Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

Mrs. Jennings and Mrs. Palmer: The Path to Female Self-Determination in Austen's Sense and Sensibility

Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

Mrs. Jennings and Mrs. Palmer: The Path to Female Self-Determination in Austen's Sense and Sensibility

Article excerpt

BEGINNING WITH THE TITLE OF Sense and Sensibility, Austen makes readers aware of the two archetypes to be explored. Austen's female bildungsroman is more nuanced than the title suggests at first glance, however, and readers themselves journey to deeper enlightenment as her heroines do. The Dashwood sisters are the focal point for a courtship plot of love lost and love found that is simultaneous with the protagonists' more critical personal awakening. In Sense and Sensibility, 'Austen links Elinor to sense ... and Marianne to sensibility ... but she continually muddies the semantic waters" (Auerbach 101), both revealing complexity in the two heroines and including other female characters outside the simple paradigm the sisters initially seem to allegorize. Indeed, the novel's women represent a range of levels on the continuum between extreme sensibility and extreme sense. A great deal of critical attention has been paid to Austen's conversation with her readers below the surface of the text through the "added philosophical depth to what began primarily as a sketch of two characters" (Auerbach 100). We all know that the brilliantly satirical author communicates more to her readers than what is explicitly stated in the text, especially in evoking such seemingly straightforward conceptual terms as "sense," "pride," or "persuasion."

The novel combines sense and sensibility in its title; that coalescence of qualities reflects its ultimate message to women, which Austen propounds through the collective impact of a range of female temperaments, from over-sensibility to over-pragmatism. The female characters in Sense and Sensibility can be divided into several groups, none of which neatly mirrors the novel's title: those with excessive sensibility, those with too much "sense" and no apparent sensibility, and those with an intriguing blend of both qualities. Despite Elinor's practicality, both Elinor and Marianne manifest the dangers of a heightened sensibility, whereas characters such as Lucy Steele and her" role models, Lady Middleton and Fanny Dashwood, portray a purely self-serving, distorted "sense." Significantly, two commonly overlooked characters--Mrs. Jennings and her younger daughter, Charlotte Palmer--embody the blend of sense with sensibility that the novel depicts as most advantageous to a woman's well-being. While all of the female characters experience some benefit and detriment because of their dispositions, whether rational or highly emotional, Charlotte and her mother are the two women whose combination of qualities the novel ultimately defines as the most healthful. Moreover, their qualities emerge from a deliberate stance of self reliance and allegiance to an emotional median.

Charlotte Palmer and Mrs. Jennings are largely absent from the criticism of Sense and Sensibility, the few references tending to be backhanded compliments or oversimplifications. For example, apRoberts suggests that Mrs. Jennings is a morally upright character but "wonderfully deficient in both sense and sensibility" (357). For Ashley Tauchert, Charlotte is simply "all surface chatter, gossip and drollery" (66). Claudia Johnson acknowledges these commonly overlooked characters in relation to the novel's "progressive social criticism" of male-female relationships (Jane Austen 49), but not in terms of their role in advancing a particular female response to the novel's central binary opposition. In offering an alternative perspective on Austen's portrayal of the concepts of women's "sense" and "sensibility" in the novel, through the explication of her distinctly character-affiliated methods of defining these categories, we will exhume Mrs. Jennings and Charlotte Palmer from their burial place as minor background characters.

Much scholarly criticism of Sense and Sensibility investigates the roles of Elinor as the model of sense and Marianne as the model of sensibility. Countless analyses detail the many rational, logical actions of Elinor during the novel in contrast to the melodramatic outbursts of her younger sister'. …

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