On Jane Austen, Elizabeth Warren, and the Legacy of the Stoic Woman
Rachel Vorona Cote Considers the Miss Dashwoods
It is a truth universally acknowledged that an Austen heroine must learn a valuable lesson. Emma Woodhouse must learn not to meddle in others’ romantic lives (and, apparently, that her ideal life partner is a much older man who has been eyeing her since she was a child). Elizabeth Bennett relinquishes her early, unflattering notions of Fitzwilliam Darcy—not that he did much to recommend himself, initially—and comes to recognize his compassion and benevolence.
As for Marianne Dashwood, she pursues a swift and passionate romance with the feckless John Willoughby and, in consequence, weathers steep disappointment, nearly dying in the process (in 19th century novels a purifying fever never goes amiss). Upon her recovery, she pledges to behave more like her sister Elinor—to wit: more measured in her reactions, more careful in bestowing trust, and more attentive to genteel decorum. And like Emma, Marianne also marries a man twice her age, an event insinuated by the novel as another landmark of maturity.
Published in 1811, Sense and Sensibility tells the story of Elinor, Marianne, and their family, introducing them just as their lives collectively turn a sharp corner. Austen is always attentive to the intersection of economics and gender, and so this novel, like her others, illuminates the thorny inequities of late 18th and early 19th century inheritance laws. The Dashwoods come of age as wealthy English ladies, but when their father dies he is unable to bequeath them the family home, Norland, or much of anything else. Instead, everything goes to their stingy, pompous half-brother and his even more egomaniacal wife. Their circumstances much diminished, the Dashwood family relocates to a small cottage far away in Devonshire. Both Elinor and Marianne fall in love, and both must navigate their romantic hopes within the stridently classist, gossip-saturated climate of British society. Elinor, ever reasonable, does this well. Meanwhile, Marianne brooks disaster.
As unforgiving as present day society can be when faced with an excessively emotional woman, it’s no surprise that Austen’s milieu was vastly more stringent; in this setting, her narrator emphasizes that time and again, Marianne’s penchant for melodrama often triumphs over empathy and reason (she is also a teenager, but then, adolescence did not really exist in Austen’s England). Still, my love for Sense and Sensibility abides with a slight weariness. Amongst the wit, the whetted social commentary, and the scathing portrayal of gender relations lurks a most ubiquitous and fatiguing question, no less common today than two hundred years ago: how, precisely, should a woman be?
Austen’s novel does not regard this matter as open-ended. From the start, the narrator is perfectly clear: women should be like Elinor Dashwood. It is Marianne’s task, then, to discern how she could better emulate her sister, which becomes the means by which we track her evolution. Before the novel trots to its tidy and matrimonially bound end, each sister believes herself to be thwarted in love, and although their predicaments are quite different, the novel, without quite conflating them, insinuates that Marianne might not have been so miserable in the first place if she had been more guarded and more prudent.
In other words, Elinor would never have so eagerly welcomed Willoughby’s attentions, or turned heads by passing hours alone with him (a private tour of Willoughby’s family estate? They might as well have had sex on Sir John’s piano forte!). Marianne’s rehabilitation is eminently less physical than it is based in conduct; in some ways, it demands a denial of the body—of the tidal pull of pleasure—and in its place a new conviction that life is better when taken in delicate sips.
Almost immediately, Sense and Sensibility posits a defense of Elinor, as if anticipating that readers might misjudge her—although the narration is so profoundly in alliance with her perspectives and so keen to remind us of her patient, silent suffering that, in my experience, irritation with Elinor largely derives from the novel’s obsession with her. Here is our introduction to the character, and to Marianne:
Elinor, this eldest daughter whose advice was so effectual, possessed a strength of understanding, and coolness of judgment, which qualified her, though only 19, to be the counsellor of her mother, and enabled her frequently to counteract, to the advantage of them all, that eagerness of mind in Mrs. Dashwood which must generally have led to imprudence. She had an excellent heart;—her disposition was affectionate, and her feelings were strong; but she knew how to govern them: it was a knowledge which her mother had yet to learn, and which one of her sisters had resolved never to be taught.
Marianne’s abilities were, in many respects, quite equal to Elinor’s. She was sensible and clever; but eager in every thing; her sorrows, her joys, could have no moderation. She was generous, amiable, interesting: she was everything but prudent.
Marianne is rendered through lack: the narrator first presents us with Elinor, and then, to describe her sister, simply erases a few estimable qualities. She is, we are to understand, a lovely young woman, but not so fully evolved, not without considerable room for improvement. In Ang Lee’s 1995 film adaptation, Elinor, played by Emma Thompson, is the one to handcraft farewell gifts to their servants before her family is booted from Norland. She undertakes the search for new and affordable living quarters, and when the Dashwoods have relocated to Barton Cottage, the film depicts Elinor poring over the family’s finances while her mother complains like a spoiled child (“the resemblance between [Marianne] and her mother was strikingly great,” explains the narrator).
Marianne (Kate Winslet), by contrast, dwells in the misery of her family’s situation. She stations herself at the piano and, per the film, will only play the most tragic of compositions (Elinor asks for something more cheerful in hopes that their mother will stop crying, and Marianne pointedly refuses). She fumes over the offenses of their smug sister-in-law, while Elinor attempts to keep the peace in the midst of a tortuous transition. Here, the narrator emphasizes, we might see the extent of Elinor’s excellence versus the self-indulgence of her sister and mother:
[Marianne and Mrs. Dashwood] encouraged each other now in the violence of their affliction. . . .They gave themselves up wholly to their sorrow, seeking increase of wretchedness in every reflection that could afford it, and resolved against ever admitting consolation in future. Elinor, too, was deeply afflicted; but still she could struggle, she could exert herself.
Though it’s anachronistic to quarrel with historical social mores, I must point out that the prevailing issue is altogether different from what the text indicates. It ought not be necessary for Elinor to struggle so much in the first place, to “exert herself” while in the mire of grief. Moreover, it doesn’t come as a shock that someone, regardless of temperament, would yield to misery in the wake of losing not only their parent or spouse, but also their family home. Politeness, and our cultural vision of strength, have long erred—and still largely err—on the side of vigorous restraint; fortitude means corsetting ourselves against honest expression.
And women like Elinor Dashwood—women who placidly and stoically endure adversity—have become a fetishized trope. Over the course of Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign, enthusiasm over her candidacy has been paired with the now-typical meme-ified mythmaking. The Senator is not merely a savvy politician with plans for thorough, institutional change, but an exemplar of resilience: Our Lady Who Nevertheless Persists. (And to be perfectly clear about my complicity: she is my chosen candidate.)
When famous men are charged with sexual misconduct, their wives are, by many, applauded for their abidance. Legitimizing angels of domesticity, they appear with their disgraced husbands in public, visages smooth with telegraphed obedience. It’s possible to wield this sort of performance to one’s own purposes—Warren certainly has—and sometimes it can be advantageous. But it grows ever trickier to parse seizing opportunity from staunchly internalized emotional policing.
Still, as a Marianne, my own capacity for empathy deepened when I finally understood that people can feel both deeply and quietly, and that disclosure is always a choice. Previously, when I was nearly as self-absorbed as I am bulky with sentiment, I believed, like Austen’s heroine, that the most profound emotions must necessarily manifest themselves—that they must burst outwards like a fountain. But the pliant meaning of the novel’s title, which at first seems to present a pair of contrasts, “sense” and “sensibility,” illuminates the possibility for their simultaneity (the first clue to the book’s thesis is the “and” in the title). Sense can indicate both reason and feeling, and so can sensibility. They coexist in Elinor, Marianne learns—just as she learns the necessity of finding space for practicality amidst her surfeit of emotion.
Yet Sense and Sensibility does seem to proffer a dichotomy of sorts, and it’s one that I encounter often. One can be loudly and boldly expressive while alienating people, making questionable choices, and acting selfishly, or one can strive to be a woman who shrouds her tumultuous depths with a nonplussed surface. But certainly there are other, less self-absorbed versions of Marianne that do not demand one’s transformation into an Elinor: I have spent my adulthood so far endeavoring to be someone of that sort, conscientious, without surrendering exuberance. (In any case, this is all I can do. I’m physiologically incapable of concealing anything I feel, and believe me, I have tried.)
By the novel’s end, Marianne has begun to take herself to task for her excesses. Besotted with Willoughby, she has committed more than one social faux pas: writing him full-throated letters when they are not engaged, confronting him in public after he has abandoned her, and generally allowing their romance to become gossip fodder. Elinor, on the other hand, endures her love for Edward Ferrars—which she believes is doomed—in silence, all while keeping the confidence of an envious romantic rival. “I compare [my conduct] with what it should have been,” Marianne tells sister, after which she confesses, “I compare it with yours.” At base, Sense and Sensibility turns on the notion that while there are myriad ways for a woman to be, there are finite acceptable varieties.As a Marianne, my own capacity for empathy deepened when I finally understood that people can feel both deeply and quietly, and that disclosure is always a choice.
Categorical types can be tedious, both because they are limiting and because, after some time, identifying ourselves through them can feel like an endless project of self-justification. It ought not matter who we are or how, per thousands of Buzzfeed quizzes, we might align ourselves—with Elinor, with Marianne, with some other 19th-century literary heroine—so long as we act fully according to our own choices, and so long as we aren’t terrible.
But then again, I was quick to identify myself as a Marianne Dashwood—I am writing about her, in part, as a sort of catharsis. She is one more character I encountered relatively early in life who reminded me of myself and who, as a result, I didn’t like. Seeking to partially absolve her is an egocentric act; I am taking myself to court and adjudicating the validity of my selfhood. Because, when Marianne grows up and finally treats others with the sensitivity they deserve, she will still be too much, just as I am. And that, I would argue, is just as it ought to be.
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