In early September, Mrs. Dashwood, Elinor, Marianne, and Margaret journey to Barton Cottage, their new home. They are welcomed by Sir John Middleton, who is their landlord and Mrs. Dashwood's cousin. Sir John is a friendly, generous man of about forty, but his wife, Lady Middleton, is more cold and reserved. The Middletons live with four children at Barton Park, just half a mile away from the Dashwoods' new cottage.
Sir John and Lady Middleton invite the Dashwoods to their home for dinner. Two additional guests arrive at the party: Mrs. Jennings, Lady Middleton's mother and a merry busybody with rather vulgar tastes; and Colonel Brandon, Sir John's friend and a kind, quiet bachelor in his late thirties. After dinner, Marianne entertains the guests by playing on the pianoforte, and Colonel Brandon seems particularly taken by her performance.
A few days later, Mrs. Jennings announces to the Dashwoods that she believes Colonel Brandon is quite in love with Marianne. Marianne tells her mother that the Colonel is far too old and infirm to fall in love, but Elinor immediately rushes to his defense. Elinor, however, argues that his complaint of slight rheumatism should render him ineligible for marriage. When Elinor leaves the room, Marianne remarks to her mother how strange it is that Edward has not yet come to visit them at Barton and that his farewell to Elinor was so calm and cordial.
One morning, Marianne and Margaret set off to explore the hills near Barton, leaving their mother and elder sister reading and writing in the cottage. Suddenly, it begins pouring rain, and the girls have no choice but to run down the steep hill that leads back to the cottage. While running, Marianne falls and twists her ankle. Fortunately, a dashing gentleman comes along and carries Marianne home. When they reach Barton Cottage, he tells all the women that his name is Willoughby and that he hails from Allenham, about a mile and a half away. Willoughby promises to call on them the next day.
Later, in answer to Marianne's persistent questions, Sir John informs the Dashwoods that Willoughby is an amiable gentleman and an excellent shot who is likely to inherit the fortune of an elderly female relative, whom he lives with at Allenham Court. The next day, when Willoughby visits, Marianne discovers that they share a love for music and dancing as well as all the same favorite authors. When Willoughby leaves, Elinor teases her sister that she and Willoughby have discussed every matter of consequence at their first meeting and will have little to say to each other the next time they meet. Nonetheless, Willoughby continues to visit Marianne every day.
Mrs. Dashwood admires Willoughby, but Elinor fears that he sometimes displays little caution or good judgment. Elinor also becomes increasingly aware of Colonel Brandon's affections for Marianne. She is distressed when Willoughby remarks to the sisters that Colonel Brandon strikes him as rather boring and unremarkable, in spite of his good sense and irreproachable character.
Clearly evident in these chapters are Austen's satiric voice and her keen understanding of human nature, particularly when she comments on the role of Lady Middleton's son as a conversation piece between the Dashwoods and the Middletons. She writes that:
Conversation... [was not lacking], for Sir John was very chatty, and Lady Middleton had taken the wise precaution of bringing with her their eldest child, a fine little boy about six years old; by which means there was one subject always to be recurred to by the ladies in case of extremity, for they had to enquire his name and age, admire his beauty, and ask him questions which his mother answered for him... On every formal visit a child ought to be of the party, by way of provision for discourse. In the present case it took up ten minutes to determine whether the boy were most like his father or mother, and in what particular he resembled either, for of course every body differed, and every body was astonished at the opinion of the others.
Here, Austen's use of the overarching, gnomic statements establishes a piercing irony. She writes that on every formal visit a child ought to be of the party, but knows, of course, that no one really cares which parent a child more closely resembles; Austen mocks all the ludicrous and rather irrelevant conversations devoted to this question.
Austen explains that Sir John tried to invite other guests to his home to greet the Dashwoods, but it was moonlight so everyone was already engaged. (Since moonlight made it easier to travel at night, social events were frequently scheduled on days around a full moon.) During this busy social period, Sir John was unable to invite any guests beyond his mother-in-law and his good friend Brandon; this is another subtle way of telling the reader that this family is not the most interesting or agreeable company.
Austen's opinion of her characters nearly always coincides with that of her heroine, Elinor Dashwood. Like the omniscient Austen, Elinor can appreciate the nobility of Colonel Brandon's gravity and reserve. Unlike Marianne, appearances do not dazzle the oldest sister: even though Willoughby at first seems like a considerate and kind gentleman, she immediately detects and becomes suspicious of his impulsivity and lack of prudence. In these chapters, as well as throughout the book, one can ascertain Austen's opinions of her characters by examining those of Elinor Dashwood.
As Elinor comes to appreciate Colonel Brandon as a man of good sense, Willoughby is increasingly characterized by excessive sensibility. Brandon, like herself, is well-read and wise, whereas Willoughby is overly romantic and headstrong like Marianne. Ironically, both of these men are attracted to Marianne, though Willoughby has much more in common with her. Marianne's own preference for Willoughby, and its disastrous consequences, reveal the danger of excessive sensibility and the importance of looking beyond appearances when judging human character.
I fail to understand Colonel Brandon's attraction for Marianne - to all intents and purposes Elinor would seem, to me, a much more suitable partner. So Marianne's ultimate marriage to Brandon at the end of the novel leaves the only jarring note of what is, otherwise, a most enjoyable book. One last thing, I can't fathom why a younger daughter, Margaret, is introduced at all and would love to hear others' takes on my opinions.
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