To tell or not to tell: ‘Sense and Sensibility’ is as relevant today as it was when it was published more than 200 years ago

Jane Austen’s first novel, ‘Sense and Sensibility’, published this month more than 200 years ago, asks pointed questions about social mores and women’s negotiations with society, the answers to which we haven’t quite found yet

Published - October 26, 2019 04:00 pm IST

Two sides: A still from the 1995 movie adaptation.

Two sides: A still from the 1995 movie adaptation.

“Four months! — cried Marianne again. So calm! So cheerful! How have you been supported?” Reacting dramatically to her older sister Elinor’s news that the person she loves, Edward Ferrars, is engaged to someone else, Marianne is incredulous that it has been borne with such equanimity. “If the loss of what is most valued is so easily to be made up by something else, your resolution, your self-command, are perhaps, a little less to be wondered at,” Marianne tells Elinor.

To her sister’s surprise at this “self-command” in the face of adversity, Elinor responds: “I understand you. You do not suppose that I have ever felt much. For four months, Marianne, I have had all this hanging on my mind, without being at liberty to speak of it to a single creature; knowing that it would make you and my mother most unhappy.” This conflict — to tell or not to tell, and how much, if at all — is at the centre of the relationship between the Dashwood sisters, reflecting the social mores and pressures of 18th-19th century England, in Jane Austen’s first novel, Sense and Sensibility , published on October 30, 1811.

By a lady

How truthful and honest can one be? Will society permit pushing of boundaries? Should one conform to rules? What is the role of the material world in matters of the heart? Austen is ambivalent in dealing with these age-old questions. Over 200 years on, as we still search for answers in a changing and unstable world, Austen’s powers of observation and sleight of hand make a study of 18th century women — and men — resonate.

Austen began Sense and Sensibility in her 20s and it was published when she was 35, at her own expense by the military specialist, Thomas Egerton, with the anonymous ‘By a Lady’ for the author. She had been working on it, first in epistolary form, since the late 1790s — initially titled Elinor and Marianne or the sisters with ‘sense’ and ‘sensibility’ respectively — and had also begun writing a first draft of her most famous book, Pride and Prejudice , which came out in 1813. To her older sister, Cassandra, Jane had written about her preoccupation with “S&S”, “I can no more forget it, than a mother can forget her sucking child”; even as “P&P” was termed “my own darling child.”

Acting out a debate

In S&S , the two sisters, Elinor and Marianne, are acutely observed by Austen: “Miss Dashwood had a delicate complexion, regular features, and a remarkably pretty figure. Marianne was still handsomer. Her form, though not so correct as her sister’s… was more striking.” After the death of their father and a woman/ Fanny Dashwood-managed disinheritance, Elinor, because of her “strength of understanding, and coolness of judgement” or ‘sense’, becomes her mother’s counsellor at only 19. Elinor’s “feelings were strong, but she knew how to govern them.” A task impossible for her sister Marianne, who is “sensible and clever; but eager in everything; her sorrows, her joys could have no moderation.”

But this is Austenland, where nothing is as it seems. In 50 chapters, she quietly lays down the premise, only to watch with an ironical eye what happens when the sisters experience love and all its joys and sorrows, leading them to tweak and question their own values.

Calling Pride and Prejudice a romance and Northanger Abbey a satire, biographer Claire Tomalin ( Jane Austen, A Life ) points out that Sense and Sensibility is a debate. “Elinor and Marianne act out a debate about behaviour in which Austen compares the discretion, polite lies and carefully preserved privacy of one sister with the transparency, truthfulness and freely expressed emotion of the other.” Austen, writes Tomalin, is considering how far society can tolerate openness, and what its effect will be on the individual: “The question was keenly debated in the 1790s as part of a wider political discussion, with radical writers like William Godwin and Robert Bage favouring the complete openness practised by Marianne, conservatives insisting that the preservation of the social fabric requires an element of secrecy and hypocrisy.”

Pushing the envelope

Early in the story, Elinor and Marianne fall in love with unpredictable men who have other commitments and each keenly follows the other’s way of dealing with it. When the family has to move from Norland Park in Sussex to a cottage in Devonshire some distance away, Marianne is disturbed about the parting of Elinor and Edward Ferrars: “And Elinor, in quitting Norland and Edward, cried not as I did. Even now her self-command is invariable. When is she dejected or melancholy? When does she try to avoid society, or appear restless and dissatisfied in it?”

When Marianne first feels abandoned by John Willoughby, she indulges her grief, weeping “the greatest part” of her nights. With Willoughby, Marianne pushes the envelope, justifying her deeds with these words: “we always know when we are acting wrong.”

Can one survive in society with Marianne’s openness? It may be, points out Tomalin, that Austen started with a simple opposition between the sister who follows the correct path — polite lies, suppression of feeling — and the one who rejects it. But as Austen weaves her way through their lives, she will not allow readers to dismiss Marianne. When Marianne comes face to face with Willoughby at a ball (Chapter 28), she is no longer a silly girl, her feelings cannot be laughed at.

Maternal priorities

Apart from the minutiae of everyday life, social manners, courtship, love and marriage Austen writes about in all the four books published during her lifetime — Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park (1814) and Emma (1816) — and the posthumous editions of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion , many are preoccupied with “maternal affection and priorities.” In the Penguin Books edition, Ros Ballaster notes that Sense and Sensibility “stands alone among Austen’s novels in its almost total exclusion of fathers from the scene of action.”

A mother has “sole parental authority” over the Dashwood sisters and the Ferrars brothers; and mothers “either indulge their children because of too less sensibility” (Fanny Dashwood, Lady Middleton, Mrs. Ferrars) or too much (Mrs. Dashwood). The children’s lives are impacted in many ways, and social machinations take their toll on each.

In The Folio Society edition’s introduction, bestselling Italian writer Elena Ferrante, who has kept her identity secret, is passionate about Austen’s initial anonymity and says that it makes her work more intriguing. “She was an extremely cultured, extremely perceptive lady who was well acquainted with the ways of the landed gentry, who knew the rituals of the London bourgeoisie, who was aware… of how everything changes in spite of sense and in the tumult of sensibility.”

Consider the last sentence of Sense and Sensibility : “and among the merits and the happiness of Elinor and Marianne, let it not be ranked as the least considerable, that though sisters, and living almost within sight of each other, they could live without disagreement between themselves, or producing coolness between their husbands.” The perils of the relationship may have been overcome, but only just. “ Sense and Sensibility lies between tragedy and comedy,” says Tomalin. “The tidying up of the love affairs at the end hardly changes that, and the prevailing tone of the book is sombre.”

Yet, it’s impossible to miss that with women clamouring for more freedom as new times dawned, Marianne, who sees her sensibility as the only truth, appears to have her creator’s sympathy — and indeed of readers down the ages.

There have been many adaptations of the book, for theatre and film, and Taiwanese director Ang Lee’s quiet 1995 production, written by British actress Emma Thompson, won her an Oscar.

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