Mrs. Dashwood and her three daughters (Elinor, 19; Marianne, 16; Margaret, 13), through a somewhat convoluted system of inheritances ended up in early 19th century England with close family who was moneyed Mrs. Dashwood had enough to barely support a lifestyle in the gentry, and certainly not any available to ensure that her daughters were able to continue in that lifestyle. The Mr. John Dashwood, the half-brother of the three sisters, was easily persuaded to renege on his promise to their father to take care of his sisters. Therefore it was desirable that they attach themselves (as the phrasing went) to a moneyed man, although Mrs. Dashwood chiefly desired that they find that they shared mutual admiration for.
Before removing to the Exeter area (in the southwest of England) from Sussex (in the southeast), Elinor met Mr. John Dashwood’s wife’s brother, Edward Ferrars. They took a liking to each other, but Elinor felt a certain reserve on his part. This was in part to his actions, which while definitely appreciative, stopped short of the warmth one might expect from a developing attachment, but it was also in part due to an abundance of sense which counseled keeping a leash on her emotions, lest her imagination lead to the kinds of emotional fantasies unmoored by the cold facts of reality that her mother and sister Marianne suffered from. The family soon took a lovely cottage (by which they mean a rather large house in the country) near Exeter that was attractively rented to them by a cousin, Sir John Middleton.
Here they attended a steady stream of social parties and outdoor outings arranged by Sir John, who really preferred the company of large groups of people. The Dashwoods were well-educated, and Elinor could draw very convincingly, while Marianne played the piano-forte skillfully. The Middletons had little to offer here: although Sir John frequently arranged parties, Lady Middleton was exclusively interested in talking about her children, whom she spoiled. The addition of an elderly and widowed relative, Mrs. Jennings, who was a great gossip and loved to poke fun at the younger women’s love interest, did not materially add to the Miss Dashwoods’ intellectual stimulation.
A certain young Mr. Willoughby, met by chance in a rain, hit it off with Marianne, and the two of them were inseparable for weeks. There was some attempt by the older ladies for Marianne to consider the widowed Colonel Barton who fancied Marianne, not only was he ancient at 35, but Marianne was convinced that one could only truly love once. After Willoughby appeared on the scene, the Colonel clearly had no chance whatsoever. Sadly, Willoughby needed to spend some time in town (meaning London), and after beseeching Mrs. Dashwood to not change a thing in the cottage and taking a lock of Marianne’s hair, he departed.
Amid a stream of parties, events or lack thereof set up the stage for the two girls, Elinor and Marianne, to have their hearts broken. Despite Willoughby’s passion while he was there, and showing Marianne around his family’s manor house, once gone, he did not visit, nor did he even write. Marianne was convinced of his love for her, which no doubt was quite as strong as hers was for him. Their mother was convinced that the must be engaged, and was not persuaded by Elinor’s observation that there was no reason to keep it a secret. On Elinor’s part, Edward payed them a visit, and while not allowing her hopes to rise, she definitely considered the possibility that he felt about her the same way she cared for him.
Elinor’s hopes were dashed when two young cousins of the Middletons, the Miss Steeples came to stay with the Middletons. The eldest, Lucy, discovering Elinor’s interest in Mr. Ferrars, confided to Elinor her difficult situation in being engaged to Edward secretly because his mother flatly forbid it in favor of some more remunerating attachment to some young lady with a large inheritance (of which Lucy had none). It was undeniable, since Elinor and Marianne had seen Edward wearing the ring with Lucy’s hair. Lucy tormented Elinor under the guise of friendship and asked her advice, flaunting that she had what Elinor wanted, while Elinor maintained a studied disinterest. Even worse, since Lucy had told her in confidence, she could not disillusion her sister and mother firm expectation that Edward was on the cusp of proposing to her.
In January, Mrs. Jennings invited the two eldest Miss Dashwoods to stay with her in town (which seems to be what the gentry did after Christmas). Elinor wanted to refuse but their mother said they should both go. Marianne wrote to Willoughby announcing their arrival and inviting him to pay a call, only to spend days in the mixture of high expectation and pushing back the fear of deep disappointment that certain minor, unsettling developments that is nibbling away at your expectations. Finally she attended a dance where Willoughby was talking with another woman, and experienced a cold and distant acknowledgement to her warm excitement at seeing him. The next day she received a letter saying that he was engaged to another lady, and returning Marianne’s letters and lock of hair, as she had requested that he do if he were not interested. Marianne cried incessantly for days.
Meanwhile, Edward Ferrars announced his engagement publicly, with the result that his mother threatened to disinherit him, but he stood firm. So she kept her promise and then kicked him out of the family in rage and shame. Elinor was worse than nobody and with no money, not at all fit for her upward mobility aspirations; even Elinor, whom Mrs. Ferrars disliked would be better. Edward had no means of provision for a wife, as he had been studying at Oxford to enter the clergy (which his mother also opposed). Colonel Barton paid a visit and asked Elinorr to inform Edward that his lands had a parsonage with a very modest tithe which was vacant and would Mr. Ferrars like to take this position. Mr. Ferrars was embarrassed, Elinor was uncomfortable, and awkward times ensued. Mrs. Jennings took the Colonel’s private discussion with Elinor as indication that he was proposing to her, but was eventually disabused of that unfounded notion.
Mrs. Jennings invited the Misses Dashwoods to her estate, Cleveland for the next few weeks, which they accepted as it got them closer to their mother in Barton. Marianne, still crying a lot, injudiciously took to walking in the wild, wet areas of the manor, and then continuing to wear her wet socks. She took cold, and got steadily worse until she was in danger of dying, weakened as she was with her broken heart over Willoughby. As she was at death’s door, Willoughby, who had married shortly before the girls left London, arrived at the manor door, having driven from London in haste. He wanted to explain himself to Marianne so that her last thoughts of him would not be that he carelessly led her on and then dropped her. He told Elinor about his illegitimate child and how his desire to maintain his expensive lifestyle led him to value money over love and how he realized it was a mistake and that he hoped Marianne would forgive him. Elinor promised she would relay it to Marianne when appropriate. Marianne recovered slowly, and when she was better, the subject came up and Elinor told her. Yes, Willoughby was selfish and led her on and misused her, but at least he had been authentic while he was doing it, even if he reverted to his core values afterwards. It brought some closure for Marianne. The illness also revealed to Marianne the strengths that Elinor’s sense provided, and now that Elinor was no longer bound by her promise to Lucy, Marianne saw the contrast between how Elinor stately handled her disappointment compared to her own wallowing misery. And Elinor, who had been frustrated by Mrs. Jenning’s intellectual blandness and constant romantic joking saw how caring she really was as she did everything that could be done for Marianne.
Soon after their return to their mother at Barton, their manservant relayed that he saw Mr. Ferrars and the former Miss Lucy Steele married in Exeter (where she was from). Despite Elinor’s attempts to protect her heart from disappointment, the finality that her dream would never be broke her heart, and she was miserable for some days, although not to the Marianne’s extent that Marianne was. Soon after, it transpired that Edward arrived unannounced and definitely unexpected at the cottage. Some rather long and uncomfortable time transpired before the Elinor discovered that Lucy had run off with Edward’s brother and married him in Exeter. Overcome by joy and emotion, Elinor ran outside. Edward proposed to Lucy, and then explained that Lucy had taken fancy to his brother, and run off leaving him a note. (After which Mrs. Ferrars recapitulated her anger and shame and disinherited her other son and kicked him out of the family, too.) Which was convenient, because Edward had outgrown the relationship as he aged, and when he had met more women—especially Elinor—he realized that Lucy was hardly the best, but because he was honorable, he kept the engagement since she wanted it. But once he learned he was free of it, through no dishonor on his part, he came to Barton straightaway to ask for Elinor’s hand.
Edward and Elinor lived very happily in the parsonage, having humbled themselves a bit to Mrs. Ferrars, who augmented their income from the Colonel’s lands so that the sensible couple lived well. And they, with help from Mrs. Dashwood, facilitated interaction between Marianne and the Colonel, with the result that Marianne learned to value the Colonel’s strengths even though he was not wild and passionate and in love with everything that she was. They married and everyone lived happily ever after and in close proximity to each other.
Sense and Sensibility is an interesting look into the life of what I shall call the “imperiled gentry”, that is, families who are presently able to live a life without working, but who may not be able to sustain their standard of living in the future. In the novel, money comes from either inheritance or land, and what you get is all you have; the only way increase your income seems to be to marry someone with it a larger fortune. Austen contrasts this need for income with the desire for love and the desire for a certain standard of living, and her characters make different choices about what they value more.
Austen clearly believes the biblical proverb, a little with love is better than riches without it, although even the characters who make poorer choices seem to end up reasonably happy. The characters who are pursuing status and money seem to be bland and intellectually uninteresting, as likely enough to have matched Austen’s experience. She also seems to fall on the side of sense, rather than sensibility, as Marianne self-identifies a need to keep her emotions grounded, and the older women’s tendency to assume a proposal from a personal conversation is portrayed as a continual frustration for Elinor.
Relationships between men and women seem to be very formal, as even addressing each other using one’s “Christian” (that is, first) name is seen as being very intimate. Writing a direct letter is likewise seen as compelling evidence of an engagement. So a lot of time is spent in group gatherings, dining together, spending an afternoon playing cards, or going for a boating outing. Travel being somewhat slow and also expensive—a horse for the carriage requires a stable, and a servant to take care of the horse, and then the expense of the carriage itself—one’s friends seem to be limited to the gentry within about 20 miles of you, which cannot be overly large. It seems that going to “town” (that is, London) in the winter in a flurry of visiting serves an important social purpose. It seems to be after Christmas, so the holidays were celebrated, but the lands were frozen and had no need to be managed, which freed all the gentry to congregate in London and socialize. I assume it was an important part of meeting friends and people to marry, although it gets largely sidestepped in this narrative.
The actual story itself is rather simple: two girls fall in love, one slowly and one throwing caution to the wind; two girls get their hearts broken by men who lead them on; it transpires that the one man was not as dishonorable as it first appeared and the other acted entirely honorably throughout; the sensible girl gets married practically instantly, while the romantic one takes longer, but it is pretty instant as far as the reader is concerned. Most of the book consists of frustration at insipid gatherings and the slow-moving train-wreck of the girls relationships, along with a lot of emotional pain and choices on how to process it. Honestly, it feels like Sweet Valley High for the 19th-century gentry. While the book is engaging, I just have little interest in the internal world, and were it not a window into an alien world, I’m not sure it would be so interesting. But if you like being immersed in a foreign culture, or you enjoy all the emotional ups and downs of romance, you will like the book.