Episode 8: Race and the Austen Community


Hello friends, welcome to episode 8 of Ents and Sensibility, the podcast for everyone who loves bold, witty women, awkward handsome men, and dragons. Today we’re going to do something a little different, but I hope you enjoy it. Today, I have a special guest. 

I’m talking with Amanda-Rae Prescott, a cosplayer, fellow nerd, and contributor for Den of Geeks where she covers period dramas like Sanditon and Bridgerton, sci-fi and fantasy such as Dr. Who and so much more. 

A few weeks ago, I put out a call on Twitter to discuss racism within Jane Austen’s works and within the fandom. Amanda-Rae was kind enough to reach out to me and we had a long conversation that went on far longer than either of us expected our Zoom call to last. 

So today’s episode does have a discussion of Chapter 8 of Sense and Sensibility, but before that, you’ll hear parts of my conversation with Amanda-Rae. I’ve edited our conversation down for the podcast. But, you can listen to the entire conversation on Ents and Sensibility dot com. 

So, here is my conversation with Amanda-Rae and I’ll be back after to begin our discussion on Chapter 8 of Sense and Sensibility.


Chapter 8: Sense and Sensibility

Now back to the books. When we last left Elinor and Marianne, they were having a terrible night at the Middleton’s party. We got to know Sir John and Lady Middleton better and met Sir John’s best friend, who, as the narrator says “seemed no more adapted by resemblance of manner to be his friend, than Lady Middleton was to be his wife…”

They also met Lady M’s mother, and we’ll begin Chapter 8 with a description of Mrs. Jennings. 

Mrs. Jennings was a widow with an ample jointure. She had only two daughters, both of whom she had lived to see respectably married, and she had now therefore nothing to do but to marry all the rest of the world. In the promotion of this object she was zealously active, as far as her ability reached; and missed no opportunity of projecting weddings among all the young people of her acquaintance. She was remarkably quick in the discovery of attachments, and had enjoyed the advantage of raising the blushes and the vanity of many a young lady by insinuations of her power over such a young man; and this kind of discernment enabled her soon after her arrival at Barton decisively to pronounce that Colonel Brandon was very much in love with Marianne Dashwood. 

Unlike Mrs. Dashwood, who received very little when her husband died Mrs. Jennings has “an ample jointure.” A jointure being an annual payment made to a widow by her husband’s estate. Poor Mrs. D gets a very small jointure from her husband’s estate, which is why all the Dashwoods are in this situation in the first place! 

So Mrs. J is pretty well off, and has plenty of time to visit her married daughter and tease her teenaged guests. 

The Dashwoods and Middletons have had at least two dinners together now, and Mrs. Jennings and Colonel Brandon have been part of both. And during those dinners, Mrs. Jennings noticed something. 

Colonel Brandon was very much in love with Marianne Dashwood.  

She rather suspected it to be so, on the very first evening of their being together, from his listening so attentively while she sang to them; and when the visit was returned by the Middletons’ dining at the cottage, the fact was ascertained by his listening to her again. It must be so. She was perfectly convinced of it. It would be an excellent match, for he was rich, and she was handsome. Mrs. Jennings had been anxious to see Colonel Brandon well married, ever since her connection with Sir John first brought him to her knowledge; and she was always anxious to get a good husband for every pretty girl. 

Alan Rickman as Col. Brandon
Col. Brandon (played here by Alan Rickman) is 35, while Marianne (Kate Winslet) is 17. That’s not OK nowadays, but in 17903 that was just fine.

So in modern times, we are totally skeezed out by this. Colonel Brandon is 35 and he’s checking out a 17 year old. That’s so not OK! Deep breaths everyone. We need to remember that this story takes place in a very different time. In the 1790s it was totally fine for a single adult man to be attracted to a teenage girl. 

Just saying that gives me the ewwwws. But, we all need to get past it, at least for the sake of the story. 

Mrs. Jennings doesn’t think anything of the age difference but she knows it bothers Marianne. So she has plenty of fun at both Marianne and Brandon’s expense. different reactions. 

[I]t supplied her with endless jokes against them both. At the park she laughed at the colonel, and in the cottage at Marianne. 

This doesn’t bother Brandon much. He’s as gloomy and taciturn as every. But Marianne doesn’t like it one bit. 

To the former her raillery was probably, as far as it regarded only himself, perfectly indifferent; but to the latter it was at first incomprehensible; and when its object was understood, she hardly knew whether most to laugh at its absurdity, or censure its impertinence, for she considered it as an unfeeling reflection on the colonel’s advanced years, and on his forlorn condition as an old bachelor.

Brandon has no problems with this. He’s indifferent to Mrs. Jennings’ teasing, at least the narrator believes he is, but Marianne doesn’t know how to take it. Should she tell Mrs. Jennings off for being so impertinent? Should she laugh at the absurdity of an old man in love with her? And why would Mrs. Jennings be so cruel as to tease an old man about feeling things he’s no longer able to? It’s inconceivable!

Marianne doesn’t allow Brandon to feel emotions such as love because she thinks he’s, as we say in Boston, wicked old! She’s really settled into this belief since their first meeting. Remember what the narrator said about her thoughts at the attention he paid her piano playing at the end of Chapter 7. 

His pleasure in music, though it amounted not to that ecstatic delight which alone could sympathize with her own, was estimable when contrasted against the horrible insensibility of the others; and she was reasonable enough to allow that a man of five and thirty might well have outlived all acuteness of feeling and every exquisite power of enjoyment. She was perfectly disposed to make every allowance for the colonel’s advanced state of life which humanity required.

As far as Marianne is concerned, Brandon is an old man who no longer feels acutely. He is insensible to the sensibilities that she worships. Sensibility seems to be a cult of the young, like a flower that withers as the plant ages. Once you cross that fine line from youth to age, life ceases to have the kind of meaning Marianne desires.Life stops being about action and desires and is simply about awaiting death, even if you’re only a 35 year old bachelor. 

I came across an article in The Atlantic while researching this episode and it talked about Marianne’s ideas about youth and age. 

Marianne spends much of the book believing that the lives of the older people around her are frozen in place, their circumstances set sometime in their youth. Because, as several characters intimate, little but death can change a person’s marital circumstances after a wedding, and none of the main characters of the novel are newlyweds, the years after marriage come to seem to Marianne like a sort of afterlife, and spinsterdom or bachelorhood a sort of purgatory. Children may be born, allowing for more vicarious thrills after the marriage vows are spoken, she suggests, but one ceases to mark milestones of one’s own.

So Marianne displays all these ideas about hope, love and life that she believes are absolute, and well, ere’s no room for grey in Marianne’s bright world. It’s as if, to her, marriage is a kind of death of the self, and spinsterhood obviously is a fate worse than that. So, if she must be married someday, she’s going to marry someone who views life as a wonder, someone who feels the same passions that she does, A Man of Feeling. At least as long as either of them are able to feel. 

Now Mrs. D, like me, can’t think that a man 5 years younger than her is an old bachelor. And we both know that life doesn’t end at 35, or 40 for that matter, or when you marry, or when you have children. Aging Millennials like us know it ain’t over yet. 

Mrs. Dashwood, who could not think a man five years younger than herself, so exceedingly ancient as he appeared to the youthful fancy of her daughter, ventured to clear Mrs. Jennings from the probability of wishing to throw ridicule on his age.

But Marianne is still focused on the very idea of his infatuation. 

“But at least, Mama, you cannot deny the absurdity of the accusation, though you may not think it intentionally ill-natured. Colonel Brandon is certainly younger than Mrs. Jennings, but he is old enough to be my father; and if he were ever animated enough to be in love, must have long outlived every sensation of the kind. It is too ridiculous! When is a man to be safe from such wit, if age and infirmity will not protect him?”

“Infirmity!” said Elinor, “do you call Colonel Brandon infirm? I can easily suppose that his age may appear much greater to you than to my mother; but you can hardly deceive yourself as to his having the use of his limbs!”

“Did not you hear him complain of the rheumatism? and is not that the commonest infirmity of declining life?”

“My dearest child,” said her mother, laughing, “at this rate you must be in continual terror of my decay; and it must seem to you a miracle that my life has been extended to the advanced age of forty.”

“Mama, you are not doing me justice. I know very well that Colonel Brandon is not old enough to make his friends yet apprehensive of losing him in the course of nature. He may live twenty years longer. But thirty-five has nothing to do with matrimony.”

OK, so Marianne claims to have a reason that Colonel Brandon is aging, apparently he’s got rheumatism. And complaining of aches and pains of course makes you an old man in the eyes of a 17 year old. Which means I’ve been old since I was 12, but that’s a different story. 

Elinor, now, has to voice her very sensible thoughts.  

“Perhaps,” said Elinor, “thirty-five and seventeen had better not have any thing to do with matrimony together. But if there should by any chance happen to be a woman who is single at seven and twenty, I should not think Colonel Brandon’s being thirty-five any objection to his marrying her.”

So Elinor says that maybe 35 and 17 is too wide an age gap, but a single woman only 10 years older than Marianne very likely wouldn’t turn up her nose at the proposal of a 35 year old man. But Marianne has a response. 

“A woman of seven and twenty,” said Marianne, after pausing a moment, “can never hope to feel or inspire affection again, and if her home be uncomfortable, or her fortune small, I can suppose that she might bring herself to submit to the offices of a nurse, for the sake of the provision and security of a wife. In his marrying such a woman therefore there would be nothing unsuitable. It would be a compact of convenience, and the world would be satisfied. In my eyes it would be no marriage at all, but that would be nothing. To me it would seem only a commercial exchange, in which each wished to be benefited at the expense of the other.”

“It would be impossible, I know,” replied Elinor, “to convince you that a woman of seven and twenty could feel for a man of thirty-five anything near enough to love, to make him a desirable companion to her. But I must object to your dooming Colonel Brandon and his wife to the constant confinement of a sick chamber, merely because he chanced to complain yesterday (a very cold damp day) of a slight rheumatic feel in one of his shoulders.”

“But he talked of flannel waistcoats,” said Marianne; “and with me a flannel waistcoat is invariably connected with aches, cramps, rheumatisms, and every species of ailment that can afflict the old and the feeble.”

“Had he been only in a violent fever, you would not have despised him half so much. Confess, Marianne, is not there something interesting to you in the flushed cheek, hollow eye, and quick pulse of a fever?”

Ouch, Marianne has some really harsh thoughts on marriage to older men. It makes me wonder what her own parents’ marriage was like? We don’t know anything about it, but we assume it was happy. Of course, the past two years her mother was probably nursing first Uncle Dashwood and then Mr. Dashwood, but they were older. Uncle Dashwood was anyways, and Henry, the girls’ father, was significantly older than his wife, since Henry is about 30 years old at the present, that puts Henry at about 50, likely older. So maybe Marianne is thinking about the age difference in her own parents, and how her father got sick when his daughters were only teenagers, and her mother had to nurse him before he died. Perhaps she’s thinking about the difficulties an even younger widow would have in caring for children after her much older husband dies?

Maybe Marianne is using flannel waistcoats, aches and cramps as an excuse to avoid talking about something that would be painful to all of them? Perhaps she isn’t as shallow as this conversation makes her sound. Perhaps she has real and legitimate concerns about marrying a much older man, but she’s too concerned about the feelings of her family to bring them up after mourning her father for the last seven months. 

Elinor teases Marianne’s response, saying if he was complaining of fevers rather than chills and stiffness she’d like him more and be compassionate. This is a gentle dig at Marianne’s adherence to the cult of sensibility, which was fascinated with acute illness, and apparently equated illness with a spiritual quality, while stiff shoulders don’t interest Marianne. 

Well, Elinor leaves the room after this conversation and Marianne changes the subject from her own love life to her sister’s. 

“Mama,” said Marianne, “I have an alarm on the subject of illness which I cannot conceal from you. I am sure Edward Ferrars is not well. We have now been here almost a fortnight, and yet he does not come. Nothing but real indisposition could occasion this extraordinary delay. What else can detain him at Norland?”

“Had you any idea of his coming so soon?” said Mrs. Dashwood. “I had none. On the contrary, if I have felt any anxiety at all on the subject, it has been in recollecting that he sometimes showed a want of pleasure and readiness in accepting my invitation, when I talked of his coming to Barton. Does Elinor expect him already?”

“I have never mentioned it to her, but of course she must.”

“I rather think you are mistaken, for when I was talking to her yesterday of getting a new grate for the spare bedchamber, she observed that there was no immediate hurry for it, as it was not likely that the room would be wanted for some time.”

“How strange this is! what can be the meaning of it! But the whole of their behaviour to each other has been unaccountable! How cold, how composed were their last adieus! How languid their conversation the last evening of their being together! In Edward’s farewell there was no distinction between Elinor and me: it was the good wishes of an affectionate brother to both. Twice did I leave them purposely together in the course of the last morning, and each time did he most unaccountably follow me out of the room. And Elinor, in quitting Norland and Edward, cried not as I did. Even now her self-command is invariable. When is she dejected or melancholy? When does she try to avoid society, or appear restless and dissatisfied in it?”

So Marianne is worried about Edward Ferrars and thinks he must be sick, why else would he not visit them? She can’t conceive of any other reason for him not immediately rushing to Devonshire to visit Elinor! Maybe this is why she’s so focused on Brandon’s health? She’s equating Brandon’s stiffness and complaints with Edward no-showing. If Brandon complains about a cold, damp day, then Edward must be terribly ill to not visit Elinor!

But Mrs. D points out that he didn’t seem that excited about visiting when she invited him (very purposely in front of his sister) and so she doesn’t expect him to visit soon. And she points out that Elinor doesn’t seem to expect him to visit either. 

Marianne is awed by her sister’s self-command. She always behaves properly and doesn’t show anxiety or distress over losing Edward. She’s in control all the time. And Marianne can’t understand how she does it. She cried over a tree! And we’ll see her play out all of the emotions she wishes to see Elinor express in the future. 

That’s the end of today’s chapter. I hope you’ve enjoyed our special episode today. My thanks to Amanda-Rae Prescott for taking time out of her busy schedule to visit with me. And thank you for listening!

Today’s episode was written by me, Casey Meserve and produced by Jeremy Meserve

If you liked the show, you can leave a review on Apple Podcasts. It really helps me out. You can join the conversation on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, or write to me at ents and sensibility @ gmail dot com. 

Thanks again. I hope you’ll visit again soon. 



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