Volume I, Chapter XII
Elinor is surprised to hear that Marianne has accepted the gift of a horse from Willoughby. Elinor thinks it improper to accept such a present from a man of whom she knows little, but Marianne insists that she knows him intimately in spite of their short acquaintance. Marianne does give way, however, on the issue of the expense to her family, and agrees to decline the gift.
Marianne and Willoughby seem so close that even Elinor believes they must be secretly engaged. Margaret tells Elinor that Willoughby begged a lock of Marianne’s hair, which she granted.
Margaret indiscreetly reveals to Mrs. Jennings that Elinor likes a young man, though she refuses to say who it is. Elinor is mortified.
An outing is planned to the house of a relative of Colonel Brandon. The party consists of the Dashwood sisters, Willoughby, Sir John and Lady Middleton, Colonel Brandon, and Mrs. Jennings. But the visit is called off suddenly when Colonel Brandon receives a letter that means he has to leave for town at once. Willoughby mutters to Marianne that Colonel Brandon has invented this excuse to avoid a pleasure trip.
Mrs. Jennings speculates that the Colonel’s sudden departure is to do with Miss Williams, whom she believes to be the Colonel’s illegitimate daughter.
Not wanting to waste an opportunity for a social event, Sir John organizes a carriage drive. Marianne and Willoughby disappear in Willoughby’s carriage and return later than everyone else. At dinner, Mrs. Jennings says that she knows that Marianne and Willoughby went to see the house that Marianne will live in one day, Allenham Court. Elinor thinks it improper for them to have visited the house while Mrs. Smith is still living there.
Willoughby spends all his time with Marianne. Elinor is sure that he and Marianne are secretly engaged, and cannot understand why Marianne does not admit it. Willoughby is not rich, and Elinor thinks that this may be why he is postponing marriage. Willoughby talks passionately of how happy he has been at Barton Cottage, implying that it is Marianne who has made him so, and forbids Mrs. Dashwood ever to alter the house.
Mrs. Dashwood, Elinor, and Margaret visit Lady Middleton. Marianne finds an excuse not to go. As Mrs. Dashwood and her party return home, Marianne rushes out of the parlour in tears and runs upstairs. Mrs. Dashwood finds Willoughby in the parlour, looking upset. He tells Mrs. Dashwood that he has to depart immediately for London on business, and admits that he has no intention of returning to Devon in the foreseeable future because Mrs. Smith invites him infrequently. Mrs. Dashwood, surprised that Willoughby does not seem to be considering his friendship with her own family, reminds him that he will always be welcome at her house. Willoughby replies evasively and leaves.
Mrs. Dashwood believes that Mrs. Smith, on whom Willoughby is financially dependent, has learned of Willoughby’s attachment to Marianne and disapproves because she plans to arrange a more favorable match for him. Elinor finds it understandable that Willoughby would want to conceal his engagement from Mrs. Smith, but cannot excuse him for also concealing it from them. Mrs. Dashwood declares that there is no need for words when Willoughby’s actions have clearly told that he regards Marianne as his future wife. Elinor is suspicious about his and Marianne’s silence on the matter, and thinks it may indicate that there is no engagement, but Mrs. Dashwood rebukes her for her lack of faith in Willoughby’s honor.
Marianne briefly joins the family at dinner, but bursts into tears and leaves the room.
Marianne feeds her sorrow at Willoughby’s departure. She is unwilling to eat properly, plays on the piano songs that they had sung together, and reads books they had read together. Willoughby does not write, though Mrs. Dashwood tries to find plausible excuses why he should not. Elinor suggests that Mrs. Dashwood ask Marianne directly if she is engaged, as Marianne has always been closest to her mother, but Mrs. Dashwood refuses on the grounds that such a question would cause Marianne distress.
One day, Elinor and Marianne are out walking when they see a man on horseback riding towards them. Marianne is certain that it is Willoughby, but it turns out to be Edward Ferrars. Marianne greets Edward warmly, but is disappointed in the apparent coolness between him and Elinor. Marianne’s consternation is reinforced when he reveals that unknown to them, Edward has been in Devon for two weeks, visiting friends near Plymouth. Elinor is annoyed at Edward’s reserve, but masters her feelings and treats him politely.
Edward’s reserve breaks down under the warmth of Mrs. Dashwood’s welcome, though his spirits seem low. She asks him about his mother’s plans for him, and he says he hopes she has given up her ambition for him to become distinguished in public life. Elinor and Marianne discuss the relationship of wealth to happiness. Though Elinor believes that wealth “has much to do with” happiness, Marianne romantically dismisses the importance of money (“Beyond a competence [enough], it can afford no real satisfaction …”). However, it turns out that Marianne’s idea of “a competence” exceeds Elinor’s idea of wealth, so both sisters believe that money is vital to happiness.
The sisters go on to discuss with Edward the difficulty of knowing a person. Elinor says her impressions of someone often prove wrong. Edward says that he himself often appears uncaring about others, when he is merely shy in company. He is shocked to hear that Marianne believes him to be reserved, and he lapses into pensive silence.
Elinor wonders if Edward is still attracted to her, as he does not seem to be as affectionate as before. Elinor and Marianne discuss with Edward his attitude towards picturesque scenery, which was a topic of interest in Austen’s day. Edward is not fashionably romantic in his views: he prefers flourishing trees to lightning-blasted ones, and takes no pleasure in seeing a ruined cottage. Marianne is disappointed by his lack of romantic sensibility.
Marianne spots a ring on Edward’s finger containing a lock of hair, and asks if it is his sister Fanny’s. Edward, embarrassed, says that it is. However, both Elinor and Marianne secretly feel that the hair is Elinor’s; Marianne believes it to have been a gift, while Elinor believes that Edward obtained it by trickery.
Sir John Middleton and Mrs. Jennings visit, prompted by curiosity after hearing that the Dashwoods have a visitor. They tease Elinor about her mysterious admirer, whom they know from Margaret to have a name beginning with “F” but have not identified as Edward Ferrars.
Just as Edward’s enjoyment of his visit is at its height he insists that he must leave. The women believe that his mother is influencing him.
Edward discusses his future profession with Mrs. Dashwood. His family would like him to go into law, but he prefers the church. He calls himself “an idle, helpless being.” Mrs. Dashwood reassures Edward that his mother will soon make him financially independent, and then he will be able to do as he wishes.
After Edward leaves, Elinor keeps busy and does not let her emotions get the better of her, though inwardly, she wonders about his behavior towards her.
Sir John and Lady Middleton, Mrs. Jennings, her daughter Charlotte Palmer, and Charlotte’s husband Thomas Palmer arrive on a visit. Thomas rudely ignores his wife while she chatters inconsequentially. She is expecting a baby. Before they depart, the visitors invite the Dashwood women to spend next day at Barton Park. Marianne is unenthusiastic, as she is bored with the Middletons’ parties.
At Barton Park the next day, Charlotte Palmer invites the Dashwood sisters to go to town with them that winter or to stay with her at her house in Cleveland. Her house is close to Willoughby’s estate, Combe. Charlotte says that everyone expects Willoughby and Marianne to marry. Elinor says that this is the first she has heard of it.
The Palmers return to Cleveland. Sir John Middleton invites Anne and Lucy Steele, relatives of Mrs. Jennings from nearby Exeter, to Barton Park. He invites Elinor and Marianne to come to Barton Park to meet the Steeles. He praises each pair of sisters to the other pair, feeling sure that they will get along.
Anne and Lucy make themselves agreeable to Lady Middleton by appearing to be fond of her children, however unpleasant their behavior is. During Elinor and Marianne’s visit, Lucy goes to great lengths to make friends with them. Anne seems obsessed with eligible young men, or “beaux.” Elinor thinks that Anne has vulgar manners and that Lucy is pretty but shrewd. She does not wish to get to know either of them better.
Sir John indiscreetly tells the Steeles that Marianne is soon to be married (to Willoughby) and that Elinor has an admirer called Mr. Ferrars. Anne declares that she and her sister know Mr. Ferrars very well, but Lucy immediately downplays their familiarity with him.
Lucy Steele misses no opportunity to become close to Elinor. Elinor judges Lucy as clever but uneducated. She watches Lucy engaging in calculating and insincere flattery of the Middletons, and does not trust Lucy’s proffered friendship. Lucy asks Elinor if she knows Mrs. Ferrars, Edward and Fanny’s mother. Elinor answers that she has never met her. Swearing Elinor to secrecy, Lucy reveals that she is secretly engaged to Edward Ferrars, whom she met while he was being tutored by her uncle. Edward has kept the engagement from his sister and mother, as Lucy has no fortune. Lucy shows Elinor a miniature of Edward that she keeps as a token of his attachment. Only Anne knows Lucy’s secret, and Lucy fears that she will reveal it through indiscretion. Lucy says that Edward is downcast about his situation, and Elinor realizes the cause of his low spirits. Lucy shows Elinor a letter from Edward and reveals that he wears a ring containing a lock of her hair. Elinor accepts that Lucy is speaking the truth. Though she feels great sorrow, she hides her feelings from Lucy.
Analysis of Volume I, Chapters XII-XXII
One of the major themes of the novel is the problem of knowledge and how it can be gained. This is known in critical literature as the epistemological question. Epistemology is a branch of philosophy that investigates the origin, nature, methods, and limits of human knowledge. In Sense and Sensibility, Austen asks how the truth about people and their true motivations and feelings can be known. This was a particularly pressing question in Austen’s time, when the conventions of polite society meant that people, especially women, were less open about their feelings than they are today.
In order to compensate for this lack of emotional openness, which was calculated to protect the chaste reputation of women, it was expected that men would be open and honest about their intentions towards the women to whom they paid attention. Thus it would not have been appropriate for Marianne to ask Willoughby directly about his intentions towards her (it should be borne in mind that even many people of our own time find such questions difficult, if not impossible, to ask).
Instead, Austen, in line with the convention of her time, implies that the onus is on Willoughby either to declare his intention to marry Marianne at an early stage or to leave her alone in order to avoid compromising her reputation. Willoughby keeps silent, and Mrs. Dashwood and Marianne are forced to guess his intentions. Their romantic sensibility leads them to surmise that as Willoughby seems to love Marianne, he must intend to marry her. Mrs Dashwood says to Elinor about Willoughby’s supposed engagement to Marianne: “I have not wanted syllables where actions have spoken so plainly. Has not his behaviour to Marianne and to all of us … declared that he loved and considered her as his future wife, and that he felt for us the attachment of the nearest relative?” (Chapter XV).
This mistake could have been avoided if Mrs. Dashwood had asked Marianne directly whether Willoughby had made her any promises, but Mrs. Dashwood rejects Elinor’s suggestion that she do so, due to her romantic delicacy about distressing Marianne’s already over-wrought emotions.
Thus excessive “sensibility,” in the case of both Mrs. Dashwood and Marianne, is seen by Austen as an impediment to good judgment. Elinor, who is not blinded by excessive sensibility, has a better ability to see the truth: she wants proof of the supposed engagement before she will believe it. But even Elinor’s cool judgment is foiled by Willoughby’s lack of transparency, and she must simply watch and wait for the truth to become apparent through the progress of time. As it transpires, Elinor’s suspicions turn out to be well-founded, showing caution and reserve to be the better approach in a situation in which the truth is obscured.
Other characters also pose epistemological questions. Lucy Steele is an example. Lucy is keen to ingratiate herself with the Middletons and with Elinor, but her motives remain mysterious and unknowable for some time. Her revelation of her secret engagement to Edward at the end of Volume I reveals something of her true motives. First, she wishes to appear in the best possible light to the Middletons because they are rich and part of Edward’s extended family. Second, she confides in Elinor seemingly because she feels insecure about her engagement to Edward and wants support, and because she knows that Edward views Elinor as a friend and so she seizes upon Elinor as a connection to him. Third, Sir John Middleton has indiscreetly revealed that Edward admires Elinor, and Lucy means to warn Elinor off him by telling her that he is already taken. In spite of these glimpses of Lucy’s true nature, her character remains opaque, and only at the end of the novel is her inner nature revealed. Even then, Elinor and Edward are left speculating about exactly what motivated Lucy to behave for so long as she did towards Edward. In Lucy, Austen shows the inherent mystery of other people.
Both Edward and Colonel Brandon also have mysterious ‘other’ lives. Edward at first seems to admire Elinor greatly, but his subsequent coolness towards her makes her doubt his feelings for her. The reasons for his behavior are only revealed at the end of Volume I, when his engagement to Lucy becomes known.
As for Colonel Brandon, early in the novel he seems oppressed by deep griefs and disappointments. Their exact nature, however, remains a mystery, as does the reason for his abrupt departure from the outing with the Middletons and Dashwoods in Chapter XIII. Only later in the novel is his story told and the questions around his life resolved.
This section of the novel continues to contrast Elinor’s “sense” with Marianne’s “sensibility.” In Chapter XIV, Marianne, rebuked by Elinor for impropriety in visiting Allenham with Willoughby unchaperoned, asserts that there can have been no impropriety because “we always know when we are acting wrong, and with such a conviction I could have had no pleasure.” Marianne is claiming that her feelings are a measure of right conduct. This assertion places her in the tradition of the writers and philosophers of ‘sensibility’ or sentiment (novels of this genre were known as sentimental novels), who believed that morality was as much a matter of emotion as reason. Sense and Sensibility is in part Austen’s critique of the cult of sensibility, which elevated the acute perceptions of, or responsiveness to, something, such as another person’s emotions. This theme impacts on the theme of the epistemological question (how a person can know a thing), in that sensibility is revealed to be an unreliable guide to truth. Marianne is correct in feeling that Willoughby loves her, but that is as far as sensibility can take her in assessing her position. Sensibility was dependent upon experience (knowledge gained through the senses), and Marianne can have only a limited experience of Willoughby, as he has a life that he keeps apart from her. Marianne’s sensibility can therefore tell her nothing about his intentions or other considerations that may govern his choice of a wife. It becomes clear late in the novel that he acts against his feelings for Marianne in abandoning her, thereby leaving the entire construct of sensibility behind him in his fearful flight towards financial security.
Chapter XV expands on Marianne’s tendency to allow sensibility to rule her life. After she is separated from Willoughby, she not only gives way to her negative emotions, but feeds and encourages them. She is “without any desire of command over herself.” She would have thought herself “very inexcusable if she had been able to sleep at all the first night after parting from Willoughby” (Chapter XVI). This is Austen’s ironic comment on the fashionable cult of “sensibility” in her time, which elevated the feelings above all other considerations. Marianne elevates her lack of emotional control to the status of a virtue, whereas its destructive effects on herself and her family reveal it to be a dangerous weakness. Austen emphasizes the selfishness of such an attitude: Marianne gives “pain every moment to her mother and sisters” (Chapter XVI). The selfishness attendant on such “sensibility” also leads Marianne to judges the Middletons negatively (Chapter XVI), purely on the grounds that they embarrass her with comments about her romantic life. In contrast with Marianne, Elinor feels deeply, but shows control over her emotions, concealing her anger at Edward Ferrars’ inexplicable reserve towards her.
Austen again gives her damning view of excessive sensibility in her observation that “common sense, common care, common prudence, were all sunk in Mrs. Dashwood’s romantic delicacy” (Chapter XVI) in not asking Marianne directly if she is engaged. Such a direct question, if directly answered, Austen implies, would help put an end to Marianne’s destructive indulgences and at the very least, encourage the family to put any hopes of Willoughby behind them.
The Chapter XVII conversation between the Dashwood women and Edward Ferrars foregrounds the important theme of money, as seen through the dual perspective of Elinor’s “sense” and Marianne’s “sensibility.” This dual perspective allows Austen to address the theme of money with characteristic irony, as one character comments on and undermines the other’s view. The practical Elinor is confident that “wealth has much to do with” happiness. Marianne romantically dismisses wealth as an ingredient of happiness (“Beyond a competence, it can afford no real satisfaction”). The irony lies in the revelation that Marianne’s idea of a “competence” (a sufficient amount) is two thousand pounds a year, which exceeds Elinor’s notion of wealth. This is Austen’s wry comment on the romantic sensibility: even those who claim to believe that money is not important are convinced of the necessity of having it. Here, as often in this novel, Austen’s own view is expressed by Elinor.
Volume I ends with the two couples, Marianne and Willoughby, and Elinor and Edward, facing difficulties in being together. Of the two couples’ situations, Elinor and Edward’s seems the least hopeful, as Edward’s prior engagement appears to be an insuperable obstacle to any union between them. The reader as yet knows nothing of any obstacle to Willoughby’s union with Marianne, and so it is tempting to think that things may work out well for them.
At this point in the novel, the system of primogeniture and the necessity of having money exercise an iron grip over the lives of the protagonists. The Dashwood daughters must marry well or starve. Edward cannot marry without money to support a wife, and so he must keep his engagement secret until Mrs. Ferrars is dead and he is in safe possession of his inheritance. While Willoughby’s situation is less clear, the Dashwood women suspect that his financial prospects, dependent as they are on Mrs. Smith, are such that he is not free to follow his heart in choosing a wife.