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Austen 2014: Sense & Sensibility, Volume 3 and Wrap-Up

Willoughby!!!

Okay, let me back up a bit.

This third volume seems designed to complicate and confuse the clearly established opinions we held about our characters. Elinor comes to realize how far Mrs. Jennings' good nature and kindness can go when confronted with a bad situation, and learns that, while she may be silly, she's a much better person than many of her more sophisticated acquaintances. Indeed, even Mr. Palmer improves upon acquaintance. While Elinor (and the narrator, which are often one and the same) rightly condemns his generally bad-natured behavior toward his wife and mother-in-law, she realizes that he is more complicated than simply a one-dimensional figure defined solely by his surliness. Of course, Marianne's reassessment of Colonel Brandon is the most important change of opinion as far as the plot is concerned, but it is Elinor's encounter with Willoughby that I feel must strike any reader as Austen's clearest attempt at giving everyone--even her caddish villain--more depth than a lesser writer might.

Austen specializes in strong, funny, smart heroines and kind, upstanding, and worthy heroes, but she does a strong side business in caddish rogues who provide an obstacle for the happy couple(s) to overcome and to drive some plot mechanics along. In Northanger Abbey, of course, we had John Thorpe, who is really far too unappealing to arouse much interest, and Austen only briefly shows us Captain Tilney, the charming rake. Here, however, Austen decides to focus more on the novel's cad, and goes even so far as to give him a chance to defend and justify his actions. Not to spoil anything for any readers who haven't done all of Austen, as it were, but this is essentially unique. While every novel from here on out will feature a charming but morally deficient (to varying degrees) foil for the heroine and the hero, Willoughby is the only one who gets a chance to speak plainly and clearly about his behavior, without having to renounce his former feelings.

It's this dichotomy to Willoughby--his earnest love and respect for Marianne coupled with his vicious (in the Austenian sense) and weak moral character--that makes him such an interesting, and dangerous figure in the Austen canon. As he explains his behavior and lays his soul bare to her, even Elinor--sensible Elinor!--finds it impossible not to soften toward him. One can only imagine the effect his apologia would have had on Marianne or Mrs. Dashwood. Elinor struggles, but in the end, her awareness of his basic selfishness and lack of scruples, allows her to judge him, yet still find some mercy and understanding for him. While she forgives him some of his behavior toward her sisters and understands some of the choices he made thereafter, she cannot forget or forgive how her treated Eliza. It is this original sin which allows Elinor to realize that, however much he may try to explain himself, his behavior is fundamentally that of a villain. Their encounter, Willoughby all passionate exclamations and soul-baring confessions and Elinor, as ever, Elinor--steady, sensible, and strong--is my favorite passage in the novel, and one of my favorite in all of Austen.

But I called Willoughby dangerous for a reason. The combination he presents of surface charm, keen intelligence, and an overweening selfishness, is a potent one. Austen will return to it again and again, varying to mixture and the nature of the components, constantly examining the lines where charm becomes insincerity, where intelligence becomes cunning, and where general self-interest becomes destructive selfishness. She won't allow her charming but morally compromised figures to make a final speech in their defense again, however, for Austen knows that we, unlike Elinor, may not be able to remind ourselves that, however charming the package, what lies inside is dangerous.

On the whole, this novel is rather difficult for me to love uncritically. Like Northanger Abbey, it has a few rough edges which, while interesting and still fun, tend to poke through the otherwise smooth surface of the narrative. Every time I read the novel, I am reminded how thinly drawn Marianne is in comparison to Elinor. Of course, Elinor is our main viewpoint, so it would be nearly impossible for both to be equally delineated, but I feel that Marianne's storyline takes up too much of the narrative for her to remain so relatively underwritten. Austen may have felt this, as well, for there's never again an attempt at co-main characters. In her other novels, it is always clear whose story it is that we're getting.

Relatedly, because so much time is given over to Willoughby and Marianne's romance, and the sisters' stay in London, poor Edward Ferrars gets rather short shrift. He is charming and pleasant enough--the sort of amiable but aimless English gentleman who often appear in novels--but he isn't nearly as distinctive as the heroes who would come after him, nor does he even make as large an impression as Henry Tilney. Colonel Brandon, interestingly, is actually sketched more fully, partially because his tragic backstory gives him such an air, but partly because he actually spends, I think, more time "on-screen" than Edward. Austen is also, I feel, quite harsh in her depiction of Anne Steele, a silly woman who is well past prime-marrying age and who seems destined to remain forever the poor relation. Such a person hardly needs to be the target of satire, something, again, I think Austen realized and would actually use to her advantage in her depiction of Miss Bates in Emma.

But these objections pale in comparison to the sheer joy I've taken in rereading this book. Elinor is such a wonderful character, wise beyond her years, but still playful and fun, that she's a delight to spend time with and it's a privilege to see the world through her eyes. While it's always dangerous to read anything of Austen's life into her works, in my mind, Elinor is the closest we have to a direct Austen surrogate. Catherine is young and naive, Elizabeth is far too witty to be real, Fanny far too modest and mousy to be an authorial stand-in, Emma is imperious and privileged in a way Austen never ways, and even Austen herself though Anne Elliott was "too good" for her. No, for me, Austen is Elinor--a wise, funny, but compassionate woman, for whom doing the right thing was paramount, but who knew how to laugh at others, and herself, along the way.

Next up, and intro (as if such a thing is needed) to Austen's most famous work: Pride & Prejudice.

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