Sense & Sensibility – Context

Reading Practices – Alan Richardson

Attempt to manage the sudden rise in literacy levels / Anxious schemes for controlling literacy, especially among women:

“Those taught to read, to write, to reason, we now see grasping with curiosity every pernicious treatise within reach.”

  • Is Austen anxious about / mindful of the effect her literature will have on this new female readership from the lower middle-classes?
  • Austen is instilling class aspirations in people?
  • Or – is Austen cautioning lower class people (e.g. Lucy Steele’s of this world) from getting ideas above their station: a cautionary tale
  • Is Austen stirring up dissent in her own middle-class readership? Arguing for more flexibility in the class system pertaining to marriage?
  • With MD and ED marrying above them…


Education and accomplishments – Gary Kelly

  1. “the Austen sisters were educated to be such men’s wives – itself considered a profession by many”
  • Women did not go out to work – their only role was to be a wife – lack of opportunities for women, even those who are higher up in the social ranks
  • Main role = wife –women (Marianne and Elinor) have to carefully choose who to marry – they are defined by their marriage


  1. “women of the classes depicted in Austen’s novels were marginalised in this complex economic and social order”
  • Marianne and Elinor = marginalised
  • Women could not do the same as men due to the patriarchy surrounding them at the time – left out of important things – such as economic issues and property rights, etc – women not trusted or regarded as intellectual enough to handle certain things


  1. “Women’s interests were entirely subordinated by them [men], and women had few property rights in or outside marriage”
  • Which leads the Dashwoods to their situation – left with nothing – have to search for a husband to keep their social status up as when Mr Dashwood died, they were left with nothing – don’t have the right to inherit
  • Women = ‘subordinated’ – not given equal economic rights – not trusted to deal with serious issues – women thought as being only capable of trivial things – given no responsibilities


  1. “she [Austen] accords with the widespread view that education could both appropriately restrain and properly direct dangerous desires of all kinds…[women] were conventionally characterised as creatures of desire”
  • Education for men = skills and understanding – help lead them into professions
  • Education for women = more of a control – education was not to lead into careers, as women did not go into professions – therefore the motive behind their learning was to control their “desires” – reveals women’s oppression in 1800s
  • Marianne – “creature of desire” – values desire over practicality – her longing for Willoughby – not good for her, yet she continues to desire him – sensibility
  • In contrast, Elinor – less of a “creature of desire” – values convenience and reason


  1. “Females were excluded from such broad intellectual and moral education and instead trained in what were called ‘accomplishments’”
  • Women = excluded from traditional education – not seen as capable
  • Trained in ‘accomplishments’ – inc. dancing, singing, sewing, etc


  1. “‘Accomplishments’ enabled marriageable and married women to display the cultural distinction that demonstrated social distinction and advanced upper – and middle-class family interests”
  • Being trained in ‘accomplishments’ gave an advantage to women looking to marry into a high status household
  • Marianne and Elinor – trained in ‘accomplishments’ – use this to their advantage to find a wealthy husband – more likely to marry a woman with these ‘uses’ – shows their social rankings


Medicine, Illness and Disease – John Wiltshire

‘sexuality is everywhere understood, understated and assumed.’

  • Sexuality – a big issue at the time
  • It defined someone’s position in society i.e. the most masculine men are pictured as the highest characters in the community and then the most feminine and pretty women get married off first
  • ‘understated’ – shows that at the time sexuality was kept as a discreet subject where it is just assumed that a connection between two people simply lead to marriage

‘patient’s use of the body for social advantage’

  • Austen used illness to inspect the cultural aspects of society
  • In her view people used this to give themselves a step up in the view of society

‘entertainment to be extracted from hypochondria in its various forms’

  • Hypochondria = abnormal belief that you are always ill
  • Says that people (like Mrs Bennett) use illness as a way to get attention; the use of ‘entertainment’ shows that Austen uses illness in her novels purely as a way to cause some sort of excitement or drama


‘role of these men, who did in fact provide medical care to most people’


  • Men were the gender that worked in Austen’s period
  • Patriarchy
  • Women knew simple home remedies but were never Doctors; it was only educated middle-class men that worked as doctors


‘the physiology of her characters is usually presented in generic terms, with heroes ‘tall and handsome’, or with ‘air and countenance’

  • Not specific – but types



‘sexuality and illness being often intertwined’

  • Sexuality was not spoken about –explicit reference to women’s sexuality linked to illness – a bad thing
  • Seen as a threat



‘Religion still mattered to the majority of English men and women… Certainly mattered very much to Jane Austen’

  • Her novels seem absent in religion which makes her a secular author, which was unusual for her time
  • Religion was important within her life
  • She treats her religious characters satirically (just another way for men to pronounce and control women)
  • She was the daughter of clergyman and nearly the wife of a clergyman
  • Throughout her novels clergyman have significant roles which is ironic because they are not always portrayed positively

‘Austen avoided extremes’

  • Her novels are lacking in religion
  • Never offensive to her potential audience
  • She often spoke of reason being more sensible then emotion
  • Austen’s Moral – always take the reasonable middle course (antidote to Gothic novel extremism)

‘Austen acknowledges that human beings can be both spiritual and worldly at the same time’

  • Human reason is the chief source of knowledge
  • Austen’s novels mirror a belief in natural law and natural order
  • She writes about finding a link between neo-classical (reason) and romantic feeling (sensibility)
  • Don’t need to withdraw from the real world
  • A balance

‘Regular public worship and the weekly sermon were, however, very important to Jane Austin and her family, who also attended Morning Prayer’ 

  • Religion was of public importance, it was important to her family
  • Even due to the importance of religion Austen often stays clear of extreme opinions
  • Religious issues were indivisible from secular issues
  • Underlining thread of living with religious norms



‘She shared the outlook of movement’

  • Romantic comedies about middle-class girls looking for good husbands among the landed gentryof Regency England.
  • The themes within her novels were ahead of her time making them timeless
  • She wrote ‘modern’ novels

‘Austen had a true interest in theoretical problems about human nature’

  • Austen’s moral education is far more direct.
  • Her novels analyse and teach ethics for bourgeois life
  • Austen’s characters depends on their developing a moral character
  • She takes the moral high ground, some may argue that this is how a religious person should approach life


“The most thorough knowledge of human nature the happiest delineation of its varieties” Yet a reader who comes to Burney’s or Edgeworth’s novels after Austen’s likely to think that their “.human nature” often excludes psychological probability. He or she would notice, in particular, that their heroines are models of feminine rectitude

  • Austen uses characters like Marianne and Elinor to establish true human nature, unlike novelists like Frances Burney and Maria Edgeworth who exclude psychological probability and create very plain moral and faultless characters.
  • Austen ensures that the flaws of most characters are shown, for example Marianne is flawed because of her idealistic imagination and her inability to see reality as it is, she wishes to live life as she wants it to play out the way her mind has formed it to be.
  • Austen is quite virtuous as she doesn’t conform to presenting her characters as models for feminine rectitude.

“Richardson had made novels morally respectable and, by his extraordinary use of epistolary form, had seemed to recreate the shifts of a character’s mind.”

  • S&S was written earlier in an epistolary format, as Austen herself like most novelists who wanted to get into the minds of their characters admired Richardson and she wrote this novel in this format in order to achieve this level of intimacy with the minds of her readers.
  • Austen does a respectable Job of this by using the omniscience of a narrator to form and shape the true human nature of each character. For example Edward is spoken about by several characters and the narrator therefore we form an understanding of who he is as a person. When other individuals speak on others it is important as an individual speaking on themselves doesn’t give a true insight on who they are.


“The habit of setting her own characters and situations against those other novelists ran deep”

  • It is important to note that Austen is understanding of the novelists in her time and she is more than familiar with the way that the majority of them write. Austen uses “satire” when she refers to some other novelists in her fiction and letter to emphasise the idea that her work is morally correct in comparison to their work
  • Austen wishes to show the true nature of humanity and with humanity come flaws therefore Austen is making it known that her work is virtuous and theirs is not as they use heroines as models of feminine rectitude.
  • Austen tries to create real situations that women would have passed in that time and yes she establishes the idea of women oppression in S&S but she doesn’t paint an image where women were thoughtless and perfectly perfect and Men were the problem, instead she highlights the behaviour and reasoning of each character like Marianne and she shows how this can cause their downfall.


“They were used for essentially didactic purposes”

  • Many of Austen’s novels have abstract nouns for titles and they were there to be didactic
  • Sense and sensibility opens up a new world of ideas. It raises questions like

Are all women either revolving around their sense or just their sensibility?

Do women who use their sense over their sensibility have a better ending?

  • We know that Marianne and Willoughby results in nothing fruitful, but is that because Marianne operates mainly on her sensibility but we know she has sense.


Pastimes – Penny Gay

The card game Speculation: symbolic of financial speculation

  • Money is front and centre in all their activities
  • Money is never far away from consideration
  • Money invades every aspect of society
  • Both the Dashwoods are slow to get involved in the card games of the houses they are in: eschewing financial concerns
  • Is A saying that money should be kicked out of the drawing room / polite society?
  • However, first chapter is dominated by money: specifically property and inheritance

“…professions were barred to them. Women’s pursuits and pastimes were mostly indoor and domestic”


 “Of these games speculation is the one given most detail in Austen’s writing, where it clearly plays a symbolic role”

  • Speculation = symbolic of financial speculation
  • Money = front and center of all activities/invades every aspect of society
  • Both Dashwoods are slow to get involved in card games
  • Should money have less influence? –A
  • //first chapter is dominated by money + fate of both sisters


 “Austen’s heroines, like the writer herself, take a substantial daily walk unless the weather is against them”

  • writing about people like herself for readers also like herself = ‘preaching to the choir’


“Women walking substantial distances alone…were on the whole frowned on as eccentric, unfeminine…”

  • g. Marianne = discouraging her actions/personality


“Austen distinguishes her heroines and heroes from their social peers [through] their unconventional leisure activities”

“her writing was a revolutionary change in the idea of what a woman might do with her time”

  • was it really? – reading/visiting people/dances/parties…= common for middle class people at the time



“marriage was a legitimate and common means of gaining access to all-important capital”

  • People preferred the safety of money and wealth to true love.
  • Relates to Willoughby- he is posed with a choice of either Marianne, who is beautiful and can give him love, and Miss Grey, who is “not handsome” but has “fifty thousand pounds”. He chooses Miss Grey, showing that he prioritises money over love – not uncommon at the time the novel was written.


“great question for modern readers of Austen’s novels concerns the consumer power of these incomes”


  • People in Austen’s time were actively interested in knowing the incomes of their neighbours and judged them on the basis of their earnings.
  • In Chapter 33, John shows interest in Colonel Brandon’s earnings – “asked what Brandon’s fortune was like” – he thinks Brandon is interested in marrying Elinor and uses his income as a way of judging whether he is a suitable contender for marriage and whether she would marry into a decent fortune.
  • When Mrs Jennings believes that Lucy and Edwards are to marry on only £100 a year, she takes immediate pity on them.
  • Sense and Sensibility is a portrait of English society, but it only shows a narrow slice of it- the privileged, wealthy upper class. The characters in S&S are relatively very well off yet still worry about finances- greed?


“money comes into view in Austen’s novels through the focusing lens of social rank”

  • At the time, people’s incomes and wealth determined their position in society.
  • Mrs Ferrars doesn’t care whether Edward loves Lucy Steele (one of the poorer characters). She only cares about whether him entering such a marriage will help advance the family’s position in society.
  • Austen presents the one working class character in her novel, Lucy Steele, in a very negative way. She is portrayed as annoying, “illiterate” and as worth less than the wealthy characters.




  • “An age of revolutions in which everything may be looked for”
    • Thomas Paine urged the American colonies to break with Britain and he helped draft the constitution enshrining American Independence.
    • This is an example of how attitudes in the world grew to be more liberal throughout this century, contrasting how Austen was still preserved by conservatism.
    • This is proven in each novel when Austen clearly defines class and status by wealth, rather than contemplating on the potential freedom and emotional capacity of each character she condemns (paralleling her Elite society)


  • “[Austen] might appear as the perfect embodiment of Burkean conservatism in an age of unprecedented and at times violent change”
    • Her attitudes were formed by her orthodox, traditional early life.
    • Throughout her work, the burden of heavy taxation to pay for the war effort goes unmentioned, and so do unemployment, poor laws and the role of parish relief; and the vicious punishment involved in floggings.
    • Austen never tackled these cultural concerns, because they did not affect her. She had probably never been exposed to (or did not care for) difficulties imposed on the lower classes as a result of her life of preservation.


  • “Her country houses are often an arena for related tensions and fears”
    • Country houses and mansions were the most visual symbols of aristocratic power in the English Countryside, and the possession and maintenance of such a property expressed the continuity and stability of rule.
    • Austen’s work very clearly neglects concern for those beneath her, as she does not support their aspirations and accumulation of wealth.
    • Since a reader’s opinion of many characters in Austen’s novels are composed by their wealth and status (as were the opinions of people in society), Austen adheres to the segregation of classes. She uses these houses to differentiate her characters.
    • While patriarchal authority was being championed by Edmund Burke and questioned by Mary Wollstonecraft and othehr early feminist writers, Austen’s novels focussing on domestic authority reflected urgent debates on the national political scene


  • “Money dictates whether characters are dependent or independent of patriarchal or matriarchal rule, and in this way the jostling of generations reflects a comparable struggle in English politics”
    • The suppression of women in the 19th century was a governing aspect of cultural divides, in both politics and circles of society.
    • The debate of women’s independence was not truly sparked until the latter half of this era, and the sole purpose of females was refined into finding a suitable husband.
    • Austen tackles this pursuit with glorious detail, however she in no way demeans women for it. She really credits women for their integrity and perception of men, understanding that the best thing a woman can do for herself is find a good husband.
    • She is often criticised by modern readers for the surface frivolities of her work, however appreciation for contextual suppression of women causes one to forgive her disinterest with topical concerns, and rather reward Austen for appreciating the role of women, whether this was her intention when writing or not.