Sense and Sensibility is a novel that moves between the town and the country, a reflection of a certain class of people’s way of life in Austen's time. Also prominent in this time was the notion that a woman had to be submissive, obedient and dependent on men to truly be feminine. Speaking one’s mind out loud or even attempts at being independent were frowned upon, although the richer women had the power to decide their own destinies somewhat. However, even rich women were expected to marry, marriage was a necessity for a woman, or else shame as an old maid awaited her. Therefore the status and social role of women was rigidly defined and restrictive. The barriers of the Victorian class system also reinforced the rigidly defined role of a woman. Four distinct classes existed, Nobility and Gentry, Middle Class, "Upper" Working Class, and "Lower" Working class. In general, women in these classes each had specifically defined standards and roles. Society expected them to adhere to the standards of the class into which they were born alone, with no possibility to cross classes, with it being considered a high offense to adopt to the standards of another. The highest class were the Nobility and Gentry, who were born into that class and acquired their land, titles, and wealth through inheritance. A woman of this class can easily be seen to have been without much pressure nor work, but in fact they were expected to run and manage the household. According to Etty Raverat, a young woman in the late 1800s, "Ladies were ladies in those days; they did not do things themselves, they told others what to do and how to do it" (Harrison and Ford, 226). This lifestyle did, however, leave ample time for leisure with could be filled with social parties and balls. Unmarried women passed a lot of their time in the company of other unmarried women. However, once a woman was married her role was considered manager of the household, and she had much less time than before to walk and talk with former friends. Land, titles, and money were inherited by the closest male relative--typically the older son, but if there was no older son then it would go to a more distant relation, as was the case of Mr. Dashwood’s inheritance of Norland Park (Austen, 1). Only the small amount of money set aside as a woman’s marriage dowry went to an unmarried woman after the death of her father, and in the case of the Dashwood young women, “...ten thousand pounds, including the late legacies, was all that remained for his widow and daughters.” (Austen, 2) As a result, many mothers and daughters were left extremely poor after the death of their husband and father (Mitchell, 107). A lawyer from the 1700s named William Blackwell supported the law that said a husband and wife were one person and that the husband was that person. He also approved of law that said that “a wife had no right to own property in her own nameand that the wages she earned belonged to her husband.” (Smitha, 2011).
In such a society is the book Sense and Sensibility set. The reader is introduced to the Dashwoods, a family from the middle class, whose male protector is about to pass on. Because he had inherited Norland from an aged relative, Mr. Dashwood had no say in how the land was divided among his family. The law made it possible to disinherit the women or to leave no provision for them. The general consensus was that the younger women would get married, although to make a good match in marriage required a woman to have good fortune or a large dowry. This dowry also added to her husband’s wealth, “The son ... was amply provided for by the fortune of his mother, which had been large, and half of which devolved on him on his coming of age. By his own marriage, likewise, which happened soon afterwards, he added to his wealth.” (Austen, 1). On his deathbed, Mr. Dashwood acquaints the reader with the condition of the life of a woman after the death of her husband or father, as he asks his son to be kind to his wife and daughters.
By introducing the Dashwood family to the reader under such dire circumstances, Austen paves way for her counter-normal female characters to be revealed. And yet there is a perfect juxtapose of the expected feminine conduct and Jane Austen’s own deviation from it, represented by the older Mrs. Dashwood, now a widow and her daughters. When compared side by side, the reader can more easily see what was understood to be true femininity and Jane Austen’s rebellion against that restrictive fabric in her written works. The older Mrs Dashwood is portrayed as a woman of inflated deep feeling. She is amiable, possessing ideal etiquette and "a sweetness of address" which attracts everyone. Her sole devotion is to her three daughters and she is very proud of them, desiring the best for them even and especially in marriage. Of all her daughters, Marianne is the one who is so like her in disposition and hence the bond between them seems more sympathetic. Elinor's calmer temperament is a mystery to her as is revealed when Elinor says of Edward, "I think you will like him," Mrs. Dashwood replies, "Like him! . . . I can feel no sentiment of approbation inferior to love." (Austen, 24). In thus revealing the character of the older woman to be ideally feminine, Austen prepares the reader for a transformation of the ideal, which probably also signals the changing times around her or in her own character. In Mrs. Dashwood, the reader finds Austen reinforces the reality of the perception of what true femininity is and as was expected, the passing of cordial manners and extreme sensibility to her daughters, as was the case with Marianne. Her authority is limited to her daughters over whom she has direct influence. In the absence of her husband, she even loses the right to accept or decline visitors in her now former home, nor when, as is evidenced by Fanny’s sudden arrival at Norland not long after the death of Mr. Dashwood. She also gives the reader a frame of reference with which to make comparison between what was expected and her new idea of what a woman could be or the reassigning of gender roles present in her writing.
Opposite to Mrs. Dashwood is Mrs. Jennings. A widow to a man who made his fortune “the low way”, vulgar, extremely cheerful and with two married daughters, she enjoys the company of young people and is self appointed guardian of the Dashwoods when they move to Barton Cottage and they meet her while dining at the main house. She is authority on all things about marriage and husbands and eligible men. Mrs. Jennings authority comes from being the matriarch of her family, her husband having died. She enjoys visiting her married daughters’ homes, and although she has no man in authority over her, her influences seem limited only over the young women she is acquainted with and her daughters. One can see that even the advice she gives is restricted to marriage and family. There is never mention of any man-like ideas flowing forth from her. The only thing counter the normal, submissive female in Mrs Jennings is that without a husband, she is responsible for her own household and its finances as well, a duty that would have been taken on by a man. She is also very opinionated and unafraid to speak her mind, with a sharp tongue and a keen ability to read people’s character’s from afar. Having two married daughter, both now mothers as well, seems the epitome of her achievements, as it was the believed that “having children cements the marriage and alters a women's status to adulthood.”(Smitha, 2011).
Another character who reinforces the then idea of femininity is Mrs. Jennings' younger daughter, Charlotte, a silly but cheerful young woman "strongly endowed by nature with a turn for being uniformly civil and happy." (Austen 91). Small, chubby, and pretty, she was not so elegant as her sister, Lady Middleton, but was "much more eye-catching." She seems easily pleased as is revealed on her visit to Barton Cottage. Her admiration for everyone and everything is obvious, "Well! What a delightful room this is! I never saw anything so charming!" (Austen, 66). Her husband is a rude sort of man but this does not disturb her: "When he scolded or abused her, she was highly pleased."(Austen, 112). Her sister, Lady Middleton, on the other hand is seen to be cold, distant with pleasure in company only if to show off her wealth and success, “ Lady Middleton was not more than six or seven and twenty; her face was handsome, her figure tall and striking, and her address graceful.” Even a woman’s manner of address was dictated by what was expected of her, gentleness and grace, both marks of true femininity, which were in contrast to her husband’s, who society could forgive for being without elegance, “Her manners had all the elegance which her husband's wanted. But they would have been improved by some share of his frankness and warmth.” Another reinforcing characteristic of femininity in the time period in which the book was written is Lady Middleton’s quiet and cold disposition, “...and her visit was long enough to detract something from their first admiration, by shewing that, though perfectly well-bred, she was reserved, cold, and had nothing to say for herself beyond the most common-place inquiry or remark.” (Austen,24) A woman was expected to be reserved and quiet, without much opinion for anything. Although she is a rich woman, her authority obvious over the running of her household and much hosting, it is limited only to such things as family and the home. Austen clearly defines the distinct gender roles and differences in ideas about masculinity and femininity in her characters Sir and Lady Middleton, “Sir John was a sportsman, Lady Middleton a mother. He hunted and shot, and she humoured her children; and these were their only resources.” (Austen, 26) This reinforces the notion of properly practised femininity in that her authority is only acceptable in its limited reach under a man. In essence, women could not even truly be women without men. Marriage was a necessary but normally unfulfilling part of a woman’s expected life, “Not only does the woman have very few legal rights in marriage but the marriage may not be the deep, emotional bond that she may have thought it would be. In fact, marriages were often isolating. Wives would spend much of their day with female kin and neighbors while men would spend their time with other men.” (Macfarlane, page 154).
It is necessary to make a comparison between Elinor Dashwood and her sister Marianne’s conduct. Marianne represents the more sensitive, emotional female and Elinor is unlike her kind in being rational and logical and keeping her emotions in check. Austen gives Elinor Dashwood characteristics usually associated with masculinity and thus reassigns gender roles in her writing when comparing her with not only Marianne, but also her love interest Edward, who by all accounts was more shy, reserved a character, preferring the domestic life rather than being distinguished as his mother would have had him. “Elinor's character and conduct are by definition self-denying courses of action, which reflect a more masculine and gentlemanly philosophy of ‘honour’ ” (Copeland, 2000). By depicting Elinor as a logical, stoic figure (characteristics typically associated with masculinity), Austen protests against her period's typical view of women as sentimental creatures. Elinor takes on the role of protector for her family, as her logic and reasoning are key to their adapting to a new, lower style of life than they had previously been accustomed to. The strength she displays in holding herself together upon the discovery of Edward’s engagement to Lucy Steele, her ability to conceal her pain and be a strong support to those around her is a masculine trait. Austen, however, does balance Elinor’s strong rationale with emotion at the end when Edward returns a free man, to propose to her, showing her writings are not to completely disapprove of emotions altogether.
Marianne Dashwood is more sentimental, romantically opinionated young woman who often disapproves her sister’s guardedness. She is free with her emotions and easily becomes attached to Mr. Willoughby, “...I have not known him long indeed, but I am much better acquainted with him, than I am with any other creature in the world, except yourself and mama. It is not time or opportunity that is to determine intimacy;-- it is disposition alone.” (Austen, 48). Jane Austen seems to chastise Marianne’s romanticism and depth of feeling, and in her the frail opinion of what femininity is expected to be, by inflicting on her, first, heartache when Willoughby chooses a richer woman to marry instead of her, and second, by inflicting on her bodily illness which may have served as a sign of purging away of the silly nature, and frailty that a woman was expected to have. Her redemption comes when a more mature Marianne reflects on her past behaviours and accepts Colonel Brandon’s marriage proposal. In thus ending her character, Austen provides for the reader a balance in the female gender, love and sentimentality, tempered with rationality.
Austen protests against her period's typical view of women as sentimental creatures by depicting Edward as a “more submissive character, whose contentment rests in a quiet, country and domestic life, as opposed to the more expected distinguished sort of man.” (Copeland, 2000). The fact that Edward’s inheritance is solely dependant on the wishes of his mother also introduces to the reader another matriarchal authority whose word is law. Although men in general were seen to have more authority than women to the extent that sons could “rule over” their mothers upon their father’s death, Mrs Ferrars is a contradiction of that notion. Also, the law, written by men for the benefit of men is a tool in Mrs. Ferrars’ hands to control her eldest son to abide by her wishes for his life. It would seem that unlike the normal practice of fathers writing wills to dictate the conditions of inheritance of the estate for their sons, Mrs. Ferrars has that authority and in such a case, Austen challenges the status quo of the system of inheritance by giving authority to a woman to decide her sons’ fates.
In conclusion, Austen challenges conventions of gender in order to suggest a new vision of femininity. Her work in Sense and Sensibility portraying femininity and its limited authority challenged gender norms, without making women as masculine as men but by amplifying the strength of sensitivity coupled with rationality.