne and Elinor fall in love with men who then behave badly and disappear for most of the plot, only showing up again at the end to explain themselves, is key to its weakness. Edward is sweet enough, but we never really get to know enough about him to make us love him. Willoughby isn’t really bad enough to hate, and we don’t ever meet Miss Williams to really sympathise with her tale of woe, so he doesn’t pack the punch Austen intends in his role as the villain. Colonel Brandon technically does everything right, but he doesn’t work in the role of Marianne’s lover; he’s too dull and too earnest, and far too old. Austen doesn’t really unpick the male characters well, and she doesn’t quite manage to bring them alive. All the ingredients are there, but they are not mixed together accurately. Compared to the male characters in her major later novels, those in Sense and Sensibility fall conspicuously flat. There needed to be more dialogue, more presence, more personality; without that, despite us being told everything we need to know to make us love and hate appropriately, it’s very difficult to care anything much for any of them. Ironically, I ended up liking Willoughby the best, and feeling very sorry for him at the end, and I’m sure that wasn’t Austen’s intention! I’m intrigued to hear what others think about this!