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‘Sense and Sensibility’ by Jane Austen

'Sense and Sensibility' by Jane Austen
So Paula, we began this week by talking a bit about Shakespeare and about Robert Burton and Love Melancholy. Now we’ve heard from Jack about this poem written in the time of Shakespeare and Burton. Sir Philip Sidney, the broken hearted lover looking at the moon and finding a kind of comfort there. These works from 400 years ago still seem to speak to us today. But your great passion is Jane Austen, 200 years ago, but still, I’m sure, speaking to you today. And the novel that you want us to focus on is Sense and Sensibility. Now many of the learners will have read it. And perhaps, many will have seen the rather wonderful film with Emma Thompson.
But just for the benefit of those who haven’t had a chance to read the whole novel, just give us a very brief outline of the plot of Sense and Sensibility. It’s all in the title, Sense and Sensibility. A pair of heroines, two heroines, Marianne, Elinor, sisters, confidantes, great friends. Both suffer from a broken heart. But the two sisters have very different ways of dealing with their broken hearts. And that is what Jane Austen’s teasing out in the course of the novel. But these words, sense and sensibility, sensibility is not a word we use every day now. What did those words mean to Jane Austen and her readers, sense, sensibility.
Well, huge word, sensibility, the cult of sensibility swept the 18th century in terms of novels, literature, music, philosophy, and even medicine. And the idea was that on the one hand is rational thinking, perhaps represented by medicine and science and philosophy, but on the other hand– And that’s sense. And that’s sense. Rational thinking. Rational thinking, sense. On the other hand, we have sensibility. We might think of it as outpouring of emotion, so expressive emotion. So during the 18th century, the cult of sensibility seemed to celebrate the importance of the feelings over the rational thought. Yes, it’s fine to be rational, but to be fully human is to embrace those emotions, and almost to glory in them, to revel in them.
So sensibility might be marked by excessive feeling, bursting into tears, being in floods of tears. There’s a sort of language associated with sensibility and expressing strong feelings. But then towards the end of Jane Austen’s time, the term becomes more pejorative. And that is to say, there’s a sort of backlash against sensibility. The idea that actually it’s quite selfish to indulge in feeling, ‘me,me, I, I. Oh, I’m so sad.’ Actually, let’s get a bit of rationality back in, in order for us to live a more, if you like, more balanced, less selfish life. So sensibility become– it has this sort of negative connotations by the end of being selfish.
And I think in Sense and Sensibility, which I do think is Jane Austen’s most interesting novel because she doesn’t seem to come down on any particular side. Well, I was going to ask this, because the way you were talking, I’m thinking, ah right, she’s part of that backlash. So let’s just think about this that– because there’s– my understanding is that the cult of sensibility often expressed itself in romantic novels, that young – and suddenly there was a lot of hostility to the idea of young women reading trashy fiction from circulating libraries that would stir up all this sensibility. And Jane Austen is part of the reaction against that?
Am I right in supposing– and therefore, the novel is saying, sense, which is Elinor, is a good thing. Sensibility, which is Marianne, is a bad thing. Have I got that right? It would seem that way. But Jane Austen is always more complex, and more interesting, and more complicated than simply saying, Marianne is a giddy reader of novels, whom her head is turned by romantic poetry, and who makes a bad decision when she meets Willoughby and has her heart broken. And Elinor is the sister who’s rational, not selfish, does not indulge these strong things. It’s just much more complicated than that. We’re told time and time again Marianne has sense. We know that Elinor has sensibility.
And almost by the end, extraordinary things happen in the course of the novel. So Marianne who appears to be the heroine of sensibility, the cliche, she loves poetry. She loves music. She loves novels. She falls hard– Have we got a spoiler alert coming at this point? Because I think you’re going to tell us about the end. I’m not going to tell you the end. But what I’m simply going to say is it would be a false reading to be so schematic as to think that Marianne is simply sensibility and Elinor is sense. Because there are many times throughout the novel when Elinor bursts into tears. So I’m just warning you against those sort of readings.
But what I want to talk a little bit about is Jane Austen is very interested in how different people react to the same thing. She does this time and time again in novels. And here we have two sisters, they both have a broken heart. How do they deal with it? Very, very differently. Marianne cries. She doesn’t eat. She paces. She exhibits actually signs of what we might think of today as depression. She’d tick every box in a doctor’s surgery for depression, insomnia, not eating, making herself ill. Elinor is also suffering from a broken heart. She doesn’t tell anybody. She’s extremely stoical. She doesn’t want to burden anybody.
So at this point, Jane Austen seems to be coming down on the ‘don’t be selfish Marianne, because in fact, you’re affecting everybody else by your mood’. Because the thing about Marianne, she can’t see outside herself. She can only see her own misery and pain. But what I think is brilliant about Marianne in Sense and Sensibility, is how Jane Austen allows Marianne that pain. She does satirise her. But then she seems to move towards a new position that is much more understanding of the reality of what that broken heart means, that it can lead to self destruction. So I think Jane Austen’s fascinated by this contradiction between strong emotion and feeling and being rational. Elinor has strong feeling.
She feels just as strongly as Marianne does. She loves Edward as Marianne loves Willoughby, but she just has a different way of dealing with that emotion and that’s what’s so fascinating. Yeah. But so thinking– Elinor, you use that word stoicism. It makes her sound very sort of British, stiff upper lip about it. Is Jane Austen saying, ‘bottling it up, the stiff upper lip is a good thing?’ It’s very complicated. On the one hand she, yes, she’s saying, ‘it’s preferable to be stoical and to control yourself’. But Elinor keeps saying to Marianne ‘exert yourself’. ‘Exert yourself.’ She uses this word time – ‘exert yourself’. In other words, don’t just go to bed and cry. You’ve got to get on with life.
You’ve got to get out of bed. You’ve got to carry on. The heart break will pass. And that seems to me an incredibly sensible thing to say. However, there are moments when Elinor can’t apply that to herself. Because the heart wants what the heart wants. And no matter how much we can tell ourselves to exert ourselves, to exercise self control, it doesn’t really work like that. So being Jane Austen, she’s muddying– she’s muddying the water’s all the time. So there’s moments when you think she’s on Elinor’s side. And there’s moments when you think she’s on Marianne’s side. So in some of those passages that our learners have been reading, our sympathy, it’s a pendulum, it swings between the two sisters.
So when Marianne says, ‘what do you know of having a broken heart? I don’t have any pride. I’m so hurt.’ One really identifies very strongly. It’s real feeling. It’s not fake feeling. It’s real feeling. But then when Elinor says, ‘what do you know? I’ve had a broken heart’, it swings back. And so it’s the beauty of having these two heroines whom we move between, throughout most of the novel, and sympathies shift and sympathies change.
In this video, we find out more about Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. Taking the novel’s title as a starting point, we’ll be considering why Sense and Sensibility is such an interesting and useful text for thinking about heartbreak.
Rather unusually, Austen’s Sense and Sensibility is a novel with two contrasting heroines, a pair of sisters called Elinor and Marianne Dashwood. During the course of the novel, both sisters experience heartbreak, and they respond to it in very different ways. Elinor, who seems to represent ‘Sense’ or rational thinking, is stoical in the face of heartbreak, refusing to succumb to her emotions. Marianne, by contrast, seems to be a heroine of ‘Sensibility’, a term commonly used in the 18th century to refer to extreme outpourings of emotion; whereas Elinor represses her emotions, Marianne is overwhelmed by them.
It would be misleading, however, to suggest that Austen’s novel promotes one sister’s reaction to heartbreak and condemns the other. Throughout Sense and Sensibility, Austen’s narrative causes our sympathies to shift between the two sisters, blurring neat distinctions between ‘sense’ and ‘sensibility’ and refusing, at any point, to come down on one particular side of the argument.
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