Monday, October 31, 2011

In Praise of Elinor: Sense & Sensibility

Two hundred years ago, a little novel was published by Thomas Egerton. Its title was the rather dry (but fashionable) Sense & Sensibility.

It has enjoyed some success since then.

Yesterday, I spoke at a symposium celebrating the bicentenary of Austen's first published novel: Sense & Sensibility at 200.

As the programme suggests, it was packed with varying ideas and impressions: we were late, but still enjoyed talks on duelling in Austen (Susannah Fullerton), the importance of distance and transport (Will Christie), and the ambivalence of 'sensibility' (Claire Knowles).

My talk was on 'sense', or the classical character.  A book of essays is planned by the convenor, Laura Carroll.  In the meantime, here's a sample from my talk:
Jane Austen was a moralist, but rarely in a dogmatic or clumsy way. Her characters were not divided into perfect heroes and evil villains. As Gibert Ryle has argued, Austen avoided neat Protestant souls, in favour of messier psyches, each a struggle between excess and deficiency. ‘A person is not black or white, but iridescent,’ writes Ryle. ‘Not a flat plane, but a highly irregular solid.’ Willoughby, for example, is vain and inconstant, but genuine, and capable of insight and regret – he is no simple demon, for all his tortures of Marianne.

In this, Austen’s moral philosophy was Aristotelian. She was a devotee of the poet Alexander Pope – the ‘one infallible Pope,’ she called him. Pope, in turn, was influenced by the Earl of Shaftesbury, a notable Aristotelian. The author of Sense and Sensibility may not have studied philosophy at university, but she had, to borrow Ryle’s metaphor, sniffed Aristotelian air through Shaftsbury’s green window. What all three had in common with Aristotle was a recognition of human passions and instincts, and the need to guide and transform them reasonably. They were less interested in simple good and evil, and more interested in healthy mental and physical habits. Pope, whom Marianne and Willoughby didn’t care for, summed this up with his usual economy in his ‘Essay on Man’: 
Love, hope, and joy, fair pleasure’s smiling train,
Hate, fear, and grief, the family of pain,
These mixed with art, and to due bounds confined,
Make and maintain the balance of the mind.

In short, the classical gaze ran deep in Miss Austen, as I believe it does in Elinor Dashwood – which is why I find her so alluring. She exemplifies balance in a world, not of original sin or divine redemption, but of ordinary humans struggling with their impulses and routines. Put more simply, Elinor is a young woman of sense.

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