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Sense and Sensibility, Intimacy and Romance

July 15, 2010

Today at Wicked we welcome author Matt Leo! I met Matt over on the other group blog I post at, Write in the Shadows. He made some insightful comments on our topics and revealed in his prose what an eloquent writer he is. Having just read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, a 80-85% rip-off of the original, I was keenly interested in reading what Matt had to say about another Austen favorite.

Recently, I watched Ang Lee’s 1995 adaptation of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility again.  I’d forgotten that Alan Rickman played Colonel Brandon.  A young, handsome, romantic Alan Rickman is a shock after imprinting on his performance in the Harry Potter movies. It is hard not to see the sinister Professor Snape as gallant yet proper Colonel Brandon’s desire smolders beneath his cool civility. But it still works. Both Snape and Brandon are men with hidden depths.

This prompted me to re-read the Jane Austen novel to see if Emma Thompson’s script punched up the romance in Brandon’s part. The script is remarkably faithful as it condenses the book’s fifty chapters into three acts.  Naturally some characters are deleted or combined.  Austen gives us two Miss Steeles, the inept Nancy and conniving Lucy.  The Steele sisters are somewhat redundant; they are insipid shadows of our heroines, impetuous Marianne and austere Elinor.   Thompson gives us only one Miss Steele, who performs Lucy’s essential plot functions with instinctive rather than diabolical cruelty.

One thing that strikes me about the book is that the difference between Marianne and Elinor is not so much romantic sensibility as strength of will.  Elinor feels all that Marianne does, but Elinor has the grit and determination to master her feelings.  When Marianne is prostrated by grief and disappointment, Elinor nurses her through it:

“Exert yourself, dear Marianne,” she cried, “if you would not kill yourself and all who love you. Think of your mother; think of her misery while YOU suffer: for her sake you must exert yourself.”

“I cannot, I cannot,” cried Marianne; “leave me, leave me, if I distress you; leave me, hate me, forget me! but do not torture me so. Oh! how easy for those, who have no sorrow of their own to talk of exertion! Happy, happy Elinor, YOU cannot have an idea of what I suffer.”

“Do you call ME happy, Marianne? Ah! if you knew!—And can you believe me to be so, while I see you so wretched!”

Here Elinor practices what she preaches. Marianne can’t imagine that Elinor feels as deeply as herself. Elinor could easily refute it with her own grief, which has been fiendishly inflamed by her sadistic rival Lucy.  Elinor keeps this to herself, although she is wounded by her sister’s insensitivity. Marianne isn’t strong enough to bear her own pain, much less Elinor’s.  Throughout the book, shrewd Elinor takes the measure of those around her, carefully titrating the truth so as to administer just so much as is kind and useful.  Such behavior is abhorrent to Marianne, whose stubborn frankness makes her a burden to the good people around her and a target for the wicked.  Elinor accepts social façades for their utility, and therefore doesn’t read too much into them.

Marianne, for all her supposed depth of sentiment, can’t get past Colonel Brandon’s wearing flannel waistcoats to ward off colds.  As far as she is concerned this convicts him of irredeemable banality.  Elinor sees more deeply and is rewarded with confidences from Brandon that would amply satisfy the most demanding sentimentalist.  You simply couldn’t go around displaying such depth of feeling as Colonel Brandon has upon your sleeve. A man likes to be able to order a pint without everyone in the bar weeping for his dignified forbearance.

The intended irony of this novel is that practical, sensible Elinor is at last united with her true love after numerous obstacles and torments. Sentimental Marianne on the other hand marries not for passionate love, but for a good match that makes her family happy.  But if this is Austen’s point, I’m not sure she carries it.  What kind of woman could love the handsome but shallow Willoughby yet not in time love the noble, exquisitely sensitive Brandon far more?   Could any reader not feel Elinor’s achieving her heart’s desire all the more keenly for her having the will to deny it to herself? That is a remarkably cathartic scene, both in the book and the move.

If a world such as sentimentalists like Willoughby and Marianne desire, everyone would be frank about his feelings and immediately act on them.  There are many pragmatic advantages to such a world, but it would lack romance.   Erotic love is more complex than physical desire; few desires are easier to satisfy than straightforward lust. Erotic love is literally insatiable. It seeks an intimacy so close that it obliterates all separation.  Romance is simply erotic love working through narrative obstacles. In a world of undifferentiated, compulsory intimacy, romance serves no function.   Aristotle said that a friend is like a second self. If so, a lover is more like a missing part of yourself.  Any separation from a lover is a wound.  The pain of that wound is the mainspring of romance.

I think one reason men are suspicious of romances written by women is that we don’t always trust women to do justice to our feelings and motivations.   Even Jane Austen’s male characters sometimes lack the plausibility of her female characters.  Was any real man ever so wonderful as Colonel Brandon, or Emma‘s Mr. Knightley?   But for the most part Austen wisely makes her male characters much the same as her female characters.    They seek love, respect, and financial security.  They have private agendas, public personas and personal obligations that all conflict.   This tension between the public and private self is not only a source of romantic complication, it is a source of credibility. It is a mistake to pander to male distrust by making male characters too “manly”.  Men don’t even agree on what that means.  Had Austen made Elinor Dashwood a man, most male readers would easily accept that character as credible. If a character is believable as a person, he’ll be believable as a man and creditable as a lover.

Terrific insights, Matt! Thanks so much for sharing them with us today.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. July 15, 2010 10:10 am

    Great post, Matt–and I think some wise advice for those of us who are women trying to write male characters. It’s easy to fall into stereotypes and forget the complexity that makes us interesting as humans applies equally to men and women.

  2. July 15, 2010 12:07 pm

    Well, C.J., I’m delighted you could make use of this brain dump of mine. As I re-read it, I see I could have put a much finer point on what I wanted discuss, which is how to make the climax of a romantic plot line really cathartic; how to send the reader away emotionally wrung-out, but satisfied.

    The key to the myth of romantic love is that being united is the deepest desire of lovers, and that desire is frustrated. The catharsis of the love story is when the barriers are stripped away, and the greatest catharsis of all is when those barriers have been internalized by the lovers. When the barrier between lovers is a conflict between the public and private self, the climax is when the lovers at last stand naked (psychologically, if not physically) before each other.

    In some cases the physical separation of the lovers remains, which makes the psychic unity of the lovers even more powerful: Rick and Ilsa in *Casablanca*; Rudolph and Flavia in *The Prisoner of Zenda*; Lyra and Will in *His Dark Materials*.

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