Last week I quoted a columnist talking about the powerful relationship advice provided by Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility and other classics. Today I describe a specific instance where I saw Austen working her magic. The student has given me permission to share her story.
Carolyn (not her real name) thought that she had her future set. In addition to being a senior with a high grade point average and several promising job leads, she had a fiancé and was looking forward to a summer wedding. Although normally shy and socially awkward, she walked with a new confidence.
Shortly before Thanksgiving, however, her fiancé suddenly ended the relationship with a series of excuses, none of which held water. From what I can tell (I’m her advisor and so heard many of the details), he simply got cold feet.
For a while she was a mess and it didn’t seem to help that she was taking my Restoration and 18th Century Couples Comedy class, where we regularly talked about relationship issues. Suddenly every work we read induced tears.
This was true of the equivocating Faulkland in Richard Sheridan’s The Rivals and the indifferent fiancé in Hannah Cowley’s The Belle’s Stratagem. When we read Fanny Burney’s Evelina, Carolyn became so distraught by the rake John Belmont abandoning Evelina’s mother that she couldn’t come to class. Willoughby’s betrayal of Marianne in Sense and Sensibility hit even closer to home.
As you will see in the excerpts from her essay below, however, Austen ultimately came to Carolyn’s rescue. She was especially helped by Austen’s gentle comic mockery of Marianne, which Carolyn, with commendable self honesty, applied to herself. For the epigraph to her essay, she used the following quote. The phrase “an affection formed so late in life as at seventeen” is a quintessential example of Austen’s ironic wit:
Marianne Dashwood was born to an extraordinary fate. She was born to discover the falsehood of her own opinions, and to counteract, by her conduct, her most favorite maxims. She was born to overcome an affection formed so late in life as at seventeen, and with no sentiment superior to strong esteem and lively friendship, voluntarily to give her hand to another! – and that other, a man who had suffered no less than herself under the event of a former attachment, whom, two years before, she had considered too old to be married…”
And now here is Carolyn’s introduction:
About a month ago I experienced an extremely painful break-up with my fiancé of a year and a half. Up until that dreadful moment I thought everything was going great. I was emotionally and unabashedly expressive in my love for him. I still firmly believed in the fairy tale “happily ever after” life and that I had found my soul mate. Then when he left without an explanation, I thought I would never be happy again. I was convinced that the gaping hole in my chest would never heal. In short I thought I had lost everything.
Jane Austen has taught me otherwise. Most, if not all of Austen’s novels deal with some type of relationship dilemma between a hero and heroine. In Sense and Sensibility, heroine Marianne Dashwood’s dilemma is that she yearns too much to fall in love and has such idyllic romantic notions that she becomes dangerously attached to the first man who seems to fit her ideals, John Willoughby, without seeing his inherently selfish character. In the end, although initially she is so devastated and hurt that she lets her emotions totally consume and almost destroy her, Marianne is able recognize the error in her initial romantic ideals and to find the strength and determination to move on and to love again.
In reading Sense and Sensibility, I realized that I see myself in Marianne. Her relationship ideals and her relationship with Willoughby relate very closely to the nature of my ruined relationship with my ex-fiancé. Through this similarity, though, Marianne has taught me and helped me to come to terms with the end of my engagement. This novel would have been too painful for me to read if not for Austen’s comedy. Fortunately Austen’s sharp, sarcastic wit defuses just enough the sadness and anxiety I feel at seeing my life played out through Marianne that reading the novel actually helped me work through my feelings and find the strength to move forward with my life.
In the body of her essay, Carolyn does a close reading of Marianne’s blindness and her evolving maturity. Then, in her conclusion, Carolyn brings the essay back to her own situation. After reiterating comedy’s effectiveness at processing painful relationship moments, Carolyn talks about how, with Austen’s help, she was able to look at her situation from an outside perspective:
For those readers who see something of themselves or their lives in Jane Austen’s novel as I do, the story might be particularly painful to read if it were simply a melodrama. However, Jane Austen’s sharp wit and subtle but genius sarcastic comments on her characters, though while not a laugh-out-loud type of funny, pokes fun at the characters in such a way that it serves much the same function for the reader. It has been argued that comedy is a way to release or defuse anxieties the reader feels, and the story allows readers to laugh at the characters. So what does it mean that Austen treats Sense and Sensibility comically? Austen’s strategically inserted snarky comments on her characters act like a release valve for the tension building up in readers, especially those who identify with some part of the text. This allows readers to simultaneously distance themselves from the characters in the novel and to enjoy reading.
Because of her unreal ideals about what she wants in a relationship and her overly romantic character, Marianne experiences the highest of highs and the lowest of lows in her emotions and happiness. She is at once too eager to fall in love and too willing to believe that Willoughby is that perfect soul mate she has been waiting for. She stakes all her happiness, health and even her very life on her relationship with Willoughby and his love for her, and so completely gives into her emotions when he leaves, that the novel is in danger of losing one of its heroines. In the aftermath of her illness, surrounded by family and friends and having an explanation from Willoughby, Marianne is able to find the closure and strength she needs to move on and find in Colonel Brandon love and happiness.
I suppose the part of Marianne’s experiences that really hit home with me was her conviction that she had found her soul mate in Willoughby and that the “happily ever after” could be a reality. I realized while reading Sense and Sensibility that I am just as much of a romantic at heart as Marianne and that I really had staked my happiness and my mental and emotional health on my being with my ex-fiancé for the rest of my life. Looking back, what I have come to realize in all this is that there is more to life than being with just one other person. There are many different types of love, and it is possible to love more than once. Although it hurts more than I can express right now, it is not the end of the world and I will eventually find love again. I just hope that when that time comes I will find someone as worthy as Colonel Brandon.
It is not easy what Carolyn does in this essay. First, while she uses her experience to enter the work, she then proceeds to leave the experience behind and treat the text objectively. This includes examining Austen’s use of comic irony. Then (this impresses me even more), she uses her understanding of irony to examine her own situation and find perspective. The endeavor is courageous and inspiring.