Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility

Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility was originally called Elinor and Marianne. The first draft of it was in epistolary form and written perhaps as early 1795, although she touched it up again at age twenty-one in November of 1797 and renamed it Sense and Sensibility. She drew inspiration for the novel from other novels of the times. For instance, in 1785, there was Adam Stevenson’s Life and Love that focused on a doomed relationship. There was also the English novelist Jane West’s A Gossip’s Story published in 1796 that featured a rational sister and a romantic sister, with the romantic sister being named Marianne. In addition, there was Samuel Richardson who wrote Austen’s favorite novel, The History of Sir Charles Grandison, that was published in 1759.

Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility

James Andrews’ version of Jane Austen. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Some years passed before Jane looked at her manuscript again. By then the epistolary form was passé, so she began revising it. She also wanted to get it published and her brother Henry was instrumental in helping her accomplish that goal. He took it took to Thomas Egerton, a London publisher and bookseller, and because Austen was an unknown and unpublished author, Egerton made a deal that he would receive a 10% commission for selling the book and Jane would pay to publish it. Of her dealing with Egerton, twenty-first century Janet Todd notes:

“Thomas Egerton seems an odd choice of publisher for a novelist: although established and respectable, the firm issued mainly military and political documents rather than fiction, along with historical treatises and travel writing. … Henry, who had been from 1801 a banker and army agent in London [already knew Egerton]. The relationship might be further explicable through a publishing arrangement made some twenty years earlier: from January 1789 to March 1790 … James (Jane’s oldest brother) and then Henry, both students at Oxford, issued a short-lived weekly entitled the Loiterer, which ran to sixty issues. From the fifth instalment Egerton’s name appears on the imprint as one of its publishers; perhaps some recent dealing with Egerton over Army affairs or even a decision to settle upon a publisher he already knew … led Henry to Egerton sometime in 1809.[1]

Sense and Sensibility was published in 1811, the same year that Napoleon Bonaparte‘s son, Napoleon II, was born. The book was published anonymously with the author listed as “A Lady.” It was a coming-of-age story related to two young girls, the Dashwood sisters, Elinor (age 19) and Marianne (age 16 1/2). The title of the novel suggests two opposing traits because the definition of sense is sound prudent judgement, reason, and wisdom whereas in Jane’s time sensibility meant sensitivity and the ability to rely on one’s feelings to guide behavior. The two sisters have both traits, but Elinor allows sense to dominate while Marianne is controlled by sensibility.

Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility

Title page of “Sense and Sensibility.” Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The sisters’ relationship is one key relationship in Sense and Sensibility. Their relationship was inspired by Jane’s own relationship with her beloved older sister, Cassandra Elizabeth, who was more like Elinor while Jane was more like Marianne. The two Austen sisters were best friends, shared, secrets, and exchanged letters, and, in fact, their relationship was so close, their mother once said, [I]f Cassandra’s head had been going to be cut off, Jane would have her’s cut off too.”[2]

Jane’s story quickly places Marianne, who is driven by excessive emotionalism and an aching desire to find the man of her dreams, in the position of being the object of interest by two gentlemen. The first is the young, handsome, and romantic John Willoughby, and the second gentleman is Colonel Brandon, a man who is not seductive like Willoughby but rather a reserved older and less lively gentleman considered “silent and grave.”

It should therefore come as no surprise that the naïve Marianne, falls for the dashing Willoughby, who Jane ensures makes a Prince Charming entrance. It happens on a rainy day after Marianne and her 13-year-old sister Margaret ignore the weather and wander off in the downs. Marianne slips on the mud and takes a tumble twisting her ankle. Willoughby, who is hunting with his dogs nearby, suddenly appears in the misty rain. He scoops her up and carries her home. Here is Jane’s rendition:

“A gentleman carrying a gun, with two pointers playing round him, was passing up the hill, and within a few yards of Marianne, when her accident happened. He put down his gun and ran to her assistance. She had raised herself from the ground, but her foot had been twisted in the fall, and she was scarcely able to stand. The gentleman offered his services; and perceiving that her modesty declined what her situation rendered necessary, took her up in his arms, without farther delay, and carried her down the hill. Then passing through the garden, the gate of which had been left open by Margaret, he bore her directly into the house wither Margaret was just arrived, and quitted not his hold till he had seated her in a chair in the parlour.”[3]

Unfortunately for Marianne, unbeknownst to her, Willoughby is anything but a true hero. Rather he is a seducer who likes to toy with women affections and is driven by a desire to have his ego stroked. In direct contrast to the self-centered Willoughby is the upstanding and honest Colonel Brandon. Long ago he had fallen in love with a woman named Eliza Williams, but his father refused to allow him to marry her. She then led a promiscuous life and had a daughter, also named Eliza, who becomes Brandon’s ward upon the older Eliza’s death. Unlike Willoughby who is cash poor, needs a rich wife, and has no intention of returning Marianne’s affections, Brandon has inherited a wealthy estate and is seeking true love.

Marianne cannot focus on Brandon because she is too smitten by Willoughby and when she loses him, she becomes so distraught she make herself physically ill. Brandon, in the meantime, who has fallen in love with Marianne on first sight, displays his worthiness and respectability. When he learns that the scoundrel Willoughby is responsible for the pregnancy of his 16-year-old ward Eliza, instead of ruining Willoughby’s reputation, Brandon handles the situation quietly, although, ultimately, Willoughby’s aunt learns that he has impregnated Eliza and disinherits him.

Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility

Vignette from the title page of ” Sense and Sensibility.” Marianne in bed, awakened by a noise and sitting up feverishly, comforted by a girl beside her. 1833. Courtesy of British Museum.

Strapped for cash, Willoughby suddenly leaves Marianne. He goes to London, and while Marianne is distraught over their unexplained and unexpected separation, he seduces the wealthy Miss Sophia Grey of London. They become engaged and marry so that he continues to live a comfortable carefree life. Ultimately, Marianne learns of Willoughby’s marriage and his deceit with Eliza. She also discovers that Brandon is truly the better man, falls in love with him, and marries him.

As for Elinor, she is not driven by her sensibility but by sense. She demonstrates her sense by advising her mother to be thrifty and economical after she learns that her half-brother John refuses to honor their father’s deathbed wish to care for her family. Elinor is always polite, proper, and pleasant and believes that good sense is the key to “civility,” something that she believes everyone should practice. In addition, Elinor knows how to control her senses and maintains a calm stoic exterior no matter the situation, which of course then results in misunderstandings that she is cold and indifferent.

One example of her stoic coolness is shown when she learns that her love interest, Edward Ferrars, who is also the brother of John’s greedy wife Fanny, is secretly engaged to another woman. That woman is Lucy Steele, a poorly bred, not so genteel, masterful flirt. She is interested in Edward only for his money and when they are young, she entices the naïve and shy Edward to propose to her. However, their engagement is kept secret because he knows that his family would object to her.

Elinor soon discovers that despite Edward’s obvious interest in her, he plans to marry Lucy and keep the promise to Lucy he made long ago. However, because Elinor can so successfully suppress her true feelings, no one knows that she is upset about Edward. When Edward’s mother learns of his engagement to Lucy, she demands that he break it off, but because he has given his word to Lucy, he refuses, and, so, his mother disinherits him.

This is an unusual twist. This practice was called primogeniture and although not required in Jane’s time, it was generally accepted. Moreover, at this time, women generally did not inherit property or money because the eldest son inherited everything. The practice of primogeniture began in medieval times because it allowed a family’s wealth and property to remain in their hands and ensured that the family’s surname survived from generation to generation. Therefore, a male son was vitally important. If there was not one, drastic measures might be taken to ensure family succession.

The idea of primogeniture played an important role in Jane’s family. Thomas and Catherine Knight, relatives of Jane’s father, took an interest in the Austen’s third oldest child. He was the blonde-haired, easy going, and delightful Edward Austen born in 1768. The Knights had no children of their own and were well-to-do. Thomas wanted his legacy to survive, and, moreover, he could give Edward a better life. Thus, Edward was formally adopted by them when he was about 12. Thomas made Edward his legal heir around 1783, and about three years later the Knights paid for him to take the Grand Tour. In 1812, upon the death of Mrs. Knight, Edward took the surname Knight.

Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility

Edward Austen. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

In Jane’s story, Mrs. Ferrars disinherits Edward and makes his younger brother Robert, an ego-centric young man, the heir to her fortune. When Colonel Brandon learns of Edward’s misfortune, he comes to his rescue by providing a parish and house so that Edward can save his money and marry Lucy. However, when Lucy learns that Edward has been disinherited, just like Willoughby quickly forgot Marianne, Lucy also quickly forgets Edward. Instead, she shifts her focus to Robert, wins him over with false flattery, and they marry. When Edward learns that Lucy has jilted him and manipulated Robert into marrying her, he is set free from his promise, visits Elinor, and expresses his love for her. She is overjoyed, and, ultimately, they marry.

Beside inheritance, Sense and Sensibility also deals with proper behavior and etiquette. There were plenty of dos and don’ts for young ladies and gentlemen in Jane’s time. For instance, young couples were not supposed to be alone in private. This meant long, romantic walks by couples alone was not permitted. Private carriage rides were considered even worse, but Jane places Willoughby and Marianne in a compromising situation when he decides to show off and take her out for a whirl-wind ride in his curricle. Here’s the scene:

“He drove through the park very fast, and they were soon out of sight; and nothing more of them was seen till their return, which did not happen till after the return of all the rest. They both seemed delighted with their drive; but said only in general terms that they had kept in the lanes, while the others went on the downs.”[4]

Another example of what a couple should not do was demonstrated by Willoughby and Marianne at a ball given at Barton. In Jane’s time, people were expected to socialize with each other and not dance with someone more than twice as to do so was an indication that the couple was engaged or that a pending engagement was on the horizon. Nevertheless, Marianne saw no point in concealing her affection for Willoughby, and neither did he. This prompted Elinor, who found their affection for one another improper and uncomfortable, to advise her sister to be less open “and once or twice did venture to suggest the propriety of some self-command to Marianne,”[5] but Marianne abhorred it. Jane thus describes Willoughby and Marianne’s relationship in the following manner:

“When he was present she had no eyes for any one else. Every thing he did was right. Every thing he said was clever. If their evenings at the Park were concluded with cards, he cheated himself and all the rest of the party to get her a good hand. If dancing formed the amusement of the night, they were partners for half the time; and when obliged to separate for a couple of dances, were careful to stand together, and scarcely spoke a word to any body else. Such conduct made them, of course, most exceedingly laughed at; but ridicule could not shame, and seemed hardly to provoke them.”[6]

Sense and Sensibility was published in the English literature period known as “Romanticism.” It arose after the “Age of Sensibility,” a period that was a reaction to the earlier rationalism of the Augustan Age between 1700 and 1750. The “Age of Sensibility” (roughly between the late 1740s and 1789) was a time when philosophers promoted the idea that human beings had an inborn ability to do good and that they should therefore demonstrate sympathy and empathy for others. However, despite this belief of sympathy and empathy, in Sense and Sensibility Jane introduces her most devious character, Willoughby.

When taking a close look at him, it is easy to see that he is a defective person, if not a sociopathic one. In fact, he easily fits today’s definition of a sociopath: a glib person with superficial charm who is shallow, manipulative, cunning, and unremorseful. Jane demonstrates many examples of Willoughby showing these traits. For instance, although he charms all the Dashwood women, he freely admits that he has toyed with Marianne’s emotions just for fun. Another instant of his callousness is that once he learns that Eliza is pregnant by him, he shockingly abandons her. The biggest blow for Marianne in relation to Willoughby occurs at a party where he bows curtly and acts as if he hardly knows her, and, of course, this cuts Marianne to the quick. Here is Jane’s version that also demonstrates Marianne’s emotionalism and her inability to control her emotions:

“They had not remained in this manner long, before Elinor perceived Willoughby, standing within a few yards of them in earnest conversation with a very fashionable looking young woman. She soon caught his eye and he immediately bowed, but without attempting to speak to her, or to approach Marianne, though he could not but see her … At last he turned round again, and regarded them both: she [Marianne] started up and pronouncing his name in a tone of affection, held out her hand to him. He approached; and addressing himself rather to Elinor than Marianne, as if wishing to avoid her eye, and determined not to observe her attitude, enquired, in a hurried manner, after Mrs. Dashwood, and asked how long they had been in town. Elinor was robbed of all presence of mind by such an address, and was unable to say a word. But the feelings of her sister were instantly expressed. Her face was crimsoned over, and she exclaimed in a voice of the greatest emotion, ‘Good God! Willoughby what is the meaning of this? Have you not received my letters? Will you not shake hands with me?”[7]

All of Jane’s books give readers a glimpse into the intimate lives of women during the early nineteenth century. Her characters also deal with romance and their desires to find true love. Sense and Sensibility is no exception. However, to find love, her characters always discover that they must overcome some emotional hardship or heartbreaking challenge, and by doing so, they learn about life and love. Jane also shows in this novel that a balance of sense and sensibility is the key to true love and a happy life. In addition, just like Marianne discovers she needs to have more sense, Elinor also learns that her sense needs to be tempered by sensibility.

Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility

Marianne and Elinor from movie version of “Sense and Sensibility.”

Twenty-two years after Sense and Sensibility was published, the Morning Post noted:

“We are glad to find that the excellent productions of Miss Austen are introduced into the collection of Standard Novels now publishing by Mr. Bentley. The great characteristic of her stories is their domestic truth. The characters that move in them are as real as the language of direct simplicity can make them. It is impossible, however, to read the conversations in Miss Austen’s novels without becoming insensibly impressed with their natural fluency and unsophisticated earnestness. The charm of the style is not at first obvious, nor is the reader soon made aware of the spell that fascinates him; it is only after perusing many pages that the mind becomes attracted, and then the irresistible vraisemblance that animates the whole gradually wins upon the feelings, and the book is laid down with a pleasurable conviction of the singular ability and profound knowledge of character which it exhibits. These works are very unlike Madame d’Arblay’s, and they have less apparent skill than Miss Porter’s or Miss Edgeworth’s; but we are not quite sure whether Miss Austen, as an observer of human nature, and a faithful chronicler of life as it is, does not take higher rank than either of them.”[8]


  • J. Todd, The Cambridge Companion to ‘Pride and Prejudice’ (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), p. 49.
  • [2] D. L. Faye and W. Austen-Leigh, Jane Austen: A Family Record (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), p. 50.
  • [3] J. Austen, Sense and Sensibility: A Novel (London: Richard Bentley, 1833), p. 35.
  • [4] J. Austen, p. 57.
  • [5] ibid., p. 45.
  • [6] ibid., p. 45–46.
  • [7] ibid., p. 149–50.
  • [8] Morning Post, “Sense and Sensibility, by Jane Austen,” February 14, 1833, p. 4.

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