Wednesday, 21 September 2011


Tracing the roots of Sense & Sensibility

Samuel Richardson, Jane Austen, and Elinor & Marianne

By Lynn Shepherd

What do we know about the origins of Sense & Sensibility? We know that it was probably Jane Austen’s first attempt at a full-length novel, written when she may have been as young as 20. We know that she originally called it Elinor & Marianne. And we know that it began life in the form of a novel-in-letters. And it’s that which gives us the biggest clue about where she may have found her inspiration.

Jane Austen’s favourite author was Samuel Richardson, known now as the ‘father of the English novel’, and a literary giant of the 18th century. Austen’s nephew, James-Edward Austen-Leigh, tells us that his aunt knew Richardson’s works in minute detail, and her knowledge “was such as no one is likely again to acquire . . . Every circumstance narrated in Sir Charles Grandison, all that was said or done in the cedar parlour, was familiar to her; and the wedding days of [characters like] Lady L. and Lady G. were as well remembered as if they had been living friends.”

Very few people read Richardson these days, which is a shame, and even fewer read Sir Charles Grandison, which is the last, longest, and least interesting of his three novels. Clarissa, by contrast, is widely accepted to be masterpiece of European literature, and contains one of its most extraordinary and charismatic and anti-heroes – Robert Lovelace, the aristocratic rake who abducts and eventually rapes the heroine, Clarissa Harlowe. But what all Richardson’s novels have in common is the fact that they are written as a series of letters, and it’s obvious that this must have influenced Austen’s initial decision to write Elinor & Marianne in exactly that form.

The novel-in-letters

The story of Clarissa, for example, takes place through two parallel sets of letters – Clarissa’s with her friend Anna Howe, and Lovelace’s with his associate Belford. This technique has a number of important advantages for a novelist – it allows each character to speak in their own voice, and it allows the writer to explore their inner motivations with great subtlety. In the hands of a master like Richardson this approach established a whole new way of presenting character in prose fiction. We know Austen was influenced by this, because her brother Henry tells us so, saying that she greatly admired “Richardson’s power of creating, and preserving, the consistency of his characters.”  It’s easy to see how the novel that eventually became Sense & Sensibility would have been enriched by the example Richardson provided of profound psychological analysis and insight.

On the other hand, the letter form also imposes some quite severe logistical limitations on the way a story can be told. The most obvious example is that the characters have to be apart for large sections of the narrative. This works brilliantly well in Clarissa, where the heroine is first confined to her parents’ house, and later kept in effective imprisonment by Lovelace, and forced to smuggle out her letters to Anna. However, there are no such constraints on the characters in Austen’s story, and you can see how the plot of Sense & Sensibility as we now have it might have made the letter form rather unwieldy. She might, for example, have had to manufacture reasons to keep her sisters apart, because neither would have been likely to write the sort of intimate, revealing letters the story requires to anyone apart from each other.

The other crucial point here is that in Richardson’s and Austen’s day young unmarried people were not permitted to correspond with one another (though Marianne does, of course, break this taboo, leading Elinor to assume that she and Willoughby must be engaged). Again, in Clarissa, Richardson turns what seems like a drawback into an advantage as we read parallel letters in which the same events are presented from the two protagonists’ different perspectives. However, the story of Sense & Sensibility does not lend itself so naturally to this format, not least because there is no obvious confidant for Edward to write to, and he does not have the sort of open disposition that might have led him to write freely of the dilemma he finds himself in – engaged to one woman, but in love with another. This may be one of the reasons Austen eventually abandoned the letter form and recast the novel in the third-person narrative we have today.

Plot, character, and scene

Richardson’s work was also a great mine of inspiration for specific aspects of Austen’s evolving novel. We can see echoes, for example, of Clarissa’s death-bed scene in Marianne’s illness, and of Elinor’s last interview with Willoughby in a similar scene where Anna confronts Lovelace. Likewise Austen explores some of the themes already examined in Richardson’s novels – for example, Richardson’s contention that one his aims in writing Clarissa was to show young woman the fallacy of the notion that ‘a reformed Rake makes the best Husband’, or as Elinor puts it, that ‘worst and most irremediable of all evils - a connection for life with an unprincipled man’. You can also see Austen taking aspects of the characters in Richardson’s books, and re-working them for her own novel: Marianne, for example, has the vivacity and energy of Anna Howe, while Colonel Brandon recalls Mr Hickman, the solid, well-principled but rather dull man Anna eventually marries.

So there you are – if you’ve never read any Richardson I do recommend him, and if you’d like a quick and very enjoyable taster of his work before you embark on a mammoth novel like Clarissa, I recommend the BBC dramatization starring Sean Bean. It’s very faithful to the novel, and extremely well done. And if you’d like to read more detail about the many parallels between Sense & Sensibility and Richardson’s novels, there’s a very good book on this whole subject by Jocelyn Harris called Jane Austen’s Art of Memory.

Lynn Shepherd is the author of the award-winning Murder at Mansfield Park. Her next novel – another literary murder inspired by Charles Dickens’ Bleak House – will be published in the UK in February under the title Tom-All-Alone’s, and in the US next summer as The Solitary House.


Leave your comments and e-mail address to enter the giveaway of  a new copy of The Annotated Sense and Sensibility. This contest is open worldwide and ends on 30th September . 

Good Luck!

Check all the posts in the Sense and Sensibility Bicentenary Celebration


Sophia Rose said...

I was unaware that another author so influenced JA's writing. I appreciate your blog on it. Thank goodness, she developed her own style even with these influences. S&S as letters? I will have to read some of Samuel Richardson's work including 'Clarissa' which I have heard of before.

Thank you for the opportunity to enter a giveaway.

Rebecca (RivkaBelle) said...

Yay, Lynn! :oD

Wow, so much information about Jane...this is what I love: there's always something new to learn, no matter how much you think you may know. Awesomesauce, to say the least! Also interesting to think about how S&S (or any Austen novel for that matter) would have turned out if Jane had taken a different approach to the writing...Hmm...


maribea said...

Clarissa is in my wishlist. How I wish I had time for all the well worth reading book!!! But I will surely find time to read your book, Lynn, so enter me in the giveaway.

Ana said...

Lovely post!
I would love to win that copy of the annotated Sense & Sensibility!!
My e-mail address

Thank you!!

Rachel said...

Hello! I love so much knowing more anything about my dear Jane. I love this space because you always give all of us an opportunity of knowledge.It's so more dificult to us here having diferent books about Jane and you're so generous sharing this with worldwide. Thans so very much, dear!God bless and have a wonderful time! :D Rachel Berault
Follower's name: Rachel Berault
I've posted this on my sidebar

marilyn said...

Very informative information in this post. I am anxious to read your annotated book. Thank you for the giveaway!

julienne said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
julienne said...

great! haven't read sense and sensibility yet :D
thank you for the giveaway!

I'm going to watch Clarissa..

Alexa Adams said...

I am reading the annotated S & S right now (it's wonderful!), so please do not enter me in the giveaway, but I wanted to say how much I enjoyed Lynn's post. The epistolary novel is a fascinating format, and I always enjoy reflecting on Austen's influences. Sir Charles Grandison is one of those novels that has been on my to read list for way too long. Question for Lynn - do you subscribe to the theory that P & P also began in epistolary form? I know it's a bit off topic, but I would love to know your take on this debate.

Lúthien84 said...

What an insightful and interesting post by Lynn Shepherd. Thank you for enlightening me on the origins of S&S.


Lynn Shepherd said...

Thank you everyone for such appreciative comments! I love Richardson's work, and feel it's such a shame that he's not read any more. As for Alexa's question, I think it very likely that the original P&P could have been in epistolary form - in fact it's much more like the Clarissa structure than S&S, when you think about it, with Elizabeth and Jane one pair of potential correspondents, and Darcy and Bingley the other. Austen could also have given us their separate 'takes' on the same events, such as the Netherfield Ball.

Good luck with Grandison too - it takes a while to get going, and there isn't much of a plot when all's said and done, but it really is like 'total immersion' into the 18th century!

Claudia said...

I haven't read anything by S. Richardson, his novels didn't attract me so much. Besides this, a friend told me that Pamela was so boring... but I think I'll change my mind, probably I judged too superficially. Meanwhile, I'm going to watch the BBC adaptation you recommend. Thank you very much for this insight!

Farah Khan said...

Very informative and good post. Thank you, Lynn.You are an inspiration to all Janeites. I haven't read any of the Richardson's work but after finishing Homer's Odyssey, I'll definitely go for 'Clarissa'. The more I learn about Jane, the more I am convinced that "I am proud to be a Janeite'.

Kate Napier said...

What's distinctive about letters as a story-telling device is the directness. Events are always being told by someone with a stake in them to someone who's interested - in both senses of the word, and the 'real' reader sits in that privileged, but slightly prurient, place of correspondent. There's always plenty of 'voice' in a (good) epistolary novel. I've just written and directed a theatre piece for the bicentenary which draws a lot from Jane's early epistolary pieces - and the dramatisation really just happens; as she doubtless found when dramatising Sir Charles Grandison herself. For me, the presence of her voice which is such a delicious and distinctive part of her major novels, is a brilliant development from the epistolary.

Lynn Shepherd said...

That's a great point Kate - the 'triangular' relationship between the two correspondents inside the epistolary novel and the reader outside it is a fascinating area (and one I've written about in relation to Richardson). Likewise Richardson was indeed celebrated for his ability to catch the 'ebbs and flows' of the mind (especially the female mind!) and his books are often seen as an early precursor of the 20th century 'stream of consciousness' novels.

Anonymous said...

Wow! I've just finished to reread S&S in honour of the bicentenary, so I'd be very happy to win the annotated edition.

patti-wolit at

o said...

I really enjoyed this post, thank you. I just finished reading Clarissa last nignt (and am looking up what other people have to say on blogs, hence I found you) and I love what you've written.

I've got a problem with Sense and Sensibility - I cannot get into it at all. I've signed up to do a group read of it next month, so I will read it, but your post has given me new incentive, thank you!