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Mrs. Dashwood's insight: reading Edward Ferrars and Columella; or, The Distressed Anchoret.

DESPITE ADMIRING Elinor Dashwood's strength of character and sympathizing with the pain she endures, the narrative of Sense and Sensibility pokes intermittent fun at the heroine as if to remind us that she is no picture of perfection. In contrast to her criticism of Willoughby and skepticism about his intentions, for example, Elinor reads Edward Ferrars's mysterious behavior as a story she has encountered many times before: "The old, well established grievance of duty against will, parent against child, was the cause of all. She would have been glad to know when these difficulties were to cease, this opposition was to yield,--when Mrs. Ferrars would be reformed, and her son be at liberty to be happy" (118). At the beginning of the same paragraph the narrator remarks sardonically on Elinor's interpretation: "[I]t was happy for her that he had a mother whose character was so imperfectly known to her, as to be the general excuse for every thing strange on the part of her son" (117). Elinor--like Austen's characters and like her readers--has literary experience to guide her, but that guidance helps her understand Edward little more than Marianne's reading helps her understand or predict Willoughby's behavior.

In the same chapter that highlights Elinor's habits of interpretation, her mother also resorts to her reading to explain Edward's character. As Edward's visit to Barton Cottage draws to its ambiguous conclusion, Mrs. Dashwood gently rallies him on his low spirits and his lack of purpose and then remarks that his "'sons will be brought up to as many pursuits, employments, professions, and trades as Columella's'" (119). This allusion to Richard Graves's Columella; or; The Distressed Anchoret: A Colloquial Tale (1779), calls up another novel in which sense and sensibility, picturesque and practical approaches to landscape, and varied narratives of courtship, seduction, and marriage all play a role. This reference, ignored by the disconsolate Edward, links him to the misanthropic hero/victim of sensibility. The allusion to Columella connects Mrs. Dashwood's reading and her insight into character but reveals her willing suspension of that knowledge; it also suggests that in Elinor's comfortable reliance on literary models for identifying the trajectory of her own romantic plot she, no less than Marianne, is her mother's daughter.


Sense and Sensibility, a comic novel built upon a didactic model, does not at first seem to share much with Graves's very different narrative. [1] Columella is a comic novel built upon the fragments of the novel of sensibility. This "Narrative" is presented to "the Rev. Dr. Demure, his good Lady, and Miss Sophy" as "real fact"--not "a Novel, or a Romance" since "the Editor" knows that these readers are "professed enemies to that species of composition" (1:iii-iv). In fact, he later argues for the utility of the novel: "maxims of life which are not new, or which are even so trite as to lose their effect, yet when tricked out in a more inviting dress, and set in a more amiable and striking light, may gain the attention of young people, who would not read even a Spectator or Guardian that was written fifty years ago" (2:245).

The generic tag Graves provides on the title page--a colloquial tale--is precise, befitting his classical training and pursuits. Literally "speaking together," colloquial signifies conversation as well as common or ordinary speech, and Graves constructs his novel through a series of linked and embedded conversations and narratives. In the frame, as our Editor, a Kentish gentleman, and a Canon ride in a coach from Bath to London, the Canon reads his manuscript account of a man he and the Kentish gentleman knew at Oxford, Cornelius Milward, nicknamed Columella for his interest in Lucius Junius Moderatus Columella's De Re Rustica. Inheriting a small family estate, Columella "retired immediately from college to the solitude and inactivity of a country life" in the West of England (1:8). Two friends from Columella's university days, Dr. Atkins and Mr. Horton (Atticus and Hortensius), visit his gothic house in a very picturesque landscape and meet his neighbors, the Rev. Mr. Pomfret (a version of Graves himself) and the Nonsuch family, which includes the sensible Matilda and her romantic sister Leonora. Courtship ensues, along with much conversation about the pleasures and responsibilities of life.

Meanwhile, the main narrative of Columella and his friends is broken: for the Kentish gentleman to tell his story of youthful idleness and dissipation (including a duel) leading to a manhood of luxurious indolence and an old age of pain, repentance, and flannel (1:96); for Columella and Miss Leonora to tell the story of Miss Julia Arundel and young Barty, who grow up together and fall in love but are separated by family ambition, whereupon Batty goes off to the East Indies; for a visit to Stourhead, where Hortensius hears the tale "Love in a Cottage; or, Miss --'s Story," in which retirement to the country, following marriage to a handsome footman in preference to a rather plain clergyman, leads to poverty and unhappiness; and for the story of the Canon, who has achieved happiness by fulfilling his duty to society and by marriage "with eyes sufficiently open" (2:227). The novel ends with the Preface--not, the Editor claims, to imitate Sterne, who placed the preface to Tristram Shandy in the middle, but because that's where a reader pays attention.

As Graves's description of the novel's usefulness concedes, these elements are conventional, but Jane Austen might have picked up some cues from Graves for the trajectory of Willoughby, the history of Brandon and the first Eliza, the romance of a cottage, discussions of second attachments and the distinction between competence and affluence, and even perhaps for one of her novel's more striking images. In his concluding Preface, Columella's Editor urges the Canon to publish this story, countering the objection that there are too many novels in the world already: "You may as well complain," he argues, "that the world is overstocked with snuff-boxes and tooth-pick cases, and that no trades but useful ones ... ought to be tolerated in a well-regulated commonwealth" (2:244-45). Edward Copeland suggests that in Sense and Sensibility Austen's "intertextual debts are cloaked and unacknowledged," that "we submit to the private codes she shares with Cassandra, in which the injokes and literary allusions buried deep in family reading practices only occasionally break surface" (liv). Columella, published in 1779 and never again, nonetheless seems to have had a decided impact on Jane Austen's imaginative memory--and, of course, on that of Mrs. Dashwood. [2]

Beyond the possibly conventional or idiosyncratic links between Columella and Sense and Sensibility, however, the resemblances between Cornelius Milward and Edward Ferrars are strikingly pertinent. Like Columella, who is "prey to low spirits, spleen, and ... an incurable melancholy" (1.8), Edward displays a "want of spirits" (an oft-repeated characterization) and "dejection of mind" that worry even Elinor (25). [3] Mrs. Dashwood, soon after her reference to Columella, points specifically to his "'melancholy burnout'" (120). Even the notion that he is "bent only on self-mortification" (117) seems reasonable, especially without knowledge of his romantic entanglements. Like Columella, Edward is, necessarily, reserved (109-10, 111).

Columella's melancholy is the result of his indolence. The thesis of Graves's novel is "That an active life is generally attended with more happiness than an indolent or retired one" (1:10). Friends suggest the study of physic, or the law, or of divinity, which "would have afforded ... an agreeable and a rational amusement" and "would have prevented [him] from growing sick of the world" by relieving him "from the greatest burthen of life, Time" (1:72). Farming, marriage, even "go[ing] more into company, [to] enjoy the comforts of society, and a cheerful neighbourhood" must have had a beneficial effect (1:73). The idle Columella, who occupies himself with landscape improvements and early in the novel, Henry Crawford-like, says he "has pretty nearly brought my works to perfection" (1:70), is criticized by Atticus for "deserting his rank, and flying from his colours, and retiring from the field of battle" and by Hortensius for "quitting the stage before [he has] performed [his] part[]" (2:172-73). Columella himself comes to admit the problem, though his solution is characteristically extreme: "tho' the eldest of [his sons] was but, just turned of ten years old, yet he had already destined him and his two brothers, to their several professions, without consulting either their genius or their inclinations.... And by these several occupations Columella flattered himself that his sons would be secured from that tedium and disgust of life which he experienced, and which he had brought upon himself by a life of indolence and inactivity" (2:208-10).

Mrs. Dashwood's reference to Columella's sons points, of course, to the issue of Edward's lack of employment, the excuse provided for his "want of spirits." Mrs. Dashwood suggests a remedy, "'you would be a happier man if you had any profession to engage your time and give an interest to your plans and actions,'" and ends with a more pointed piece of wit, though softened by a smile, that underscores his aimlessness: "'you would be materially benefited in one particular at least--you would know where to go when you left [your friends]'" (118). Edward's agreement with her assertion, however, merely reinforces his passive identity, his verbs suggesting a seamlessness of past, present, and future: "'I have long thought on this point, as you think now. It has been, and is, and probably will always be a heavy misfortune to me, that I have had no necessary business to engage me, no profession to give me employment, or afford me any thing like independence. But unfortunately my own nicety, and the nicety of my friends, have made me what I am, an idle, helpless being'" (118-19). What he is seems unlikely to change.

Where does the responsibility for a man's idleness and passivity lie? Columella certainly makes his own choice, a choice that reflects contemporary trends. In retreating to the country, as Clarence Tracy explains, Graves's hero acts according to the fashionable association of retirement to a country estate with the notion of the gentleman (6). Edward's choice--or lack of choice--is also connected to fashion. The church "'was not smart enough'" for his family; the army "'was a great deal too smart'" for him; the law was "'genteel enough,'" and lawyers might make "'a very good appearance in the first circles, and [drive] about town in very knowing gigs'"; even the navy "'had fashion on its side'" (119). But as that catalog of professional choices reveals, Edward vacillates between accepting responsibility for his own choice and attributing it to his family's pettiness: "'a young man of eighteen is not in general so earnestly bent on being busy as to resist the solicitations of his friends to do nothing. I was therefore entered at Oxford and have been properly idle ever since'" (119). That equivocation is aided by the narrator's early exposure of a mother and sister "who longed to see him distinguished--as--they hardly knew what" (18) and by Mrs. Dashwood, who, "indignant against all selfish parents," pointedly questions Edward about "'Mrs. Ferrars's views'" for him: "'are you still to be a great orator in spite of yourself?"" (104). Tara Ghoshal Wallace argues that "Edward's lack of energy and agency ... is explained away by the aggressive manipulations of others--and especially of women" (33-34). Edward's irresponsibility, Wallace claims, receives less narrative attention than Elinor's evasions.

And yet Mrs. Dashwood, though citing what Wallace would term the monstrosity of Mrs. Ferrars, is also essential in redirecting attention to Edward's flaws, particularly the self-obsessed melancholy that links him to the hero of sensibility. "'Know your own happiness,'" she chides him. "'You want nothing but patience--or give it a more fascinating name, call it hope'" (120). As her allusion to Columella and her playful reference to the "more fascinating name" that might suit him suggest, Edward's melancholy resembles Marianne's in its literary quality. Indeed, though Edward elsewhere rejects Marianne's enthusiasm for the picturesque in favor of an earlier standard "'unit[ing] beauty with utility'" (112), he shares her resemblance to the figure of sensibility, most particularly in his unconcealed suffering, his isolation, the failures of his language, and his opposition to worldly authority (here personified by his mother). Inger Sigrun Brodey points to the quest for an "authenticity defined in opposition to conformity to authority" (11) as one of the shaping elements of the man of feeling, and Edward's rejection of the life his family would choose for him is defined as a fruitless search for an authentic self: '"I always preferred the church, as I still do.... [The army] was a great deal too smart for me.... I had no inclination for the law'" (119). That search seems so vain, so futile that Edward is often defined through negatives: he is "not recommended ... by any peculiar graces of person or address," is "not handsome" (18), and of course is continually "out of spirits." His sons will reverse this image, though ironically the dimensions are still defined in negative terms: "'They will be brought up ... to be as unlike myself as is possible. In feeling, in action, in condition, in every thing'" (119).

As a reader, however, Mrs. Dashwood seems inconsistently attentive. If Columella points toward Edward's melancholic passivity, it also should illuminate the potential consequences of Marianne's "romantic" opinions. Graves's novel argues for the importance of society, that sociability is essential to happiness. Columella turns away from a "sociable neighbourhood, where people of different tempers, tastes, and ideas, meet together to force a conversation on the most uninteresting topics," desiring instead "the company of a few friends of the same taste with myself, and united in the same liberal pursuits of learning, or the polite arts" (1:74). Austen's narrator--rather than Mrs. Dashwood--points to Marianne's delight in the identity of her taste and Willoughby's: "The same books, the same passages were idolized by each.... He acquiesced in all her decisions, caught all her enthusiasm" (56). Certainly, however, Mrs. Dashwood should recognize her daughter's determined inattention to the members of their sociable neighborhood, even if she does "not chuse to dine with [the Middletons] oftener than they dined at the cottage" (125). Columella's Rector, Mr. Pomfret, argues the moral and psychological good of conversation among those with little in common: "it is ... a vicious indulgence of a selfish humour, for a man to be inattentive to every topic of conversation that does not suit his own capricious fancy; or what he may chuse to call delicacy of sentiment. In short.... the greatest happiness in this life arises from the exercise of our social affections" (1:78). Elinor's "'plan of general civility'" (109)--her desire that Marianne "'treat our acquaintance in general with greater attention'" (108)--and her habitual "possession of the post of civility" (182) in the face of Marianne's lack of sociability certainly aligns itself with the Rev. Pomfret's--and Graves's--philosophy.

Where Mrs. Dashwood loves, she seems willing to suspend the clarity of vision that sees Edward's melancholy as a version of Columella's. Not only is her insight into Marianne limited (she sees her daughter neither in Columella nor in Miss--, whose romantic expectations might predict Marianne's fate), but her application of Columella's melancholy overlooks its most significant--and lasting--cause. While visiting their friend, Atticus and Hortensius discover that he has formed "a very imprudent and improper connection" (2:79) with his housekeeper, Mrs. Betty. When he says he can "neither retreat nor proceed," Atticus challenges him: "[Y]ou must either be absolutely engaged to marry her, or not engaged" (2:79). A range of possible objections are raised and dismissed: "her family, or her low-life connections"; the possibility that "she has granted others, the same favours which she has granted [Columella]"; "her temper"; "her intellectual capacity" (2:79-80). Each of these is dismissed as a bar to the marriage: Columella does not regard the difference in class; he is "confident of her fidelity"; she is "very good-tempered" and "has very good sense" (2:80-81). Columella resists, he proclaims, because of her bad grammar: "[I]t is her cursed, vulgar, unclassical language, that disgusts me to the last degree. I shall never be able to make her talk English, grammatically at least. She tortures my ears every hour in the day with her solecisms, her rustic dialect, or her uncouth expressions" (2:81).

Again, Mrs. Dashwood ignores the model provided by Graves's novel. Even though there is much that is puzzling in Edward's behavior, the Dashwoods look resolutely to other members of the Ferrars family for explanation. Edward appears wearing a ring set with a mysterious plait of hair--a lock too light to be his sister's and, despite Elinor's hopeful determination, unlikely to be hers. Edward hasn't demonstrated any inclination for "theft" or much talent for "contrivance," explanations Elinor devises; Marianne assumes, despite Elinor's silence, that the hair must be a "free gift" from Elinor (114). The ring ought to raise more questions, for Edward is not merely "conscious": his "embarrassment lasted some time, and it ended in an absence of mind more settled. He was particularly grave the whole morning" (114).

With Lucy's confession and the discovery of Edward's secret, Austen's novel resonates even more deeply with Graves's Columella. Lucy Steele is a poor relation of the "rather vulgar" (40) Mrs. Jennings, whose daughters have risen through a fashionable education and their father's financial success in the city. She is connected to the household Edward inhabits during his preparation for Oxford, meeting him through his tutor, her uncle Mr. Pratt. The education Edward received from Mr. Pratt is clearly not valued by--or at least transferred to--the family at large. Even before Lucy reveals her engagement, Elinor notes that "her powers had received no aid from education, [that] she was ignorant and illiterate" (146). Lucy's account of her meeting with Edward while he is under Mr. Pratt's care is ironically conveyed through faulty grammar: "'He was four years with my uncle, who lives at Longstaple, near Plymouth. It was there our acquaintance begun, for my sister and me was often staying with my uncle'" (150). Elinor asks herself questions reminiscent of those posed for Columella: "Could he ever be tolerably happy with Lucy Steele; could he, were his affection for herself out of the question, with his integrity, his delicacy, and well-informed mind, be satisfied with a wife like her--illiterate, artful, and selfish?" (160). Lucy, however, has even more apparent defects than Mrs. Betty. And of course when Edward makes his confession to Elinor, he, Columella-like, pays particular attention to Lucy's language: "'how I have blushed over the pages of her writing!--and I believe I may say that since the first half year of our foolish--business--this is the only letter I ever received from her, of which the substance made me any amends for the defect of the style'" (414).

One difference between these two novels lies in the fate of the male "heroes": Columella does finally marry Mrs. Betty, "who in a few months after had made him the father, if not the joyful father, of a fine boy" (2:185). His friends have provided strong encouragement for such a marriage. Atticus warns him about the problem of illegitimate children: "what a shock must it be to a parent, to see a poor helpless infant, in whom perhaps his own happiness is centered, not only born under a legal incapacity, of inheriting its father's fortune; but also exposed, tho' innocent, to the slights and reproaches of a malicious world" (2:141-42). He also cautions against violating an engagement, even an imprudent one, especially a first attachment: "The affections, when forcibly wrenched off from their first attachment, seldom unite kindly with any other object" (2:83). The marriage, however, is not entirely happy. Despite Mrs. Milward's "very decent appearance," Columella's "great anxiety about the little inaccuracies of her language, and his correcting indiscreetly any trifling solecisms in her expressions, often put her and her company out of countenance" (2:185). Columella's "nice feelings" and "continual fretting and vexation" (2:186, 194) lead to ill health, lawsuits, increasingly hostile relationships with his neighbors, and the decline of his property. The Canon concludes that "by too precipitate a retreat from the world to a life of ease and indolence, and by indulging himself in those liberties which privacy and a disregard to the censures of the world are too apt to produce, [Columella] has involved himself in difficulties which he might easily have avoided; and has forfeited that respectable character in life, which he was so well qualified to sustain" (2:211).

Edward does not marry his Mrs. Betty--though not because of his own choice or efforts. Instead, he is rescued by the foolishness, the charity, the schemes and banality of others: Anne Steele exposes the engagement, Colonel Brandon provides a living, Lucy elopes with his brother--all so that Edward can be happily free for Elinor. Excuses are devised for and by him: the nineteen-year-old Elinor decides that "[t]he youthful infatuation of nineteen would naturally blind him" to Lucy's defects (160). Edward recapitulates Columella's situation while accusing others, "with all the philosophic dignity of twenty-four":

"It was a foolish, idle inclination.... the consequence of ignorance of the world--and want of employment. Had my mother given me some active profession.... had I then had any pursuit, any object to engage my time.... I should very soon have outgrown the fancied attachment, especially by mixing more with the world.... But instead of having anything to do, instead of having any profession chosen for me, or being allowed to chuse any myself, I returned home to be completely idle.... I had therefore nothing in the world to do, but to fancy myself in love; and as my mother did not make my home in every respect comfortable, as ! had no friend, no companion in my brother, and disliked new acquaintance, it was not unnatural for me to be very often at Longstaple, where I always felt at home, and was always sure of a welcome.... Lucy appeared everything that was amiable and obliging. She was pretty too--at least I thought so then." (410-11)

The event also excuses him: his marriage to Elinor helps complete the novel's comic narrative design; there must be marriages for Elinor and for Marianne as emblems of reward, change, and completion.

But the model of Columella raises a further question that Edward's explanations elide. Is there more to this story? Is the relationship between Lucy and Edward merely a romantic entanglement, or is it, like Columella's with Mrs. Betty, also a sexual one? Does Columella's model suggest that Edward may have even more in common with Willoughby than we may have thought? Does Willoughby's seduction of Eliza find a counterpart in Edward's seduction of Lucy?

I have no evidence to support the claim of a sexual relationship, but certainly it's a question that readers of Columella (including Mrs. Dashwood) must ask. For those readers, such a question would be underscored by knowledge of Richard Graves's more popular work, The Spiritual Quixote, and perhaps of his biography. One of the narratives comprising The Spiritual Quixote is the story of Mr. Rivers, a story that features a secret marriage rather than a secret engagement. Retiring to the country for his health during the Oxford vacation, Mr. Rivers falls in love with Charlotte Woodville, "hardly fifteen" (2:12), the daughter of the yeoman farmer with whom he is lodging. Like Lucy Steele--or like what Lucy seems to Edward to be--Charlotte adds to "external charms.., the beauty of her mind, which was every thing that can be conceived of sweet and amiable" (2:13). She has had no education, however, and from "a prudential view" marriage is "beneath [Rivers's] consideration" (2:14)--both because of her social position and because upon marriage he would have to forfeit his fellowship. Achieving some compromising intimacy with Charlotte, Rivers convinces her father to let him take her to London. There they marry, but secretly, and the sexual insults Charlotte suffers in London suggest Rivers's exploitation of her. She is eventually enrolled in a boarding school to remedy her lack of education. Finally, an older friend, learning that Charlotte is pregnant, urges Rivers to "acknowledge her publicly as your wife" (2:72) and provides a house and his patronage; later a Mr. Grandison, "a near relation to Sir Charles Grandison, who has since made so great a figure in the world" (2:85), provides him with a farm, on which they live an idyllic existence in a neighborhood unfamiliar with Charlotte's history.

In some parts, the story of Mr. and Mrs. Rivers accords with that of Richard Graves and his wife. Public Characters of 1799-1800, a collection of memoirs, presents a discreetly edited version of the story. As a young clergyman, and while a fellow of All Souls, Graves served as a curate in the village of Aldworth. During that time Mr. Graves fell in love with Lucy Bartholomew, "not yet fifteen" and the daughter of the yeoman farmer with whom he was lodging (390). She was beautiful but uneducated and without the gentility and social position important to Graves, but "the artless simplicity of this young nymph gained insensibly upon his affections; and, before he was aware, he became so fascinated by her attractions, that, however indiscreet such a proceeding really was, he married, and resigned his fellowship" (390). Clarence Tracy indicates, however, that Graves took Lucy to London as his "kept mistress" and that he "was in no hurry to marry her" (67). According to the memoir in Public Characters, "a curacy of fifty pounds a year.... with a very neat but small house, was offered him by an acquaintance, a most worthy and respectable man, of good private fortune" (390-91). Tracy conjectures that this curacy made the marriage possible. It did not, however, provide an immediate happy ending. The wedding took place in the Fleet, a seamy part of London with a trade in clandestine marriages, and Graves continued to conceal the marriage from his family and his college for a number of years, even after their first child was born. After the birth of that child, Graves enrolled Lucy in a London boarding school in order to remedy her defects in education (Tracy 69-76). Soon after the termination of his fellowship, through the interest of friends, he was presented with the living of the rectory at Claverton, a small village across the down to the east of Bath, where he remained for more than fifty-five years, until his death in November 1804. The marriage was apparently a happy one until Lucy's death at the age of forty-six, but the scandal evidently prevented Graves's further advancement in the church and the university.

These stories suggest an intriguing complement to Columella's and perhaps to Edward Ferrars's plots: a gentleman from Oxford with clerical aspirations is attracted to a young woman of lesser status connected to the household in which he is living. Though characterized by artless simplicity and natural beauty, she has received little education. An inappropriate relationship develops and is concealed from the man's disapproving family until a living is provided--by a friend, or friend of a friend--and the marriage can be effected and/or revealed.

Was Jane Austen aware of either of these narratives? It seems almost certain that the reader and rereader of Columella would also have read the author's more popular novel, which went through four editions between 1773 and 1792. Although Richard Graves's name was not affixed to his many publications in prose and verse, his authorship, according to Tracy, was an open secret by the 1780s (149). Tracy even records a mention of Graves in the 1805 edition of the Historic and Local New Bath Guide. Moreover, in their visits to Bath, the Austens' attention might well have been drawn to a local clergyman, one who also operated a school for boys, and who walked or rode into Bath daily to fetch his mail and visit bookshops as well as friends. Jane Austen visited Bath with her mother and Cassandra in November of 1797, the same month that she began transforming Elinor and Marianne into Sense and Sensibility, and again with her mother, brother Edward, and his wife, Elizabeth, in May and June 1799. The family also of course lived in Bath from May 1801 to July 1806, during which period the Reverend Graves died.

Sometimes one conjectures right, and sometimes one conjectures wrong, as Frank Churchill reminds us. I'm not confident, really, that I can claim in this web of connections a discovery about the meaning of Sense and Sensibility that has lain bidden for two hundred years. But Mrs. Dashwood's reference to Graves's novel--however widely we understand that reference--sharpens the satiric presentation of the novel's hero and further unsettles the resolution of the courtship plot. And although Lucy Steele is not Lucy Bartholomew or Charlotte Woodville or even Mrs. Betty--she is older and is given more agency, and more of a voice, than her fictional predecessors--setting her in their company underscores yet again the operations of class, and money, and gender in the world Austen depicts.

We see in Sense and Sensibility an early and apparently much-revised novel--begun in 1795, transformed in 1797, revised again in 1809-10. We cannot do much more than guess at the nature and extent of those revisions or at how Jane Austen's writing process actually worked. As Mary Waldron (among others) has pointed out, other models, other texts--the didactic novel, the polemical novel of the 1790s, the sentimental novel--undergird Sense and Sensibility. [4] Unlike The Mysteries of Udolpho or Fordyce's Sermons or Lovers' Vows, Columella is a text that Austen's readers might well not have read: only those with insider knowledge can profit from Mrs. Dashwood's hint. Why would Austen include a reference that might well have needed a footnote even in 1811 ? Noting traces of the Lady's Magazine in the naming of Willoughby and Brandon, Edward Copeland suggests that these kinds of obscure references constitute "a manoeuvre of intimacy with the reader" (lvii). Austen's engagement with Columella seems to be that of a young writer, deeply involved with a much loved text, writing for a family of great novel readers. That engagement, sparked possibly by a timely visit to Bath, provided subplot and definition for significant characters outside the central pair of sisters. It's almost as if constructing this novel was a kind of playful piecing together of texts and genres. That the seams aren't particularly visible is a testament to Jane Austen's talent at revision, to the way in which her own design integrated and transformed her borrowings. But Mrs. Dashwood's hint remains as a wink to the knowing reader, an invitation to share not only in the world of Sense and Sensibility but in that larger fictional world of which it is a part.


Austen, Jane. Sense and Sensibility. Ed. Edward Copeland. Cambridge: CUP, 2006.

Brodey, Inger Sigrun. Ruined by Design: Shaping Novels and Gardens in the Culture of Sensibility. New York: Routledge, 2008.

Butler, Marilyn. Jane Austen and the War of Ideas. Oxford: OUP, 1975.

Copeland, Edward. Introduction. Sense and Sensibility. Ed. Edward Copeland. Cambridge: CUP, 2006. xxiii-lxv.

[Graves, Richard]. Columella; or, The Distressed Anchoret. A Colloquial Tale. 2 vols. London, 1779.

--. The Spiritual Quixote: or, The Summer's Ramble of Mr. Geoffry Wildgoose. A Comic Romance. 2nd ed. 3 vols. London, 1774.

Johnson, Claudia L. Jane Austen: Women, Politics, and the Novel. Chicago: UCP, 1988.

Public Characters of 1799-1800. Vol. 2. London, 1799.

Tracy, Clarence. A Portrait of Richard Graves. Toronto: UTP, 1987.

Wallace, Tara Ghoshal Jane Austen and Narrative Authority. New York: St. Martin's, 1995.

Waldron, Mary. Jane Austen and the Fiction of her Time. Cambridge: CUP, 1999.


[l.] Both, however, discretely veil their authors' identities. (Columella's title page identified its author as "THE EDITOR OF THE SPIRITUAl. QUIXOTE," his novel of 1773 satirizing religious enthusiasm.

[2.] The Godmersham Catalog (held at Chawton House Library) does not list Columella or even the more popular The Spiritual Quixote (editions published in 1773, 1774, 1783, and 1792). I guess that Columella--read and absorbed, most probably through repeated rereadings--formed a part of the Rex,. George Austen's library.

[3.] From the Dashwoods' point of view, the phrase "want of spirits" is repeatedly applied to Edward (25, 118, 120); he is twice described as "not in spirits" (104); he has "low spirits" (111). Lucy too defines him in this way. She asks whether Elinor did not think him "'dreadful low-spirited" (153) and again "'sadly out of spirits'" (154); Edward writes to her "in wretched spirits'" (154); she is, she says, on the watch for "'any lowness of spirits that [she] could not account for'" (169). Edward's engagement to Elinor, however, does ultimately "raise his spirits" (410).

[4] See also Marilyn Butler and Claudia Johnson.


Susan Allen Ford is Professor of English and Writing Center Coordinator at Delta State University in Mississippi. Her most recent publication is an essay in the on-line journal Borrowers and Lenders on eighteenth-century images of King Lear's Cordelia. She is at work on a book on what Austen's characters are reading.
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Title Annotation:AGM 2011: Fort Worth; Elinor Dashwood of 'Sense and Sensibility'
Author:Ford, Susan Allen
Publication:Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2011
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