Jane Austen and the Fiction of Her Time

By Mary Waldron | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 3
Sense and the single girl

When it comes to a discussion of Sense and Sensibility, order of publication is not a reliable indicator of order of conception. In its greater seriousness it belongs, with Mansfield Park, to a middle period of development. There is enough evidence to suggest that Pride and Prejudice, at least in its earlier manifestation as 'First Impressions', predates Sense and Sensibility; 1 its 'light, and bright, and sparkling' atmosphere is closer to the juvenilia and Catharine. Mr Collins and Lady Catherine de Bourgh have a good deal of the burlesque about them. There is nobody like them in Sense and Sensibility; much of the broad-stroke caricature is harsher and more threatening Fanny Dashwood and her mother, for instance, are treated with irony, but are powerful and dangerous figures who cannot be neutralised as easily as Lady Catherine is by Darcy and Elizabeth. There is much to support the idea that in Sense and Sensibility Austen no longer found the simple moral dichotomies of contemporary fiction merely funny. The novel probes deeper into the mores of contemporary society to find, not the obtuse but ultimately impotent snobbery of Lady Catherine, but selfish greed and malice prepense, which are rendered both respectable and potentially destructive by the support of the society within which they operate. In Pride and Prejudice no person is assigned responsibility for the entail which deprives the Bennet females of their future livelihood; the decisions which destroy the prospects of Marianne and Elinor are at best based on carelessness and ingratitude on the part of their grandfather, whose will prevents his son from providing for his second family, at worst on the meanness of their half-brother and his wife. Mrs Ferrars's apparently unassailable command of the purse-strings and Lucy's determined upward mobility at anyone's expense increase the narrative tension. Elinor and Marianne are up against a very much more complex set of powerful economic forces than are the Bennet sisters, and the

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