In early April, Elinor and Marianne leave London with Mrs. Jennings and Mr. and Mrs. Palmer to spend some time at the Palmers' house at Cleveland before returning home to Barton. Elinor is glad to be on her way home, but Marianne finds it painful to leave the place where her confidence in Willoughby was shattered.
When they arrive at Cleveland, Marianne, still melancholy, takes several, long walks in the evenings and catches a violent cold. Elinor and Mrs. Jennings try to nurse Marianne back to health, but her condition continues to deteriorate. Marianne becomes feverish and delirious and calls out for her mother in the middle of the night. Colonel Brandon volunteers to travel to Barton and bring Mrs. Dashwood back with him in his carriage.
After several anxious days, Mr. Harris, the Palmers' apothecary, at last announces that Marianne will be all right. Later that evening, just before the expected arrival time of Mrs. Dashwood and Colonel Brandon, Elinor hears a carriage approaching. She is astonished to see that the man emerging from the carriage is none other than John Willoughby! Willoughby states that he wishes to offer Elinor an explanation and apology for his behavior toward Marianne. He tells her that although he always knew that he could never afford to marry Marianne, he did not really appreciate what love was when he first became attached to her. He confesses to marrying Miss Grey for her money; thus, he does not love his wife and will forever hold Marianne in the highest regard. Willoughby asks Elinor to communicate his confession to Marianne and request her forgiveness. Elinor pities Willoughby after hearing his story and agrees to share his confession with Marianne once her health is restored.
Mrs. Dashwood and Colonel Brandon arrive at Cleveland and are relieved to learn of Marianne's improved state. Mrs. Dashwood tells Elinor that on the long carriage ride from Barton to Cleveland, Colonel Brandon confessed his love for Marianne. She assures Elinor that she will do everything in her power to encourage this match.
Marianne's illness is a product both of excessive romantic sensibility and of a sequence of physically plausible reactions. On the one hand, her illness begins as a "nervous illness" induced by Willoughby's rejection and her disappointed romantic hopes and dreams. On the other hand, she catches a cold after wandering about the wet grounds of Cleveland. Austen's detailed description of Marianne's physical deterioration prevents readers from dismissing her ailment as a mere case of Victorian female hysteria: she charts the course of Marianne's illness, from a day spent shivering by the fire, to a restless and feverish night, to her feeling that she is "materially better" about a week later. Then, a few hours afterward her fever returns, accompanied by delirium. Although the scene in which Marianne cries out for her mother seems Gothic in its melodrama, delirious outcries were a common symptom of fever in Austen's day according to the most commonly consulted medical handbooks. Thus, Marianne's illness is an affliction of both the soul and the physical body.
While Marianne lies sick in bed, Elinor must deal not only with her sister's illness but also with the individual who was in part responsible for her condition, John Willoughby. While they were in London, Elinor concluded that Willoughby was "deep in hardened villainy." However, in these chapters, she comes to pity and sympathize with him. Softened by his honesty and passion, Elinor comes to understand, along with the reader, what had seemed a purely cruel change of heart in London. Although Willoughby's behavior is still inexcusable, his confession at least supplies the motivation for his actions. Perhaps Elinor finds it easier to forgive him because she knows that ultimately he has suffered--and will continue to suffer--for his misconduct: he has entered into a loveless marriage with a woman who will never be able to make him happy. Elinor may also have an easier time forgiving Willoughby because she now knows that his love for Marianne was genuine, in spite of his inappropriate behavior. Thus, even the rational and restrained Elinor is moved to forgive Willoughby after hearing his passionate confession.
By reintroducing Willoughby at the end of her novel, Austen grants him more depth than an ordinary villain enjoys. Since he is able to speak for himself, Willoughby emerges as a more complicated and nuanced character than George Wickham, who simply carries off Lydia Bennett in Pride and Prejudice and never redeems himself again. Moreover, the reintroduction of Willoughby provides a long-awaited explanation of his mercurial behavior and a confirmation of Marianne's conviction that he loved her very much. Thus, Austen ties up her loose ends before entering her novel's finale.