One of my favorite stories is Sense and Sensibility. This is not because it’s a fairy tale where everyone gets to live happily ever after, and completely unrealistic events transpire for that to be the case (a misguided critique of Jane Austen’s work). It is not because of the beautifully done commentary on society and biting wit. It’s not even because of the regency era costumes found in adaptations of the piece. It might be a little bit because Emma Thompson stars in a film version of it alongside Kate Winslet. Principally, my love for this story comes from how well I see my life reflected in it.
The long and short of this story, which is a must read (or watch), is that Marianne and Elinor Dashwood are turned out of their house when their father dies because their half brother from a previous marriage is to inherit their father’s fortune. Their misfortune drives them into the path of a couple young men, each sister falling for one. Elinor is reserved (sense) and does not express her emotions openly. Marianne is fiery (sensibility) and wears her heart on her sleeve. In the process of events, both sisters get their hearts broken and then put them back together again.
Of course, it is tempting to take sides. Which is better: Marianne’s passionate openness or Elinor’s quiet reserve? As a child, I sided with Elinor (After all, she’s played by Emma Thompson who also plays Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing). Not only did I side with Elinor, I wanted to be like her. I wanted to have the internal strength it took to get her through her difficulties, being kind to the man who was ruining all hopes of her happiness (remember, her financial well-being was tied into this as well).
It was a harsh reality one day, at the age of 18, when I experienced my first heartache. I was not Elinor. I was Marianne. I had been taken in by flirtation and lost my heart to someone who didn’t want it in the end. I cried, letting all my feelings take over, knowing he was a completely lost cause. This is when I first started referring to the men who rejected me as Whiloughby (the man who broke Marianne’s heart). I would whisper Sonnet 116 to myself as I lay in bed, feeling all the potential draining from my imagination.
I built up an idea of men based around the fact that I was Marianne. Either they were a Whiloughby or a Colonel Brandon. Colonel Brandon is the man who Marianne eventually marries. He’s calmer than Whiloughby, older, considerably more selfless. He slowly heals Marianne’s heart until she falls in love with him, to be happier than she could ever have been with Whiloughby. After all, Whiloughby turns out to be a libertine.
So, inevitably, I would ask myself in the course of a relationship whether the man I was dating would have what it took to be Colonel Brandon, to heal my broken heart and nurse me back to health. Even my friends agreed.
“Oh yes, you are Marianne!” they’d exclaim, encouraging me to wait for my Colonel Brandon and not to waste any more time on the most recent Whiloughby, of whom there have been a few.
This is a useful tool and indecipherable code that women use to talk about relationships. Every relationship, every event has a parallel in some Jane Austen novel or another. Because women are well aware that men in general have an aversion to Jane Austen, we use her as our secret language and sigh when we muse that if men read her books too, relationships would be much easier.
In some ways, it’s true. Plain and simple: Don’t be Whiloughby. Don’t be Mr. Elliot. Don’t be Mr. Crawford. Don’t be Wickham. I suppose you can’t help it if you are Mr. Collins, but try to avoid that as well.
I wish that life were so static, that the only options for me were to be with a Whiloughby or a Colonel Brandon. I wish that some man or other would fall madly in love with me as he silently waited for me to be single and then oh so tenderly care for me in my time of need. Oh wait. No I don’t. I don’t want to be so crippled by heartbreak that I nearly lose my life to it. I don’t want to become morose and despondent just because someone who I thought would love me doesn’t. I don’t want my happiness to so depend on a man’s love that I am overcome with depression and grief until someone else comes along to love me. Where is Marianne’s agency in this? Certainly her character grows from being foolish, trusting sweeping romantic gestures instead of looking hard at someone’s character before losing herself completely to love. For all of Marianne’s love of poetry, whimsy, and excitement (things that we do indeed have in common), I still find myself wanting to be Elinor.
Elinor’s story is quite different from Marianne’s. She is quiet and principled, taking care of an aging and widowed mother when they are reduced to poverty and keeping meticulous track of finances. She becomes the backbone of the family, taking on responsibility while her mother grieves and her younger sister pouts. When Elinor falls in love, it is with a man who loves her as well, but he has a previous obligation to marry a woman he made a promise to when he was younger and more foolish. Being a man of his word, he denies his heart and Elinor, intending to follow through (again, remember that these things happened because a woman’s financial security depended on whom she married, and breaking an engagement, even a secret engagement would do a great deal of harm to the woman) with his marriage.
Elinor endures this burden in silence. Even when she learns of the engagement, she swallows her pain and her pride, being genuinely kind to Edward’s secret fiancee. Then she does the unthinkable.
When Edward’s secret engagement is exposed (much to his shallow and mean family’s disapproval), Edward is disinherited. Suddenly finding himself with no money and no occupation, Edward is unable to marry his fiancee but refuses to break the engagement. It is Elinor who delivers the news to him that his dream of joining the church can be realized, giving him an occupation, a place to live and the ability to marry. Just to clarify, Elinor brokers the deal that enables the man she loves to marry another woman.
This is still astounding to me. How gracious, how kind, how forgiving. She takes charge of the life she has and keeps going, despite her pain and frustration.
At first glance, we might presume that Elinor loves less deeply than Marianne, that her ability to move forward is evidence of not caring very deeply. This is not it at all the case.
In a remarkable scene from a film adaptation, Marianne asks, “Elinor, where is your heart?”
Elinor finally unleashes the fullness of her pain, “What do you know of my heart? What do you know of anything but your own suffering? For weeks, Marianne, I’ve had this pressing on me without being at liberty to speak of it to a single creature. It was forced on me by the very person whose prior claims ruined all my hope. I have endured her exultations again and again whilst knowing myself to be divided from Edward forever. Believe me, Marianne, had I not been bound to silence I could have provided proof enough of a broken heart, even for you.”
In one sense, I will always be Marianne. I will always love poetry, whimsy, and art. I am bad at concealing my feelings. However, I have more agency, more grace, more responsibility. I can be kind, even to those whose actions hurt me. I can be patient, I can be strong and take care of the people I love. I know how to manage my money independently, how to survive on my own.
What’s more, I have come realize that not every man is a Whiloughby or a Colonel Brandon. Some of them are Edwards. Some of them have prior engagements. Some of them are bound to something outside of their control. These are not bad men. Edward is not a bad man. Edward is kind, caring, loving, principled. Much like Elinor, he does what is right, even when what is right is inconvenient.
Elinor finds fulfillment and contentment without Edward. Of course, it wouldn’t be a Jane Austen novel if the heroin didn’t get her man in the end. Edward’s fiancee turns out to be considerably less principled than he is and marries his brother (the one who got all the money). This frees Edward to follow his heart. And he follows it right to Elinor.
The marriage is somewhat insignificant, though, for my purposes. In most cases, this doesn’t happen. The life circumstances that get in the way of the Edwards in the world being with their Elinors usually don’t conveniently go away, at least not before Elinor has moved on and married someone else. Most relationships don’t get that second chance, and I am no exception to this rule. The important thing about Elinor is that she learns to keep going, despite her wounded heart. She accepts her life circumstances, not because she doesn’t want to fight for what she loves, but because she recognizes how useless it would be. She realizes that she doesn’t want Edward if he is actually willing to break his word to someone else. With Elinor, the feminist inside me is satisfied. More importantly, the Marianne in me who wants to embrace all that is beautiful in life, to throw myself into it and never look back, recognizes that some circumstances call us to be Elinor.