|Jane Austen Society of Australia
In Defence of Edward Ferrars
Edward is first introduced by the author with the words that he was not recommended to their good opinion by any peculiar graces of person or address (15). He was not handsome, and he was diffident and shy, though his understanding was good. To Mrs Dashwood, a romantic, his quietness of manner... militated against all her established ideas of what a young mans address ought to be(16), though she had the highest opinion of his heart. In the language of sensibility, this meant that he had benevolence or fellow-feeling, and the good judgment that was deemed to spring from the heart. Richardson used adjectives like friendly, undesigning, innocent, worthy and feeling when describing the heart of a good person.1 This is hardly a description of a romantic hero, so one needs to ask why Edward is depicted in such a sober, even dull, manner.
Rousseau, in his Confessions, developed the doctrine that became the fantasy of the age2, that is, that a delicate sensibility was accompanied by moral superiority or excellence. This idea frequently appears in characters in sentimental novels of the time, and was roundly burlesqued by the 14-year-old Jane Austen in 1790 in Love and Freindship, called by Brissenden
By 1810 when she had finished Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen had developed a subtle and convincing argument against the doctrine, in the characters of Edward and Willoughby. To the modern reader Edward is a dull hero. Why doesnt he, we ask, simply tell Lucy Steele that he has changed his mind and no longer wishes to marry her. The answer is that, in Jane Austens society, a gentleman of honour never broke his word. In Samuel Richardsons Sir Charles Grandison, a book that Jane Austen knew well, the hero has a prior engagement to an Italian lady. When Grandison later falls in love with Harriet Byron, whom he has rescued from a kidnapper, he cannot, on his honour as a gentleman, break his commitment to Signorina Clementina. Jane Austen probably took the idea for Edwards prior engagement from Richardson as the best way of demonstrating his moral superiority. This dilemma would have been well appreciated by her readers, and both Grandison and Edward would be immediately recognised as gentlemen of honour.
Marianne, while having the highest opinion in the world of his judgment and sense, decides that Edward has no sensibility. His eyes want all that spirit, that fire, which at once announce virtue and intelligence (17). He has no real taste because he is not attracted to music and seems to understand little of drawing. He reads lines from Cowper that have frequently almost driven [her] wild in a tame and spiritless manner. This judgment says much more about Marianne, and the prevailing concept of sensibility, as it was meant to, than it does about Edward.
It is from Elinor that we get a true estimate of Edwards character. He has sense and goodness, excellent understanding, good principles and solid worth. He has a well-informed mind, enjoys books, has a lively imagination and taste that is delicate and pure (20). He is a man of honour who behaves with reserve and circumspection towards Elinor while he is bound to Lucy Steele by an engagement that only she can honourably break. The behaviour of Edward and Willoughby is continually contrasted during the course of the novel. Edwards first appearance at Barton cottage occurs shortly after Willoughby has left, so that we are invited to compare Willoughbys behaviour towards Marianne with Edwards behaviour towards Elinor. Elinor, after she learns of Edwards engagement to Lucy Steele, and observes Willoughbys behaviour to Marianne, continually compares the behaviour of the two men in her mind.
The circumstances of the two men, as they think of marriage, are also contrasted. Willoughby is independent, with an estate in Somersetshire rated by Sir John Middleton as worth £600-£700 a-year (71), an adequate sum for a couple to marry on at that time, although, if Mrs Smith cut his allowance, it would not have enabled Willoughby to continue to live his expensive lifestyle. He would have had to give up hunting and breeding horses, and probably could not have afforded to keep even one carriage. Although Willoughby says later that he had intended to ask Marianne to marry him (319), he chooses instead to marry an heiress with £50,000.
Edward, on the other hand, is totally dependent on his mother. When she casts him off, he has an income of £100 a-year, barely sufficient to keep himself, and his mother has threatened to ensure that he does not get advancement in any profession he may choose. Jane Austen clearly presents Edwards behaviour in adhering to his engagement to Lucy Steele as thoroughly honourable in his circumstances, in contrast to that of Willoughby, who is adequately provided for and free to choose.
Willoughbys rescue of Marianne is deliberately romantic, although in a romantic novel of the time the rescue would most likely have been from an attempted abduction. He is first introduced as uncommonly handsome, with a frank and graceful manner and with youth, beauty and elegance (42). To Marianne His person and air were equal to what her fancy had ever drawn for the hero of a favourite story (43). All that Marianne hears of Willoughby, which is, in fact, very little, feeds her romantic imagination while his own behaviour does the rest. Jane Austens careful language (47) makes it clear that Willoughby quick-wittedly adapts himself to all of Mariannes romantic loves and enthusiasms, and uses his natural charm and vivacity to win her love without having serious intentions of marrying her.
The author tells us that Nothing could be more expressive of attachment to them all than Willoughbys behaviour. To Marianne it had all the distinguishing tenderness which a lovers heart could give, and to the rest of the family it was the affectionate attention of a son and a brother (71). Mrs Dashwood says to Elinor Has not his behaviour to Marianne and to all of us, for at least the past fortnight, declared that he loved and considered her as his future wife...? (80). Marianne herself says, after Willoughbys letter of rejection, I felt myself to be as solemnly engaged to him, as if the strictest legal covenant had bound us to each other (188). When Captain Wentworth, with far less reason, unwittingly found himself in the same situation with Louisa, he felt honourably bound to offer marriage to her if she showed that she wished it.
Willoughby is the romantic hero of Mariannes (or any fictional heroines) imagination, handsome, dashing and with apparent sensibility. At least he has, or pretends to have, those attributes that were taken to indicate sensibility: fire, eagerness, vivacity, enthusiasm, love of romantic music and poetry, Mariannes rapturous delight that alone could be called taste, quickness of thought and so on. But he has no sense of honour or obligation to others for his selfish behaviour. Elinors opinion of Willoughby (undoubtedly that of the society of the time) is that she could not have believed he was capable of departing so far from the appearance of every honourable and delicate feeling so far from the common decorum of a gentleman . (184). He acknowledged no breach of faith.
Edward has none of Willoughbys romantic good looks or charms, he is even tongue-tied and awkward when he goes to Barton Cottage to propose to Elinor (359). Nevertheless, he has taste and imagination, governed by good judgment and understanding. He is a man of the utmost integrity and a gentleman of honour. Mrs Jennings said bluntly of his resolution to continue his engagement to Lucy Steele in the face of his mothers threats he has acted like an honest man... if he had done otherwise I should have thought him a rascal. (267)
Sense and Sensibility is not only about Elinors sense and Mariannes sensibility, it is about the absurdity of associating morality with sensibility or a lack of it, and while the modern reader, being out of touch with Jane Austens society, might not be able to see Edward as a romantic hero, s/he must admit that he is a gentleman of integrity and honour and stands in direct contrast to Willoughby, who is neither.
All page numbers in the text refer to Sense and Sensibility, ed. R.W. Chapman, 1933
"It was Edward." A Hugh Thomson illustration to Sense & Sensibility
21 June 2001