Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen: A 19th-Century Summary

Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

 Jane Austen by Sarah Fanny Malden (1889) is an excellent resource as a 19th-century view of Jane Austen’s works. The publication was part of an Eminent Women series published by W.H. Allen & Co., London. The following analysis and plot summary of Sense and Sensibility (1811) focuses on this work, which was Jane Austen‘s first published novel. 

Mrs. Malden said of her sources, “The writer wishes to express her obligations to Lord Brabourne and Mr. C. Austen Leigh for their kind permission to make use of the Memoir and Letters of their gifted relative, which have been her principal authorities for this work.” This excerpt is in the public domain:

In the summer of 1811, two years after Jane Austen’s move to Chawton Cottage, Sense and Sensibility was published by Egerton. Jane, at the age of thirty-six, was fairly launched on that career of authorship which was to prove so short, yet so much more brilliant ultimately than her best friends and warmest admirers could have expected.

Her own expectations were so humble—probably from previous disappointments — that it has been said she saved something out of her income to meet any possible loss in the publication, a precaution which was uncalled for.

She made one hundred and fifty pounds by it, and, on receiving the money, remarked that it was a great deal to earn for so little trouble!

Sense and Sensibility was originally called Elinor and Marianne, but it might as appropriately have been named The Dashwood Family, for it is really the history of one family, of whom two sisters are nominally the chief characters, but by no means the most interesting; and the other personages of the story, as was so usual with Jane Austen, only revolve round the central characters.


John Dashwood’s promise

From the first conversation early in the book between John Dashwood and his wife, we feel that we know them thoroughly, and can safely predict their future conduct all through.

John is the only child of his father’s first marriage; he inherits a good fortune from his mother, and has acquired another with his wife, besides which his only child has had a large one unexpectedly left to him by a relation.

He has a stepmother and three half-sisters, Elinor, Marianne, and Margaret Dashwood, who, on the premature death of the father, are left very scantily provided for.

On his deathbed, Mr. Dashwood earnestly entreats John Dashwood to do something for them, which the latter readily promises, especially since the fortune that has come to his child had always been destined for the second family.

The John Dashwoods take possession of the house and estate as soon as the funeral is over, and the elder Mrs. Dashwood perceives that she and her daughters must soon find themselves a home elsewhere. Meanwhile John Dashwood debates, first with himself, then with his wife, as to what he is bound to do for them.

“When he gave his promise to his father he meditated within himself to increase the fortunes of his sisters by the present of a thousand pounds apiece. He then really thought himself equal to it. The prospect of four thousand a year in addition to his present income, besides the remaining half of his own mother’s fortune, warmed his heart, and made him feel capable of generosity.

Yes, he would give them three thousand pounds: it would be liberal and handsome! It would be enough to make them completely easy. Three thousand pounds! he could spare so considerable a sum with little inconvenience.”


A wife’s objections

John Dashwood thought of it all day long and for many days successively, and he did not repent. His wife did not at all approve of what her husband intended to do for his sisters.

To take three thousand pounds from the fortune of their dear little boy would be impoverishing him to the most dreadful degree. She begged him to think again upon the subject.

How could he answer it to himself to rob his child, and his only child too, of so large a sum? It was very well known that no affection was ever known to exist between the children of any man by different marriages, and why was he to ruin himself and their poor little Harry by giving away all his money to his half-sisters?

“It was my father’s last request to me,” replied her husband, “that I should assist his widow and daughters.”

Perhaps Mrs. Dashwood’s bitterness against her husband’s family is sharpened by perceiving the very evident attachment of her eldest brother, Edward Ferrars, for Elinor Dashwood, an attachment which both she and her mother find insupportable. They are bent on his making a brilliant marriage which shall raise him to eminence.

The elder Mrs. Dashwood, on the other hand, is delighted at the prospect, for, while cordially disliking her daughter-in-law, she has a great esteem and affection for Edward Ferrars; and warm-hearted, romantic, and imprudent, she looks to nothing but the future happiness of the young people.

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Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

Quotes from Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen
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Marianne Dashwood

The second daughter, Marianne, is the exact copy of her mother in disposition; both regard all prudence or circumspection as worldly wisdom of the worst type, and while they respect Elinor for her calm judgment and steady good sense, they have no wish whatever to imitate her.

I think the title of the book is misleading to modern ears. Sensibility in Jane Austen’s day meant warm, quick feeling, not exaggerated or over-keen, as it really does now; and the object of the book, in my belief, is not to contrast the sensibility of Marianne with the sense of Elinor, but to show how with equally warm tender feelings the one sister could control her sensibility by means of her sense when the other would not attempt it.

These qualities come still more prominently forward when Mrs. Dashwood and her daughters have found a home at Barton Cottage, on the estate of a cousin, Sir John Middleton. He is a good-humored sportsman, his wife a vapid fine lady, and his mother-in-law, Mrs. Jennings, a vulgar old woman. He is very fond of society, and the kind of society he gathers round him may be easily guessed.

Marianne, who is refined and cultivated, despises them all intensely, and is barely civil to the Middletons and their friends; Elinor, to whom their ways are equally distasteful, nevertheless recognizes the kindly intentions of their landlord, and responds to them as far as possible.


Colonel Brandon

There is one individual at Barton Park whom Marianne finds agreeable — Colonel Brandon, a friend of Sir John, who is a sensible, cultivated man of about five and thirty, and she is the more interested in him as he is from the first visibly falling in love with Marianne; but that young lady considers his age as an insuperable barrier to any ideas of marriage.

“Thirty-five has nothing to do with matrimony,” Marianne declares contemptuously.
      “Perhaps,” said Elinor, “thirty-five and seventeen had better not have anything to do with matrimony together; but if there should by any chance happen to be a woman who is single at seven and twenty, I should not think Colonel Brandon’s being thirty-five any objection to his marrying her.”
       “A woman of seven and twenty,” said Marianne after pausing a moment, “can never hope to feel or inspire affection again; and if her home be uncomfortable or her fortune small, I can suppose that she might bring herself to submit to the offices of a nurse for the sake of the provision and security of a wife. In his marrying such a woman, therefore, there would be nothing unsuitable. It would be a compact of convenience, and the world would be satisfied. In my eyes it would be no marriage at all, but that would be nothing. To me it would seem only a commercial exchange, in which each wished to be benefited at the expense of the other.”


John Willoughby

It is obvious that a young lady of seventeen with these views will make a great goose of herself someday, and the occasion is not far off. A new character appears at Barton Park, one John Willoughby, who is young, handsome, and well-born.

He is evidently much attracted by Marianne’s beauty and animation, and as she finds in him a congenial spirit, holding all her views, and agreeing with all her sentiments, she is soon as thoroughly in love with him as he appears to be with her.

Elinor cannot wonder at their attachment, but she does wish they would make it a little less conspicuous. “When he was present she had no eyes for anyone else. Everything he did was right. Everything he said was clever …”

This blissful condition of “spooning,” to which Elinor objects, and which Mrs. Dashwood thinks quite natural, comes to an end through Willoughby being called to London by a wealthy relation, whose orders he must obey.

He departs with every appearance of affliction but gives no pledge as to his return; and Marianne, though absolutely certain of his constancy, abandons herself to an ecstasy of grief and despair at his absence, which nothing can moderate.

Elinor has troubles of her own quite as severe as her sister’s. She has always felt that there was some unacknowledged obstacle between Edward Ferrars and herself, and has believed it to be the opposition of his mother, on whom he is entirely dependent, as he has never been allowed to have a profession.

Now, however, two Miss Steeles, cousins of Sir John Middleton, appear at Barton Park, and Elinor learns for the first time, quite unexpectedly, what it is that lies between Edward and herself. He is engaged to Lucy Steele, an engagement formed in a moment of boyish folly when he was only nineteen and living with her uncle, his tutor; but the young lady, who has a keen eye to her own interests, is quite determined not to release him, and he cannot in honor draw back.

Lucy has heard enough of Elinor to be jealous and suspicious; her engagement is a profound secret at present, but she confides it to Elinor under a pledge of secrecy, hoping thereby to make her thoroughly wretched. In this amiable intention she only half succeeds.

Elinor knows Edward too well to believe that he really cares for a girl of Lucy’s type; but she does feel that he is separated from her, probably forever, and, being obliged to keep this knowledge a secret from her mother and sisters. Being at the same time very anxious to betray nothing that should give Lucy any triumph over her, her position is a very bad one.

All this time nothing is heard of Willoughby, and Marianne becomes increasingly wretched. Mrs. Jennings is going to her London house for the winter, and as she is fond of young people, and has married both her own daughters, she urges the Miss Dashwoods to accompany her. Elinor at first refuses the invitation.

At any other time an invitation like this would have disgusted Marianne Dashwood beyond power of expression; now, in her eagerness to learn something about Willoughby, she is wild to go; and Elinor makes up her mind to endure the visit for her sake, well aware that poor Mrs. Jennings will get very little society out of her companion if Marianne go with her alone.


Love affairs come to a crisis

In London the plot thickens, and all the love affairs come to a crisis. Marianne, after sending Willoughby letter after letter, which remain unanswered, meets him at length, only to learn that he is on the eve of marriage to a young lady of large property.

As her grief and misery are past all restraint, Elinor now ascertains what she had sometimes feared, but thought impossible— that Willoughby had never definitely spoken of love to Marianne, and that the romantically imprudent girl, pursuing her theory of complete confidence in anyone she loved, had given the most outspoken marks of devotion to a man who had never told her he cared for her.

The truth must now be known to all their friends, who are by this time gathered in London, and Elinor’s chief anxiety is to keep all the comments from reaching her sister.

Lady Middleton expressed her sense of the affair about once every day, or twice, if the subject occurred very often, by saying, “It is very shocking indeed!” and, by means of this continual, though gentle vent, was able, not only to see the Miss Dashwoods from the first without the smallest emotion, but very soon to see them without recollecting a word of the matter.

Having thus supported the dignity of her own sex, and spoken her decided censure of what was wrong in the other, she thought herself at liberty to attend to the interest of her own assemblies, and therefore determined, though rather against the opinion of Sir John, as Mrs. Willoughby would at once be a woman of elegance and fortune, to leave her card with her as soon as she married.

A decidedly dull and almost unnecessary part of the book comes in here, where Colonel Brandon thinks himself bound to give Elinor, at full length, an episode in Willoughby’s past life, which, he hopes, may someday show Marianne more plainly how unworthy he was of her.

The story is disagreeable; it is difficult to believe that a man like Colonel Brandon would have told it in all its details to a girl of nineteen, and it is obvious that it would do Marianne no good to know it, as Elinor discovers when, with curious want of judgment, she forces it upon her; in short, it is a little piece of sententiousness which betrays the youth of the writer.

Poor Elinor’s own affairs are sufficiently agitating at this time. The Miss Steeles have come up to London, and Lucy Steele, who is becoming very anxious to secure Edward, worms herself with great address into the good graces of his mother and sister, till she and her sister are invited to stay with Mrs. John Dashwood in London.

Edward himself is in town and intensely wretched under Lucy’s jealous eyes, while Elinor, in addition to her own distress, is placed in perpetual difficulties by Marianne, who, of course, knows nothing of Edward’s unhappy position, and promotes tête-à-tête between him and Elinor so openly as to enrage Lucy almost beyond self-control.

At last, the storm bursts; the indiscretion of the elder Miss Steele reveals her sister’s engagement, and the fury of Mrs. Ferrars and Mrs. Dashwood knows no bounds. John Dashwood immediately calls upon his sisters to give them all particulars and some news of his wife.

Marianne has been greatly shocked and grieved at the discovery of Edward Ferrars’ engagement; still more distressed by finding how long Elinor has had to bear the sorrow of it alone, and though at first, following her favorite theories, she declares that Elinor could never have really cared for Edward, or she could not have borne his desertion so calmly, she is gradually brought to a more reasonable frame of mind by her sister’s earnest representations.

Marianne’s warm heart is completely overcome, and her praiseworthy efforts at self-government are the result.

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Marianne takes ill

The sisters are anxious now to leave London but have to pay a visit on their way home to Mrs. Palmer, Mrs. Jennings’ other daughter; and the whole of this visit might, I venture to think, have been omitted with advantage to the story. Marianne is taken ill there; Elinor and Mrs. Jennings remain alone to nurse her, as everyone else is afraid of infection.

The illness increases so alarmingly that Mrs. Dashwood is sent for; and then Willoughby, who is already married, hears that Marianne is dying. In an agony of remorse at his conduct to her, and of misery at his own position, he makes his way to Elinor to palliate his conduct, and to implore Marianne’s forgiveness.

His wretchedness softens Elinor into granting him a hearing; but she had much better not have done so, nor should such a girl as she have allowed him to tell her all he did about his past life, and about the woman he has married, even though its object is to soothe Marianne by letting her know how sincerely he had loved her.

When Marianne recovers and returns to her own home with her sister, she is comforted by knowing that her love was not bestowed without return, and her high principle makes her resolve to occupy her mind so thoroughly as to drive out all remembrance of the past. Her energetic schemes for doing this, and improving herself, are told with all Jane Austen’s gentle satire.

In the same gently satirical tone, we are told how Mrs. Dashwood receives the information of Colonel Brandon’s attachment for Marianne, when — perhaps rather too soon —he ventures to tell her of it, and to entreat her to countenance and further it.

He is well aware that Marianne has never cared for him, but hopes with time and perseverance to succeed in his suit, and Mrs. Dashwood, who has never, until then, contemplated him as a lover for Marianne, relates to Elinor what has passed.

Colonel Brandon will succeed in time, but Elinor’s own affairs are not in so blissful a state. Edward Ferrars, remaining faithful to Lucy, and, having determined upon taking Holy Orders, has been presented by Colonel Brandon to a small living in his gift (a severe blow to Mrs. John Dashwood, whose husband begs that the matter may not be mentioned before her!) and his marriage now appears imminent.

But Lucy Steele has no taste for love in a cottage, and having an opportunity of making acquaintance with Robert Ferrars—the fortunate younger brother for whom Edward has been disinherited—she directs her energies to securing him.

As she is pretty and clever, the gentleman weak and a coxcomb, she soon succeeds; a clandestine marriage puts all possible interference out of the question. Ss Mrs. Ferrars is too proud and too obstinate to reinstate her elder son in his proper place, Robert enjoys a comfortable income with the wife on whose account Edward had been turned out of his mother’s house.


All is reconciled

Edward comes to Elinor for her forgiveness which, of course, he obtains and then, as she insists on his being again received by his mother before she will marry him, he reluctantly consents to call on his sister in London and ask her to make up matters between him and Mrs. Ferrars.

The reconciliation is brought about, and Edward and Elinor start upon their career of happiness together. Marianne gradually wakes up to the discovery that Colonel Brandon loves her, and the still more startling discovery that she can love him.

“Instead of falling a sacrifice to an irresistible passion as once she had fondly flattered herself with expecting, instead of remaining even for ever with her mother, and finding her only pleasures in retirement and study… she found herself at nineteen submitting to new attachments, entering on new duties, placed in a new home, a wife, the mistress of a family, and the patroness of a village.”


An imperfect novel presaging Jane’s more mature work

There can be little doubt that in Sense and Sensibility we have the first of Jane Austen’s revised and finished works. In several respects, it reveals an inexperienced author.

The action is too rapid, and there is a want of dexterity in getting the characters out of their difficulties. Mrs. Jennings is too vulgar, and in her, as in several of the minor characters, we see that Jane had not quite shaken off the turn for caricature, which in early youth she had possessed strongly.

The disagreeable story of Willoughby’s earlier life is unnecessary to the plot, Colonel Brandon is too shadowy to be interesting, and Margaret Dashwood, the third sister, is an absolute nonentity.

Nevertheless, there is much in it that is good. The John Dashwoods; Elinor, Marianne, and their mother; the Middletons, and Mrs. Palmer are all excellent, and, remembering it as the work of a girl of twenty-one, its promise for her future success was very great.

It can never be put aside by anyone as wholly unworthy of her powers; all that the most severe critic could say is that it is not quite up to the mark of her later, more matured writing, and this is, indeed, a faint condemnation which would be praise for almost any other author.

One Response to “Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen: A 19th-Century Summary”

  1. Good analysis of the novel. The complexity of the plot is rightly pointed out. But the novel has some well developed characters. The novel is lacking in sharpness and swiftness with which Austen’s later novels move. The author finds herself difficult to extricate herself from the involved and complicated plot.

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