I’m rereading Sense and Sensibility, and it’s made me consider how many people do not like Edward Ferrars. Many a Janeite love Elinor because she seems to be everything a modern woman should be: serious, realistic, grounded, in control of her emotions, capable in a crisis, dependable, reliable. All the other adjectives. Elinor is #goals. I write that as a Marianne who grew up to be an Elizabeth. Yes, I was definitely Marianne at sixteen, and I spend a good deal of the book on each reread cringing at my similarities to Marianne. Someday, I’d like to be more like Elinor.
However, I think Austen ultimately makes it plain that you need both sense and sensibility in your life. Most consider Marianne and Elinor dual heroines of Sense and Sensibility. They each drive the plot, and we root for them both to overcome their obstacles and emerge victoriously. When you study it further, however, Elinor has very little character growth. Yes, she does gain some of Marianne’s sensibility. When danger is real, such as Marianne’s illness, Elinor feels it acutely. When it is revealed that Edward is not married to Lucy Steele and is therefore available, Elinor’s reaction is one of my favorite in all of Austen’s scenes:
Elinor could sit no longer. She almost ran out of the room, and, as soon as the door was closed, burst into tears of joy, which at first she thought would never cease.
For Elinor, that’s an incredible display of emotion. If Marianne needs Colonel Brandon to temper her more sensational ways, then perhaps Elinor needs someone to draw out her emotions better.
When most people discuss the romance between Edward Ferrars and Elinor Dashwood, they dwell only on things that make them believe Elinor deserves more.
If it’s been awhile since you’ve read (or perhaps you never have), Elinor and the reader know all along that Edward is dependent upon pleasing his mother to gain his inheritance. There has been quite the dispute about his future, and at his current age (24) there is little rush for him to decide. He prefers the quiet, country life and thinks leading a parish would be best for him. His family wants him to enter politics or have a great military career. Edward certainly knows his temperament better than his family does—he is shy and diffident, not the stuff needed to become famous. Although Elinor cannot help but fall in love with her sister-in-law’s brother, she cautions her heart from believing they could ever be together. Nor does she try to press any advantage she has when she believes Edward loves her in return. She would never ask him to defy his mother or give up a fortune for her.
Eventually, we learn that more than the familial expectations separate Edward and Elinor. He has secretly been engaged for five years! Elinor hears it from the woman herself, who certainly is revealing it to assert her claim on Edward. For months, Elinor bears the secret alone until it all comes out. Edward does the honorable thing and stands by Lucy, even when he is disinherited.
Elinor is upset to hear all of this, but she had always thought they could never be possible. We can examine Elinor more in another post.
Recently on Facebook, I made a connection between Edward and Marianne. Edward proposed to Lucy after a few weeks of infatuation and fascination. He was young and imprudent. He cared more for his own emotions than any logical arguments about marrying such a poor girl and one he had only (and secretly) courted for a few weeks—although it sounds as though he had met Lucy a few other times over the years. The sort of sensibility this would require does not appear to be very much like the Edward we have known over the course of the book. I suggest that this mistake—for he very soon realized it was—tempered him. Likewise, Marianne soon learns her mistake.
Edward, however, is not given the relief Marianne receives about understanding Willoughby better. Instead, he has dejected spirits for much of the book because he is not free from Lucy. Until the end of the book, he knows unless she calls the engagement off—which he doesn’t believe she shall because he can see how cunning she is—he will be stuck with her for life. All the while, he has since met other ladies worthy of greater respect and admiration, finally falling in love with Elinor.
As Elinor has no extreme moment offering her sensibility as Marianne’s illness shows her the use of sense and restraint, I posit that Elinor needs Edward. The sensibility he has in his character evident from his proposal to Lucy can be reanimated once he is free of her.
A secondary argument which readers often give is that Elinor should be matched with Colonel Brandon. While I argue that Edward will throw aside his melancholy after uniting with Elinor, I do not believe Colonel Brandon could be rejuvenated by her. When relating the story of his lost love to Elinor, he says this:
The shock which her marriage had given me,” he continued, in a voice of great agitation, “was of trifling weight—was nothing to what I felt when I heard, about two years afterwards, of her divorce. It was that which threw this gloom,—even now the recollection of what I suffered—”
Indeed, the events of twenty years ago affect Brandon so much that it would take more than Elinor’s cautious cheerfulness to return him to good humor. His true, abiding love and pain upon being separated from Eliza by unfeeling family cannot compare to the wounded pride and unease Edward felt upon realizing should not have not proposed to a Lucy. This does not even touch Eliza’s untimely and awful death which caused Brandon’s perpetual heartache and regret.
There are several couples in Sense and Sensibility we could see as an example of what the Steele-Ferrars marriage would be like. Mr. Palmer surely regrets his choice. Sir John and Lady Middleton are not well-suited. Edward even might succumb to Lucy’s influence, as his sister influenced her husband. There are many options for how Edward’s marriage to Lucy might have turned out and, while he might perhaps forever regret losing Elinor, it could be nothing to compared to the wretched pain that poor Colonel Brandon felt.
Colonel Brandon has not shaken off the melancholy sadness from losing his first love. Marianne adds a youthful quality and energy to Brandon, but Elinor is too staid to offer that. Instead, she needs someone who has not lived in depression for nearly twenty years. Elinor and Brandon have a wonderful friendship and a deep respect for one another but do not have the qualities either needs in a partner to live their happiest life.
If you judge a well-matched couple by their perfections, then perhaps Elinor and Edward don’t appear to suit. However, if you believe that the best couples balance one another and bring out their best attributes, then Edward has everything Elinor needs.