Sense and Sensibility: Marianne Dashwood – blushing maiden or feminist?

Closeup of an Illustration by C.E. Brock, Sense and Sensibility, J.M. Dent & Sons, London (1908)Mrs. Jennings was a widow, with an ample jointure. She had only two daughters, both of whom she had lived to see respectably married, and she had now therefore nothing to do but marry all the rest of the world. In the promotion of this object, she was zealously active, as far as her ability reached, and missed no opportunity of projecting weddings among all the young people of her acquaintance. She was remarkably quick in the discovery of attachments, and had enjoyed the advantage of raising the blushes and the vanity of many a young lady by insinuations of her power over such a young man; and this kind of discernment enabled her soon after her arrival at Barton decisively to pronounce that Colonel Brandon was very much in love with Marianne Dashwood. She rather suspected it to be so, on the very first evening of their being together, from his listening so attentively while she sang to them; and when the visit was returned by the Middletons dining at the cottage, the fact was ascertained by his listening to her again. It must be so. She was perfectly convinced of it. It would be an excellent match, for he was rich and she was handsome. Mrs. Jennings had been anxious to see Colonel Brandon well married, ever since her connection with Sir John first brought him to her knowledge; and she was always anxious to get a good husband for every pretty girl. The Narrator, Sense and Sensibility, Chapter 8 

This 1908 watercolor illustration by Charles E. Brock of Mrs. Jennings making Marianne Dashwood blush has always seemed contrary to my vision of her true personality. If she is indeed blushing, it is not from embarrassment of Mrs. Jennings matchmaking, but from aggravation. She is just too much of a lady to look her in the eye and tell her where to go. 

I may be transferring my 21st century sensibilities into the stew, but I have always thought of Marianne as a bit of feminist. She could easily have been a suffragette in the 1890’s or burned her bra in the 1960’s and been proud of it. Her mother and sister Elinor may not approve of her objections to Mrs. Jennings well intended conclusion that she and Colonel Brandon are an excellent match because “he is rich and she is handsome”, but hello, she is 16 and he is 35! I agree with her concerns. He is over the hill in her young romantic idealistic eyes. Jane Austen is of course driving the point through her family that she has no money and should be grateful for such an alliance. Marianne wants love, not a marriage of convenience, a theme that runs through each of Austen’s novels, and her own life. 

In the end, her pursuit of love over social stricture breaks her of her spirit – her romantic ideals. After Willoughby’s rejection, she succumbs to the socially appropriate match – Colonel Brandon. Her sister Elinor who always acted within propriety lucks out and is rewarded by marrying the man that she loves. We are happy for her, but not for Marianne who wanted more and settled for less. If Sense and Sensibility was intended as a moral fable for young ladies lacking sensibility, social sense is also a cruel task master.

*Illustrastion by Charles E. Brock, Sense and Sensibility, J.M. Dent & Sons, London (1908)

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17 thoughts on “Sense and Sensibility: Marianne Dashwood – blushing maiden or feminist?

  1. I agree with you – marianne was/could have been a feminist. I always thought that she was a very modern character. And it is true that she would not be blushing in that picture. More like rolling her eyes at the ridiculousness of it all!

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  2. I agree wholeheartedly with the idea of her being a feminist – Marianne is intelligent and strong-willed – she also has a passionate and restless nature, which I’m sure she takes into her marriage. And although I think she may not have been wildly in love with Colonel Brandon at first, I think his intelligence matches hers so well that he is clever enough to make her fall in love with him on a completely different, more intense level than she has known previously.
    I always think it must be a struggle for her not to be downright rude to Mrs Jennings. But, what a wonderful character – Jane Austen invented some crackers!

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  3. I don’t know if I’d say all-out feminist, but I agree that she’s definitely not going to be blushing in that scene as much as red with frustration. Marianne is a delightful read, especially in a classroom full of 16-year-old girls! (funny, they don’t see themselves satirized in her quite as much I do . . . .) :-)

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  4. I have a love/hate perception with Mrs. Jennings!!

    As to your analysis over Marianne’s disposition, I would beg to differ. Maybe because I loathe the 1960 feminist movement. Just because she was independent, made her own opinions about situtions, ect, doesn’t make her a feminist.

    Mostly because I think that because she was so young she had built around herself an “idea” of love (like most of do at that age)! Of course she was broken-hearted when it backfired—all her ideal and expectations lay crushed at her feet? I like to believe that Austen imagined a fair share of herself in both of these sisters. Love is blind; it acts/loves without restrictions/thought. On the counter side of that you have Eleanor’s sensible mind that approached everything in life with logic. Wasn’t Austen somewhat like both of these sisters in her own “love-life”?

    I think they both suffered from their dispositions.

    I also don’t believe that when Marianne finally succumbed to Colonel Brandon’s affection that it “breaks her spirit” nor that she “settled for less.” Someone once said that “Love is as much an act of the will as it is of the emotions.” That’s a hard nut to bite, but in this case I want to believe it! By marrying Willoughby, wouldn’t she always have to keep one eye open to watch him? Wouldn’t he eventually have tired of her and gone back to the ways of his youth? Whereas Colonel Brandon, in his deep devotion, convinced her that he was the much wiser (sensible) choice? I don’t think she regretted her decisions!

    Am I far off the mark?

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  5. Lisa – thanks for your thoughtful comments.

    Looking at Marianne’s outspoken opinions and outlook on relationships – she was a forward thinker. She did not want to act within propriety and did not think her sisters concerns of her behavior warranted. She wanted the freedom from social contraints and subjection. In my mind, those were some of the same goals of the suffragette and feminists movements.

    Yes, she is very young and idealistic. She wants the grand passion of love – to burn for love. When she is rejected by Willoughby, she almost wills herself to death – the ultimate sacrifice for love. After her illness, her romantic outlook on her life is never the same. Her yearning for the grand passion is gone and so is her optimistic spirit. The loss break her spirit, not Col. Brandon. Their marriage is her final submission and resignation.

    The irony of her desire for Willoughby was if she had married him, the grand passion would not have lasted. I agree with your assumption that he would have tired of her and been on to the next thing. His would also have hurt her severly. So either way, because of her passionate unguarded nature, she would have been hurt and disappointed. She would not regret the comfort and security in marrying Col Brandon, but my gut instinct is that if Willoughby crooked his little finger at her, she would throw it all away in a second to be with him. She may not have regretted her decision to marry Col Brandon, but just never found the love she craved. Her objective is unrealistic and unattainable.

    No happy endings for Marianne, either way. :(

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  6. Laurel Ann, You make me think too much after a long work day!

    Very good analysis! I still think she learned to love Brandon and thought back only wistfully with youthful regret over Willoughby.

    Do you really think she didn’t have a happy ending?

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  7. Lisa – In a word, yes. Going totally by personality type and experience. Leopard’s don’t change their stripes. I am not critizing Marinanne for her nature, just recognizng it. ;D

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  8. I don’t see Marianne’s views on love as particularly feminist or forward, but rather childish and almost offensive. I could understand her not seeing Colonel as a husband for herself, but not regarding him as too old for love. And claim that 27 year old woman can marry only for practical reasons is definitely not feministic .

    I agree completely that Marianne’s marriage with Willougby would eventually disappoint her as he would not be able to live up to her romantic ideals. Not only because of his wicked nature, but also because her ideals were unattainable and reality would soon crush them anyway. Marianne would never forgive him having human weaknesses. And the financial problems would soon make their marriage miserable.

    I think that happy ending for Marianne required destroying her ideas. Which could be painful, but necessary. Older Marianne would look at her younger self with a mixture of pity and embarrasment.

    IMO, Marianne’s attitude to society is quite hipocritical- she regards herself as above it, but she isn’t above using it when she wants to gain something.

    Finally, I don’t think that Elinor suffered form her disposition- IMO, without her ability to govern her feelings she would face not only pain, but also humillation.

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  9. Capital assessment, Neoma! I’m flavorable to that.

    …But Elinor did suffer pain and humiliation, not to the degree that Marianne did, but she felt it acutely in her own, quiet way.

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  10. I disagree! Marianne was getting exactly what she had always dreamed of in Col. Brandon, plus extra.

    He is a passionate man (passion willing to live with the hurt of love, and go on loving is worth ten times a passion that is willing to die for love; that’s easy), and worked harder and more patiently and faithfully for Marianne’s affection than Willoughby or than most heroes, for that matter! With the colonel she was going to have a lifetime of the immortal and unyielding love she craved, rather than a quick-burning fling at the silly age of 16. Marianne grew up; she didn’t change!

    As for being a feminist, only Col. Brandon respected her like she deserved. Mrs. Jennings, as you say, saw her as a pretty object to be paired with a rich domestic partner. Her mother wanted her happily married. Willoughby loved to be with her, but I argue thought little of her and her ideals – they were far above his comprehension, however much his lifestyle resembled them. Brandon, however, respected the lady’s distance, her choice of another man, her identity and philosophy. He, by offering her security along with his love, respected her heart, not carrying it away before she knew what she was doing. However much of a feminist one is, we all must acknowledge that girls are silly and their romantic sensibilities may be taken advantage of.

    As for Elinor suffering, of course she did! Life and love has a cost. Both girls faithfully loved, and suffered for it. The men who faithfully loved endured heartache over that. People are always warning us young ladies against dreaming that the real world will be like Austen, but look at what a fair picture she gives. We all know very well that it could have turned out the way things stood about 20 pages from the end of the book. We see that love and communication and finances and family – they’re all hard!

    Jane Odiwe said, “I agree wholeheartedly with the idea of her being a feminist – Marianne is intelligent and strong-willed – she also has a passionate and restless nature, which I’m sure she takes into her marriage.” But I defy that as a definition of feminism. You can be a perfectly traditional woman and excel in that role particularly with that intelligence and strong will and passion and adventure (restlessness). That makes a hugely good marriage, as long as you marry a man who matches that strength and intelligence. On the other hand, Laurel Ann’s definition of feminism, “She did not want to act within propriety and did not think her sisters concerns of her behavior warranted. She wanted the freedom from social contraints and subjection,” is more accurate a definition. But in the book we see Marianne working through these ideas and learning they were unsustainable and undesirable. There is freedom within social constraints, where you are there safe in the trust and commitment of your friends.

    To God be all glory,
    Lisa of Longbourn

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  11. I think it is obvious that Marianne is meant to be a satirical joke about girls who are too expressive of their feelings and fail to bite their tongue and to live a life of “quiet desperation”. Those people always do the best don’t they? They have happy stable marriages, and are rewarded with every good thing. What about people who have trouble not being this way? People who are born this way? Are they condemned because of their natural propensity to feel deeply? Since I was a teenager I have been compared to Marianne and I feel very bad about it. I see women who know how to stay silent and restrict their emotions and though I try to do this it is extremely difficult. I was not born as lucky as women like Elinor but that does not mean that my character, nor the character of Marianne should be eternally regarded as simple ludicrous folly.

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    • Hi Anon, Even though Marianne’s behavoir was not within the standards of proper decorum for a young lady of her day, her story did end well for her. I do not think Jane Austen was chiding feeling deeply and passionately. We all need passion. It’s what drives change and ignites love. I think Jane Austen was showing us two sides of human personality, each to one extreme and the concequences of it. Each of her heroines had their reward in the end. Hope you do to.

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  12. First and foremost, I am mightily impressed with your blog post, Laurel Ann. It is quite expressive and interesting, for I never before percieved of Marianne as being a feminist in her own right. Young and silly, she may be, but still one must factor in the depth of the character. It is quite difficult to sum Marianne Dashwood in a few words in some sentence, and I can go on for days talking of her (as she is my most favorite character in any book). The fact we should remember is that she is a very deep character, and though she seems lost in her sensibilities, is in fact quite knowledgeable for her age. While I am not attempting to sound biased here, I find her to be a fascinating character. From the moment I read Sense & Sensibility, and watched the movie, I have fallen in love with this character, because I am very much so like her in manner. She is a very sensitive character that has such a great capacity to love. She has not been very intelligent in the way she went about love, but that comes with willful youth, something of which she knows a lot about. Anyway, this was a fascinating read. :) Keep up the great work. Oh and I read somewhere, Jane Austen, our wondrous sorceress with a quill wrote that she found aspects of herself in her characters Marianne and Elinor.

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    • Hi Marianna, this is an interesting coincidence that you identify with Marianne Dashwood and share a similar name and temperament. Thanks for your compliments on my blog. 2011 will see Janeites and the world celebrating S&S with its 200th anniversary.

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  13. So many seemed to be of the opinion that Marianne would never be happy with Colonel Brandon. They seemed to think that with him, she has settled for less. No one has stopped to consider that she could have never been happy with Willoughby. Not in the long run. Deep and passionate love does not always guarantee happiness.

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    • I do agree that Marianne & Willoughby’s relationship was headed for the rocks. Col Brandon will worship Marianne – and that’s what she needs. I felt her spirit was broken after Willoughby’s rejection. Col Brandon will spend the rest of his life making it up to her. I still think she settled. But her choices were slim and she was probably happy in the end.

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  14. Pingback: Uno straordinario destino?... - Un tè con Jane Austen

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