Friday, February 24, 2017


Just a few pages past the quote discussed in my last post, we get a contrast between Elinor and her mother. It's an interesting contrast because both are in agreement about what should be done. The difference is not the outcome of their decision-making but the way the decision lines up, or not, with their feelings.

Mrs. Dashwood has been greatly upset by Fanny who has suggested to her that Elinor may be attempting to win her brother Edward's affection. And there can be little doubt that Elinor could easily wish for such a thing and it is only through considerable restraint that she is keeping what she might wish from becoming a hope. Mrs. Dashwood and her daughters believe that love should be allowed to run its course and, should a man in line to inherit a fortune (or one already in possession of one) fall in love with a girl of only small fortune so be it. Fanny, on the other hand, can only see a girl after a fortune and she seeks to warn Mrs. Dashwood that such a thing will not be allowed.

And here we might, as difficult as this may seem, pause to show a little charity towards Fanny. Her job in life is not to distribute wealth or to promote social equality but to look out for the interests of her family. She would have known, as would have all of Jane Austen's readers, that even great fortunes could be lost. In the modern west, we can be egalitarian because we are relatively well insulated from destitution. We imagine that everyone could give something up and we'd all still be comfortably well off. Fanny is cold and calculating to be sure but being cold and calculating is a matter of degree; we can be certain that Mrs. Dashwood, Marianne and even my beloved Elinor, do not imagine a world in which any of their class might marry a male servant out of love. By the standards of the day, Fanny is no better than she ought to be but she is at least as good as she ought to be.

What all that adds up to is that, much as we might wish her more open-hearted, Fanny's attitude is not so unreasonable as to be simply dismissed. Even today, it is entirely reasonable for a parent (or other relative acting on their behalf) to respond with some suspicion towards someone who seeks their son's or daughter's love. And so, even though we are on her side, we might wonder at the strength of Mrs. Dashwood's reaction to what Fanny has said.

In any case, it is while so stirred up that she receives the offer of a cottage some distance away from Norland and that makes a difference in how she decides.
She needed no time for deliberation or inquiry. Her resolution was formed as she read. The situation of Barton, in a county so far distant from Sussex as Devonshire, which, but a few hours before, would have been a sufficient objection to outweigh every possible advantage belonging to the place, was now its first recommendation. To quit the neighbourhood of Norland was no longer an evil; it was an object of desire; it was a blessing, in comparison of the misery of continuing her daughter-in-law's guest; and to remove for ever from that beloved place would be less painful than to inhabit or visit it while such a woman was its mistress. She instantly wrote Sir John Middleton her acknowledgment of his kindness, and her acceptance of his proposal; and then hastened to shew both letters to her daughters, that she might be secure of their approbation before her answer were sent.
Her decision, as it happens, is a good one. We can see, however, that, in another mood, she might just as easily have made a bad one. Contingency has played a huge role in what she does. And, had her mood inclined her to make a bad decision, she would have made it irrevocably.

Elinor supports the decision but the role her feelings play is very different.
Elinor had always thought it would be more prudent for them to settle at some distance from Norland, than immediately amongst their present acquaintance. On that head, therefore, it was not for her to oppose her mother's intention of removing into Devonshire. The house, too, as described by Sir John, was on so simple a scale, and the rent so uncommonly moderate, as to leave her no right of objection on either point; and, therefore, though it was not a plan which brought any charm to her fancy, though it was a removal from the vicinity of Norland beyond her wishes, she made no attempt to dissuade her mother from sending a letter of acquiescence.
There are a lot of words here but they do not carry equal weight. Notice the emphasis on "that". It was Jane Austen's choice to do so. The point we are to take is that there are other heads on which she might well oppose her mother's decision. And we should be able to figure out what those are for the second most important word in that paragraph is "wishes". Elinor has always thought it prudent for them to settle "at some distance" from Norland but this is rather more distance than her "wishes" would have it.
She knew that what Marianne and her mother conjectured one moment, they believed the next—that with them, to wish was to hope, and to hope was to expect.
Austen is too careful a writer for us to not take her word choice very seriously. It matters a whole lot that Elinor's feelings towards Edward at this point are wishes and not hopes or expectations.  Had she allowed her feelings to proceed so far, she might have stood against her mother's choice.

Another to think about it would be to ask ourselves whose decision is most in line with their feelings. At first glance, we might say Mrs. Dashwood for her decision is in complete harmony with her feelings at the time she made the decision. To put it that way, however, is to see the problem for, at other times, it would not be in line with her feelings. And how strong can your feelings really be if they are there one minute and gone the next? Elinor, on the other hand, recognizes that she has a divided self. She realizes that her feelings are often at war with one another, pulling her in two directions at once. Her feelings, I would argue, are stronger for they don't wax and wane depending on shifting circumstances.

The third most important word in the paragraph describing Elinor's feelings and choices above is "prudent". Prudence is a virtue and we could not deny that Elinor has it. But prudence is a matter of degree as seen by Austen's choice to modify it with the word "more". It is not a foregone conclusion that Elinor will make the more prudent choice; in some cases, she might allow her feelings to overrule prudence. Not because she would abandon sense for sensibility alone (we might say "sola sensibility" here because Austen's theological position vis a vis traditional protestantism is very much to the point here) but because she possesses another virtue, to a degree that her mother does not, that is more important than prudence.

The virtue that Mrs. Dashwood is weak in by contrast to her daughter is called constancy. I don't have time to prove it now but for Jane Austen, constancy is the key virtue, higher even than prudence and that is saying something. A good Christian, Austen would rate faith, hope and love above constancy but she would also regard those as graces, which is to say that they are virtues we can only hope to attain with God's help. Of the virtues we can attain through our own efforts, constancy is the greatest. That Mrs. Dashwood lacks constancy is clear from the above; in a different mood she would have chosen differently. That she, Marianne and Elinor all have strong feelings is counted in their favour—to have strong feelings is a virtue, perhaps even a grace—but virtues don't stand by themselves. Without the other virtues, no one virtue is any good.

That, and I'll finish here, also applies to constancy. Here is a dictionary definition of constancy:
the quality of being unchanging or unwavering, as in purpose, love, or loyalty; firmness of mind; faithfulness.
We can see that other virtues are listed. The definition does not speak of constancy in sloth, hatred or resentment.

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