Sense and Sensibility: Getting Started

Chapter 1 of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility being not only the first chapter of said book but the first chapter I’ve read by said author, I’m paying special attention to it. I believe I’ve gathered enough information to get Sense kickstarted; ie, it is a generally satisfying first chapter. For my reading of this novel, I’m using the Wordsworth Classics edition, printed in paperback in 2000.

Plot Points

Here, Austen seems to be introducing me to the major characters, with an emphasis on the genealogy necessary to understand a potential main conflict for the novel. I feel that there is not a lot that happens; the story is given as a summary. Perhaps that is necessary, or even ultimately preferred to the alternative. We’ll see. In any event, Mr. John Dashwood is now in possession of the Dashwood inheritance, which includes the estate and monies which have been dedicated to his step-sisters. He, his wife, and young son have moved in with his step-mom and said step-sisters upon his father’s death.

Character Commentary

Now we get to the interesting pieces: the unique personalities created for this universe. The short-lived Mr. Henry Dashwood has one son and three daughters: Mr. John Dashwood, Elinor, Marianne, and Margaret. I can already sense what is coming with regard to the Elinor-versus-Marianne interplay. Elinor, by Austen’s own admission, has a “coolness of judgment”; she is level-headed “though only nineteen.” Marianne “could have no moderation,” and is like her mother, Mrs. Dashwood, in this regard: “They encouraged each other now in the violence of their affliction.” Of note, the elder owner of the Dashwood estate at Norland Park is not given a name. He is simply the “late owner of this estate” and an “old gentleman,” the uncle of Henry Dashwood.

In Context

Clearly, 19th century social constructs and norms are incited: the Dashwood (Norland?) estate as property; male primacy (and female dependence); division of family members due to lack of blood relation. Do “Mrs. Dashwood” and “Mrs. John Dashwood” have first names? Elinor, Marianne, and Margaret do; they’re not married, I suppose.

Language: Diction & Thesaur

The word “propriety” subtly stands out in two contexts. I think I can safely infer that the alleged meaning of “propriety” among these uses is the same—each is penned by the same author and within close proximity; however, the contexts of this judgmental (as Austen is surely judging the characters in its use) word offers valuable information about the relevant characters (and possible Austen herself [or her thought process, and thus social construct?]), I submit.

In describing Mr. John Dashwood: “but he was, in general, well respected; for he conducted himself with propriety in the discharge of his ordinary duties.” Austen goes on to say that Mrs. John Dashwood is less than amiable, and thus a detractor to his respect, and that “he was very young when he married, and very fond of his wife.” Mrs. John Dashwood is “more narrow-minded and selfish” and affects her husband’s respectability thusly. For John Dashwood, acting with “propriety” is a means to respect, in which the ordinary duties he succeeds, though he acts against it to secure a familial relationship.

In describing Mrs. [Henry] Dashwood (his step-mother) three paragraphs later, Austen points out that, upon threat of leaving the estate, she is successfully convinced to stay by Elinor: “… she would have quitted the house for ever, had not the entreaty of her eldest girl induced her first to reflect upon the propriety of going … and for their sakes avoid a breach with their brother.” Although she is angry and “did … despise her daughter-in-law,” she consciously makes a decision to preserve her position (and her daughters’) for the better. She acts toward propriety to secure a familial relationship.

I think that “propriety” can be substituted for “appropriateness” in both of these cases. But, Mr. John Dashwood acts appropriately to secure respect in normal affairs; his step-mother acts appropriately to maintain a familial relationship. Is the maintenance of relationships among the “ordinary duties” for her? Surely, Mrs. Henry Dashwood has a financial reason to do so, and apparently, Mr. John Dashwood has the luxury to break propriety in the getting of his wife. I can think of a few possibilities for this discrepancy; what are their differences? Age, sex, financial status, social status, marital status, committment/dependency requirements… In any (or all?) case(s), there’s a bit of a double standard apparent through the use of this choice of diction.


A few remarks by the narrator jump out at me. As a first-time reader (a tag I don’t intend to hide behind for long), I’m not sure if some of this is sarcasm, comedy, or just akin to when a college professor told me not to talk in such “high and verbose language.”

“He was not an ill-disposed young man, unless to be rather cold-hearted, and rather selfish, is to be ill-disposed…”

As referenced earlier: “They encouraged each other now in the violence of their affliction.”

Looking Ahead

Very little is said of Margaret, (“the other sister”!). Maybe she’ll come into play later, to help anchor (narratologically) some conflict between the other sisters. After reading the first chapter, my expectation is that the two (Elinor/Marianne) will do battle: the title implies as much.

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3 Comments on “Sense and Sensibility: Getting Started”

  1. Sylwia Says:

    Do “Mrs. Dashwood” and “Mrs. John Dashwood” have first names?

    I don’t remember if Mrs. Dashwood does, since only her husband would call her that, but it’s likely that it’s Elinor. Mrs. John Dashwood’s first name is Fanny.

    The way people were called back then went along these lines:

    The eldest living and emancipated male in a family was called Mr. X, without any first name attached. His sons and younger brothers used first name along their last name, so that one could tell one from another.

    Women took names after their husbands, so the wife of the first one was called Mrs. X, the next ones Mrs. [her husband’s first name] X, no matter their own age.

    Daughters were called accordingly. The eldest was Miss X. So anytime one refers to Miss Dashwood one means Elinor, while her younger sisters are Miss Marianne Dashwood and Miss Margaret Dashwood.

    However, that may be tricky. When the eldest person isn’t around the next eldest may be addressed by the title without the first name.

    Otherwise first names were used only in family circles or by very close friends, ones one knows from a sandbox. Men who had met at school usually called each other by their last name alone. An adult man was addressed per his first name alone only by his wife, and only in their bedchamber. Among their children they addressed each other per Mr. X and Mrs. X. However that was in transition, so younger generations were more likely to use first names.

    Knights and baronets were addressed per Sir [first name] [last name]. I don’t think there are any peers (men of higher titles) in S&S, but then they’d be Lord [last name] or Earl of [name of a county]. Wives were addressed per Lady [last name] unless they had a higher title from their father, than they were Lady [first name].

    “He was not an ill-disposed young man, unless to be rather cold-hearted, and rather selfish, is to be ill-disposed…”

    Ah, Austen’s famous wit and irony. You’ll find many quips like that, some that make Janeites exclaim: “Austen couldn’t have meant that!”

    “They encouraged each other now in the violence of their affliction.”

    Austen was poking fun at the sentimental novels popular at her times, so the word “violent” occurs from time to time, sometimes ridiculed, sometimes reinforcing the strength of one’s affections.

  2. Sylwia,

    Thank you for the comments and information on titles.

    Regardless of the non–physical-restricted implications of what you call something (an apple stays an apple whether you call it an apple or an orange), names no doubt hold strong meanings in a system which puts importance on (or in which there is the notion of) perception.

    I noticed that, though said in the context of the bedchamber, Fanny Dashwood addresses her husband as “Mr Dashwood”: “Do but consider, my dear Mr. Dashwood, how excessively comfortable your mother-in-law and her daughter may live on the interest of seven thousand pounds.”

    I am also curious about how much of a necessity it is from a storytelling perspective to have the two sisters (especially Marianne) refer to Edward Ferrars as “Edward,” at least in the chapters initially dealing with him (that, granted, have little dialogue for analysis). Perhaps it just sounds more fluid to say “Edward” than “Mr Ferrars,” or perhaps this has something to do with their mother’s comment that “You will gain a brother – a real, affectionate brother” and Marianne’s propensity to prematurely fast-forward thoughts to their end (before which in the text I don’t see any dialogue for comparison, only narrative description).

  3. Sylwia Says:

    Addressing one’s spouse “John” in the bedchamber context wasn’t obligatory. Some wives would, some wouldn’t. However, in case of Fanny it’s likely that she likes the sound of it, because he’s just become Mr. Dashwood, and she may very well insist on calling him that everywhere. Since they’re both very young it’s rather her snobbishness than anything else. The Dashwood ladies are likely to insist on “John” or “Mr. John Dashwood”.

    Elinor almost never addresses Edward as “Edward” however she thinks and speaks of him as such when among her family. That’s because he is “Edward” to them. He is young and they are related through the John Dashwoods. Mrs. Dashwood and especially Marianne do that far too often though. It symbolizes her dislike of etiquette and formality.

    Edward isn’t technically “Mr. Ferrars” yet. He might be called it, but he hasn’t inherited.

    Austen tends to use in various people’s voices those names they normally use in reference to others, however, in dialogues some avoid using first names, and try to be less personal, while others use them too often. She also has her own names she uses as the omniscient narrator, so, yes, the names certainly aren’t accidental.

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