‘The family of Dashwood had been long settled in Sussex.’
I love that opening line, the words can’t be read quickly, they seem to have a slow authority that tell us what to expect. That this is a family drama, about an old family and it hints that change is afoot. We know straight away to settle in and allow ourselves to be wrapped up in their story.
The Dashwood sisters, Elinor and Marianne are forced to leave Norland, their family home when their father dies and their brother John inherits the estate. They take up a cottage in Devonshire with their mother and younger sister Margaret and it’s from here that they must navigate their way to matrimony and happiness whilst avoiding the stumbling blocks of Lucy Steele and Willoughby.
Society in Devonshire revolves around some distant relatives, Sir John and Lady Middleton and their mother in law, Mrs Jennings. Sir John and Mrs Jennings are huge, fun characters who get themselves involved in everyone’s business and use teasing as there means of communication. But they also provide some eligible bachelors in the shape of Willoughby and Colonel Brandon, a mischief maker in Lucy Steele and a house in London from which Elinor and Marianne can take part in the London Season. Also in London is their horribly grasping sister in law, Fanny who through pitch perfect accuracy Jane Austen is able to highlight the hypocrisy and shallowness of polite society.
I read that this was originally going to be called ‘Elinor and Marianne’, and it is really a novel about the two sisters. Wild, joyous Marianne who never attempts to behave with propriety and is led astray from the start, by the dastardly Willoughby, and sensible, responsible Elinor who attempts to keep some sort of order while cherishing the hope of a quiet future with Edward Ferrars.
The difference in the sisters’ characters is most obvious in the way they deal with heartbreak. The quiet contained sorrow of Elinor is for us heartbreaking while we see her soothing Marianne who includes everybody she knows (and many she doesn’t) in her own unhappiness. But Jane Austen is so clever at drawing people that I don’t think she sees it as simply as country v town, or wildness v quietness. And this comes out in their teasing of each other. Elinor can see the fun in Marianne and although exasperated by her behaviour enjoys her liveliness, and while Marianne needs to learn to be more measured in her actions it’s not at the cost of her enthusiasm.
Matrimony is where sense and sensibility collide and both sisters know that this is serious business. And not only for women, there’s nothing prudish about Willoughby’s treatment of vulnerable young girls but by giving him some time to try and explain himself we can see how important social standing is, even to a ‘libertine‘. But also by doing this I think Jane Austen pits Willoughby’s marriage and the cold competitive wrangling of Fanny and the scheming Lucy Steele against the warmth of the Dashwood family.