The Common Good
May-June 1996

The Quiet Virtues

by Liane Ellison Norman | May-June 1996

Jane Austen's moral universe.

Who would have thought it! At a time when there seem to be no effective taboos-every permutation of violence, vulgarity, and self-actualizing confessional seems permissible, every act of bad faith tolerable if it makes you feel good-Jane Austen's novels are hot! In rapid succession, television has shown Pride and Prejudice, Emma has been retooled as the movie Clueless, and Persuasion and the wildly successful Sense and Sensibility have shown up on the big screen, the latter winning the Academy Award for best adapted screenplay. What in the world is going on here?

Sense and Sensibility, based on Jane Austen's 1811 novel, follows two sisters, played by Emma Thompson (who also wrote the screenplay) and Kate Winslet, as they pursue the only available vocation-marriage. The plot, which turns on convolutions of family and community connection, provides a discussion of love-what it is and how one knows what it is.

The sisters, not being independently wealthy, must marry, in part but not only for economic reasons. The younger, Marianne, mistaking the good looks and attentions of the stranger Willoughby for honorable character, does not know that he has, for his own pleasure, ruined at least one young woman. Col. Brandon, the neighbor who quietly loves Marianne, embodies real excellence of character. Not wanting to hurt her, he does not pour out effusions of sentiment. He is a steady man, valued and esteemed by all who know him.

Marianne believes that the display of emotion, the "superficial sensibility," is paramount, but these values turn out to be both false and humiliating. Elinor, on the other hand, who embodies "sense," suffers the misbegotten engagement of her beloved to another with fortitude and discretion. Reserve, honor, and duty are the virtues that make honorable love possible.

SENSE AND SENSIBILITY is a beautiful film, full of clear country light, high good humor, Ang Lee's crisp direction, convincing acting, and Jane Austen's pithy dialogue. Not many years ago, those who loved Jane Austen were considered quaint fuddy-duddies. But now these intricately plotted stories about impoverished middle-class women and the lower reaches of English nobility speak to us of something important.

The simple beauty of an apparently unspoiled countryside may account for this. The Jane Austen period pieces are radiantly lovely; it's easy to be swept away by nostalgia for a time when travel by coach seems picturesque rather than dirty, dangerous, and uncomfortable. There is the appealing civility of the early 19th century as presented in Austen's apparently tidy novels and reflected in the films. The communities are small and intimate, made up of interconnected families and close friends. Relationships are everything.

To be sure, the Dashwood sisters, the men with whom they fall in love, and the neighbors and associates are not laborers, farmers, butchers, millers, or housemaids, whose lives were harder, perhaps blunter, and less decorous. But the undertow of the plot is serious enough: Willoughby is a bounder, a selfish brute; John and Fanny Dashwood are self-serving and shallow; Robert Ferrars pursues only wealth and status. The social order, however crucial for survival, is threatened on every hand.

Jane Austen's order is larger than civility, though civility is important. Her order requires moral balance. Edward forfeits his right of inheritance, as the eldest Ferrars son, to pursue his vocation in the church and to marry the impoverished Elinor. They settle in harmony with one another and with the other Dashwoods. Marianne learns her lesson. "Instead of falling sacrifice to an irresistible passion," says Jane Austen, "she found herself at 19, submitting to new attachments, entering on new duties, placed in a new home, a wife, the mistress of a family, and the patroness of a village" (italics mine).

It is this moral order that most appeals to contemporary audiences. It values vocation over ambition, the steady over the flashy, the discreet over the effusive, the true over the false, good sense over romantic sensibility. Though social order is fragile, when individuals subordinate their wishes to a common good-suffering in silence rather than on Sally Jesse Raphael-a durable code of honor emerges. It's what I think we yearn for.

LIANE ELLISON NORMAN, a writer living in Pittsburgh, has a doctorate in English and American Literature, specializing in Victorian novels. Maggie Peterson, her friend, assisted in developing the review.

Review of Sense and Sensibility. Directed by Ang Lee. Released by Columbia Pictures, 1995.

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