Critical Essays Background of Sense and Sensibility


Although Jane Austen had lived in towns like Bath and Southampton and had visited London, she never gives her novels an urban setting. In Sense and Sensibility, the action moves from one great country house to another, the main action taking place in Norland Park, Barton Park, and Cleveland. The Dashwood sisters spend a season in London; they attend balls and dances, and visit a fashionable jeweler's shop. But the author gives few characteristic details about the city itself.

Landscapes are only briefly described, though there are references to grounds adorned with mock Grecian temples, and Edward and Elinor plan a "sweep," an approach to their house which will make the most of their limited grounds.

All the characters lead a life of leisure. The men do little but hunt and shoot. The women entertain their friends, sing or play an instrument, play cards, and work at painting screens, making filigree baskets, and doing carpet work. Much time is spent in gossip, chatter, and the reading of poetry and romances.

Austen writes about a limited universe, her own universe, which is comprised of upper-middle-class Tory gentry. Economic security is essential in order to maintain this leisurely existence. According to the English laws of primogeniture, the first-born son inherits the family estate, which includes all but what money is bequeathed directly to the rest of the family. This is usually enough to resolve his difficulties, if the estate is a good one. But if the son isn't old enough to inherit his birthright when the father dies, the estate is usually left to the mother and, in the case of Mrs. Ferrars, with "no strings attached." When she leaves the estate to Robert, she abolishes the natural order of things by ignoring the laws of primogeniture. She is thus, in many ways, an unnatural mother. The second and subsequent sons, having no estate, must make their way in the world with only what is bequeathed them in money. If they are fortunate, they marry a wealthy woman with an estate. But, more frequently, their choices are limited to the clergy or the army. If the clergy, they again must apply to luck, which often amounts to influence, to find someone to give or sell them a "living," which would provide them with a house on an estate and the money gained from the collection of tithes, or church taxes. If the estate is a wealthy one, the "living" can assure them a comfortable existence. This is not the case in Delaford, where Edward must rely on his mother's beneficence to supplement his income. A man need not be terribly spiritual in order to take a post in the clergy. The position involves guiding the social and moral life of the community as much as, if not more than, its spiritual one.

Were a man to decide on the army, he would again need to use his influence, this time to find a good command, which he then must buy. In eighteenth-century England, men didn't rise from the ranks; all the officers were men of good family who had paid heavily for their ranks. We see a detailed depiction of the military society of the times in Austen's Pride and Prejudice.

Women have similar economic problems, but not as many resources. If they are rich, as is Miss Grey, they can literally buy a husband — their dowry offering often being quite substantial. If, like the Misses Dashwood, they have little dowry, their problems are great. Women like Elinor and Marianne have been brought up in a certain manner. They are educated and cultured but essentially useless. They have little money to offer a man, cannot work, and yet demand a man of their own level. They must find a man who doesn't need a dowry, like Colonel Brandon, or get used to living on less, like Elinor, or like Austen herself, remain single and hope for the goodness of their more wealthy friends to include them to some degree in the social life of the community.

The Misses Steele are of a lower social order, a fact which is brought out by their poor grammar and lack of real elegance. However, in this materialistic society, filled with the newly rich middle class, social mobility is much more feasible than it had been in seventeenth-century England.

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