Thursday, October 14, 2010

Sense & Sensibility, Volume I, chapter 15

Let me say that what I perceive as Willoughby's sarcasm pisses me off. Confused by that? Allow me to 'splain.

Mrs Dashwood allows Marianne to stay home alone while Mrs D., Elinor and Margaret head to Barton Park to visit (the insipid) Lady Middleton. Mrs D figures that Marianne is going to spend time alone with Willoughby, and she's employing the Regency version of "don't ask, don't tell" - she's turning a blind eye to the impropriety, figuring that they are either already engaged or about to become engaged.

Turns out that Mrs D was right about the Willoughby visit, but wrong about the reason. Willoughby has shown up to announce that he's taking off for London. He (somewhat crassly) mentions the financial situation between himself and his aunt, Mrs Smith, and basically says that he's being sent away. Stat. And Mr "that Brandon sure is a killjoy, I'll bet he doesn't have a good reason since he won't tell us why he's going away" Willoughby doesn't really give any good explanation either. Just says he's headed to London, adding "and by way of exhilaration I am now come to take my farewell of you."

I was terribly curious as to whether the word exhileration meant something different in Austen's time than it does in ours, since that sometimes happens (think, for instance, of the word "nice", which now means things like "good" and "kind" but used to mean "particular"). Here's what Dr. Johnson's Dictionary (the go-to dictionary in Austen's day) says:

EXHILERA'TION [from exhilerate]
1. The act of giving gaiety.
2. The state of being enlivened.
That's right. Willoughby claims he's there to provide them with gaiety, after Marianne has just bolted from the room in tears. Dear Sir: You are not funny. As Very Special Agent Anthony DiNozzo once observed, "Sarcasm is the refuge of a shallow mind." Sincerely, Kelly Fineman However, you've got to hand it to Austen here, because she is a bit funny here. You've got the overly dramatic Marianne in tears, and Willoughby apparently trying to paste a smile on while being a bit of a jerk, really. You can bet there's little she likes more than messing with her characters, and all these characters are messed around and good here.

Sometimes characters mean exactly what they say

Willoughby basically allows that he has been thrown out of Allenham, makes clear that he is not coming back anytime soon, rejects Mrs Dashwood's attempt at inviting him for a visit, and shifts from maintaining his attempt at a happy face/good manners to this extremely blunt statement:

"It is folly to linger in this manner. I will not torment myself any longer by remaining among friends whose society it is impossible for me now to enjoy."

I will now observe that sometimes, it pays to take the statements of men at face value. I urge those of you reading this book for the first time to assume that he's telling the truth; I urge those of you who've read this before to look hard at these sentences and take them at face value.

Summary of the conversation between Mrs Dashwood and Elinor

Willoughby bolts, and Mrs D leaves the room in order to compose herself - after all, emotional outbursts were not something to be encouraged (part of that "keeping a stiff upper lip" mentality, and interesting, I think, to see it at work within an extremely intimate family circle). She returns with an explanation of Willoughby's conduct that makes perfect sense - Mrs Smith learned of his affection for Marianne and disapproves, so he's being sent off in order to separate him from Marianne. Mrs D goes ahead and proactively attacks Elinor for imputing any fault at all to Willoughby for his conduct.


Elinor: But . . .

Mrs D: Keep your but to yourself Elinor!


Mrs D: You can't claim he's secretive now when you wanted him to act with more discretion. NO TAKEBACKS!

Elinor: I just want proof of their engagement. Neither of them has said a syllable about it.

Mrs D: Like Marianne before me, I sense his feelings and therefore need no syllables. He loves her, ergo they are engaged. Ipso facto. Quod erat demonstrandum. Et cetera, et cetera.

Elinor: This walking the walk thing is not enough - I insist that they talk the talk. Also, I'm pretty certain that you do not know Latin.

Mrs D: You are an evil thinker of evil thoughts.

Elinor: A little healthy skepticism never hurt anyone.

Mrs D: I will now ask the $20,000 question: "Is he not a man of honour and feeling? Has there been any inconsistency on his side to create alarm? can he be deceitful?"

Elinor: I'd love to be able to say for certain that he's on the up & up, but I can't.

Mrs D: I hereby declare them engaged in secret with their marriage now delayed due to new circumstances until someone says otherwise.

Marianne: *sobs uncontrollably* (ON PURPOSE) (ALL NIGHT)

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