Sense and Sensibility Introduction by Austin Dobson
Sense and Sensibility Introduction by Austin Dobson
With the title of Sense and Sensibility is connected one of those minor problems which delight the cummin-splitters of criticism. In the Cecilia of Madame D’Arblay—the forerunner, if not the model, of Miss Austen—is a sentence which at first sight suggests some relationship to the name of the book which, in the present series, inaugurated Miss Austen’s novels. ‘The whole of this unfortunate business’—says a certain didactic Dr. Lyster, talking in capitals, towards the end of volume three of Cecilia—’has been the result of Pride and Prejudice,’ and looking to the admitted familiarity of Miss Austen with Madame D’Arblay’s work, it has been concluded that Miss Austen borrowed from Cecilia, the title of her second novel. But here comes in the little problem to which we have referred. Pride and Prejudice it is true, was written and finished before Sense and Sensibility—its original title for several years being First Impressions. Then, in 1797, the author fell to work upon an older essay in letters à la Richardson, called Elinor and Marianne, which she re-christened Sense and Sensibility. This, as we know, was her first published book; and whatever may be the connection between the title of Pride and Prejudice and the passage in Cecilia, there is an obvious connection between the title of Pride and Prejudice and the title of Sense and Sensibility. If Miss Austen re-christened Elinor and Marianne before she changed the title of First Impressions, as she well may have, it is extremely unlikely that the name of Pride and Prejudice has anything to do with Cecilia (which, besides, had been published at least twenty years before). Upon the whole, therefore, it is most likely that the passage in Madame D’Arblay is a mere coincidence; and that in Sense and Sensibility, as well as in the novel that succeeded it in publication, Miss Austen, after the fashion of the old morality plays, simply substituted the leading characteristics of her principal personages for their names. Indeed, in Sense and Sensibility the sense of Elinor, and the sensibility (or rather sensiblerie) of Marianne, are markedly emphasised in the opening pages of the book But Miss Austen subsequently, and, as we think, wisely, discarded in her remaining efforts the cheap attraction of an alliterative title. Emma and Persuasion, Northanger Abbey and Mansfield Park, are names far more in consonance with the quiet tone of her easy and unobtrusive art.
Elinor and Marianne was originally written about 1792. After the completion—or partial completion, for it was again revised in 1811—of First Impressions (subsequently Pride and Prejudice), Miss Austen set about recasting Elinor and Marianne, then composed in the form of letters; and she had no sooner accomplished this task, than she began Northanger Abbey. It would be interesting to know to what extent she remodelled Sense and Sensibility in 1797-98, for we are told that previous to its publication in 1811 she again devoted a considerable time to its preparation for the press, and it is clear that this does not mean the correction of proofs alone, but also a preliminary revision of MS. Especially would it be interesting if we could ascertain whether any of its more finished passages, e.g. the admirable conversation between the Miss Dashwoods and Willoughby in chapter x., were the result of those fallow and apparently barren years at Bath and Southampton, or whether they were already part of the second version of 1797-98. But upon this matter the records are mute. A careful examination of the correspondence published by Lord Brabourne in 1884 only reveals two definite references to Sense and Sensibility and these are absolutely unfruitful in suggestion. In April 1811 she speaks of having corrected two sheets of ‘S and S,’ which she has scarcely a hope of getting out in the following June; and in September, an extract from the diary of another member of the family indirectly discloses the fact that the book had by that time been published. This extract is a brief reference to a letter which had been received from Cassandra Austen, begging her correspondent not to mention that Aunt Jane wrote Sense and Sensibility. Beyond these minute items of information, and the statement—already referred to in the Introduction to Pride and Prejudice—that she considered herself overpaid for the labour she had bestowed upon it, absolutely nothing seems to have been preserved by her descendants respecting her first printed effort. In the absence of particulars some of her critics have fallen to speculate upon the reason which made her select it, and not Pride and Prejudice, for her début; and they have, perhaps naturally, found in the fact a fresh confirmation of that traditional blindness of authors to their own best work, which is one of the commonplaces of literary history. But this is to premise that she did regard it as her masterpiece, a fact which, apart from this accident of priority of issue, is, as far as we are aware, nowhere asserted. A simpler solution is probably that, of the three novels she had written or sketched by 1811, Pride and Prejudice was languishing under the stigma of having been refused by one bookseller without the formality of inspection, while Northanger Abbey was lying perdu in another bookseller’s drawer at Bath. In these circumstances it is intelligible that she should turn to Sense and Sensibility, when, at length—upon the occasion of a visit to her brother in London in the spring of 1811—Mr. T. Egerton of the ‘Military Library,’ Whitehall, dawned upon the horizon as a practicable publisher.
By the time Sense and Sensibility left the press, Miss Austen was again domiciled at Chawton Cottage. For those accustomed to the swarming reviews of our day, with their Babel of notices, it may seem strange that there should be no record of the effect produced, seeing that, as already stated, the book sold well enough to enable its putter-forth to hand over to its author what Mr. Gargery, in Great Expectations, would have described as ‘a cool £150.’ Surely Mr. Egerton, who had visited Miss Austen at Sloane Street, must have later conveyed to her some intelligence of the way in which her work had been welcomed by the public. But if he did, it is no longer discoverable. Mr. Austen Leigh, her first and best biographer, could find no account either of the publication or of the author’s feelings thereupon. As far as it is possible to judge, the critical verdicts she obtained were mainly derived from her own relatives and intimate friends, and some of these latter—if one may trust a little anthology which she herself collected, and from which Mr. Austen Leigh prints extracts—must have been more often exasperating than sympathetic. The long chorus of intelligent approval by which she was afterwards greeted did not begin to be really audible before her death, and her ‘fit audience’ during her lifetime must have been emphatically ‘few,’ Of two criticisms which came out in the Quarterly early in the century, she could only have seen one, that of 1815; the other, by Archbishop Whately, the first which treated her in earnest, did not appear until she had been three years dead. Dr. Whately deals mainly with Mansfield Park and Persuasion; his predecessor professed to review Emma, though he also gives brief summaries of Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice. Mr. Austen Leigh, we think, speaks too contemptuously of this initial notice of 1815. If, at certain points, it is half-hearted and inadequate, it is still fairly accurate in its recognition of Miss Austen’s supreme merit, as contrasted with her contemporaries—to wit, her skill in investing the fortunes of ordinary characters and the narrative of common occurrences with all the sustained excitement of romance. The Reviewer points out very justly that this kind of work, ‘being deprived of all that, according to Bayes, goes “to elevate and surprise,” must make amends by displaying depth of knowledge and dexterity of execution.’ And in these qualities, even with such living competitors of her own sex as Miss Edgeworth and Miss Brunton (whose Self-control came out in the same year as Sense and Sensibility), he does not scruple to declare that ‘Miss Austen stands almost alone.’ If he omits to lay stress upon her judgment, her nice sense of fitness, her restraint, her fine irony, and the delicacy of her artistic touch, something must be allowed for the hesitations and reservations which invariably beset the critical pioneer.
To contend, however, for a moment that the present volume is Miss Austen’s greatest, as it was her first published, novel, would be a mere exercise in paradox. There are, who swear by Persuasion; there are, who prefer Emma and Mansfield Park; there is a large contingent for Pride and Prejudice; and there is even a section which advocates the pre-eminence of Northanger Abbey. But no one, as far as we can remember, has ever put Sense and Sensibility first, nor can we believe that its author did so herself. And yet it is she herself who has furnished the standard by which we judge it, and it is by comparison with Pride and Prejudice, in which the leading characters are also two sisters, that we assess and depress its merit. The Elinor and Marianne of Sense and Sensibility are only inferior when they are contrasted with the Elizabeth and Jane of Pride and Prejudice; and even then, it is probably because we personally like the handsome and amiable Jane Bennet rather better than the obsolete survival of the sentimental novel represented by Marianne Dashwood. Darcy and Bingley again are much more ‘likeable’ (to use Lady Queensberry’s word) than the colourless Edward Ferrars and the stiff-jointed Colonel Brandon. Yet it might not unfairly be contended that there is more fidelity to what Mr. Thomas Hardy has termed ‘life’s little ironies’ in Miss Austen’s disposal of the two Miss Dashwoods than there is in her disposal of the heroines of Pride and Prejudice. Every one does not get a Bingley, or a Darcy (with a park); but a good many sensible girls like Elinor pair off contentedly with poor creatures like Edward Ferrars, while not a few enthusiasts like Marianne decline at last upon middle-aged colonels with flannel waistcoats. George Eliot, we fancy, would have held that the fates of Elinor and Marianne were more probable than the fortunes of Jane and Eliza Bennet. That, of the remaining characters, there is certainly none to rival Mr. Bennet, or Lady Catherine de Bourgh, or the ineffable Mr. Collins, of Pride and Prejudice, is true; but we confess to a kindness for vulgar matchmaking Mrs. Jennings with her still-room ‘parmaceti for an inward bruise’ in the shape of a glass of old Constantia; and for the diluted Squire Western, Sir John Middleton, whose horror of being alone carries him to the point of rejoicing in the acquisition of two to the population of London. Excellent again are Mr. Palmer and his wife; excellent, in their sordid veracity, the self-seeking figures of the Miss Steeles. But the pearls of the book must be allowed to be that egregious amateur in toothpick-cases, Mr. Robert Ferrars (with his excursus in chapter xxxvi. on life in a cottage), and the admirably-matched Mr. and Mrs. John Dashwood. Miss Austen herself has never done anything better than the inimitable and oft-quoted chapter wherein is debated between the last-named pair the momentous matter of the amount to be devoted to Mrs. Dashwood and her daughters; while the suggestion in chapters xxxiii. and xxxiv. that the owner of Norland was once within some thousands of having to sell out at a loss, deserves to be remembered with that other memorable escape of Sir Roger de Coverley’s ancestor, who was only not killed in the civil wars because ‘he was sent out of the field upon a private message, the day before the battle of Worcester.’
Of local colouring there is as little in Sense and Sensibility as in Pride and Prejudice. It is not unlikely that some memories of Steventon may survive in Norland; and it may be noted that there is actually a Barton Place to the north of Exeter, not far from Lord Iddesleigh’s well-known seat of Upton Pynes. It is scarcely possible, also, not to believe that, in Mrs. Jennings’s description of Delaford—’a nice place, I can tell you; exactly what I call a nice old-fashioned place, full of comforts and conveniences; quite shut in with great garden walls that are covered with the best fruit-trees in the country; and such a mulberry tree in one corner!’—Miss Austen had in mind some real Hampshire or Devonshire country house. In any case, it comes nearer a picture than what we usually get from her pen. ‘Then there is a dovecote, some delightful stew-ponds, and a very pretty canal; and everything, in short, that one could wish for; and, moreover, it is close to the church, and only a quarter of a mile from the turnpike-road, so ’tis never dull, for if you only go and sit up in an old yew arbour behind the house, you may see all the carriages that pass along.’ The last lines suggest those quaint ‘gazebos’ and alcoves, which, in the coaching days, were so often to be found perched at the roadside, where one might sit and watch the Dover or Canterbury stage go whirling by. Of genteel accomplishments there is a touch In the ‘landscape in coloured silks’ which Charlotte Palmer had worked at school (chap, xxvi.); and of old remedies for the lost art of swooning, in the ‘lavender drops’ of chapter xxix. The mention of a dance as a ‘little hop’ in chapter ix. reads like a premature instance of middle Victorian slang. But nothing is new—even in a novel—and ‘hop,’ in this sense, is at least as old as Joseph Andrews.