Gender, Sense and Sensibility, The Reader

On Gender–Part 1(Plus Final Thoughts on Sense and Sensibility)

The other day I heard someone use the phrase “women-centric” in an interview with a member from a television series with a predominately female cast. My immediate reaction was to question if this is even a real word, which was followed by the thought that I hardly know what constitutes real words anymore and what defines language because A) I just took my first linguistics class which opened my perception of language evolution to new levels and pretty much blew my mind, and also B) YOLO (you only language once?)…but aside from that tangent and punctuation nightmare, I’ve been throwing the phrase around in my head in relation to Jane Austen’s body of work. I’ve mostly discovered that my thoughts on the subject are hardly concise enough for a coherent piece of writing, so I’ve decided to turn it into a series of posts relating to three of the Austen’s novels and their portrayal of gender as well as modern readers perceptions of gender within these novels. I know. It’s a bit rambly, but I’m getting somewhere with this.

Clearly the reader’s first reaction is to say, sure, Austen’s work is totally “women-centric.” How could it not be? All of her protagonists are female and most of them are bold and independent in their own ways *cough cough except Fanny Price cough cough.* But something about my die-hard Austenite friends reactions to the characters has been bugging me. Every Austen fan I know is obsessed with Austen’s heroes and her heroine’s end up almost being an after thought. Certainly, these fans have favorite heroines and ways in which they relate to them, but they are quick to point out these character’s faults when in their eyes the Mr. Darcy’s and George Knightley’s have none. I want to address this odd bias further in later posts, but for now I wish to discuss what I find to be the one exception: Sense and Sensibility.

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It is my opinion that Sense and Sensibility celebrates womanhood and sisterhood, as well as the awkward “not a girl not yet a woman” Britney Spears stage of growing into adulthood, the most highly of all six of Austen’s novels. In some way the bond between Elinor and Marianne outweighs their affections for the men in the novel.

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There is something about Edward Ferrars and Colonel Brandon that lacks the dashing qualities which we associate with so many of Austen’s heroes. Colonel Brandon possesses a quiet wisdom and emotional fortitude which give him the feeling of being somewhat withdrawn, and until he his moment of valiance in rescuing Marianne from the dreaded rain, he is mostly just lurking with the occasional purpose of being an intellectual companion to Elinor. We have so little first-hand experience with Edward Ferrars in the book. We hear from him about three times, in the beginning, in the middle, and in the end, and although he is extremely kind and honorable, he leaves much to be wanted in his personality. And then there is Willoughby. Sigh. His carelessness and vanity prevent his being entirely endearing, despite his amiable personality, even before the reader discovers his rake status.

What we do experience in great detail is the affection and the deep empathy and understanding that the elder Dashwood sister’s share despite the differences in their sensibilities and we see, through their acute pain and exquisite pleasure, each of their journeys into their own graceful womanhood.

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Sense and Sensibility, Trees

Marianne, the Trees Aren’t Interested, and You’re Starting to Make Them Uncomfortable.

The trees at Norland are not very approachable.

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“Shhh, shhh, still your leaves!”

 

“Okay, okay. What’s up?”

 

“She’s headed this way again.”

 

“Who?”

 

“Don’t look! You know, the flouncy one? One of the roaming saplings with the soft, supple trunk, and the—I said don’t look!—the long, ashen branches that hang like a willows. The quick mover with the short roots.”

 

“Alright, but which one is it? My bark is itching to peel for a glance.”

 

“I dunno, they call her Marigold or Mari-whoosit or whatever. Look, just kind of lean over subtly like you just caught a low wind. Steady now.”

 

Abruptly, the clamorous sound of leaves rustling was emitted from the branches of one of the two trees.

 

“Really? Is that you playing it cool?”

 

“I don’t know what else I can do; she’s almost leaning on me now!”

 

“Oh for the love of—is she doing it again? Is she doing the thing?”

 

“What thing?”

 

“Passing the wind through her branches to make that horrid noise. Whispering ‘sweet nothings’ and other such rubbish I bet.”

 

“I’d hardly call it whispering, but yes, she’s going on about ‘leaves decaying’ and ‘unconscious pleasures’ or something.”

 

“What is that even supposed to mean?”

 

“Beats me. Sounds a bit questionable, I’d say.”

 

“Well, first of all, I’m a little uneasy about her attempts at dallying with both of us while the other is within hearing distance. Do you recall hearing her going on about ‘basking’ in my shade the other day? Disgraceful!”

 

“Hmm, yes, that was a display.”

 

“And once more, I’ve been hearing whispers from leaves passing in the south wind that she’s been philandering in the north garden as well. I mean hello! Could you be more desperate?”

 

“Oooh! You don’t say? What a coquette. And she doesn’t even know anything about us, really. She just throws herself at any vegetation that sprouts in her general vicinity. She’s as bad as moss.”

 

“Let’s not be unnecessarily wicked. Then again, I feel sorry for the poor shrub who becomes entangled with her.”

 

“Sheesh, I’m rustling just thinking about it.”

 

“You would think that after years of blatant indifference and forward silence she would catch on.”

 

“Sure! Take a hint, why don’t you! What an oblivious sod.”

 

The trees both scoffed. Suddenly, Marianne heaved a low, heavy sigh, laden with despair. Then, with a quick hug and kiss to each, Marianne walked away from her well-known trees for what she believed to be the last time—mostly because she was a melodramatic, hyperbolic teenager with no sensible concept of what the future might bring. And as she disappeared into the distance, the trees swayed their trunks in an effort to shake off the feeling of violation which they shared, leaning against each other to brush away any remaining essence of the unwanted affection they had been given, and then they sat in general dissatisfaction for the rest of the day.

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Sense and Sensibility, Servants

The Help–Part 1

“They will have no carriage, no horses, and hardly any servants; they will keep no company, and can have no expenses of any kind! Only conceive how comfortable they will be!”

–Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

Shows like Downton Abbey (be still my heart!) and the revamped Upstairs Downstairs have roused a renewed interest in the ins-and-outs of domestic service in British history. You’ve likely noticed that Austen mentions servants from time to time in her novels, but in Sense and Sensibility she touches particularly on the way service differs between class lines. As the Dashwoods downsize, it becomes necessary to assemble a much smaller domestic team.

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PeriodDrama.com has a wealth of information about servants, if you wish to learn more, but for now I would like to focus on the servants at Barton Cottage.

Being in a smaller middle class household, the Dashwoods require only a skeleton crew for help. As the narrator of Sense states, “[Elinor’s] wisdom too limited the number of their servants to three; two maids and a man.”

The man most likely functions as butler and gardener, receiving visitors and managing the small area of Barton in which the cottage presides. He likely would have also carried the duties of a groom and other stable workers if the Dashwoods had had the facilities to keep their horses and carriage.

The two maids seem to be what are known as “maids-of-all-work.” Such maids were usually paid very little and expected to carry out a massive list of responsibilities that would usually have been executed by a variety of maids and other female servants in a larger house. Their duties would include things such as cooking, cleaning, lighting fires, laundering clothes and linens, and much much more.

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Maids-of-all-work and others employed in less well-to-do households were often the hardest working servants and were not often treated well by their employers. It would seem that the Dashwoods are the exception to this rule. Although we don’t have much insight into the relationships between the Dashwoods and their servants in  Sense and Sensibility, their resourcefulness and ingenuity, especially that of Elinor and her mother, leads me to believe that they may very well have shared the house workload with their servants. Likewise, as the Dashwoods demonstrate kindness and patience with others throughout most of the novel (minus the occasional indiscretion *cough* Marianne *cough cough*), I have a hard time believing they could gravely mistreat any living creature, regardless of circumstances.

 

To Be Continued…

Keep an eye out for more information about servants in the second post during my Pride and Prejudice responses.

 

Sources

Help!—Servants During the Regency by Kelly Giles

Below Stairs: The Servant Hierarchy 19th Century by Genie Bohn

Regency Servants: Maid of All Work by Vic

More Information

Below Stairs by Margaret Powell

(The 1920’s maid’s memoir that inspired the creation of Downton Abbey. Not the same century, granted, but still a super cool resource!)

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