Thursday, October 21, 2010

Sense & Sensibility, Volume I, chapter 18

First off, what does NOT happen in this chapter:





Heh. Yeah, that's what Andrew Davies concocted for the 2008 BBC version. Remember how Darcy went for a swim in his knickers and then turned up in dishabille? Here we have Edward Ferrars, known milquetoast, manfully chopping wood in dishabille whilst uttering sensitive, taunting comments. UNF!

What really happens in Chapter 18:

Elinor wonders what's up with Captain Mood Swing:

Elinor saw with great uneasiness the low spirits of her friend. His visit afforded her but a very partial satisfaction, while his own enjoyment in it appeared so imperfect. It was evident that he was unhappy; she wished it were equally evident that he still distinguished her by the same affection which once she had felt no doubt of inspiring; but hitherto the continuance of his preference seemed very uncertain; and the reservedness of his manner towards her contradicted one moment what a more animated look had intimated the preceding one.
Poor Elinor.

The picturesque: what it is, how it's used here

Then Edward comes in and tweaks Marianne about ideas of "the picturesque", a popular topic of conversation in Austen's time and in her books. We've talked about the picturesque (and William Gilpin's writings on the topic) before, last year when we read Northanger Abbey. A summary of it can be found as part of this post, but as it is a quite lengthy post, I've copied and pasted the part I wrote about the picturesque here:

The idea of the picturesque as an aesthetic ideal comes from William Gilpin's Observations on the River Wye, and Several Parts of South Wales, etc. Relative Chiefly to Picturesque Beauty; made in the Summer of the Year 1770, but did not truly become a talking point in British society until the mid-1780s. The image to the left is Gilpin's picturesque portrait of Tintern Abbey (yes, the same place that Wordsworth referred to in "Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey on revisiting the banks of the Wye Valley during a tour, July 13, 1798", published by Wordsworth and Coleridge as part of Lyrical Ballads in 1798 and marking the start of the English Romantic movement in poetry, later taken up by others including Byron).

The notion of the picturesque ideal was part of the emerging Romanticism of the late 18th century, and dovetails nicely with the Romantic movement in poetry and in, say, Gothic novels. Austen is known to have read and admired Gilpin's work. The picturesque represented a middle ground between the rational extremes of "beauty" and "the sublime" – two ideals that came out of the Enlightenment. The picturesque was a term "expressive of that peculiar kind of beauty, which is agreeable in a picture", or so Gilpin wrote in an earlier work from 1768, his Essay on Prints.

We are told in Northanger Abbey that Catherine is unfamiliar with this notion, whereas Henry and Eleanor Tilney both know and discuss it at length. We are told that "the little which she could understand, however, appeared to contradict the very few notions she had entertained on the matter before. It seemed as if a good view were no longer to be taken from the top of an high hill, and that a clear blue sky was no longer a proof of a fine day." This leads the narrator of Northanger Abbey to a very funny bit of musing on the nature of forming attachments. In Sense and Sensibility, Edward is using some of the language of the picturesque to profess his own ignorance of the idea. It's plain that he knows the ideas, but does not necessarily agree with them, finding them to be a bit pretentious and silly. Rather than saying so plainly - and offending Marianne outright, since she buys into them wholeheartedly - we get his send-up of the idea. Elinor "gets" him; Marianne does not. Edward is funny and enjoys himself, and we all get to laugh along with him as he expresses a preference for straight, tall trees and neat, tidy cottages, rather than gnarled, twisted trees and ramshackle buildings, horrifying Marianne in the process. (Elinor and Edward are practical - Marianne is . . . not. A theme that Austen hammers home in these "Edward visits" chapters, as with the notion of what constitutes a "competence".)

Edward's ring raises a hairy issue

Marianne notices that Edward's wearing a ring containing a coil of hair and comments on it. This isn't mourning jewelry - where a clipping of hair is set into jewelry as a memento of a beloved deceased person. It's kind of like a promise ring - a clipping of hair (like the one Willoughby took from Marianne) is set into a piece of jewelry so that the wearer has a reminder of their beloved quite literally at hand during separations.

Marianne and Elinor have both noticed that the hair in Edward's ring is the same color as Elinor's. And Edward has turned scarlet and glanced at Elinor during this discussion, which leads them to conclude that it is Elinor's. Marianne believes that Elinor and Edward have a secret relationship and that Elinor has given her hair to Edward (project much, Marianne?) and Elinor thinks he has swiped it somehow.

Teasing

Goodness, but I love Sir John and Mrs. Jennings, both of whom are fit to bust with their desire to torment Elinor over Edward Ferrars, whose name begins with an F. Instead, they settle for inviting them to tea that night, and to dine tomorrow. Meanwhile, the real teasing is attempted by Edward, who, having heard mention of Willoughby and seeing Marianne's blushes, seeks to tweak Marianne - only to be met by a heartfelt comment on her part. I love the closing of this chapter: "[H]ad he not imagined it to be a joke for the good of her acquaintance in general, founded only on a something or a nothing between Mr. Willoughby and herself, he would not have ventured to mention it."

Gotta love Austen's drollness.

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