Friday, September 18, 2015

How to Make Sense of Sensibility

by Monica Fairview

Funny how some terms become so slippery you can’t really grab hold of them. For us, sensibility immediately brings to mind the word “sensible,” which in fact doesn’t make any sense in the context of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, where the two obviously mean different things.

Have I got everybody sufficiently muddled? Just wait and see.

Here’s an explanation of what the word sensibility actually meant in Austen’s time taken from Wikipedia (what would we do without it?).

Sensibility refers to an acute perception of or responsiveness toward something, such as the emotions of another. This concept emerged in eighteenth-century Britain, and was closely associated with studies of sense perception as the means through which knowledge is gathered. It also became associated with sentimental moral philosophy… George Cheyne and other medical writers wrote of "The English Malady," also called "hysteria" in women or "hypochondria" in men, a condition with symptoms that closely resemble the modern diagnosis of clinical depression. Cheyne considered this malady to be the result of over-taxed nerves. At the same time, theorists asserted that individuals who had ultra-sensitive nerves would have keener senses, and thus be more aware of beauty and moral truth. Thus, while it was considered a physical and/or emotional fragility, sensibility was also widely perceived as a virtue.

Now, what do you make of that? Nothing like our own idea of being “sensible”, though perhaps the word “sensitive” might convey some of the meaning.

Why would I go into such detail about a single word? Because I think Jane Austen spent a lot of time trying to work out which quality is more desirable in her heroines – sense or sensibility? Clearly in the book of that title, she comes down heavily on the side of sense, with Elinor representing that quality and criticizing quite harshly the excessive sensibility of Marianne. Though ultimately, as readers we do tend to sympathize with Marianne. In other words, logically, we side with Sense, but emotionally we side with sensitivity.

In her other novels, the verdict isn’t quite so clear. The concepts are still at war, but JA presents things differently. In Pride and Prejudice Jane’s relationship with Bingley seems to represent sensibility more (particularly in the way she pines away), as does Elizabeth’s tossing aside a practical marriage with Collins because, as she claims, she’ll only marry for love. The one who uses the most sense is Charlotte, but the novel never quite accepts that common-sense approach. Mrs. Bennet, on the other hand, is a perfect example of “ultra-sensitive nerves,” but far from presenting this as a virtue, JA makes it the target of her satire. 

In Northanger Abbey, Catherine Moorland clearly manifests some aspects of sensibility, again parodied by JA, yet her intuitive feeling of something wrong at the Abbey does make sense, given the behavior of General Tilney.  

Persuasion is a tricky one. The extreme side of sensibility is represented by Mary, and it almost seems that the practical Anne is the opposite. But Anne is also the most sensitive of her family, the abler to understand nuances of behavior and the most emotional of them all. Since the novel is largely about choosing love over the “persuasions” of others, JA here clearly gives love the upper hand over rationality and social considerations.

As for Mansfield Park, it swings back in the direction of reason. Fanny is the reasonable one while everyone around her seems to be guided by their instincts. Even Edward succumbs to the irrational when temptation is thrown his way.

Emma, in some way, is a search for order and the rational in a world where everything seems chaotic. Emma sees herself as the sensible one capable of organizing everyone else’s happiness, but, like the trip to Box Hill, everything quickly becomes chaotic. I love the way riddles and puzzles play with this idea all the way through.

I’m the first to admit that I’m quickly developing a headache as I try to work myself through this. By the end, I’m not sure where I started. Is Jane Austen an advocate of sense or of sensibility? 

What do you think?

Monica Fairview is the bestselling author of Austen Sequels: The Other Mr. Darcy, The Darcy Cousins, and Austen Variations: Mr. Darcy’s Pledge, Mr. Darcy’s Challenge and The Darcy Brothers and the Neo-Victorian futuristic Steampunk Darcy as well as a Regency romance An Improper Suitor now in Regency Quintet: Summer Edition. 


Elizabeth Hawksley said...

Thank you for such an interesting post, Monica. It's exactly the sort of thing I enjoy. Personally, I think that Jane Austen approved of the Ancient Greek dictum at Delphi: Nothing too Much. Yes, Marianne must learn moderation and not rate her own feelings above everyone else's comfort; but Elinor, too, has things to learn. Remember how she bursts into tears and has to leave the room when she learns that Edward is free? Perhaps, as Emma Thompson's diary of the filming of 'Sense and Sensibility' shows - she wrote the script - Elinor is something of a control freak, and she needs to learn to let go.

Monica Fairview said...

Thank you, Elizabeth. I'm glad you enjoyed it. I think what you're saying makes sense. I'll have to think about how the concept of moderation applies to the other novels, but I agree that Elinor needs to learn to trust her emotions a bit more. Poor Elinor *is* a control freak, but isn't she forced into that role because neither her mother nor Marianne have any common sense, and they need her "sense" in order to manage on such a small income?

Jane Odiwe said...

A fabulous thought-provoking post, Monica. I think Jane shows that a balance between the two is probably what we should be aiming for - in Sense and Senibility it seems both heroines are changed by the end of the book.
I find it fascinating that both Mary and Anne display differing sensibilities in Persuasion- Jane's expertise in crafting characters means that we find it hard to empathise with Mary, and really root for Anne.

Monica Fairview said...

Thank you, Jane. I do think it was something that Jane Austen really tried to work out through her books. I agree about Mary and Anne. It seems to be a recurring theme for Jane Austen. I wonder if it reflected in any way the differences between Jane Austen herself and her sister Cassandra?