Sense and Sensibility: the Themes Just Keep on Coming

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You’ll be glad to hear that I’ve made at least some further progress on the next book: Colonel Brandon in His Own Words. It’s still slow going, but I have several chapters written – about 20K words – which means I’m closing in on about a quarter of an average length novel. Unlike my usual practice, however, I’ve been bouncing around a little – writing not in logical order but whatever scene inspires me that day or pops into my head. I think I’ll end up assembling the book in a similar fashion, just following the colonel’s flow of thought, his stream of consciousness, rather than strict chronology.

Colonel Brandon’s life could easily break down into phases: early life with Eliza, military years, empty years after his return and before meeting Marianne, and then what happens with Marianne. But I don’t want to write a Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4 book. What particularly interest me is how those periods of his life connect. Where are the crossovers, the repeated patterns, the common themes?

To be honest, I’ve never given that much thought before – at least not this early in the writing process – to developing themes in a book. If something shows up along the way, I’m just happy to take advantage of it as a bonus. But this time I couldn’t help noticing certain refrains at once. Sense and Sensibility is loaded with them.

We have the most obvious theme given right in the title of the source book: the tension between sense and sensibility primarily exhibited by the sisters Elinor and Marianne, and not so much Colonel Brandon. Although everybody has some measure of both inside, often at odds with each other.

As in other Austen novels, the similar tension between love and money shows up here too. The Dashwood girls are left without fortunes, which limits their chances of making a good match. And Willoughby ultimately deserts Marianne for Miss Gray, when he can no longer afford to marry for love alone.

Jane Austen has also given us the strong idea of history repeating itself for Brandon. We know that when he meets Marianne, he is struck by her similarity to his first love Eliza. He also expects to have to stand by – again – and see the woman he loves married to another man, as I wrote about in my Prologue (read here). Then there’s the business with Eliza herself; her daughter, who bears the same name, meets with the same fate (mistreated by men and bearing a child out of wedlock).

In both these cases (and with Marianne as well, to a lesser degree), Brandon must have believed he’d failed in his perceived duty – failed to protect the women he loved.

Then I was just thinking about another theme of the book: the question of second attachments, which, as this quotation testifies, applies equally to both Colonel Brandon and to Marianne

Marianne Dashwood was born to an extraordinary fate. She was born to discover the falsehood of her own opinions, and to counteract by her conduct, her most favourite maxims. She was born to overcome an affection formed so late in life as at seventeen, and with no sentiment superior to strong esteem and lively friendship, voluntarily to give her hand to another! – and that other, a man who had suffered no less than herself under the event of a former attachment, whom, two years before, she had considered too old to be married, – and who still sought the constitutional safeguard of a flannel waistcoat!

Sense and Sensibility, chapter 50
See the source image

So it’s my job to tie it all together from this new perspective, supplementing what Jane Austen gave us. I think these themes will come out quite naturally. Colonel Brandon strikes me as a thoughtful, introspective kind of guy, who would be aware enough to notice these repeating elements showing up in his own life. And if he notices, we’ll hear about it, since he’s telling the story in his own words.

Colonel Brandon’s past cannot help but color his view of the future, as it does with all of us to some extent. So can he overcome his tragic history to find happiness at last? Fortunately, we know the answer is yes! Now, I thought you might enjoy this little clip from the chapter I wrote about when Brandon first sets eyes on Marianne. (This is one of many scenes that Jane Austen didn’t write and that I’m happy to fill in!)

Delightful and pretty as can be, Sir John had said. That would be agreeable, of course, but I only hoped they would be pleasant, sensible, well-mannered women with no propensity for silliness or flirtation. There, my age had become my best protection; no doubt it would be the same in this case. At five and thirty, I must have been too old to be of any interest to the girls and too young for the mother. That was as it should be, for I was a confirmed bachelor, long since having passed the point of wanting a wife of my own, and content for my nephew to be my heir.

Then I walked into the room that night, took one look at Marianne Dashwood, and everything changed. A part of me that I had long given up as dead, flared to new life. Miss Marianne was very fair… and very young. In fact, she was exactly of an age and of a remarkable likeness to my Eliza before I lost her. For a long moment, I was struck dumb and stone still; I could do no more than stare. Then I gave myself an inward shake and dragged my eyes away before I could be thought too boorish. Still, I am afraid I was quite stupid when introduced to the ladies, for I could not quickly shake off the startling impression that some measure of the sweet friend of my youth had been miraculously resurrected before my eyes.

Do you think this is how it happened and what Brandon was feeling at that moment? Had you ever thought about these themes in Sense and Sensibility before? Which one most interests you? Did I miss any that you’ve noticed? I wouldn’t be surprised if there are a few more. The themes just keep on coming!

About Shannon Winslow

author of historical fiction in the tradition of Jane Austen
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10 Responses to Sense and Sensibility: the Themes Just Keep on Coming

  1. Gina Dankel says:

    I’m one that doesn’t believe Colonel Brandon has a love at first sight moment with Marianne. I think the similarities between Eliza and Marianne are greater in temperament, spirit, and manners. There are two passages where he brings up their similarities. Both times he references a personality similarity, but only once does he mention he thinks they might share a physical similarity, yet he isn’t sure if “tender recollection” has failed him. I believe his love moment comes from seeing her in love with Willoughby. That’s when he sees the similarities and it rekindles what he felt when he was loved by Eliza. It makes him long for that in a way he hasn’t since. It’s re-awakening of sorts for him. Just my interpretation based on Elinor’s thoughts about when she actually notices his admiration for Marianne and his own words about the similarities between Marianne and Eliza. The love at first sight seems to be a common interpretation though.

    There are so many themes in S&S. Another one off the top of my head is duty to family and its relationship to money.

    Really enjoying reading your excerpts and process.

    • I love your thoughtful comments, Gina. Thank you.

      I don’t interpret it as “love” at first sight, exactly. He’s more in shock. To me, there was enough physical resemblance to Eliza that Brandon noticed it immediately, eliciting an avalanche of memories and the emotional baggage that came with them. Then the longer he observes Marianne, the more the overall resemblance is confirmed. I think it would have taken some time (or perhaps the entrance of Willoughby on the scene, as you’ve suggested) before Brandon actually began to love Marianne for her own sake, rather than as a reasonable facsimile of Eliza. Considering your comments, I thought you might like to read the next bit that follows what I shared above:

      That immediate impression – my seeing in the person of this new acquaintance an uncanny reflection of one long lost to me – persisted throughout the entire evening. It was reinforced by more and various aspects of Marianne’s mind and manners as they revealed themselves to be likewise so reminiscent of that other lady. It was a bittersweet discovery for me, a mingling of pain and pleasure to see it. Here were Eliza’s warmth of heart, her passion, and her eagerness of feeling, reincarnated within this unexpected fresh host. I saw them all reborn in Marianne…

  2. Glynis says:

    I’ve watched both versions of S&S pictured here and of course I’ve read the book a couple of times but I can’t say I know enough to have any thoughts on anyone’s particular feelings.
    It’s obvious that Brandon does love Marianne, to such an extent that he would wish her happiness over his own. He was definitely struck by something when he first saw her, whether that was love or a memory?
    Good luck with this book!

  3. Brenda S Cox says:

    I like your version of Brandon’s thoughts as he met Marianne, as well as the themes you’ve pointed out. Another one that I see–perhaps a variation of sense vs. sensibility–is the tension between self-control and self-absorption (or selfishness), with of course Elinor practicing self-control and MA and Willoughby on the self-absorption side (Willoughby is later identified specifically as selfish). Happy writing!

  4. Deborah says:

    It’s interesting to think of S&S in these themes! I agree Colonel Brandon would see one in terms of his failure to protect, but bless him, he is the ultimate clean up crew. He is there with honor, aid and solace when choices fail.

    I enjoyed the clip! Colonel Brandon certainly embodies sense, but I see the (restrained) sensibility also. It’s my imaginings of him as I read of course, as I do always like to think he abandons the flannel waistcoat eventually with a happy Mrs. Brandon 😉

  5. sheilalmajczan says:

    Thanks for sharing here. Looking forward to reading your next book.

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