Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

Exonerating Mrs. Dashwood

Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

Exonerating Mrs. Dashwood

Article excerpt

READERS AS DIVERSE as Angela Leighton and Inger Brodey have discussed the implications of Jane Austen's decision, through Marianne and Elinor Dashwood, to grapple in her first published novel with what we might call the old quarrel between Sense and Sensibility. (1) I find this quarrel worth discussing, too, but I would like to consider how the title's dichotomy pertains to one of the peripheral characters of the novel, a character we ought to attend to because of her importance to the afore-mentioned heroines: their mother, Mrs. Dashwood. Allan Bloom has suggested that the parents in Jane Austen's novels are "distinctly unwise" and are "not privy to the sentiments that constitute love in their children" (195). Bloom's criticism is grave indeed, but is it right to group Mrs. Dashwood with, say, Sir Walter Elliot or Mrs. Bennet? Mrs. Dashwood's ability to enter into the sentiments of her children, to make herself involved intimately in their lives, and to concern herself wholeheartedly with their happiness, makes her remarkable among Austen parents. Mr. Woodhouse, for example, is a kind and doting father, but no thoughtful reader of Austen's novels would attribute to him the same sort of active interest based upon intimate knowledge of the character, habits, and desires of his daughter that Mrs. Dashwood has for hers. Similarly, Mrs. Morland cares deeply for her daughter, but we see so little of her that discussing her in great detail might prove difficult. By contrast, Austen finds Mrs. Dashwood essential enough to the plot to make her a catalyst for both the crisis and the conclusion of the novel.

Bloom's assessment of Austen parents' obliviousness to "the sentiments that constitute love in their children," then, does not seem to apply to Mrs. Dashwood. But what of his charge respecting wisdom? It seems that Mrs. Dashwood is guilty of being unwise: though her parental solicitude is often a virtue, it also stands as a character flaw of nearly tragic proportions when it is exercised in the wrong way on behalf of Marianne (Lewis 106). From the first chapter of Sense and Sensibility, Mrs. Dashwood's relationship with her middle daughter is described linearly rather than hierarchically: she and Marianne are more like friends and confidantes than mother and daughter. By emphasizing the similarities between the heroine and this peripheral character, Austen invites us to attend not just to Marianne's decline and eventual distress, but to Mrs. Dashwood's as well. Marianne is what E. M. Forster would have called one of Austen's "round" characters. But where some might compare Mrs. Dashwood to another tangential character, Lady Bertram, who in a moment of crisis, can be, in Forster's view, "inflated into a round character and collapsed back into a flat one" (116), Mrs. Dashwood, whose transformation throughout the novel mirrors Marianne's, remains "round" from beginning to end. She, too, must undergo her moment of recognition and reversal. (2) She, too, must change. Mrs. Dashwood not only defies Allan Bloom's critique of the obliviousness of Austen parents, but she also comes to defy, at the novel's end, his critique of their lack of wisdom.

"THE RESEMBLANCE ... WAS STRIKINGLY GREAT"

Sense and Sensibility begins with a series of deaths: first, the companion, housekeeper, and sister of Mr. Henry Dashwood's uncle; then the uncle; and finally, Mr. Henry Dashwood himself. This latter death sets the plot of Sense and Sensibility in motion, and by beginning with the death of the owner of Norland, Austen is able to justify the coming together of family members from other parts of the country--Mr, and Mrs. John Dashwood and their son--to show her readers not only how each of her primary characters acts in a moment of grief but also how these characters interact under the pressure of this grief and its accompanying stresses. For Mrs. Dashwood, grief over the death of a beloved husband is exacerbated by the selfishness of the heir and his wife:

   No sooner was [the] funeral over, than Mrs. … 
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