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 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.
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