Episode 13: You've Got Mail Colonel Brandon!

Interview with the production crew of Rational Creatures! Chapter 13 of Sense and Sensibility begins with reading mail over breakfast. 

Rational Creatures Season 2 preview

rational creatures season 2 movie night
The cast of Rational Creatures enjoys movie night. Courtesy Rational Creatures

Hi everyone, welcome to Ents and Sensibility, the podcast for everyone who loves Jane Austen. Today I have something special for you. I was lucky enough to interview the production team of Rational Creatures, the web series based on Jane’s final completed novel, Persuasion. Rational Creatures season 1 came out in 2019 on YouTube as a series about charting your own course, conquering your fears and falling (back) in love.

I am so excited about Season 2 of Rational Creatures. Season 1 was sweet and imaginative while sticking to the underlying story.

Now let’s get to today’s chapter, Chapter 13 of Sense and Sensibility. 

The Way to Whitwell is Paved with Nosey Grandmas

English country house
Probably not Whitwell, but we never saw it!

When last we left the Dashwoods, they were preparing to go on an excursion the next morning to a fine park not far away called Whitwell with the Middletons, half the neighborhood, and of course Willoughby and Colonel Brandon. Ol’ stick-in-the-mud Elinor isn’t looking forward to it. 

Their intended excursion to Whitwell turned out very different from what Elinor had expected. She was prepared to be wet through, fatigued, and frightened; but the event was still more unfortunate, for they did not go at all.

By ten o’clock the whole party was assembled at the park, where they were to breakfast. The morning was rather favourable, though it had rained all night, as the clouds were then dispersing across the sky, and the sun frequently appeared. They were all in high spirits and good humour, eager to be happy, and determined to submit to the greatest inconveniences and hardships rather than be otherwise.

While they were at breakfast the letters were brought in. Among the rest there was one for Colonel Brandon:—he took it, looked at the direction, changed colour, and immediately left the room.

“What is the matter with Brandon?” said Sir John.

Nobody could tell.

“I hope he has had no bad news,” said Lady Middleton. “It must be something extraordinary that could make Colonel Brandon leave my breakfast table so suddenly.”

In about five minutes he returned.

“No bad news, Colonel, I hope;” said Mrs. Jennings, as soon as he entered the room.

“None at all, ma’am, I thank you.”

“Was it from Avignon? I hope it is not to say that your sister is worse.”

“No, ma’am. It came from town, and is merely a letter of business.”

“But how came the hand to discompose you so much, if it was only a letter of business? Come, come, this won’t do, Colonel; so let us hear the truth of it.”

“My dear madam,” said Lady Middleton, “recollect what you are saying.”

“Perhaps it is to tell you that your cousin Fanny is married?” said Mrs. Jennings, without attending to her daughter’s reproof.

“No, indeed, it is not.”

“Well, then, I know who it is from, Colonel. And I hope she is well.”

“Whom do you mean, ma’am?” said he, colouring a little.

“Oh! you know who I mean.”

“I am particularly sorry, ma’am,” said he, addressing Lady Middleton, “that I should receive this letter today, for it is on business which requires my immediate attendance in town.”

“In town!” cried Mrs. Jennings. “What can you have to do in town at this time of year?”

“My own loss is great,” he continued, “in being obliged to leave so agreeable a party; but I am the more concerned, as I fear my presence is necessary to gain your admittance at Whitwell.”

What a blow upon them all was this!

OK let’s stop there for a moment. Elinor is expecting it to be rainy and miserable, but the morning looks to be a nice one. Sir John and Lady Middleton have the whole neighborhood for breakfast and everyone is at the park and excited to be going somewhere new. 

One of the servants comes in with the Middletons’ letters (and probably the Dashwoods, too), and there’s a letter for Colonel Brandon. 

Brandon takes one look at this letter and changes color and bolts from the room–we assume to read it. Lady Middleton is only concerned because he rudely left her breakfast table. 

After five minutes, Brandon comes back to the Spanish Inquisition. 

via GIPHY

And Mrs. Jennings leads the questioning. 

Is it bad news? Is it your sister in Avignon? 

(That’s a city in southern France, where many British people had settled in the mid 18th c. It was also common for Brits to take long holidays in France or Italy if they were ill to get the benefit of warmer weather. Shaparrd says that this is an unusual place for Brits to live at the time the book was published because of the rising tensions between France and England, but when Jane first wrote Elinor and Marianne in 1795 things were different.)

But it wasn’t about Brandon’s sister. 

He admits that the letter came from London aka “town,” and he says it’s just business. That information is fuel for more questions. And Lady M has to scold her mother’s noseyness. Why does a business letter cause you to panic? Is your cousin Fanny finally married? (Nope, it’s not Fanny.)

Then Mrs. Jennings seems to figure it out. She’s whittled down the possibilities and very cryptically for her she says “I know who it’s from.” And that sends poor Brandon to desperately change the subject. He apologizes to Lady M but he has to leave immediately and head to London. Everyone is shocked and disappointed because without Brandon they can’t get in to visit Whitwell! This starts even more questions. 

“But if you write a note to the housekeeper, Mr. Brandon,” said Marianne, eagerly, “will it not be sufficient?”

He shook his head.

“We must go,” said Sir John. “It shall not be put off when we are so near it. You cannot go to town till tomorrow, Brandon, that is all.”

“I wish it could be so easily settled. But it is not in my power to delay my journey for one day!”

“If you would but let us know what your business is,” said Mrs. Jennings, “we might see whether it could be put off or not.”

“You would not be six hours later,” said Willoughby, “if you were to defer your journey till our return.”

“I cannot afford to lose one hour.”

Elinor then heard Willoughby say, in a low voice to Marianne, “There are some people who cannot bear a party of pleasure. Brandon is one of them. He was afraid of catching cold I dare say, and invented this trick for getting out of it. I would lay fifty guineas the letter was of his own writing.”

“I have no doubt of it,” replied Marianne.

“There is no persuading you to change your mind, Brandon, I know of old,” said Sir John, “when once you are determined on anything. But, however, I hope you will think better of it. Consider, here are the two Miss Careys come over from Newton, the three Miss Dashwoods walked up from the cottage, and Mr. Willoughby got up two hours before his usual time, on purpose to go to Whitwell.”

Colonel Brandon again repeated his sorrow at being the cause of disappointing the party; but at the same time declared it to be unavoidable.

“Well, then, when will you come back again?”

“I hope we shall see you at Barton,” added her ladyship, “as soon as you can conveniently leave town; and we must put off the party to Whitwell till you return.”

“You are very obliging. But it is so uncertain, when I may have it in my power to return, that I dare not engage for it at all.”

“Oh! he must and shall come back,” cried Sir John. “If he is not here by the end of the week, I shall go after him.”

“Ay, so do, Sir John,” cried Mrs. Jennings, “and then perhaps you may find out what his business is.”

“I do not want to pry into other men’s concerns. I suppose it is something he is ashamed of.”

Colonel Brandon’s horses were announced.

“You do not go to town on horseback, do you?” added Sir John.

“No. Only to Honiton. I shall then go post.”

“Well, as you are resolved to go, I wish you a good journey. But you had better change your mind.”

“I assure you it is not in my power.”

He then took leave of the whole party.

“Is there no chance of my seeing you and your sisters in town this winter, Miss Dashwood?”

“I am afraid, none at all.”

“Then I must bid you farewell for a longer time than I should wish to do.”

To Marianne, he merely bowed and said nothing.

“Come Colonel,” said Mrs. Jennings, “before you go, do let us know what you are going about.”

He wished her a good morning, and, attended by Sir John, left the room.

OK, let’s stop because there is a ton to talk about in this scene. This scene is so interesting to me because we get to see how an emergency–and that’s what this is for Brandon–affects all the important characters here. 

Sir John tries to talk his friend into waiting a day to leave, but Brandon again says no. Sir John is concerned for his friend, but only begs him to stay for the sake of the party. Remember, Sir John’s entire life is one big party. He even tries to guilt his friend into staying. All the young people in the neighborhood are here for the trip, it would be a shame to disappoint them. But even guilt doesn’t work on Brandon. But Sir John also won’t pry into his friend’s business, at least in front of this group. He might do it while walking Brandon to his horse. 

Brandon is secretive and won’t answer more than the most basic questions. He denies it’s important but it’s important enough that he has to leave immediately. But at the same time he’s exceedingly polite about it. He apologizes to Lady M, who made the comment when he got up. But his motives remain mysterious. 

We already know Mrs. Jennings, Sir John’s mother in law, is interested in matchmaking and loves to tease Marianne and Elinor about their possible beaux, but now we see how weedling she is. She flat out demands Brandon let her in on his secret and then hints that she knows what it’s about. She embarrasses him and forces her daughter to scold her. 

Lady Middleton is only interested in how everyone acts at her breakfast table. She’s more concerned about Brandon leaving the table so abruptly than the reason for it, she scolds her mother for being rude using very formal language “Madam” to remind Mrs. J to behave herself. Then she very politely and rather coldly invites him back to Barton when his business is concluded. 

Then there’s Willoughby. Willoughby suggests that he could delay his trip until after their trip to Whitwell, but when Brandon adamantly says he can’t even delay an hour, Willoughby gets snarky and he whispers it loud enough for Elinor to hear it. He claims Brandon is intentionally ruining the trip because this old man of 35 is afraid of catching a cold. He says he’d bet 50 guineas that Brandon wrote the letter himself! So not only is he snarky, but this could show he’s a gambler. 50 guineas, a guinea is a pound and a shilling. So 50 guineas is 50 pounds plus 50 shillings. And there were 20 shillings in a pound, so it’s actually 52 pounds and 10 shillings. That’s more than most servants, even the high ranking ones, make in a year! So if Willoughby is claiming he’s willing to bet on something as silly as Brandon writing his own letter, then maybe he’s got a gambling problem. 

And of course Marianne agrees with Willoughby as always, but before that, this is the first time Marianne speaks directly to Brandon and she calls him Mister Brandon! I haven’t done a search, but I think this might be the only time in the text Marianne and Brandon actually speak to each other and Marianne gets his name wrong. This is so funny. 

Marianne is asking Brandon for a letter to give the housekeeper, who in general is the top servant in the house. But this won’t be enough for this house, because as we learned in the last chapter, Brandon’s brother-in-law does not like strangers poking around his house when he’s not there, I think he’s the brother-in-law in France. And definitely when Brandon isn’t with the troupe of tourists. 

This isn’t the only house that Austen’s heroines want to tour, if you’ve read Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth and her aunt and uncle have been given a tour of Pemberley by the housekeeper when Darcy comes home and runs into them, months after Lizzy refuses his marriage proposal and he writes her a letter detailing Wickam’s dastardly deeds. This is a turning point in their relationship, as Lizzy has gotten to see the house she might have been mistress of, and has heard the housekeeper and others say really nice things about Darcy. 

2005 pride and prejudice pemberley meeting
An awkward meeting at Pemberley

This was a thing middle class people did. They might not get an invite to the houses, but getting a tour of them was popular.  

Finally there’s Elinor. The only things she does are listen to Marianne and Willoughby and politely answer Brandon’s only question. Will she and her sisters be in London this winter? Elinor says no, he bids her a very polite goodbye and bows to Marianne.

I love this scene so much, there’s so much character written in a short space. 

One more sidebar and then we’ll get back to the text. Brandon said he’s riding his horse to Honiton and then going post to London. Remember, Barton Park is in Devonshire, which is located in the southwest peninsula of England, just south of Wales. London is in southeast England, north of Kent and Surrey. Even today, that’s a long drive by car, but on horseback and in a post-chaise, which was the fastest way to get anywhere in the 1790s, that’s a long drive.

A post-chaise was a four-wheeled enclosed carriage pulled by four horses. The driver was called the postillion and didn’t sit on the carriage, but rode one of the horses. The post-chaise stopped at designated posts every few hours, where the horses and postillions were changed and the passengers could get out, get something to eat and stretch. According to Wikipedia, they could average 8 to 10 miles per hour (13 to 16 km/h) around the clock.

post chaise passing gig
A post chaise passing a damaged gig, the gig has slipped into the verge and been thrown over.

These were very fast and there were lots of accidents when the post went too fast, in fact there were accidents on the street in front of Jane Austen’s house at Chawton. 

exeter to london google map
The drive from Exeter to London is still a long one today, but neither as long, nor as bumpy, as the one Col. Brandon would have taken.

So Brandon is desperate to get to London in a hurry. He and his servant will ride to Honiton, a market-town in eastern Devonshire. From there he’ll take the post to London. So I Googled this route, and while I’m guessing that the route through Honiton is somewhat similar today as it was when Brandon would have taken it. According to Google Maps London is 173 miles or 279 kilometers by modern highways from Exeter, remember the park is four miles north of Exeter. By driving it would take about 4 hours, 3 hours and 48 minutes, a train would take between 2 and 3 hours, depending on which route you took.

train map exeter to london google
Wishing the trains in the US were as extensive as GB.

Now this is doing some serious estimating based on modern roads. But taking a carriage 173 miles at 10 miles per hour would take Brandon 17 hours to get to London, but with the horses needing to be changed every three or four hours, that would probably stretch to at least 24 hours. So if Brandon leaves at 10 a.m. he’ll get to London the next day around midday or later. 

Anyways, that’s a long ride on horseback and by post. It’s a long ride now! Especially if you have kids. So Brandon has to leave immediately if he wants to catch the next post-chaise to London. 

I hope that long sidebar was helpful. Are we ready to continue?

The complaints and lamentations which politeness had hitherto restrained, now burst forth universally; and they all agreed again and again how provoking it was to be so disappointed.

“I can guess what his business is, however,” said Mrs. Jennings exultingly.

“Can you, ma’am?” said almost every body.

“Yes; it is about Miss Williams, I am sure.”

“And who is Miss Williams?” asked Marianne.

“What! do not you know who Miss Williams is? I am sure you must have heard of her before. She is a relation of the Colonel’s, my dear; a very near relation. We will not say how near, for fear of shocking the young ladies.” Then, lowering her voice a little, she said to Elinor, “She is his natural daughter.”

“Indeed!”

“Oh, yes; and as like him as she can stare. I dare say the Colonel will leave her all his fortune.”

Mrs. J doesn’t want to shock young ladies, but immediately shares the news with a young lady. So ridiculous. Austen’s comic timing is great here. Of course, Elinor is so mature for her age that Mrs. J might forget that Elinor is 18. 

But let’s focus on what Mrs. Jennings actually said. 

She says that Brandon is actually going to deal with Miss Williams, his “natural daughter.” Natural child refers to children born out of wedlock. Brandon was never married to this girl’s mother, but he pays for her care and probably education. We can infer from Mrs. J’s words that Miss Williams is living in London and Colonel Brandon is going to deal with an emergency involving her. 

But that’s all Mrs. Jennings knows or will share anyways, and knowing how much she loves gossiping, she would probably share more information if she had it. 

 But Mrs. J has apparently met the girl, either here at the park or in London, because she says the girl looks just like him. 

So they’re all sitting around the breakfast table complaining about not going, but they’ve got to do something right? Sir John comes back in after seeing Brandon off, and he’s insistent that they have fun. 

after some consultation it was agreed, that although happiness could only be enjoyed at Whitwell, they might procure a tolerable composure of mind by driving about the country. The carriages were then ordered; Willoughby’s was first, and Marianne never looked happier than when she got into it. He drove through the park very fast, and they were soon out of sight; and nothing more of them was seen till their return, which did not happen till after the return of all the rest. They both seemed delighted with their drive; but said only in general terms that they had kept in the lanes, while the others went on the downs.

So everyone decides to take carriage rides through the country and while everyone else drives out onto the downs, Willoughby takes Marianne onto his carriage, probably something very fast, expensive–a 1790s version of a souped up hot rod, into the lanes, that is below the downs.

This was a curricle, a light, two-wheeled carriage drawn by two matching horses. This was the sports car of the Regency period. It was flashy, fast, and dangerous. They were also relatively inexpensive. Going for about 100 pounds. Not a Ferrari, but definitely a Camaro

curricle carraige
A young man driving a curricle obviously showing off for his lady.

Isn’t it funny that everyone was so excited about going on an adventure, but all we get about it is a single paragraph of description of what happened before and after, and for the full group, we get a clause tacked onto the end of the last sentence of the paragraph. 

But the party is just getting started. Everyone stays for dinner and more people come over. Sir John is very content to have nearly 20 people for dinner and then they’ll have a dance. We pick up again when everyone is just sitting down to dinner. 

Willoughby took his usual place between the two elder Miss Dashwoods. Mrs. Jennings sat on Elinor’s right hand; and they had not been long seated, before she leant behind her and Willoughby, and said to Marianne, loud enough for them both to hear, “I have found you out in spite of all your tricks. I know where you spent the morning.”

mrs jennings talks to marianne sense and sensibility
Mrs. Jennings leans back to tell Marianne she knows her and Willoughby’s secret.

Marianne coloured, and replied very hastily, “Where, pray?”

“Did not you know,” said Willoughby, “that we had been out in my curricle?”

“Yes, yes, Mr. Impudence, I know that very well, and I was determined to find out where you had been to. I hope you like your house, Miss Marianne. It is a very large one, I know; and when I come to see you, I hope you will have new-furnished it, for it wanted it very much when I was there six years ago.”

Marianne turned away in great confusion. Mrs. Jennings laughed heartily; and Elinor found that in her resolution to know where they had been, she had actually made her own woman enquire of Mr. Willoughby’s groom; and that she had by that method been informed that they had gone to Allenham, and spent a considerable time there in walking about the garden and going all over the house.

Elinor could hardly believe this to be true, as it seemed very unlikely that Willoughby should propose, or Marianne consent, to enter the house while Mrs. Smith was in it, with whom Marianne had not the smallest acquaintance.

Detective Jennings is on the case. She had her maid ask Willoughby’s groom. Not very proper, but servants definitely gossiped and I’m sure this isn’t the first time Mrs. Jennings has had her maid ask someone’s servants for information. 

But where were they? They went to Mrs. Smith’s house Allenham while she was gone and Willoughby showed Marianne the grounds and the rooms.   

Mrs. Jennings, rather rudely and loudly, is saying she approves of the pair of them sneaking into Allenham and looks forward to being invited there once Marianne and Willoughby are married. 

Marianne at least has the presence to blush while Willoughby tries to misdirect and answer the question himself, by saying they went off in his curricle. But we know Mrs. J–you can’t get her off a trail once she has the scent. 

The narrator says Marianne is confused, but why? I think we might get an answer to that question in the next reading. 

So remember Elinor can’t believe that Marianne would do something so exactly like Marianne, and she confronts her sister.

As soon as they left the dining-room, Elinor enquired of her about it; and great was her surprise when she found that every circumstance related by Mrs. Jennings was perfectly true. Marianne was quite angry with her for doubting it.

“Why should you imagine, Elinor, that we did not go there, or that we did not see the house? Is not it what you have often wished to do yourself?”

“Yes, Marianne, but I would not go while Mrs. Smith was there, and with no other companion than Mr. Willoughby.”

“Mr. Willoughby however is the only person who can have a right to show that house; and as he went in an open carriage, it was impossible to have any other companion. I never spent a pleasanter morning in my life.”

“I am afraid,” replied Elinor, “that the pleasantness of an employment does not always evince its propriety.”

“On the contrary, nothing can be a stronger proof of it, Elinor; for if there had been any real impropriety in what I did, I should have been sensible of it at the time, for we always know when we are acting wrong, and with such a conviction I could have had no pleasure.”

“But, my dear Marianne, as it has already exposed you to some very impertinent remarks, do you not now begin to doubt the discretion of your own conduct?”

“If the impertinent remarks of Mrs. Jennings are to be the proof of impropriety in conduct, we are all offending every moment of our lives. I value not her censure any more than I should do her commendation. I am not sensible of having done anything wrong in walking over Mrs. Smith’s grounds, or in seeing her house. They will one day be Mr. Willoughby’s, and—”

“If they were one day to be your own, Marianne, you would not be justified in what you have done.”

She blushed at this hint; but it was even visibly gratifying to her; and after a ten minutes’ interval of earnest thought, she came to her sister again, and said with great good humour, “Perhaps, Elinor, it was rather ill-judged in me to go to Allenham; but Mr. Willoughby wanted particularly to show me the place; and it is a charming house, I assure you. There is one remarkably pretty sitting room up stairs; of a nice comfortable size for constant use, and with modern furniture it would be delightful. It is a corner room, and has windows on two sides. On one side you look across the bowling-green, behind the house, to a beautiful hanging wood, and on the other you have a view of the church and village, and, beyond them, of those fine bold hills that we have so often admired. I did not see it to advantage, for nothing could be more forlorn than the furniture; but if it were newly fitted up—a couple of hundred pounds, Willoughby says, would make it one of the pleasantest summer-rooms in England.”

Could Elinor have listened to her without interruption from the others, she would have described every room in the house with equal delight.

Elinor is shocked that Marianne would willingly enter Mrs. Smith’s home while she’s at home when they haven’t been introduced. Like I said before, touring a country home was a thing middle class English folk did, but not while the owners were home! That’s rude!

It’s also inappropriate for her to go solely with Willoughby. At this time it would have been highly inappropriate for a single young woman to go anywhere alone with a man who wasn’t her relative. Going off in a carriage alone with him was kind of frowned upon, too. If you’ve read Northanger Abbey you’ll remember how uncomfortable Catherine was when John Thorpe takes her off on his carriage alone in Chapter 13. Of course Catherine has a totally different reaction than Marianne because Catherine believes it’s not respectable, she dislikes Thorpe, and she’s angry that he lied to her about her friends the Tilneys to get her into the carriage. 

But Marianne doesn’t believe she did anything wrong. Elinor says that just because something feels good doesn’t mean it is good, but Marianne argues that the exact opposite is true. I’m quoting David Shapard from the Annotated Sense and Sensibility here because he puts it really well. 

Marianne proclaims a succinct version of the Moral Sense, the idea that human beings possess a natural or instinctive sense of goodness that can serve as the foundation of morality. This idea played an important role in 18th century philosophy, espoused in varying forms by many leading thinkers, and was adopted by Romantic writers and proponents of sensibility. 

Marianne believes if it feels good then it must be good, which is a pretty messed up way to think about things when many things that feel good are not good. Austen, I think, is going to criticize the idea using Marianne later in the book, but we’re not anywhere near that point yet. 

But does she really feel this way? She turns away from Mrs. J in “great confusion.” She blushes when Elinor chastises her. I think she’s surprised that others have a problem with her actions, and so she spends 10 minutes thinking about what she’s done. But she comes back and says it was Willoughby’s fault. He wanted to show her around and she definitely wanted to see it. 

There’s one question remaining, did Marianne and Willoughby have sex?

That’s really why going off with an unrelated man is frowned upon and why Elinor says people will talk and Mrs. Jennings is already talking. It all will settle on Marianne’s reputation, and a girl whom people talk about will have problems on the marriage market. All of these rules are about trying to ensure the appearance of a girl’s purity and virginity. 

So, did they do it? I think this is an unknown that we’ll come back to throughout the story. 

Well, I had a lot of fun with this episode. Talking with the team from Rational Creatures and doing the research here was a lot of fun–yeah that might sound weird, but that’s how I roll. 

Next episode we’ll learn more about Colonel Brandon’s family and Willoughby’s intentions toward Marianne. 

Thank you for listening to Ents and Sensibility. This episode was written and edited by me, Casey Meserve.

You can listen to all the episodes of Ents and Sensibility on Apple Podcasts, Google, Spotify, Stitcher, Amazon Music, or wherever you get your podcasts. If you like the show, please like, share and subscribe and leave a review. Those reviews really help other people find the podcast. 

Thank you and I hope you’ll visit again soon. 

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