Composition and Publication History:
This novel was possibly the first she wrote in draft form, as “Elinor and Marianne,” written in 1795 (at the age of 20), in epistolary form. She started revising it in 1797 and probably continued in 1809. She had already sold “Susan,” an early version of Northanger Abbey, in 1803, but the publishing firm that bought it never printed it (she bought it back in 1816 and it was published posthumously). Just as it was (probably) the first she wrote in draft form, then, it was the first she saw published; she paid to have it published anonymously in Nov. 1811; this novel, by an unknown and unidentified author, sold 1000 copies by July 3rd, 1812, and she earned 140 pounds from those sales. It was reprinted in Nov. 1813.
If you buy the Oxford edition, you will probably get one with an introduction by Margaret Anne Doody; it’s pretty interesting about late 18th-century arguments about sensibility and women’s issues. You probably shouldn’t read introductions, however, until you’ve read the novel itself; you’ll get more out of them that way.
Theoretical and Literary Background:The title sets up a juxtaposition between two ways of thinking, behaving, and knowing that are very rooted in 18th-century philosophical and other forms of belief – ways with which most of you are probably unfamiliar. Here’s a quick and dirty overview:
Early 18th-century rationalism, certainly following Descartes, and continued throughout the eighteenth-century in the work of Enlightenment thinkers, was the belief that the mind, and rationality, were humanity’s main and best asset, and that the world could be known and improved through rationality. To a great extent, this comes out of pre-18th-century philosophy. In the notion of the Great Chain of Being, for instance, humans fall below angels and God but are situated above animals. Thinking and acting morally, in this schema, make us rise up the Chain of Being, a progression that, by the end of time, will, with Christ’s help, bring us back to closeness with angelic being. Leaving ourselves susceptible to physical (a.k.a. animal) appetites, however, drops us down the chain. Using reason and suppressing nasty things like lust and gluttony will improve humankind.
Arguments about when these beliefs changed and what caused them to change are legion, and it’s probably clear to you that these beliefs are, to great extent, still held. In Freudian theory, for instance, for society to work, we must repress our id-centered urges – lust, anger, desire for immediate gratification – and behave rationally and civilly.
But, with shifts in physiological models, politics, economics, philosophic and religious thought, and the works of various literati, the body itself gained precedent. The argument has been made that with Milton’s celebration of sensuality as part of marital love, the body and its pleasures became recuperated in part as a site of morality. Locke, in philosophy, argued that we can only know the world through our senses; he included in this a sort of moral sense, however. Thinking “rationally” in his system can only occur through the experience we gain through our bodies (and that moral sense). He does not thereby condone orgies indulging any of the senses or emotions, but he does argue that without the body, there can be no mental work, and no morality.
His theories come into play in politico-economic-religious thought in complex ways in the works of the third Earl of Shaftesbury, who suggests that through sympathy, which occurs through our senses, through signals brought to our mind through our nerves, we demonstrate our morals. He argued that those well-born (i.e. rich, with property, and “old” names) had finer-tuned nerves and bodies that allowed them to experience sympathy and hence be more moral more easily, but his arguments got co-opted, so to speak, by those in the middle classes who recognized that if the proof of great merit came through one’s abilities to feel emotion – preferably in reaction to others – then anyone could become especially meritorious; it need not be limited to those born well. Such arguments come about in great part through figures in the Scottish Enlightenment, such as Francis Hutcheson and Adam Smith (whose theory of economics is at the basis of current economic theories and models).
Physiological models of the nervous system and of information’s coming to the brain through nerves forwarded such theories; these had a gender-based effect as well, suggesting that women were more susceptible than men to feeling of all sorts because their frames, their nervous system, were more delicate, more finely tuned. To some extent, this gendered sympathy, making it the “feminine” quality it’s still assumed to be, but it also worked to women’s detriment, by the end of the 18th century, by suggesting that women were so susceptible to their feelings that they could easily be led astray through an unreflective emotional and physical reaction, and that they were so emotionally driven that they were weak – slaves of their finely-tuned bodies. One sees such beliefs in some action in major 18th-century “novels of sensibility,” in which both men and women of great sensibility are to a great extent too finely formed to function in the world. One with sensibility lacked the strength to survive in the increasingly competitive, capitalist economic structure of post-industrial revolutionary Britain.
Having emotional sensitivity through one’s nervous system that made one more sensitive to emotional, sympathetic response to others was called sensibility. The corresponding adjective is “sentimental,” not “sensible.” As you probably recognize, being “sensible” – at least in our time, in the late 20th century, has the opposite connotation: being ruled by reason, rather than any sort of emotional susceptibility or indulgence. In the 18th century, having “sense” or even being “sensible” would of necessity require sensitivity to nerves and the physical (and moral) senses, but it would mean controlling one’s emotions, rather than indulging them, allowing rationality reins over emotions, even if reliant on emotions in the first place. It goes along with the 18th-century notion of “prudence,” although that has economic connotations: a “prudent” match, or “prudent” behavior, means paying attention, first and foremost, to financial gain: a prudent marriage is one formed with an eye to marrying money or property, rather than marrying for love.
What might be called the “Cult of Sensibility” reigned in the mid-eighteenth century (although it’s clear that it continues to reign in many novels up through the mid-19th century at least), and it can be seen as responsible for civilizing manners, making even the lower classes, seen by their “betters” as animalistic, more “polite.” Masculinity supposedly stopped being brutish and rapacious and became more gracious with the popularity of sensibility (although, as we all know, there are still throwbacks to pre-sensibility masculinity in late 20th-century masculinity; giving in too much to civilizing influences is still seen as effeminizing). Even at its heyday, however, drawbacks to it were clear: it did unfit those with sensibility for survival in an increasingly competitive world, and it could be faked; having great feelings, or pretending to have them, was no proof of one’s moral worth. One way of thinking about this goes along with considering the kinds of people we all know who pretend to be very sensitive but are really only sensitive to slights to themselves and blithely insult and hurt everyone around them.
Since women were considered especially susceptible to becoming disabled through sensibility, since they were considered easily led by anything that affected the emotions, novels that played on the emotions were considered dangerous in part because they could debilitate women or train them to want from life what they were unlikely to get: heightened passion, heroic action, worship from lovers. Consider, as you read, the extent to which novels – novels of sensibility, especially – are presented as dangerous in this novel. Who follows them? What’s the effect of their doing so?
For a good model of sensibility, see the parody Austen wrote called “Love and Friendship” in 1790. Passages of it are in the Norton edition of Pride and Prejudice (271-273).
Questions to consider as you read the novel, and on finishing it,
in addition to the questions to be addressed on each of the novels:
|1)||What’s the role of money and property in this novel?|
|2)||What are the different value systems in this novel? Who holds which ones? To what extent do they overlap, so that one could hold more than one? To what extent are they mutually exclusive?|
|3)||What are the positive and negative female characteristics in this novel and the different ways that they are communicated?|
|4)||Who gets what they deserve in this novel, and who doesn’t? What then counts as “poetic justice”?|
|5)||What do we learn about what counts as proper behavior, what counts as improper behavior? You might want recourse to the Jane Austen Companion, on reserve, to look up things that are confusing to you.|
|6)||This was originally written as an epistolary novel – written in letter form. What might the difference be? What does Austen gain or lose through the shift to third person narration? How does her use of “free indirect discourse” (fid) work here? This is writing in which the narrator is “speaking” but seems to be reporting a particular character’s thoughts or reports on something from a particular character’s point of view without signaling that s/he is doing so through use of terms like “he said,” “she said.”|
|7)||At various points, one character is expected and a different one shows up. What’s the effect of this? What might be the point of this?|
|8)||What is the possible purpose or effect of Vol. III, ch. viii, when we get Willoughby’s story?|
|9)||What do you think of Brandon’s story of the two Elizas? What’s it doing here? What attitude does this novel convey about “fallen women”? Does this story fit with the tone or style of the rest of the novel?|
|10)||What’s the novel’s attitude about secrecy?|
|11)||If the novel chastens Marianne for her sensibility (why?), what does it offer in its place? Do you find the substitution adequate? Why, or why not?|
Adapted from: Julie Shaffer,University of Wisconsin Oshkosh