Vic Sanborn writes two very popular Austen-dedicated blogs, Jane Austen's World and Jane Austen Today which I , like many of you, greatly appreciate. I'm really glad to welcome her on my little Austen-dedicated corner of the blogosphere. She is one of the Austenites and Austen experts involved in our Sense and Sensibility Bicentenary Celebration.
Read her piece about the minor characters in Sense and Sensibility and leave your comments + e-mail address to enter the giveaway of JANE'S FAME by Claire Harman offered by Vic and open worldwide. This giveaway contest ends on November 30th when the winner is announced.
Mr. Palmer Discusses His Fellow Minor Characters
I, Thomas Palmer, Esq., have been charged to analyze and discuss the traits of my fellow minor characters in Sense and Sensibility, the first of six novels by Jane Austen. I shall endeavor to do JUSTICE to that estimable author's first published effort, which made its way to the public some 200 years ago and has never failed to be in print since.
I must first cast my thoughts upon Fanny and John Dashwood, whose miserliness oblidged the Dashwood women to leave their comfortable home at Norland to establish themselves in Barton Cottage and live a FRUGAL life in Devonshire amongst strangers. Miss Austen was a mere 20 years of age when she first conceived of this novel in epistolary form, first naming it Elinor and Marianne. That such a young author, whose knowledge of the world was CONFINED largely to books and the experiences of others, could create two such memorable characters as Fanny and John Dashwood portended her genius.
Fanny in particular is a character like no other in literature. Her manipulation of her weak husband in persuading him to abandon his PLEDGE to his father on that man's deathbed is breathtaking in its audacity and avarice. The sequence of her skewed logic and her husband's reaction to her CONTRIVANCE to preserve every pence of her darling son's inheritance is matchless. Even I could not have conceived of a more cynical, darkly humorous dialog than young Miss Austen presented through these two minor characters, thereby setting the novel's direction and tone. “People always live for ever when there is an annuity to be paid them.” One simply cannot add or take away a word to improve this utterance by Mrs. Dashwood.
The John Dashwoods represent, like so many minor characters, a FOIL – brilliantly conceived foils, to be sure – that are meant to contrast with other characters. Take my rather vulgar brother-in-law, Sir John Middleton, who is renowned for his generous impulses. Whilst the Dashwood ladies were figuratively shoved out of Norland by the John Dashwoods, Sir John, a distant relation, emerges from nowhere to offer them a hearth and home. The CONTRAST twixt the two Johns – one so weak and tight-fisted that he willing to break his vow to his dying father, the other so generous that he is forever inviting the entire neighborhood to sample the contents of his larder – cannot be ignored.
I next turn my gaze upon the Steele sisters, Lucy and Anne. Anne is a flat minor character who is doomed to learn nothing from life's experiences, but who interjects a running COMIC gag over her obsession with Dr. Davies (he will never offer his hand in marriage). Her main purpose in the novel is to REVEAL the engagement of Lucy to Edward at a most awkward moment.
Her sister Lucy, a smarter, prettier version of Anne, is as mean, cunning and scheming a creature as I have ever come across. I had her measure from the start, I assure you. Lucy's sole ambition is to ingratiate herself with her betters in order to take her place in SOCIETY. Knowing of Edward Ferrars' attraction to Miss Dashwood, she makes a preemptive strike by CONFIDING her secrets to Elinor, forcing our hapless heroine to LISTEN to matters that, while they pain her deeply, she must keep to herself. Many minor characters play the role of confidante to a novel's protagonist, but Lucy Steele turned the table on Elinor, forcing her to listen to matters that were most distasteful and hurtful. Our scheming Lucy more than turned the table on Edward, eloping with his younger brother Robert when it becomes apparent that the latter will INHERIT the Ferrars fortune of £1,000 per year. One can only cheer knowing that this feckless couple will always be dissatisfied with each other, always wanting more possessions.
Minor characters provide a diversity of roles in a story. The novelist will, without beating a reader over the head, contrive to have a minor character DEMONSTRATE another character's flaw (or perfection, as it were). Take Eliza Williams, who we meet only through Colonel Brandon. The fact that she bore a child out of wedlock and was ABANDONED shows us Willloughby's dark, amoral side. When confronted with the love of an outstanding woman (Marianne), he JILTS her in favor of Miss Sophia Grey, a manipulative heiress who directs Willoughby to give Marianne the CUT DIRECT in London or else suffer the consequence of the end of their engagement. Willoughby's charm as a suitor pales more quickly for the reader than for poor Marianne, who must suffer both emotionally and physically before her heart is opened to Colonel Brandon's steadfast and mature love.
To be sure, choices such as Willoughby's are not unusual in19th century England. That a man cast off by his benefactress would chuse an heiress over a penniless girl was no mere WHIM. Indeed, at the end Willoughby consoles himself for having chosen wealth in order to indulge his love for horses and dogs over wedded bliss with his true love.
I have briefly touched upon Sir John Middleton, my generous brother-in-law, whose COLD FISH of a wife is the elder sister of my spouse, Charlotte. Their fond mama, Mrs. Jennings, is as generous and gregarious as Sir John, and as vulgar as the day is long. Her husband made his fortune in TRADE and the scent of that association still clings to her like hay to a horse. Miss Jane Austen acknowledged the inevitable rise of the middle class through minor characters such as the Jennings (and the Bingleys in Pride and Prejudice), and pursued the topic with Captain Wentworth's rise in fortune in Persuasion.
Mrs. Jennings' vulgarities gave Miss Marianne no end of discomfort, and her conversations with Sir John were often so tactless at dinner that even Miss Elinor Dashwood at times would have rather plucked chickens than be subjected to their HINTS about the gentlemen in their lives. Yet Miss Austen has a decided fondness for Mrs. Jennings, for in that good woman she created a person who would abandon her annoying ways and do everything in her power to support a friend or relative in need.
What of myself as a minor character, you must wonder? Be ASSURED that I have reserved the finest of Sense and Sensibility's minor characters for last. I am, after all, running for PARLIAMENT and would not be doing so if I did not think I had an excellent chance of winning. I have the reputation of thinking highly of myself, but how could this be otherwise in someone who can lay claim to my confidence, intelligence, and superiority?
Some might describe me as rude or even insolent, but I think of myself as a discerning man, for I do not DESPISE those who possess a modicum of sense, such as Colonel Brandon, Miss Dashwood, and Miss Marianne (when she is not moping around). I DO despise myself for having fallen prey to a pretty face with a fortune, having discovered since my nuptials how an empty head and vacuous good cheer can GRATE upon a man's tranquil nature. I also admit to possessing a healthy degree of self-admiration. However, at my estate, Cleveland, you will find me as good a host as any you have ever encountered.
I must add my opinion to other critics about YOUNG Miss Austen's cleverness in parading my unhappy marriage in front of the two Miss Dashwoods, both of whom had the opportunity to compare their notions of a happy union against the reality of mine. The contrast of my marriage to the ideal state could not be ignored, even by you, the reader. Through the use of minor characters Miss Austen interjected humor and satire as well as INSTRUCTION about the human condition – no mean feat.
So there you have it, my analysis of the minor characters inhabiting Miss Austen's estimable "Sense and Sensibility". Oh, I could have delved further into the topic, for I did not mention Mrs. Ferrars or Mrs. Henry Dashwood, for example, but my discourse was designed for a blog post in which the typical reader is willing to give no more than 4-5 minutes of their time to learn something of VALUE. I thank Maria Grazia for inviting me to join other bloggers in celebrating "Sense and Sensibility". In doing so, I daresay that I have learned as much about myself as others.