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Secrets in Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

I always enjoy rereading Jane Austen’s novels. Whichever one I choose there is always something new to discover, a character I didn’t notice before, or a plot moment that makes sense. I belong to the South West branch of the Jane Austen Society, and have greatly missed our meetings where learned enthusiasts provide insights and pleasure from their presentations. 

I reread Sense and Sensibility in preparation for an online talk later this month, focussing on money in the novel. The characters of John Dashwood and his wife, who in their meanness fail to provide for his stepmother and sisters, have always made a deep impression on me. How easy it is to persuade yourself against undertaking the right thing that you don’t want to do if someone supports you.

Mrs John Dashwood has come in haste to occupy the house of her deceased father-in-law and to usurp his second wife, with no sensitivity but all the entitlement. John Dashwood had some modest suggestions for how to support his relations. But she argues against her husband making any provision for his father’s second wife and three daughters:

It was very well known that no affection was ever supposed to exist between the children of any man by different marriages; and why was he to ruin himself, and their poor little Harry, by giving away all his money to his half sisters? (43)

Selfishness is a key feature of several of the characters in this novel. My own interest in rereading it after 10 years is in the secrecy that so many of the characters employ, and which frequently drives the plot. The reader is in the know of all these secrets, and able to see the affects upon the people involved.

Sense and Sensibility

Mrs Dashwood senior leaves the home of her married life with her three daughters to live in a cottage near Exeter provided by a generous cousin and neighbour, Sir John Middleton. Her two elder daughters are at the age when they have to think about getting married. Elinor, the oldest of the three, is a young woman of good sense and modest skills in drawing. She has formed an attachment to Edward Ferrars and believes that the feeling is mutual although he has not yet declared himself.

Marianne is younger, and more headstrong, inclined to believe that her own sensibilities are a better guide than society’s strict codes of behaviour. On running down a hill in the countryside near their new accommodation she falls and is rescued by Willoughby. He is a well-connected young man, the supposed heir of his aunt’s nearby estate. He and Marianne are immediately attracted to each other, and it is clear to everyone that they are falling in love. After a few happy weeks he suddenly tells the Dashwoods that he must leave Devon and does not expect to return. Has he proposed to Marianne before he left, or not? Marianne does not say, her family do not ask, and when Marianne meets him again in London a few a months later, he rebuffs her.

The novel follows the fortunes of the two sisters, whose natures are in contrast, as they find their way to their marriages. 

Secrets in Sense and Sensibility

Openness is not a feature of society in Jane Austen’s day. Some secrets can be seen as discretion, information that should not be widely discussed. Some secrets are power, to control of the behaviour of others. And some are protection from society’s codes.

Elinor, as a young woman of evident sense and thoughtfulness, becomes the recipient of two secrets. The first is Colonel Brandon’s story about his brother’s wife. Her reputation and that of her daughter has been ruined by a seducer. This is at the bottom of the Colonel’s sudden departure from Devon, and he will not reveal it despite all attempts by Mrs Jennings to discover it. His revelation to Elinor in part demonstrates his good character and also how much he is deserving of our sympathy.

The second secret is imparted to Elinor in order to control her behaviour. Lucy Sharpe is an ambitious and selfish young woman who some years before caught the affections of Edward Ferrars, and they became secretly engaged. Lucy tells Elinor of this and by making her her confidante it is impossible for Elinor to become as close to Edward as she might have wished. The reader can see how mean-spirited Lucy is and understand why Edward Ferrars behaves with reserve towards Elinor.

Marianne is not open with her mother and sister about her relationship with Willoughby, partly because she does not wish to be controlled by society’s codes, would rather be governed by her own disposition. This lack of openness allows her mother to believe the best of Willoughby, and to fail to warn Marianne about the dangers she is in, not least from a broken heart. After her great disappointment at Willoughby’s rejection, and the decline of her spirits, Marianne becomes quite wrapped up in herself and eventually falls seriously ill. Only when she recovers does she come to see her behaviour as wilful and selfish rather than the expression of great sensibility. She takes herself to task and after listing all the people she feels she has wronged, and reflecting on Elinor’s troubles with Edward Ferrars she acknowledges this neglect to her sister in this way:

Not less when I knew you to be unhappy, than when I had believed you to be at ease, did I turn away from every exertion on duty or friendship scarcely allowing sorrow to exist but with me, regretting only that heart which had deserted and wronged me, and leaving you, for whom I professed an unbounded affection, to be miserable for my sake.’ (337-8)

Mrs Jennings is a colourful figure, initially it seems without any self-awareness to prevent her enquiring into people’s secrets. She enjoys gossip and teasing her young acquaintances. But she redeems herself by her generosity and her ability to act in the best interests of the two Dashwood sisters. 

Mr John Dashwood is against secrets. Edward Ferrars is his wife’s brother. But when Lucy Sharpe suddenly marries Edward’s brother, Robert, he expresses this view

The secrecy with which everything had been carried on between them, was rationally treated as enormously heightening their crime, because, had any suspicion of it occurred to the others, proper measures would have been taken to prevent the marriage; and he called upon Elinor to join with him in regretting that Lucy’s engagement with Edward had not rather been fulfilled … (360)

He demonstrates a lack of understanding of Elinor’s feelings by this outburst. There is something a little chilling about the idea of ‘proper measures’ being taken to prevent the marriage. It sits alongside another rather uncomfortable observation about Marianne’s eventual marriage (not to Willoughby). Her mother and sisters and even Mrs Jennings are united in encouraging Marianne to accept this second suitor.

With such a confederacy against her … – what could she do? (366)

Jane Austen has a great deal of fun at the expense of those characters for whom selfishness and lack of generosity are paramount. They are condemned from their own mouths as I have indicated. And those who would indulge their children can be criticised too: Mrs Dashwood with Marianne, Mrs John Dashwood with Harry,  and Mrs Ferrars with Robert. The novel nicely indicates the tension in society between being rational and restrained on the one hand and emotional and following one’s desires on the other.

Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen was her first published novel, appearing in 1811. I used the Penguin English Library edition of 1969. 371pp

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Miss Mole by EH Young

Miss Mole is an unlikely heroine, especially for the 1930s. She is not very young, pretty, innocent or socially well-place. She seems to delight in being less than straight forward in the early part of the novel, and we wonder what will become of her over the next 288 pages. But she quickly captivates us and we are charmed by her and by the novel.

The novel is set in Radstowe, modelled on Bristol. Although Miss Mole loves the city, she was brought up on a farm, and now must find her living among people who have tight rules about what is appropriate behaviour, especially for women.

182 Miss Mole coverThe Story

We meet Miss Mole as she is about to be dismissed from her position as companion. She has more or less engineered the dismissal herself as she is both bored and unhappy to be reduced to living at the beck and call of an old woman with restricted interests. Miss Mole does not like to be demeaned.

Hannah has a cousin, Lilla Spenser-Smith who is anxious that her relationship with a mere domestic should not be known, and so finds Miss Mole a position as a housekeeper with a non-conformist widower, The Reverend Corder, and his children. The family would be called dysfunctional today. Miss Mole finds ways to gain the trust of the children and to help them through their difficulties. Her position as a housekeeper provides her with the cover to do good within the Corder household.

The reader gradually understands that Hannah hides a secret, unknown even to Lilla, that if revealed would mean she could not be employed as a domestic servant, and that she would be ostracised by the Radstowe community. The tension of the novel increases as the revelation of this secret creeps closer, threatening to undermine her work within the Corder family.

Even to begin with Hannah Mole’s strategy is hardly effective.

’Not the thing itself, but its shadow,’ she murmured, as she saw her own shadow going before her, and she nodded as though she had solved a problem. She judged herself by the shadow she chose to project for her own pleasure and it was her business in life – and one in which she usually failed – to make other people accept her creation. Yes, she failed, she failed! They would not look at the beautiful, the valuable Hannah Mole: they saw the substance and disapproved of it and she did not blame them: it was what she would have done herself and in one case when she had concentrated on the fine shadow presented to her, she had been mistaken. (9)

Miss Mole

Hannah Mole is not quite 40, a single woman with great independence of spirit, not always apparent to people she meets. She is described in the first chapter in this way.

She stood on the pavement, a thin shabby figure, so insignificant in her old hat and coat, so forgetful of herself in the enjoyment of the scene, that she might have been wearing a cloak of invisibility … (10)

We are soon made aware of Hannah’s resourcefulness, playfulness and creativity. We discover that she is a woman of integrity. It is revealed that she has helped prevent a threatened suicide. She herself is quiet about her actions although they bring her into contact with people who appreciate her: Mrs Gibson who provides temporary lodgings and friendship, Mr Blenkinsop who is struck by her liveliness of spirit. Much of the pleasure of this novel derives from her approach to life, and especially her psychological insights into the Corder family. She is not without faults, getting locked into a battle with the Rev Corder, which she realises she has undertaken in order to score a point.

Like many women of her age, situation and time she has a struggle to survive and time is not on her side. As she walks at night towards her new position in the Corder household she is visited by a brief moment of fear.

What was to become of herself? Age was creeping on her all the time and she had saved nothing, she would soon be told that she was too old for this post or that, and, for a second, fear took hold of her with a cold hand and the whispering of the dead leaves warned her that, like them, she would soon be swept into the gutter and no one would ask where she had gone, and her fear changed into a craving that there would be at least one person to whom her disappearance would be a calamity. ‘No one!’ the leaves whispered maliciously, while a little gust of laughter came from the bushes, and at that, Hannah paused and looked disdainfully in their direction. She was not to be laughed at! She was not to be laughed at and she refused to be frightened. (51)

The Style

EH Young’s style in Miss Mole reflects Hannah’s lack of clarity at the beginning and her increasing sense of herself and her own integrity. Episodes, fragments of memories, scraps of information are given to us in small pieces. We do not quite understand that Hannah has saved a life between stepping out to buy a reel of cotton and meeting with her cousin Lilla in the first chapter.

This mode of telling the story reflects Hannah’s character. While she is resourceful and lively, she has to guard herself, and her past, to live a little like the mole she is named for. She is complex character and is developed through the novel so that by the final chapters we are aware of her true value.

The Themes

The book deals with the nature of morality and the contrast between received morality, socially accepted behaviour and Miss Mole’s true morality. She does good to so many. She knows that they would reject her if they knew the truth about her, and so she is a challenge to the restrictive teachings of the church, the social attitudes of Lilla and her set.

EH Young herself had an unusual domestic arrangement – a ménage a trois. She kept this secret for 40 years. She knew something of the tensions between secrecy and truth, appearances and integrity.

 

Eric Ravillous, Two Women in a Garden, 1933

Eric Ravillous, Two Women in a Garden, 1933

Miss Mole was recommended for the older women in fiction series. I wonder what it was about Hannah Mole that mislead the memory of that reader: she is a spinster, independent, a little down on her luck? But the happy ever after ending is unlikely to have been given to a woman of 60+, especially in the 1930s.

Stuck in a Book blog reviewed this book with enthusiasm here.

I also recommend the introduction by Sally Beauman.

Miss Mole by EH Young (first published in 1930) republished in 1984 as Virago Modern Classic. 288pp

 

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Filed under Books, Older women in fiction, Reading, Reviews