Sense and Sensibility Chapters 19-21

Chapter 19

So much to unpack in these three chapters.

Much is made of Edward’s lack of purpose, lack of a goal. Having money can be such a pain. He is privileged, but in order to get to have the money, he must do what his mother wants. As long as she is alive, he needs her approval. He isn’t completely lacking in goals. We find out that he did want to go into the Church, but mom said no. She is willing to let him join the Army or be a lawyer (genteel enough professions) but he didn’t want them. So he does nothing.

I have some pity for him, but not that much. And I do wonder at Elinor’s interest in him. Does anyone else find themselves troubled by Edward’s lack of oomph?

I would also suggest that Elinor’s thoughts on Edward, and her placing nearly the entire blame for Edward’s lack of compass on the mother is quite interesting. There are a lot of bad mothers in Austen’s works. To be fair, good fathers are sorely lacking as well.

My notes say that in late 18th century, there was growing discussion about duty to the parent vs. individual will. This is an issue Austen is quite interested in, though I would argue in her case she is interested not only in what do we owe the parent, which becomes more interesting if the parent is abusive or problematic in some way, but also, what do we owe society in the sense of manners and conduct? How important is the approbation of our neighbors? For those thinking I’m jumping around too much, in terms of the civil conduct, sometimes behaving civilly to people might be difficult. What if they are rude? Insolent? Bad people? Shouldn’t we follow our inclinations and be rude in response? Thus the conundrum of responsibility to civility/society vs. our individual will.

And what do you make of the Palmers? I find them very funny, but when I began to type up my thoughts, I also realized, (after reading all three chapters) that I find them frustrating and sad as well.  I do think these three chapters are wittier then anything else I’ve seen, but I am detecting some bitter in the laugh.

They [the Dashwoods] attempted, therefore, likewise, to excuse themselves; the weather was uncertain, and not likely to be good. But Sir John would not be satisfied—the carriage should be sent for them and they must come. Lady Middleton too, though she did not press their mother, pressed them. Mrs. Jennings and Mrs. Palmer joined their entreaties, all seemed equally anxious to avoid a family party; and the young ladies were obliged to yield.

Why should they ask us?” said Marianne, as soon as they were gone. “The rent of this cottage is said to be low; but we have it on very hard terms, if we are to dine at the park whenever any one is staying either with them, or with us.”

I have great sympathy for Marianne’s remark.  The price really does seem high to have to be around unpleasant people for a few hours at a time.

Chapter 20

Wow—this chapter  increases our knowledge of the Palmers. He is a jerk that I sometimes find amusing:

“You and I, Sir John,” said Mrs. Jennings, “should not stand upon such ceremony.”

“Then you would be very ill-bred,” cried Mr. Palmer.

“My love you contradict every body,” said his wife with her usual laugh. “Do you know that you are quite rude?”

“I did not know I contradicted any body in calling your mother ill-bred.”

Bu dump dah (drum riff). It’s mean but funny.

Because of Austen’s description of Charlotte as friendly and unprepossessing in Chapter 19, and making it clear that she was quite unlike her sister, I thought we were to like her, and I was already to. And I kind of appreciated how, while she is married to this unpleasant curmudgeon, she puts on a good face and makes fun of the situation. She doesn’t allow him to pull her down. And then I came to Chapter 20.

Charlotte is stupid and vapid, and I mean 21st century stupid. She would have me crazy in about 5 minutes, and I would spend the entire time she was visiting at the Park in my room.  People who exaggerate and are unable to tell the truth about anything (and I don’t think Charlotte is malicious. I think she is saying things to the best of her ability) make me crazy.

When asked if she knew Willoughby, Charlotte responded:

“Oh dear, yes; I know him extremely well,” replied Mrs. Palmer;—”Not that I ever spoke to him, indeed; but I have seen him for ever in town.

Wow! We next find out that Colonel Brandon is the one who told her that Marianne was to marry Willoughby. That seemed so out of character. Then to find out that was completely false, and Charlotte inferred it based on nothing. Later, we “find out” that Colonel Brandon had wanted to marry Charlotte herself, but there is less than zero evidence for this. Now I think Mr. Palmer should be praised for not committing murder.

My serious question is this: have we learned anything of any use from Charlotte? Can you imagine how frustrating this would be to be Elinor?

Chapter 21

Poor Sir John. So desperate for constant activity to keep his own demons away. (Sorry—I am projecting.)

After meeting the Steeles, he goes to invite the Dashwoods to another party. They decline to his great dismay.

Benevolent, philanthropic man! It was painful to him even to keep a third cousin to himself.

Poor guy.

We once again discover in this chapter how awful the Middleton children are, and I do blame Lady Middleton (though Sir John is an absent father.) All three children are awful, but when the Steeles are so upset on behalf of the wounded three year old and are so glad the accident wasn’t worse, and the Mother had done so much for her, Marianne’s comment is perfect:

“Poor little creatures!” said Miss Steele, as soon as they were gone. “It might have been a very sad accident.”

“Yet I hardly know how,” cried Marianne, “unless it had been under totally different circumstances. But this is the usual way of heightening alarm, where there is nothing to be alarmed at in reality.”

Marianne herself can be quite theatrical and passionate, but I think this is Austen’s way of showing us that she doesn’t cross the line, and she definitely is able to detect problems in others. Do you agree?

We continue to see Marianne’s lack of hypocrisy. The Steeles claim to find everything about the Middletons delightful, and Marianne won’t go there.

“What a sweet woman Lady Middleton is!” said Lucy Steele.

Marianne was silent; it was impossible for her to say what she did not feel, however trivial the occasion; and upon Elinor therefore the whole task of telling lies when politeness required it, always fell. She did her best when thus called on, by speaking of Lady Middleton with more warmth than she felt, though with far less than Miss Lucy.

The weight is placed on Elinor to support societal expectations. And this is not a criticism of Elinor on Austen’s part. To Austen, civility is really important. Not hurting people is really important, but I would argue that she also appreciates Marianne’s stance.

Elinor does get to put her own opinion in, and she does it well.

“And what a charming little family they have! I never saw such fine children in my life.—I declare I quite doat upon them already, and indeed I am always distractedly fond of children.”

“I should guess so,” said Elinor, with a smile, “from what I have witnessed this morning.”

“I have a notion,” said Lucy, “you think the little Middletons rather too much indulged; perhaps they may be the outside of enough; but it is so natural in Lady Middleton; and for my part, I love to see children full of life and spirits; I cannot bear them if they are tame and quiet.”

“I confess,” replied Elinor, “that while I am at Barton Park, I never think of tame and quiet children with any abhorrence.”


We do know from letters Austen wrote that she couldn’t abide ill-behaved children. I would have to agree.

So, does Austen hate children?


5 thoughts on “Sense and Sensibility Chapters 19-21”

  1. What a delicious three chapters. They had a lightness to them for me. At first I wondered why Austen introduced four new characters–the Palmers and the Steeles–but then I saw her plan and it was rich. I am going in no particular order of chapter here, my eyes just fresh from the work.

    The Palmers. IYE YIE YIE. Mr. Palmer is a mess. And he doesn’t care. He is mean and curmudgeonly. Austen is right to introduce a male character who is striving to raise himself up in the public eye by hiding behind his newspaper and quips and sour disposition. He’s so different from Edward, from Sir John, and from all the other men we met in NA. I personally found him funny, and I have male friends who would actually admire Mr. Palmer for his smartness, and many a time has it been in my life when I saddle up to the most sarcastic dude in the room and shout HURRAY for his quick wit. Is he mean spirited? I don’t get enough of a sense of him to affirm that. We never see him one-on-one with his wife, do we? Brilliant Austen, keeping us a bit in the dark of knowing the entire character. As for Charlotte, I find her lightness–so light–at the beginning of these chapters refreshing. And then…we see she is a bit too light in her mentality. I, too, was astounded (laughed, maybe) at her comments about how she knew Edward, or in reality, didn’t. Slowly but definitely, Charlotte falls into the category as the unintelligent woman who just wants to have a good time (cue Cindi Lauper). Is there anything inherently wrong with that? My overall sense of the presence of the Palmers in the novel is A BREATH OF FRESH AIR because I was getting so tired of Marianne and Elinor’s love losses and yearns. Yes, courtship and marriage are serious business for women in this time period, so having your prospective husbands up and leave is tragic. So I love Austen’s working the Palmers into the storyline. As vapid as she is and socially distant/awkward as he is, I loved them as a couple. A great study in opposites at the very least.

    The Misses Steele (of Miss Steeles): Oh boy, these scenes were rich! These ladies brought to the surface of the story much good material. They are recipients of much information about the Dashwood sisters. Through the Steeles, we see a bit of a turn in the focus of the lens on social intimacy through storytelling, in this case, in its most AUDIBLE WHISPER form, gossip. It is not Mrs. Jennings, though, but Sir John who takes first prize in these chapters for being the teller of intimate information. Sir John’s zeal (Austen uses this word several times to describe him) for getting people together–at one point Austen writes that for him, togetherness meant intimacy–is now raised to the level of getting people together by extolling to the parties yet to meet each others’ virtues (‘oh, you have to meet so-and-so; you would get along great’…and then to not have that actually be the case is hilarious) AND once met, the group newest to the group (i.e., the Steeles) is welcomed more intimately into the fold by Sir John giving the goods on the Dashwood. Sir John, well, he is a gossip like Miss Jennings. I laughed when Austen writes of Elinor that “…for the first time in her life, she thought Mrs Jennings deficient either in curiosity after patty information, or in a disposition to communicate it.” Ha! To keep people as social intimates, it seems Austen might be saying that someone has to be the puppeteer, the one who tosses information about others freely. Hm. Are Jennings and now Sir John narrators within narrators?

    Language: Besides the very audible whispers and shared information that could be considered a bit too personal, these chapters created a nice language-focused base for me. That the Steeles explain what a beau is to the Dashwoods was interesting, especially in terms of a beau vs. a husband, that the latter can’t be the former because when the beau becomes a husband, he has ‘other things to do.’ Provide for the wife? Take care of finances? This is a minor point, but one I liked. It made me wonder in general about slang, idioms both established and new, and varying dialects of regions during Austen’s time. So worth learning about, I think! The other language-focused element in these chapters was THE F WORD. How I enjoyed that coming back into play. Especially because I am a 21st Century and know the F word to be something entirely different than “Ferrars,” the adolescent in me sniggered when “The letter F” was mentioned. The letter F first came about by Margaret, didn’t it? Secret Code. Besides the gossip, very audible whispers (‘hi, I’m really talking to you but I’m REALLY hoping other people here me!), secret codes are ways of communication that are starkly different from, say, letters and one-on-one conversations. I imagine Austen was a careful and keenly observant conversationalist.

    Children: Another IYE YIE YIE. Again, because I deeply loved these chapters for their sense of lightness, I really loved seeing these children in action. The poking and pinching! Hair getting pulled! The ties untied! The stealing of things from the ladies’ work-bags (what are those???)! The crying! Tame children vs. wild children. Aren’t wild children fun? Yes, but they are also trying and tiring. Personally, I find them exhausting, and I always point to the non-attending parent as cause. Mrs. Littleton is relieved that her bad kids can run amok over the Steele sisters, who equally delight in such play, which made for harmony to a degree. I like that someone (Lucy? Ann?) states Lady Littleton is a delightful person. One of my very favorite moments, and it took me completely by surprise because I can’t imagine someone doing it today, was when this is revealed: “John is in such spirits today!” she (Lady Middleton) said, on his taking Miss Steele’s pocket handkerchief, and throwing it out the window.–He is full of monkey tricks.” Sir John throwing a lady’s handkerchief out a window. Little things mean a lot, I guess.

    Cleveland: Funny! It was hard not to picture them roaming around Public Square when to Cleveland they went.

    Finally, to your point about individual freedoms vs. civility: This is the tension that is burning through the novel. Is it a more universal theme both in novels and in real life? It is alive and well in my life. I would love to say just what I think sometimes, right off the cuff (whatever that means), without censoring myself, but I hold myself back unless I’m being just a flake and speak without thinking (which, as a Saggitarian who loves words, I am prone to do). There is a formality, though, that perhaps I am misreading into this time period via Austen’s tone but I wonder if is more absent in contemporary times. Or, was gossip and the third-party (Sir John to the Steeles about the Dashwood) spilling of more private/intimate information as equal in the breaks of civility as social media spewing is today? ‘Civil unrest’ takes on a whole new meaning these days to me. There are levels of civil unrest when we read Austen. It can be very interpersonal, interpersonal, and it–like in these days–be wholly frightening and dangerous for the health and life of democracy or basic human rights dignities.

    1. Oh man, you always have tremendous things to say. Because I am tired right now (too many dogs in too few days and not enough sleep) I will pounce on your last comment, that of civil unrest. Wow–I love this. Civil interpersonal unrest is terrifying. People who say whatever they feel, who don’t worry about other people’s feelings, who lie, who exaggerate…absolute societal nightmare.

      I also enjoy the Palmers–they are funny. I like your comment that they are fresh air–absolutely. Austen has terrific characters. As characters, they make me laugh. As real people, I would be spending all my time in the cottage and would run and hide if I saw them unless we could maintain a strict 15 minute visit. So many characters Austen describes suck the air out of the room and actually kill brain cells.

      And while I’m not crazy about Mrs. Jennings or Sir John, I do appreciate gossip. In fact, I miss gossip very much. Whoever labeled it a sin is a joykiller. On the other hand, the way Elinor in particular is treated bothers me a lot. I’m not a huge fan of teasing or salaciousness. Ah well.

  2. I just spent 30 minutes making comments, and I fear they have disappeared. A comment appeared that my post was pending approval. Hope you received it.

  3. Okay, here’s another thought I had. Could it be that Mr. and Mrs. Palmer are in an abusive relationship? After giving some thought this afternoon, I am deeply troubled about Mr. Palmer. Is he just a curmudgeon? Could he be actually awful to his wife in private? Here’s why I ask. The laughing, light Mrs. Palmer–her lightheartedness–could be complete nervousness. I have known women who are so anxious because they laugh a lot. And she’s always making excuses for him. As a couple they are slightly hard to pin down (not quite a breath of fresh air now, is it?). How Palmer acts, so disagreeably, in public is a clue to how he acts at home. He is the same, better (which makes you asks what’s with the horse’s ass act when in public??), or he is much worse. What if anything is Austen saying here about spousal abuse? Was it even discussed then, do you know??? Was there an awareness of it??? This is pre-psychology by a few decades, yes, but like in 1920s we had Virginia Woolf gorgeously showing us the pained and ‘shell-shocked’ Septimus in long before we had the term PTSD, could Austen be breaking ground by presenting to us a couple where some unseemly abuse is occurring?

    Yes, her characters are rich and varied and fantastic. The Palmers WOULD suck the life out of me, too, now that I think about it. And as for gossip, that you love it and miss it, I completely respect that, and I concur. Don’t tell anyone…blah blah blah. It’s a crazy way to talk though of course it lacks CIVILITY because it’s discourse on the other side of the ear, so to speak.

    That’s my evening thought. I am still behind in the reading.

  4. I think Mr. Palmer is abusive, but not more than what we see. I think he speaks to his wife this way all the time. To be fair (!!!) he speaks this way to everybody. As I mentioned, I think he’s a jerk. I think his wife annoys the hell out of him, and so he talks this way to her. And I am guessing that she isn’t nervous. I think she is vapid and this is how she looks at life. She has her perspective on things, and she has decided that Mr. Palmer is droll. I know people like this woman. She shapes reality to her end and perception. I think if you pulled her aside and said let’s get you out of this relationship, she’d think you were crazy.
    I guess we’ll see. 😉

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *