My Beautiful Wickedness

Too much literary criticism can ruin a novel.
February 15, 2008, 10:29 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

Otherwise known as why you shouldn’t read Eve Sedgwick and Claudia Johnson before you re-read Sense and Sensibility. 

I was trying to find out if there was a scholarly interpretation of Marianne that addressed her “intimacy” with Willoughby when they went to visit the house. As I was rereading the text the other day (what I do when I am sick), I noted some hints that the “improprieties” extended beyond simply riding out in some guy’s carriage. In fact, I began to think that Marianne simply dodged the bullet of pregnancy in a way that Colonel Brandon’s ward had not. It seems to me that Marianne’s excessive nervousness on their move to London — which everyone is interpreting as lovesickness — might have also been read by audiences of the time as the anxiety of the seduced and abandoned girl. The 20th century reads Jane Austen without the 19th century’s jaundiced assumptions about young girls and their barely governed sexuality and have tended to think of Jane as a rather dried-up and conservative author since she wraps up the marriage plot with reasonable girls making good marriages (however unlikely). Anyhow, I noted that readers have the spectacle of the married and very pregnant Charlotte, attended by her mother, offering a contrast to both the totally abandoned and scorned Miss Williams (ward of Colonel Brandon) who did get knocked up by Willoughby and the extremely tense Marianne occupying that indeterminate middle position.

Anyhow, given that Col. Brandon is a character damaged by talk (although it’s untrue) and so is Marianne (a failed “engagement” that makes her damaged goods, maritally speaking, beyond her poverty), it makes a certain amount of sense to me to read it that way. Am I being too clever here or do other people also read it that way?


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Funny, I was just rereading that book. I always have seen the visit to Mrs. Allen’s (? was that her name?) house as opening Marianne to charges of unchastity. I don’t think that’s overly clever, and I think that’s what the 18th and 19th centuries’ horror of closed carriages and insistence on chaperonage was all about. But the fact that it’s so many months between W’s departure and her visit to London led to my never thinking of the possibility of pregnancy. And the way she keeps saying, “he isn’t as bad as you think he is” and the way W says that he didn’t take advantage of her in the same way, makes me finally decide that the intimacy wasn’t sexual. But that Elinor might worry about it, sure.

Comment by nm

Yet doesn’t it appear in ch 13 that Marianne is excessively embarrassed when Mrs. Jennings claims to know what she did with her morning? I got the impression that they didn’t actually go into the house and so her lengthy descriptions of the house would have to be second-hand. (Because, well, contrived stories are always more detailed than the simple truth…maybe I’m just remembering the concocted tales that I invented when I wanted to misdirect my mother.) I am also wondering about how long it actually was. Willoughby leaves and is gone about a week when Edward arrives and stays a week. Then the Steele infestation begins and they stay, it’s said, for two months. And then they go to London “at the approach of January.” Charlotte isn’t due until February and she’s still in society and has not been delivered when the critical cut by Willoughby is delivered…anyhow, if my computational skills serve, it’s just shy three months. But yeah, I think that you’re right that the whole thing is meant, ultimately, to introduce tension in the contemporary reader’s mind that is then later resolved in the narrative with the “he isn’t as bad as you think” and “I didn’t do that” sort of stuff. One would have had a thrill of horror and recognition, however, on the first reading of the exchange between the Colonel and Elinor, though, huh?

Comment by bridgett

Good question. I’ll have to think about that next time I read S&S. There’s also the question that, if there was sexual contact, there isn’t reason to assume unquestioningly that it was consensual.

I saw a BBC rendition of Northanger Abbey a couple of weeks ago, and I was startled by their representing Isabella Thorpe as sleeping with Captain Tilney. What do you think about that possibility?

Comment by Helen

Is that the Fellini-esque one from 1986 that has the Viscountess looking like a aged drag queen and her page a little Afro-English kid in peruke doing cartwheels on the lawn? And the heroine breathlessly goggling and saying “Northanger Abbey!” about every ten minutes? Good times! I love that adaptation — very creepy.

Isabella Thorpe is a desperate sharp of a girl, shrewd and dry-eyed about what must be done: secure a man of fortune before the season is out and the dresses they’ve invested in go out of fashion. The text itself does not support an allusion to Thorpe and Captain Tilney’s sexual intimacy, although the double or maybe triple-entendre of her showing her “cheek” to Captain Tilney when she turns her back in a pout lets you know that these are both carnal people. Although she is tacky and fast, it seems to me implausible that she’d squander her assets without a guaranteed return. In the 1986 BBC version, Captain Tilney brags about making her a “girl of the regiment” (implying that she’s pulled the train for his entire barracks) but that’s thrown in to make him look coarse in comparison to the virtuous stick Henry, I think.

Comment by bridgett

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