Understanding Sense and Sensibility Through the Lens of Jane Austen’s Life
Although she only lived to forty-one years of age and published a mere six works, Jane Austen was one of the most profound authors of the nineteenth century. Her first published work, penned when she was but nineteen years old, was Sense and Sensibility: a dramatic rollercoaster of a story about two very different sisters and their journey through life and love. By looking at Jane Austen’s life, it is apparent that her personal life heavily influenced Sense and Sensibility in the context of the Dashwoods, other characters in the novel, varying situations they encounter, and the setting of her story, as well as being aided by her family. Society in her day helped Austen shape her own views on women as well as her own social commentary that she used in her novels.
The main characters in Sense and Sensibility, the Dashwood women, are similar to many people in Jane Austen’s life, and many of the situations her characters face stem from experiences she had in her own life. For example, her great-grandmother was faced with a situation, not unlike Mrs. Dashwood’s: she was evicted from her home after her husband’s death by a close relative and was forced to take up teaching and other odd jobs in order to support her children and send them to school: “With a daughter and six sons to support, Elizabeth appealed to her father-in-law, who promised her £200 before he died. It turned out that his estate was tied up in favour of his eldest little grandson. Denied even her £200, Elizabeth paid off debts by selling valuables and a leasehold house, and then moved to Seven Oaks to take a roomy old home where she boarded and cleaned for the grammar school’s schoolmaster and some of his pupils” (Honan 12). This makes it easier to understand where Austen derived her ideas for her writing.
Another instance of Austen using her surroundings in her novel is Elinor and Marianne’s close and loving relationship. Austen’s older sister Cassandra was her anchor and her most intimate friend, especially in the early years of her life (Honan 5). Through this, she was able to form a very realistic relationship between the two contrasting Dashwood sisters. On the trend of templates, Marianne’s “putrid fever” towards the end of the novel was experienced firsthand by Austen, as while she was visiting colleges she contracted the illness of the same sort, typhus, and therefore knew what it was like to have the sickness (Austen 252; Honan 31). Austen, her sister, and her niece Jane Cooper all nearly died, and when the girls returned home, Jane Cooper’s mother died from the disease (Honan 31). This was no doubt a traumatic event for all involved, leading Austen to use it in her work as a romantic tool. This gives readers a chance to interpret the novel in a real way, as Austen intended. Compared to the literature of the time, Austen’s works were very real and in tune with how things really were in terms of society, love, and everything in between.
The way Elinor and Marianne handle their love-related dilemmas are very different, but they both hail from their author’s own tragic love life. When Austen was twenty, she met Tom Lefroy, her best friend’s nephew. He was charming and Austen could not find any fault in him. All seemed to be well until one day he dropped everything and left her in the dust since she was not of the status he or his family required (Honen 111). This situation is mirrored very closely in Sense and Sensibility with Edward and Elinor’s relationship as well as the one between Marianne and Willoughby. Although the girls and their relationships are strikingly different, Austen’s anguish bleeds through both of the girls’ responses to betrayal and being hurt by the men they love (80). Austen knew of love and heartbreak, obvious through the vividness in her works, but it is argued that she never found closure and therefore sought to give all her stories happy endings (“Jane Austen’s Life”).
Jane Austen used other instances in her life to create other characters and situations throughout Sense and Sensibility. For example, her best friend, Anne Lefroy, had the emotional range of Marianne and the bluntness of Mrs. Jennings: “Mrs. Lefroy was not subtle: she was a dramatic, passionate woman who had a whirlwind effect on nearly everyone… Her feelings outstripped or pressed at the limits of language…” (Honan 80). To continue, her uneducated friend Martha was the perfect mold for the likes of the Miss Steeles, who, like Martha, were mostly uneducated but knew how to handle themselves in some form around those of a higher class (Honen 79). Austen writes of Anne Steele, a character whose background mimics Martha’s: “… her features were pretty, and she has a sharp quick eye, and a smartness of air, which, though it did not give actual elegance or grace, gave distinction to her person. Their manners were particularly civil, and Elinor soon allowed them credit for some kind of sense…” (Austen 99). Austen used her innate sense of observation, developed at an early age, to assess and consequently portray people based on their actions and their character, rather than on their appearances (Honen 63). This is shown many times throughout the novel, even when describing the main characters. When describing Margaret, she briefly covers the shape of her body, skin color, smile, and eyes, but even throughout all of that, Austen does not as much describe Margaret as a physical object, but rather as a deep character, emphasizing her good qualities and letting her attributes describe and define her rather than her looks (39).
Jane Austen’s young life was centered around her family and, according to Park Honan, that is where her personality grew and flourished (89). Her family, both immediate and extended, influenced her characters and stories (Warren). Her idol and closest friend, her sister Cassandra, was proficient in art, and Austen mimics this talent in Elinor’s character and gives her sister the recognition her ability deserved (Honan 37). Her mother was quick-witted and poetic, with a mild sense of humor that Jane ended up inheriting and ingraining in her works, from her early burlesque plays to Sense and Sensibility. On the subject of her siblings, her brother James confided in her at one point, claiming that he wished he could drop out of Oxford to be part of a clergy, however, Mr. Austen was adamant that all his children be educated (Honan 57). In Sense and Sensibility, Edward Ferrars mentions how he and his family can never agree on a profession, as he wished for a simple, tranquil life in the clergy over law or politics, which are his family’s choices for him, and how he now sits idle at Oxford: “We could never agree in our choice of a profession. I always preferred the church, as I still do. But that was not smart enough for my family” (Austen 85). In terms of her family as a whole, her family’s financial status as the “poor end of the gentry” gave Jane Austen the insight she needed to write the Dashwood women’s situation when they were kicked out of their home with little money to live off of, as she lived most of her life with her family having little to spare (Honen 92). Alternatively, Austen’s family moved to Bath when Jane was a little bit older, and because of this she was forced to move around quite a bit and stay in a multitude of different places (“Jane Austen’s Life”). This gave her the experience needed to write about many different areas, including London, where she visited for a time.
Jane Austen was a keen observer and, being shy, often kept to the sidelines at parties and balls (Honen 87). Based on her observations of the party-goers compared to how she saw her family at home, she formed opinions about the society in which she lived and subtly poked fun at the unfairness and double standards that existed within society’s views while also weaving in her own personal beliefs. For instance, the theme of money is nearly overwhelming in Sense and Sensibility. Society simply revolved around money, and if one wished to be anything in society, they had to have money or one was essentially worthless. In her novel, Willoughby leaves Marianne under the late premise that she did not have money and he was “forced” to marry a rich woman in order to make a name for himself (Austen 268). Willoughby’s wife, Miss Grey, is quite the catch in the novel according to the gossip, although she is miffed about being used for her money and she knows full well that Willoughby does not love her; only her money (Austen 270). On the subject of Willoughby, his slightly promiscuous and deceiving nature stemmed from Jane’s strange intrigue with adultery and sexual infidelity, which is connected to society in that it collectively was always looking for something to gossip about, and adultery could taint or even ruin someone’s reputation (Honen 164). Austen also found the absurdity in respect to what the higher classes did in their free time: the women stitched, played instruments, or gossiped while the men hunted; these things were all they seemed to do. Jane Austen used this to her advantage in her books as a mockery and a plot catalyst (“Jane Austen’s Life”).
The middle gentry did not have the freedom of extended job choice at this time, even men. This was made apparent by Edward’s commentary on his own nonexistent career (Austen 85). Austen showed how society created anguish in some with Elinor’s heartbreaking situation with Lucy Steele where she was forced to keep face and keep her heartbreak inside because of a promise she made because it was proper to do so (Austen 151).
In a moral sense, Jane Austen was firmly grounded in what she believed. Her strong faith in God enabled her fun side to embellish the comical parts of her writing while giving all her pieces an undertone of unquestioning assurance (Honan 275). Instead of obsessing over her characters’ looks and dress, Austen would rather expand on how they were as a person (39). With that, she also showed how differing personality types were not bad, in fact, through Marianne and Elinor, she demonstrated how the girls worked together and their differences in thought and perception helped them love each other (Honen 277). This shows Austen’s own character and that how she thought and wrote was not influenced by what the world thought, which gives insight into the text and how to make sense of her work.
First-wave feminism was just beginning to take root at the time of Jane Austen. When she was first able to read, at about ten years of age, she was introduced to the earliest feminist authors and she ate up the material (Honen 33). Marianne’s intense desire to always speak her mind shows how society dampened women’s self-expression and equality, like when the girls are visiting with Mrs. Ferrars and Marianne lashes out at Mrs. Ferrars when she regards Elinor’s paintings as unremarkable in comparison to Miss Morton’s (Austen 193-194). Marianne exclaims, “This is admiration of a very particular kind! What is Miss Morton to us? Who knows, or who cares, for her?– it is Elinor of whom we think and speak” (Austen 193). This is one of Marianne’s most intense outbursts, and her full range of emotion shows in her words, however, the ones around her do not see this as a positive (Austen 194). On another note, Elinor throws Marianne for a loop when she mentions that she does not exactly have the desire to marry Edward, as her feelings for him, in the beginning, were simply friendly in nature in the beginning, and her sister finds this preposterous, which shows how unusual it was for women to be independent and show qualities aside from the mainstream (Austen 18). Austen took issue with how society saw the perfect woman: a cookie-cutter beauty that was proper, emotionless, and hardworking. Austen illustrates her characters as distinct individuals and celebrated their diversity.
In Austen’s time, a woman’s worth was partially set on the perfection of her manners, since that is what society decided to judge a woman on rather than her personality or special talent, like Lady Middleton, who is void of any personality and only cares for her children (Austen 99). Austen did not like this way of evaluation, so she creates Marianne’s character to be one of wild emotions and often does not care what others think, which is a feminist viewpoint on what women should be able to do: speak their minds without fear of retaliation or open judgment. For instance, Elinor is just about forced to keep Anne Steele’s secret of her engagement to Edward because of societal standards, even though it ate at her for four entire months (Austen 151). Elinor only spills to Marianne because her sister is wailing about her own heartbreak, and it almost seems like she tells her for empathy’s sake (Austen 151). Austen created these instances because she saw just how complex women were in numerous ways. She observed social activities, both domestic and public, and because of her observations was one of the first to delve into the female psyche in her novels, as the feminine mind was not even breached in literature at the time (Honen 176). This gave her the opportunity to speak truth about women and how they really were, which opens a window into depicting the text as an outsider looking in.
Jane Austen used society to create her own viewpoints on women and the concept of feminism. She also used her life, surroundings, and family to help her write Sense and Sensibility. Austen may not have written many books before her untimely death, but what she said in them was extremely impactful and still is today.
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