Sady Doyle, in a characteristically thoughtful and insightful post about Sense and Sensibility (as part of a series about books by, for and about women, which also encompasses Little Women and Valley of the Dolls) calls it "a comedy about sadness, and how to get through it intact." This strikes me as an accurate but incomplete observation. Doyle is right to point out Austen's deliberate contrasting of the ways in which the Dashwood sisters, pragmatic Elinor and romantic Marianne, deal with their romantic disappointments--Marianne weeps and wails and takes to her bed and in general gives as much trouble as she can to the people who love her; Elinor conceals her pain and tries to medicate it with activity and concern for others--but the comparison between the two sisters' temperaments and outlooks is in place even before these disappointments occur. Long before she gets around to prescribing the correct way of dealing with heartbreak, Austen is prescribing the correct way of being in love. While Elinor reveals only the barest hints of her affection for Edward Ferrars, Marianne cries her love for the roguish Willoughby from the mountaintops, and whereas Elinor has other activities and interests to occupy her in Edward's absence, for Marianne, love is as feverish and all-consuming as grief.
When Marianne, in the novel's moral climax, having survived not only Willoughby's abandonment but a near-fatal illness to which her surrender to grief left her vulnerable, compares her behavior unfavorably with Elinor's, it's easy to conclude that Sense and Sensibility is, as Doyle says, a story about the choice between controlling your emotions and wallowing in them. This is not, however, the only axis on which Marianne's behavior is found wanting. As central to the novel as the question of whether to control emotion is the question of whether to display it. At first glance, it may seem that the two dilemmas can be folded into one, but to do so, we have to ignore the novel's historical context, in which the finding and getting of husbands is not simply a romantic pursuit, but a business, and sometimes a necessity of survival. In this context the question of whether to reveal, conceal, or even feign, emotion is not simply a moral one, but a matter of calculated pursuit.
It is a calculation which very nearly every character in the novel but the Dashwood sisters makes at one point or another, and which the sisters themselves find deeply mortifying. Early in the novel, the girls' mother haughtily exclaims at a neighbor's joking assertion that Marianne has Willoughby in her sights. "I do not believe ... that Mr. Willoughby will be incommoded by the attempts of either of my daughters towards what you call catching him. It is not an employment to which they have been brought up. Men are very safe with us, let them be ever so rich." So that when Marianne rejects Elinor's criticism of the uninhibited display of her affection for Willoughby, she's doing so not simply because of her self-absorbed determination to impose her feelings on her general surroundings, but because she takes Elinor's reproach as an admonition to stick by the Regency version of The Rules--play hard to get, make the guy jump through hoops of gold before you show any affection. Similarly, Elinor's growing closeness to Edward, and later on her friendship with Colonel Brandon, are perceived by both her friends and enemies as an attempts to draw the two men in and land herself a wealthy husband. With romantic and mercenary considerations so intimately linked, it's no wonder that both of the Dashwood sisters find it difficult to know just where the happy medium between too demonstrative and too reserved is.
Against Elinor and Marianne's struggle to behave honorably in the unforgiving arena of husband-hunting, Austen sets the character of Lucy Steele (or, more precisely, she sets Lucy and her sister Nancy, who like the Dashwood sisters make up a duo of one observant, controlled sister, and one demonstrative, unheeding one). To the unsuspecting observer, Lucy preforms the role of the perfect fusion of the two sisters--romantically overcome by Edward's charms like Marianne, and cautiously concealing their attachment and planning for their future like Elinor--and this is only one of the many performances--of helplessness, gratitude, self-sacrifice, generosity, and regard for others--that Lucy puts on in order to secure the affections and support of everyone she meets in her single-minded pursuit of financial security. And the thing is, I love her. She is Austen's most fascinating villain, and may well be one of her most interesting characters.
In my first rereading of Sense and Sensibility as an adult, I was bowled away by Lucy, and by the impression she creates of there being a shadow novel, a sort of proto-Vanity Fair starring Lucy in the Becky Sharpe role, stomping over broken hearts and ruined lives on her way to respectability. Lucy plays the game that Elinor and Marianne are too proud to acknowledge like a pro, taking advantage of vanity and honesty alike in her manipulations of everyone she meets. The scene in which she confides with Elinor about her engagement to Edward is a tiny masterpiece of psychological torture, with Lucy, always simpering with deference and feigned simplicity, hammering in one proof after another of her claim on Edward while subtly sowing doubts in Elinor's heart as to Edward's feelings for her and his character. In so doing, she places Elinor in the position of having to not only impassively listen to accounts of Edward's engagement to another woman, but to assist in that engagement's consummation, for fear of giving away her true feelings and compromising her honor. Though it's probably giving Lucy too much credit to say that she engineers the Ferrarses' making a pet of her as a way of slighting Elinor, whom they believe to be the object of Edward's affection, she certainly doesn't fail to take advantage of the situation, and when her engagement is revealed and Edward is cast off by his family with nothing, she leverages even that debacle to her advantage, and ends up married to his now independently wealthy brother Robert. We never get a glimpse of Lucy's internal monologue, and her external one is deliberately insipid, but given this virtuoso performance it's hard not to suspect that that placid exterior conceals a sharp intellect and keen powers of observation--Elizabeth Bennet on her meanest day, or Mary Crawford at her most designing, except much coarser (though that coarseness probably has something to do with having had to claw her way even to the genteel poverty that Elinor and Marianne take for granted)--and even Elinor, though despising Lucy's methods, acknowledges her skills, calls her "better than half her sex," and envisions Edward's life with her as comfortable and well-managed, albeit loveless.
Alone among Austen's villains and romantic rivals, Lucy triumphs, and not only does she triumph, but so complete is her victory that she can afford to be magnanimous in it, and let small fry Edward go while she enjoys the bigger fish she's landed. The letter in which she releases Edward from their engagement is, once again, a tiny masterpiece, and in its own way may very well be the most honest piece of communication between men and women in any of Austen's novels:
Being sure I have long lost your affections, I have thought myself at liberty to bestow my own on another, and have no doubt of being as happy with him as I once used to think I might be with you; but I scorn to accept a hand while the heart was another's. Sincerely wish you happy in your choice, and it shall not be my fault if we are not always good friendsYou don't love me any more than I love you, Lucy is saying, and we both know it. And since I've found someone better, I feel free to behave dishonorably, secure in the knowledge that such behavior will make both of us very happy. And the fact is, Lucy may very well end up the happiest of any of the novel's characters. Or rather, she ends up with exactly what she set out to have, and is about as happy as a woman whose greatest aspiration is wealth and position could ever hope to be. Elinor and Marianne, meanwhile, are forced into compromises. Elinor marries a man she loves, but their style of living will always be pitiful compared to the expectations they both grew up with. Marianne marries a wealthy man whom she respects and admires, but whom she does not come to love until some time after their marriage (and it's never sat very well with me, the way Austen describes the growth of that love--it's hard not to see it, as the Emma Thompson version paints it, as a flight to safety by someone who has been grievously wounded and finds themselves more in need of a parent than a lover). Willoughby, meanwhile, is miserable in his choice, but not forever--"His wife was not always out of humour, nor his home always uncomfortable! and in his breed of horses and dogs, and in porting of every kind, he found no inconsiderable degree of domestic felicity."
Sense and Sensibility ends, therefore, with a complete rejection of the romantic ethos. There is not a single traditionally romantic couple to be found at the end of the novel, unless one counts Elinor and Edward, who from the get go are described as unusually unaffectionate, and whose courtship and infatuation happen entirely off-page, so that the readers' romantic gratification is denied even by their union. This is clearly deliberate, and sits well with the raw, uncompromising nature of many of the plot elements Austen employs. The Dashwood sisters are the poorest of Austen's heroines, their situation the most desperate, their prospects the grimmest. The specter of premarital sex and illegitimate children, which haunts several other of her novels, is here on full display in the person of Colonel Brandon's lost love and her daughter, who is seduced and ruined by Willoughby. Marianne very nearly dies. There's an undertone of anger at the very notion of a romantic disposition, which seems to prioritize the mercenary aspect of husband-hunting over the romantic one.
Which is why I find it difficult to accept Doyle's reading of the novel as an admonition against being mastered by emotion. It seems to me to go much further, and caution against being guided by it at all. In all of Austen's novels, there's a tension between the romantic text and the decidedly unromantic subtext, but in Sense and Sensibility the two seem to be almost at war. This is probably in keeping with Austen's own character, which was likely much closer to the cynical, money-obsessed spinster from the miniseries Miss Austen Regrets than the starry-eyed romantic she was made out to be in Becoming Jane, but also makes for an uncomfortable read in the early 21st century. Though I certainly wouldn't say that money no longer plays any factor in courtship, or that games of control and manipulation have disappeared in the wake of feminism and the sexual revolution (the very existence of The Rules, and more recently of seduction manuals, gives the lie to that claim), Sense and Sensibility's moral feels more of its own time than any of Austen's other novels. It's hard not to feel that when Marianne says to Elinor that she compares her behavior "with what it ought to have been; I compare it with yours" that what she's saying is that she should have played hard to get and waited for an engagement ring. That's a little more unromantic than I can comfortably stomach.