The Way Jane Austen’s Life Experience Reflect in 'Sense and Sensibility'

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Jane Austen’s public image has been reimagined and reinterpreted countless times over the years. Although she remains one of the most popular female authors in Britain, she is also a polemical figure as her conservatism is widely debated. Some critics, such as Julian North, believe Jane Austen to be a “conservative icon in popular culture” due to her depictions of “traditional class and gender hierarchies, sexual propriety and Christian values”. However, Austen critic, Helena Kelly, declares that “a lot of the things we think that we know about Austen are not actually based on reliable evidence”. Kelly argues that Austen’s pervasiveness in the cultural consciousness allowed for the novels themselves to be overlooked. There is no better example of this than the commemorative Jane Austen £10 note to celebrate the bicentennial of her death which contains the quote: “I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading!”  Kelly believes that to truly understand Austen, “We have to read, and we have to read carefully, because Jane had to write carefully, because she was a woman and because she was living through a time when ideas both scared and excited people”. Kelly suggests that when we strip Austen down to the indisputable truth of her novels then we will discover a very different Austen, an Austen who is very much less demure and is actively angry at the world in which she lives, especially regarding the treatment of women and the poor. 

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Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility was written during a reactionary time. The Regency period in which Austen was writing lasted from 1790 – 1820 and the novels that she wrote, not including those published posthumously, were published from 1811 – 1815, at the very height of the Regency period. Austen’s narrator tends towards using parody to critique the portrayal of women in eighteenth-century novels. For example, Sense and Sensibility offers a commentary on the cult of sensibility that was popularised by such writers as Jean Jacques Rousseau and Samuel Richardson. It is in this way that critics such as Helena Kelly suggest that “contrary to popular opinion, Jane did reveal her beliefs, not just about domestic life and relationships, but about the wider political and social issues of the day”. During her lifetime, Austen witnessed the Enclosure Acts of the 1770s followed by the Industrial Revolution and saw how they forever changed the face of the British countryside and cities respectively. Moreover, Austen was born into The Age of Revolution, as she was born in 1775 at the height of the American Revolutionary War and was only thirteen when the French Revolution began. Austen was all too aware of the effects of war as, of her brothers, two were sent to the navy at a young age and one joined the Royal Oxfordshire Militia. Despite this, one common criticism of Austen is that her work is notably sparse of contemporary history. However, Warren Roberts argues that Austen “made a deliberate choice not to discuss directly the events that so disturbed her world”. Austen’s family was intimately acquainted with the revolution in France as Austen’s cousin, Eliza, was married to a French army officer who was executed at the height of the Reign of Terror. Therefore, Austen’s choice to omit the wars that permeated her childhood from her novels can be seen as an attempt at emotional detachment. It could also be for stylistic reasons to make the novel more accessible to later readers as her lack of historical detail means that the novel is less tethered to the specific moment in which it is written. One final suggestion by critics, including Roberts, is that as Austen was a member of the upper classes it is likely that if her personal connection to the wars through her brothers did not exist then she would not have been concerned with the wars at all. This could suggest that Austen fails to mention the wars as they would not have been a concern to the characters of her novels, most of whom are members of the landed gentry. Furthermore, although Austen does not interact directly with the French Revolution, her novels feature a number of issues such as gender, religion and class that were highlighted during the Revolution. It is in this way, argues Kelly, that “from the corner of our eye, we can see the shadow of the guillotine”.

In Sense and Sensibility, Austen examines the minutiae of certain forms and conventions that serve to oppress mostly women but also men, such as marriage. Austen uses the characters of Mr and Mrs Palmer to highlight the issues with the marriage market in the 18th and 19th centuries. Mr Palmer’s temper has been “soured” by his realisation that he is “the husband of a very silly woman” now that her good looks have faded. The Palmers are now bitter and resent one another as even friendship has faded away. Mary Wollstonecraft also warns against this in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Wollstonecraft states that “in the choice of a husband, they should not be led astray by the qualities of a lover—for a lover the husband, even supposing him to be wise and virtuous, cannot long remain”. Wollstonecraft believes that sexual passion cannot last and therefore a marriage based solely on physical attraction will not last. Like Austen, Wollstonecraft suggests that women should base their attraction on a meeting of the minds, rather than physical attraction in order to attain a long-lasting and successful marriage. This type of marriage is referred to as a compassionate marriage that is based on friendship rather than passion, such as that of Colonel Brandon and Marianne. Wollstonecraft argues that this type of marriage is the best type of marriage and states that with reasonable education more women would be interested in this match: “Were women more rationally educated, could they take a more comprehensive view of things, they would be contented to love but once in their lives; and after marriage calmly let passion subside into friendship”. It is ironic that, according to Wollstonecraft, it is Marianne who marries sensibly whereas Elinor’s love for Edward is passionate and cannot be controlled by sense nor reason. Within the marriage market, marriage is seen as a financial contract rather than a lifelong commitment one makes to someone they love. Marriage as a method of social or financial betterment is portrayed as a waste of time and is even deemed a form of legal prostitution by Mary Wollstonecraft: “To rise in the world (…) they must marry advantageously, and to this object their time is sacrificed, and their persons often legally prostituted”. However, while the marriage market may oppress both groups with its transactional view of marriage, women are still disproportionately affected by marriage and its consequences. For young women in Austen’s novels, marriage is not a choice but a necessity. Young men in Austen are free to choose if and when to marry, as seen by the character of Colonel Brandon who is 35 and still unmarried. Conversely, women in Austen are dependent on marriage to survive because, as seen in the opening of the novel, the stability of one’s social or financial standing without a husband is unreliable in the changeable nineteenth-century society. Some female writers of the era, such as Hannah More, believed in advocating compliance with the patriarchy as the best form of protection for women. At this time there were no formal or legal modes of protection for women, so it was often argued that it was in women’s best interest to collude with the patriarchy through institutions such as marriage.

Some critics have criticised the ending of Sense and Sensibility, saying that the resolution of the love plots feels too shoehorned or fairytale-esque due to the happy ending of marriages for both sisters. The final sentence of the novel seems to epitomise the “… and they lived happily ever after” ending that characterises fairy tales, as the narrator describes the “strong family affection” and “the happiness of Elinor and Marianne” that is experienced as the sisters live “almost within sight of each other” and there can be no “disagreement between themselves” nor “coolness” between their husbands. As with a Shakespearean comedy, the Austenian happy ending means a resolution ending in marriages for all characters. However, in her book on Austen, Helena Kelly has provided a new perspective on the ending of the novel and the marriage plot that makes the superficial comparison to fairy tales seem reductive and ahistorical. Kelly states that while remaining unmarried creates instability in terms of social and financial standing, for women in Austen marriage is a separate threat: “Marriage as Jane knew it involved a woman giving up everything to her husband – her money, her body, her very existence as a legal adult. Husbands could beat their wives, rape them, imprison them, take their children away, all within the bounds of the law”. Kelly suggests that the scene in which Edward Ferrars destroys the scissors and their sheath has connotations of sexual violence: “spoiling both them and their sheath by cutting the latter to pieces”. The legal doctrine of coverture meant that once a woman was married all of her legal rights were absorbed by her husband as in the eyes of the law, they became one marital unit, therefore a married woman cannot own property, have her own salary, or obtain an education. In this way, the husband was able to exercise almost complete control over his wife. This aspect of the oppression of women in marriage would have been explicit for female readers, whether they were married or unmarried. It is also explicit in the publication of the novel. As married women were unable to sign contracts, Austen had to publish Sense and Sensibility anonymously and the novel was described as being written: “By a Lady”. This also highlights the Austen suggests that a proposal is the only meaningful decision available to women. However, due to the aforementioned social and financial strains which make marriage necessary also make proposals a hopeless decision for women. Austen highlights the concept of choice regarding betrothals in the final chapter of Sense and Sensibility through the marriage of Marianne and Colonel Brandon. Austen uses the language of predestination to suggest that Marianne has submitted to a patriarchal inevitability rather than choosing to marry Colonel Brandon: “Marianne Dashwood was born to an extraordinary fate”. The use of the phrase “extraordinary fate” can be seen as ironic as this fate is by no means “extraordinary” as many women entered into marriages of convenience during this era. Moreover, the dangers of pregnancy and childbirth at the time would also be explicit in a marriage plot. For example, Kelly notes that in Northanger Abbey there are three, particularly verbose bedroom scenes which she suggests that Austen uses to highlight the real horror in the gothic novel is the potentially fatal risks that are posed by female sexuality and the capacity for conception and birth. This can also be seen in the novel, Frankenstein, which is written by Wollstonecraft’s daughter, Mary Shelley. Therefore, with regards to marriage in Austen, there is a distinct lack of feminine autonomy due to the disproportionate legal protections given to men such as coverture and spousal abuse being legal. Furthermore, marriage in Austen acts as a double-edged sword as a woman must marry to obtain financial stability but upon marrying, she loses all legal rights to said finances and any property owned by her becomes the property of her husband. Austen highlights the ways in which the lack of legal protection can lead to female vulnerability.

This vulnerability can also be seen due to the doctrine of primogeniture in which the oldest male child has the right to succeed his parent’s entire estate. Scholars, such as Claudia Johnson, suggests that Sense and Sensibility is a critique of the right of primogeniture and the patriarchal ruling order that supports it. Johnson asserts that the novel is not simply “a dramatized conduct book patly favoring female prudence over female impetuosity’ as it is often assumed to be. 

In general, Jane Austen, in her book Sense and Sensibility, pays particular attention to some vulnerable themes of the 18th and 19th century, such as the role of women in society and the family, the theme of marriage, which is also closely related to women, and the issue of birthright. She is a hero in literature and one of the greatest motivator for women in movements for their rights. 

07 July 2022

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