Sense and Sensibility: Who’s the Hero?!

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!

27 comments

  1. I like Colonel Brandon more now than I did when I first read the book, Marianne is very young when she has her affair with Willoughby – much younger than Lizzie Bennett when she falls for Mr Darcy or flirts with Wickham. I don’t think that Willoughby would have made her happy – it would have been a rapturous few months and then a lifetime of misery and unpaid bills. Brandon will cherish her, indulge her sensibilities, and perhaps through his unselfishness teach her to think more of others too.

    1. Oh Hayley, you are so sensible! In my head I know you are right on all accounts but Col Brandon just failed to set my pulse racing! He is a good man. A very good man. And you can’t underestimate the importance (and rarity!) of that. But he just lacks that little bit of oooomph…you know?!

  2. I’m afraid I will always find Willoughby kind of irresistible! Characters with such passion and fire are definitely the ones I get excited about, even if in real life they definitely would NOT be the heroes.

    I really enjoyed seeing Alan Rickman as Colonel Brandon. He brings his quiet intensity and almost tangible emotion to the character.

    I also think that maybe the novel points out that what the Dashwoods need is not a male hero but more independence from men. If they didn’t have to be rescued from their situation by a male hero, perhaps they wouldn’t find themselves in such predicaments. They could make wiser choices and be more self-reliant. This option isn’t really available to them; however, so instead we get these different versions of the male hero, and none of them are super great. The “convenient transaction” you mentioned becomes the inevitable and necessary solution to their problems. Passion and romance certainly can’t save them.

    I hope you will post more on this novel, I’m really enjoying your thoughts on it!🙂

    1. What woman can resist a bad boy?! Willoughby is THE archetypal loveable rogue…even though I know he’d ruin me at the drop of a hat, I still wouldn’t say no!

      Yes – but I think I have had my perception of Brandon ruined by Alan Rickman’s portrayal in a way, as he is SO much older than Kate Winslet in the film. That sense of a real gulf in age and spirits etc is what remains firmly in my head when I read those characters.

      That’s an interesting thought, Lucy – I think both Elinor and Marianne learn during their time of difficulty that they can cope alone – they are tested to their limits and they come out alive – and this also prevents them from making poor decisions. Marianne gets a good, solid man in the end because she has had her eyes opened and that can only be a good thing!

      I most certainly will – watch this space!🙂

  3. I don’t often think films are equal to/better than books, but I do love the way the film adaptation brings out Brandon’s love for Marianne and does give him a bit of romance, and actually shows her starting to fall for him near the end. Alan Rickman is brilliant, and this is the one aspect where I think the film does improve things, at least for me.

    1. Yes, you’re right – the film makes the Brandon/Marianne romance much more plausible – in the novel there really isn’t anything to make us believe that Marianne could ever love him or love being married to him – and indeed, it is only after they are married that she does really learn to love him, which suggests she wasn’t exactly skipping down the aisle on her wedding day!

  4. Yes indeed all this is very true. I always think that scene between Willoughby and Elinor towards the end is very interesting – her reaction in particular. Haven’t got the book in front of me to quote but I’m sure you know what I mean.

    1. Yes, I do – she definitely forgives him, and excuses him, almost….I like how Elinor is shown to be so open minded and open hearted. You must admit, Fanny Price would have shown no forgiveness in the same situation!😉

  5. I have to admit that S&S is my least favourite Austen novel, even though Elinor is one of my favourite Austen heroines. I have always found this very strange, but I think your review helps to explain my mixed reaction. You are right, there really isn’t an obvious hero in this novel. Willoughby, Edward, Colonel Brandon – none of them come close to a Mr. Darcy or Mr. Knightly or even Henry Tilney. And I agree with the previous commenter, I think the film improves on this by casting excellent actors as the three non-heroes. The film made me sympathise a lot more with Edward and Willoughby, and Alan Rickman’s Brandon is something else entirely.

    I disagree however, when you say that Jane Austen probably didn’t intend you to like Willoughby as much as you did. I think Jane had a soft spot for loveable rogues. They always get off lightly in her novels. Remember Mr. Wickham? The rogues end up married to unsuitable women and that’s really the end of their punishment. I always get the feeling that Jane’s message is ‘I know we shouldn’t like that sort of man as much as we do, but how can we help ourselves?’. She does seem to have a real talent for writing them and doesn’t her biography suggest she fell in love with an unsuitable man herself in her youth?

    1. Hi Elke – glad you agree. I definitely think S&S’s weakness lies in its poor heroes. No one stands out – and that’s a problem.

      Hmmm..I suppose you’re right. She does make her rogues rather loveable, doesn’t she? Perhaps she did indeed have a weak spot too…though I’m not sure the man she fell in love with was unsuitable because of his behaviour, more so because she was too poor for him and they could never marry because of it.

  6. When I first read S&S I thought Willoughby was dashing and romantic (I wish I still felt that way, but now I see him as tiresome) and Elinor in one of her best speeches last chapter S&S says his behaviour from beginning to end was characterised by selfishness …I now agree. But you are spot on about all the Austen ingredients being there but not mixed correctly as they were in the later books. And that is a major part of enjoying this book: seeing the raw ingredients and having some idea of what happened to them later. Thank you Rachel for another perceptive review.

    1. Oh yes, Sue – Willoughby is shockingly selfish – but somehow I can still manage to love him! My foolish heart!

      Yes – that’s a great way of looking at it actually. All the raw ingredients ARE there, and if only Austen had got them right…I think this could have been a truly brilliant book!

      Thanks Sue – so glad you enjoyed the review!

  7. Happy Bday Alan Rickman aka Col Brandon 95!! Maybe because I’m a huge Marianne Dashwood fan, S&S is my 2nd fav Austen novel. I have read it more times than P&P(my fav by a small margin). The plot flaws listed do not bother me. Lol, I’m too dumb to notice them anyway. While Edward is not on stage for long periods, Elinor is battling Lucy Steele for much of that time(lol, when Elinor is not supporting Marianne).

    1. Marianne is certainly endearing, though I sympathised with her much less this time than I did the first time I read it – maybe now I’m not a teenager I can’t relate to her as much!

      Yes – poor Elinor – she certainly has a lot on her plate with keeping Lucy at bay!

  8. I’m always amazed by how Colonel Brandon is underestimated. In a way, he’s a test for the reader…are we as blinded as Marianne by shallow images of “the romantic,” or can we identify the true romantic as the one who wears a red felt vest?

    1. Hi, you know, I didn’t think about it like that, as a test, to see if we can see the value of true goodness. That’s a very interesting interpretation! Maybe I am too shallow for my own good!!

  9. I have such mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand, I adore Elinor and think S&S has some of Austen’s best comedic writing – watching the young Mrs Dashwood convince her husband of the needless generousity of his plan to support his half-sisters and step-mother is pure brilliance. But, on the other, there are all the men and the wildly annoying Marianne, who from the first pages I long to lock away in a room until she becomes an intelligent being capable of rational thought. You would think this would be just the book to fulfil my love of dull, steady heroes – what are Colonel Brandon and Edward Ferrars if not these things? – but I can’t find anything appealing in them. Edward is a drip and Colonel Brandon is a bit too romantic for my tastes – could a truly practical man fall in love with Marianne at first sight, as Brandon does?

    1. Oh yes, Claire, the comedy in S&S is brilliant – Mrs Jennings especially is magnificent, and I also love the ill matched Middletons. But I agree – Marianne is highly annoying and needs a slap – only Elinor and the background characters save the day for me. Oh, and dastardly Willoughby, of course!! That’s what I think about Brandon too – him falling in love with Marianne so quickly is just silly and totally out of character for him – how can you decide you love someone without even knowing them?!

  10. I’m glad that Claire picked up on young Mrs Dashwood’s ever reducing generosity. That little episode stands out for me as the funniest part of the book.

    You’ve managed to finish off S&S whilst I’ve been reading other things. I think I was probably expecting you to side more with Marianne, though overall I was not surprised by your reactions. I think you were still changing your mind as you wrote this post. You try so very hard to see the best in Brandon, but ultimately you just can’t resist the allure of Willoughby it seems?

    As someone who is more late than mid-30s, hearing the middle of my decade described as “far too old” was a bit of a shock (laughter). Admittedly, you were talking about the age gap between him and Marianne rather than thinking of his age in isolation.

    I hadn’t previously given much thought to there being something lacking in the depiction of the male characters, since I had always taken them to be supporting roles in a book which was primarily supposed to be about the Dashwood sisters.

    1. Yes, that really is an excellent passage, and a perfect example of Jane Austen’s wonderful wit. Mrs Elton is my favourite comic Austen character but Mrs Dashwood and Mrs Jennings certainly give her a run for her money!

      Side with Marianne?! No! She is infuriating! I might be a romantic but I’m not that melodramatic – anyone who mopes about like that gets no sympathy from me!! I do try my best to see the best in Brandon and he does come across as a solid, decent man, but ultimately it’s the loveable rogue who wins my heart, I must admit!!

      No, thirties is not old at all! I just wouldn’t advise a marriage between a 16 year old who was very young for her age and a man in his mid thirties!

      That’s interesting, David, about the book being mainly the story of the Dashwood sisters. I suppose it is – but the main thrust is about their romantic decisions, and in order to care about their ultimate fates, we must surely feel some attachment to their chosen lovers?! I do think that Austen is at her best when describing women and her male characters are never quite as well done as her female ones, but it’s only in S&S that I have found this to be genuinely detracting from the novel as a whole.

  11. After a lot of thinking, I believe Colonel Brandon is my favorite hero in this novel. But I do like Edward, a lot.😀

    I don’t think this is a love story. It’s about sisters and the friction between the mind and the heart. In real life, there isn’t a definied “hero” — there is just life and love and tension and misunderstandings and piecing it all together and carrying on. I don’t find the book at all disjointed. It’s my favorite Austen so far. (Not to disrespect the other opinions here. Just piping up for the Dashwoods.)😀

    “I also think that maybe the novel points out that what the Dashwoods need is not a male hero but more independence from men.”

    Yes!!

    1. I like Colonel Brandon the more I think about him, Jillian – he comes across as such a thoroughly lovely man, but I still don’t think he fits Marianne. Hmmm…that’s an interesting take. It’s definitely about the conflict in approaches to life and the importance of making sensible decisions and not letting your heart run away with your head. Perhaps I focus too much on romance when I read Austen – you’ve given me something to think about there!🙂

  12. I like Colonel Brandon very much…. I have been waiting for a gay. He will be the one
    and he will be like Colonel Brandon…:)

  13. I havent read the book – but I was thinking – I try to see the characters a real flesh and b;od people with flaws. Who told Willoughby’s aunt about the pregnant girl ? – I think Colonel Brandon – despite his knowing that this would cause a problem. I think he deliberately told the aunt to cause problems. If he really wanted to he honest about it, he should have confronted Willoughby and told Mariane in private, As a military man, he would know strategy – to sowed the seeds to cause a problem and waited to pick up the crumbling pieces of Marianne.

  14. I get the odd feeling that people are prejudiced by the 18-year difference between Marianne and Brandon. Marianne and Brandon an arranged match? They tend to see the superficial image of Brandon as a solid, yet dull man; yet refuse to see that in his own quiet way, he can be just as passionate and romantic as she is.

    They want Marianne to end up with Willoughby, because he is handsome, dashing and closer in age to her. They want her to end up with Willoughby for superficial reasons. And they don’t want to consider that if Marianne had married him, chances are he would have hurt her in the end, due to his greed and desire for a fortune. Their lack of real funds would have eventually come between them.

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