Sunday 19 June 2011


[Image: Vintage Classics cover]

 “Come, come, let’s have no secrets among friends.” (p.163)

[Note:  page references are to the third Oxford edition of Sense and Sensibility.]

Mrs. Jennings may request “no secrets among friends,” and Marianne may “abhor all concealment” (p. 53), but Sense and Sensibility is chock full of both – many secrets, much concealed – within each character, between characters, and between the author and the reader.

P. D. James, in her essay “Emma Considered as a Detective Story,” defines the detective story as one “requiring a mystery, facts which are hidden from the reader but which he or she should be able to discover by logical deduction from clues inserted in the novel with deceptive cunning but essential fairness.  It is about evaluating evidence…it is concerned with bringing order out of disorder and restoring peace and tranquility to a world temporarily disrupted by the intrusions of alien influences” (James, p. 243-44) 

Such is Emma, truly a mystery, where Jane Austen gives us clues and puzzles and hints along the way, whereby we the reader can solve the underlying mystery right along with Mr. Knightley, who gets awfully close, but not quite close enough, to the solution.

But Sense and Sensibility offers no such clues to assist either the novel’s characters or the reader to any understanding of what is happening. Patricia Meyer Spacks writes: “Gradually the novel reveals that almost everyone has a secret, everyone – even characters dedicated to morality - conceals something.” (Spacks, p. 338). Thorell Tsomondo says: “…these secrets contribute to the query and puzzlement that characterizes the work” (Tsomondo, p. 106). Emma may be a mystery, but in S&S, it is all confusion, the reader not in on it. We are led to believe that Elinor is all-seeing, but indeed she often misunderstands, is wrong in her assumptions. We are presented with a Willoughby described, his true self a secret to all, as a good person, the perfect Romantic Hero (though we should have heeded the warning: “his person and air were equal to what her fancy had ever drawn for the hero of a favourite story” (p. 43) – and here Austen conceals perhaps the biggest secret of all, that it is her Colonel Brandon who is the true Romantic Hero of S&S, flannel waistcoat and all!

[Image:  Col. Brandon in S&S 1995, courtesy of The Republic of Pemberley]

Tuning into the myriad of secrets in S&S is certainly not new ground: a number of scholars have written about the issue of pervading secrecy in this novel [see references below].  So these thoughts are nothing new, but I found it helpful to look at the extent of the secrecy.  Indeed, the words “secret”, “secrecy”, “conceal”, “deceive”, “betray”, all appear numerous times in S&S. And more telling perhaps is the occurrence of “silent” or “silence,” certainly another aspect of secrecy – the decision not to tell, not to speak, to remain silent rather than reveal.  Another word count to note is “eyes” – Austen often referring to what the eyes see when words are deceptive or untruthful, or when silence is chosen and characters rely on “the eyes” to perceive the truth: recall Elinor’s frequent reference to Lucy’s “little sharp eyes”, and Mrs. Dashwood, upon learning that her favorite Willoughby is really such a cad, remarks that “there was always a something in [his] eyes at times, which I did not like.” (p. 338)

There is in S&S also an element of surprise – surprise being a secret of sorts – in the unexpected arrivals of the various heroes: Marianne declares almost verbatim on two occasions “It is he…I know it is!” expecting Willoughby and facing the disappointing “surprise” of Colonel Brandon and later Edward.  Elinior is awaiting her mother and the Colonel and is surprised (as we all are – this feels like a Bronte novel!) when “she rushed forwards and…saw only Willoughby(p. 316). [This gives short shift to a topic that needs an essay all its own!]

Secrets, of course, are a form of manipulation – and there is much of this going on as well!  The story begins with a secret – on his deathbed, Henry Dashwood requests his son to help his wife and three daughters [indeed the whole change in the inheritance from his Uncle to the young Dashwoods was a secret revealed at the will-reading]. Mr. John Dashwood thought to offer a present of £1000 a-piece to each of his sisters and Mrs. Dashwood is led to believe he will take care of them in some way, “[relying] on the liberality of his intentions” (p. 14) – alas! to no avail, as Fanny assiduously talks him out of doing anything in one of the most cringe-inducing chapters in all of literature!  So the novel begins – with concealment and deception.

All three of the male characters in S&S harbor the secret of a previous romantic entanglement, what Paula Byrne calls “a parody of secret engagements” (Byrne, p.113) - Edward’s secret engagement to Lucy and Willoughby’s seduction and abandonment of Colonel Brandon’s ward Eliza.  The reader is misled about these characters – we believe as Mrs. Dashwood and Elinor and Marianne do, that the unexpected departures (that element of surprise again) of both Edward and Willoughby are due to the expressed displeasure of their respective parent-figure, Mrs. Ferrars for Edward, Mrs. Smith for Willoughby.

Colonel Brandon is, of course, a walking secret! – with his past of “injuries and disappointments” (p. 50), the story of his first love hinted at throughout – “I once knew a lady” (p. 57) - but only (secretly!) revealed to Elinor and the reader in Chapter 9 of Volume II (pp. 204-11) as he explains his secret past, his secret-laden departure to London, his secretive dual with Willoughby, “the meeting never getting abroad.” (p. 211). We might quibble that Jane Austen could have made such a mystery man more interesting!

Even Robert Ferrars has a secret – his deceptive growing relationship with Lucy, his remaining hidden in the rear of the carriage when he and Lucy meet up with Thomas. Why, Robert Ferrars entire character IS a secret – we are introduced to him as the fop in the jewelry shop long before we find out who he is.  What a surprise Austen has in store for us when she makes him the plot-solver! And dare we forget Mr. Palmer?, a Scrooge-like character, who surprises us all when his secret is revealed that he is actually not such a bad fellow after all!

[Image:  Hugh Laurie as Mr. Palmer in S&S 1995, courtesy of]

But it is not just the men who have secrets, the women do as well – all of them!  Lucy’s engagement, her “great secret” and her use of this to manipulate Elinor is what drives the plot.  But Elinor is the keeper of secrets – she tells no one about Lucy’s engagement, keeping to her promise; she keeps Brandon’s secrets; but she also conceals her own feelings about Edward, she “mourns in secret” when she believes she has lost him forever, and she keeps secrets from herself – she remains “assured within herself of being really beloved by Edward” (p. 142), when we from the text have no such certainty.  And for two sisters so close, she and Marianne keep their most important thoughts and feelings from each other.  Elinor speaks of “this strange kind of secrecy maintained by them relative to their engagement” (p. 71); she cannot, nor will Mrs. Dashwood, break into their “extraordinary silence” (p. 71) to discover the truth.  Months go by in this state of non-communication.  Marianne’s oft-quoted “we have neither of us any thing to tell; you, because you communicate, and I, because I conceal nothing.” (p. 170), is sure proof that nothing is at it seems inside the strange world of Sense and Sensibility! – Marianne’s claim is the ultimate irony, when, indeed, Elinor has been completely silent on her own inner turmoil, and Marianne, though unable to control her emotions, has been concealing everything.  “Ask me nothing,” she says to Elinor, “you shall soon know all.” (p. 180).

[Image: La Belle Assemblee, 1807]

Society at the time required circumspect behaviors, especially of its female members – one acted demurely, maintained secrets, told polite lies.  As Tony Tanner says, “it was a society that forced people to be at once very sociable and very private” (Tanner, p. 88).   Byrne talks of the “the level of deceit in the marriage market” (Byrne, p. 126), and Spacks goes so far as to say that the entire “plot of S&S suggests that women must and men should conceal their feelings” (Spacks, p. 339).  When Elinor admonishes Marianne “Pray, pray be composed and do not betray what you feel to every body present” (p. 176), as Marianne screams for Willoughby to attend her, we are seeing this conflict of honest expression versus proper behavior.  In the beginning of the novel, there are several references to Elinor needing to tell little lies, “the whole task of telling lies when politeness requires it” (p. 122), unlike Marianne, who wears everything on her sleeve.  Elinor later in the novel becomes less able to perform these social niceties – she more and more responds with silence, this repeated numerous times, with the final wordless bolting from the room upon hearing that Edward is free.

[Image:  “His errand...was a simple one. It was only to ask Elinor to marry him”
 C.E. Brock, courtesy of Molland’s]

One forgets in tearing S&S down to its bare bones, what with all these secrets; all the duplicitous characters lurking about; the lies (can we ever really forgive Edward for his secrecy and the outright lie about the ring?!); all the behind the scenes seriousness of Colonel Brandon’s history of lost love, his secret duel, (we must add here Brandon’s very quick reference to his ward Eliza’s friend, “who with a most obstinate and ill-judged secrecy [my italics] would tell nothing, would give no clue, though she certainly knew it all” (p. 209) regarding Eliza’s whereabouts); and Willoughby’s betrayal of both Eliza and Marianne - with all this, how easy it is to forget that S&S is a comedy after all!   Is there anything more laugh-inducing that the scene when Edward arrives to find both his Lucy and his Elinor together? – I know that you know but pretending I don’t know, etc. – a perfectly drawn piece of theater (for an insightful look at Austen’s love of and use of such dramatic elements, see Byrne).

And who better to return us to good humor than Mrs. Jennings, certainly the most loveable and endearing of Austen’s cast of annoying characters! If in Elinor we have the keeper of secrets, in Mrs. Jennings we have the lover and teller of secrets, the good-natured gossip, though she most often gets it all wrong!  She (along with Sir John Middleton) makes much of the secret letter “F”; she is sure that Colonel Brandon has a “natural daughter”; tells all that Marianne and Willoughby are secretly engaged; gossips that Willoughby and Miss Gray’s “engagement is no longer to be a secret”; and ends with “the important secret in her possession” (p. 291) that Elinor and the Colonel are to be engaged!  Mrs. Jennings certainly personifies Austen’s belief in gossip as nearly a living social entity that undermines the keeping of secrets: in her letter to Cassandra of 5 September 1796 [Le Faye, Ltr. 5, p. 8]:

Mr. Richard Harvey is going to be married; but as it is a great secret, & only known to half the Neighborhood, you must not mention it.  The Lady’s name is Musgrove.

[Image: Mrs. Jennings in S&S 1995, courtesy of]

 But let’s return to the concept of Jane Austen as the writer of detective stories. Margaret Ann Doody in her introduction to the Oxford edition of S&S quotes Joseph Wiesenfarth: “the very structure of the novel attempts to engage and develop the total personalities of Elinor and Marianne by presenting them with a series of mysteries that must be solved.” Doody says that “the characters are all detectives trying to put together this piece and that piece of information”– citing Mrs. Jennings declaration to Marianne “I have found you out in spite of all your tricks” about the latter’s secret visit to Allenham with Willoughby, showing that all the characters are in a sense spying on each other to get at the truth  (Doody, p. xxxiii)  An abundance of secrets will certainly set any detective worth her/his salt to action – and Sense and Sensibility does not disappoint, despite an inherent sense of confusion.  And so all ends as all good English novels do – with the requisite comedic ending, where the truth will out, all is revealed, each character is given their just due, and whether you like that Marianne ends up with Colonel Brandon or not [another essay!], and we are told that Willoughby will forever regard Marianne as “his secret standard of perfection in woman” (p. 379), order is restored, and all is quite right with the world.
Further Reading:

  • Byrne, Paula. Jane Austen and the Theatre. London: Hambledon, 2002.

  • Doody, Margaret Ann. “Introduction.” Sense and Sensibility. By Jane Austen. New ed. New York: Oxford UP, 2008.

  • Drabble, Margaret, “Introduction.” Sense and Sensibility. By Jane Austen. New York: Signet, 1997. [Introduction c1989]

  • James, P. D. “Emma Considered as a Detective Story.” Time to Be in Earnest: A Fragment of Autobiography. New York: Knopf, 2000.

  • Le Faye, Deirdre, ed. Jane Austen’s Letters. New ed. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1997.

  • Spacks, Patricia Meyer. “Afterword.” Sense and Sensibility. By Jane Austen. New York: Bantam, 1982.

  • Tanner, Tony. Jane Austen. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1986.

  • Tsomondo, Thorell. “Imperfect Articulation: A Saving Instability in Sense and Sensibility.” Persuasions 12 (1990): 90-110.

  • Wiesenfarth, Joseph. “The Mysteries of Sense and Sensibility.” The Errand of Form: An Assay of Jane Austen’s Art. New York: Fordham UP, 1967.


I welcome your comments!  Can you remember the first time you read Sense and Sensibility? What secret in the novel most surprised you?
Random drawing for one of my favorites of the numerous Jane Austen gift books:  Jane Austen Speaks to Women, by Edith Lank (2000). As usual, please, don't forget to add your e-mail address to your comment which can be left here or at Jane Austen in Vermont where I linked to my guestblog here.

The giveaway is open worldwide . Winner will be announced on June 30th.

[Image:  Jane Austen Speaks to Women cover]

“Elinor agreed to it all, for she did not think he deserved the compliment of rational opposition.”  [Elinor in Sense & Sensibility

Deb Barnum

Deb Barnum, author of the Jane Austen in Vermont  blog, had a former career as a law librarian, then followed her heart and bought an antiquarian book shop, certainly every book lover’s dream – but alas! hating being tied down to retail, she closed the bricks & mortar shop and now runs an internet-only business – Bygone Books   -  though she does miss the customers and the daily opportunity for book chat! A reader of Jane Austen in her younger days, Deb began a re-entry into Austenland too many years ago to mention when her daughter was reading Emma in college, and she has not looked back – she is the Regional Coordinator for the new JASNA-Vermont Region, is an avid collector of books on London, Regency England and of course Jane Austen.
You can follow Deb on Twitter as austeninvermont.


Margay Leah Justice said...

I think the secrets Col. Brandon keeps are the most surprising - and eye-opening!

Felicia said...

I guess I will say when Elinor found out the Lucy Steele was engaged to Edward. I'm not sure it was all that surprising, but I really felt for Elinor when she found out, much more that Marianne.


felicialso @gmail .com

Laurel Ann (Austenprose) said...

Wonderful Deb. Love it! I just saw a stage adaptation of S&S which reminded me how much is concealed in the novel. Thank you for pointing out even more reasons why Jane is such genius.

Juliet Archer said...

Excellent and entertaining article, Deb, thank you!

Wouldn't Mrs Jennings have just loved the internet?

maribea said...

Oh I do love Jane Austen and Sense and Sensibility! After all, isn't it this love? Loving a person we will never fully know and understand? So puzzling, so fascinating.
And please give me a Brandon, this 35-year-old man, so old for Marianne, so perfect for me!!!

Anonymous said...

Hi all! - thank you for commenting - I agree Margay, Col. Brandon's secrets certainly are eye-openers, though I was, like Felecia, on first reading surprised to find Lucy engaged to Edward - I kept wondering why this very annoying person had been introduced! - I was too young [a teeenager at the time] to understand the need for such to propel the plot!

Thanks for your thoughts!

Anonymous said...

Thanks Laurel Ann! - you are so right! I also recently saw a stage production [in Boston - still haven't written about it...] - and on the stage one gets a better sense of all the surprise comings and goings, and secrets / whisperings between characters - a genius indeed!

Anonymous said...

Juliet - yes! Mrs. Jennings would never be without her computer! - there should be a "Mrs. Jennings Gossip Guide" out there, don't you think?

I see Persuade Me will be out in September - congratulations!

Anonymous said...

Hello Maribea - I'll see what I can do about giving you Brandon! I do think he has been sorely misunderstood all these years ... Austen is trying to tell us something and we haven't been paying close enough attention!
Thanks for commenting,

Jo's Daughter said...

I remember reading S&S for the first time, I was most surprised that Elinor keeps her mouth tightly shut about the engagement between Lucy & Edward. She's never tempted to share the news/pain with her sister. It must have taken alot for her to keep the other's secret to herself. So the fact that he isn't free to marry, revieled by Lucy his fiance was the biggest secret to me.

devapajo AT gmail DOT com

TONY said...

Deb, great article. What you have described about Sense and Sensibility is what all great literature should do, engage us on different levels and not just one. This is the difference between the many mediocre , light, airy, writers we have and the true genius. Jane achieves the multi layered rich texture of ,"life," double meanings, ,"secrets," as you say, the meaning of ,"silences," and so on.We learn from jane. The others, well...pah!!! (is that a Scrooge quote?) ha! ha! It always come back to Dickens doesn't it Deb?

TONY said...

I must make one other comment, Deb, well, two, no maybe three. Oh heck!!

Your PD James quote, "he or she should be able to discover(neanings) by logical deduction from clues inserted in the novel with deceptive cunning but essential fairness." When I read that I knew immediately what you were alluding to. I made a fist with my right hand, crooked my right arm and executed a reverse punch, hissing, "yesssssss!!!" through my teeth. "Go Deb! Go Deb!"

O f course P.D.James was referring to mysteries and crime novels but as I referred to in my above comment, great literature is about layers and uncovering those layers that create a rich life within the novel. It is all there in the writing. You can't impose external theories on the text. It's all there as part of the rich tapestry.
PHew!!! I feel better now. Have a great day.


Patricia's Particularity said...

I actually read Sense and Sensibility for the first time in College in my Jane Austen course and fell in love with the novel. I had read Jane Austen's other works before then but only saw the S&S movie. I am most intrigued by Brandon's secrets - i wish we could learn even more about him and his past.

Thank you for this amazing giveaway!

Kirsten said...

I think that the greatest secret is Colonel Brandon's ward. Her story explaines his feelings towards Willoughby, his concern for Marianne & his honor in general. It brings the whole thing together and makes him shine.

lotsofgingers at hellokitty dot com

Literary Chanteuse said...

The most surprising was that Willoughby was involved in the secret of Mr. Brandon. Sounds like a great book!


Claudia said...

Sense And Sensibility was the second Austen novel I read, immediatly after reading Pride And Prejudice. The most surprising secret was the one about Col. Brandon's past. It was love at first line for me! However, the truth about Lucy Steel impressed me more, in a way, because I feel like I have much in common with Elinor and I empathize with her a lot. Thanks for the giveaway :)

~ fiona j harding ~ said...

Sense and Sensibility was the first of Jane's books that I read and has subsequently been my favourite ever since. I do so love them all though. Every secret, every betrayal, every betrothal had me transfixed until the end.

Anonymous said...

Hi all - just responding to some of your comments collectively.

It does seem we are most surprised and moved by Col. Brandon's secrets! - as Patricia says, I wish we could learn more about him - he is such a shadowy figure really, with a backstory that deserves a book all its own, sort of like the story of Anne Elliot and Capt. Wentworth - I guess this is why sequels are written!

Fiona, I love your comment, "every secret, every betrayal, every betrothal" - we are all transfixed through to the end! - and how as S&S was your first Austen, it remains your favorite. It is hard to duplicate that magic spell that the first read casts on us!

Thank you all for commenting - winner will be drawn and announced tomorrow.