Elinor good, Marianne bad?
When I read Sense and Sensibility in my twenties, that was clear. Elinor was sensible, Marianne merely ridiculous in her emotional responses. I had not heard of Sensibility, the 18th century concept of human responses to particular stimuli. Now, it seems that Elinor does not lack any of Marianne’s emotional responses, but tempers them with common sense, so that she is not too hurt by circumstance.
It is not just the relative maturity of girls of 19 and 16, but attitude and principle. [Marianne’s] violent oppression of spirits continued the whole evening. She was without any power, because she was without any desire of command over herself. She believes that it is right to express what one feels, so feeds and encourages her violent sorrow as a duty. Also, she is responding to the immediate stimulus of Willoughby leaving; she does not think, first, of what might the reason be, or what he might do next, which might console her: any consolation would be inauthentic.
Elinor is without affectation of any feelings but her own. They are introduced in the first chapter: Elinor, this eldest daughter, whose advice was so effectual, possessed a strength of understanding, and coolness of judgment, which qualified her, though only nineteen, to be the counsellor of her mother, and enabled her frequently to counteract, to the advantage of them all, that eagerness of mind in Mrs Dashwood which must generally have led to imprudence. She had an excellent heart;- her disposition was affectionate, and her feelings were strong’ but she knew how to govern them: it was a knowledge which her mother had yet to learn; and which one of her sisters had resolved never to be taught.
Marianne’s abilities were, in many respects, quite equal to Elinor’s. She was sensible and clever; but eager in everything: her sorrows, her joys, could have no moderation. She was generous, amiable, interesting: she was everything but prudent. The resemblance between her and her mother was strikingly great.
Perhaps Elinor is unduly negative, as her mother accuses: You would rather take evil upon credit than good. You had rather look out for misery for Marianne, and guilt for poor Willoughby, than an apology for the latter. But to me she has the gift of thinking through and judging circumstance as well as forming an emotional reaction to her immediate perception, which would make her happier as well as wiser. So I thought that the author identified with this character.
I would find Marianne incomprehensible, had I not heard that she followed a fashion for heroines to exhibit such sensibility. She boasts her closed-mindedness: At my time of life opinions are tolerably fixed. It is not likely that I should now see or hear any thing to change them. The mind can close, so young- how horrible! When Edward Ferrars first visits the cottage, then leaves after a week, Elinor has a variety of feelings- tenderness, pity, approbation, censure, and doubt- produced by the varying states of her spirits, but always with consideration.