By Devoney Looser, Arizona State University
The most significant and enduring love relationship in Sense and Sensibility may be among its two admirable, though quite different, sisters, who, although unfortunately upset at the novel’s beginning, are happily, sensibly, and sensitively resettled together by its end. Having said that, it is important to notice that in this novel, sibling pairs and romantic couples repeatedly find themselves in opposition and challenging relationship triangles.
Elinor, Edward, and Lucy
Elinor Dashwood’s character in Sense and Sensibility is associated with sense and duty. Very early in the novel, Elinor falls in love with the unassuming, good-hearted, and self-declaredly unambitious young man, Edward Ferrars. He’s the brother of Elinor’s sister-in-law, Fanny. This triangle—Elinor, her sister-in-law Fanny, and her brother Robert—proves an obstacle; Fanny objects to Edward and Elinor’s friendship. Fanny tries to break up their developing intimacy. She wants her brother to marry for money and influence, and Elinor has neither.
But then a surprise obstacle arises in the form of a second triangle. Edward, who’s secretly engaged to marry Lucy Steele, falls in love with Elinor. Readers today sometimes ask, “Why doesn’t Edward Ferrars just break off his secret engagement to Lucy and marry Elinor?” One answer is that Edward, too, has sense—that he’s honorable and does his duty. He’s made a promise to Lucy, and he won’t break it.
But another answer is that if he broke his engagement, then he’d be opening himself up to legal action, in what was called a ‘breach of promise suit’. Such lawsuits might be brought by fathers whose engaged daughters were jilted. If the court found that a suitor’s legitimate promise of marriage had been breached, then he could be ordered to pay damages to his abandoned fiancée’s family. It’s because her future marriage prospects were said to have been damaged by the fiancé’s abandonment.
Edward honors his regretted engagement to Lucy. He’s actually described as “fettered” to her. Of course, Edward wouldn’t be nearly as attractive to Elinor if he hadn’t proven himself an honorable young man who kept his promises. By keeping his promises, Edward proves himself exactly the opposite of his selfish sister Fanny Dashwood and his brother-in-law—Elinor’s half-brother—John Dashwood.
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Marianne, Willoughby and Brandon
There are other, similarly structured triangles in the novel, including those involving Marianne. Marianne falls in love at first sight, for the first time, with John Willoughby. Colonel Brandon falls in love at first sight, for the second time, with Marianne.
Willoughby, like Lucy Steele, opts for a financially motivated marriage, although unlike Lucy, Willoughby expresses regret and remorse, whether understood as heartfelt or as just more selfish manipulation. Marianne’s second love and eventual husband, Colonel Brandon, turns out to be the one who feels things just as authentically, tragically, and deeply as Marianne does.
Willoughby, Brandon and Eliza
Another triangle in the plot is between Willoughby, Brandon, and the second Eliza. Willoughby has previously run away with, abandoned, and impregnated Eliza. This matters to Brandon because Eliza is the daughter of his first love, confusingly also named Eliza. The second Eliza is the Colonel’s ward. He’s taken financial responsibility for her. Some say she must be his “natural daughter”, his illegitimate daughter in other words, but she’s not.
Brandon—the hero of real sensibility—and Willoughby—the hero of false sensibility—are said to meet “by appointment”. This phrase means that they were meeting to have an illegal duel. Both men survive. Brandon ostensibly challenges Willoughby to a duel because he impregnated young Eliza. Willoughby has “ruined” her reputation and her opportunity to ever marry politely. This means that Brandon is fighting a duel for the harm done to his late brother’s late wife’s illegitimate daughter, against Willoughby, the man who has also ensnared the heart of another woman they both love, Marianne Dashwood.
The End with Four Marriages
The novel’s conclusion points beyond these triangular courtships. It ends with four marriages. But only two suggest the prospect of happiness: Elinor and Edward Ferrars and Marianne and Colonel Brandon. Importantly, in the end, what the novel comes back around to are siblings, families, and settling.
The end of Sense and Sensibility is about sisters and brothers in close proximity. Mrs. Elinor Ferrars and Mrs. Marianne Brandon have also become new neighbors. The Brandons live on the Colonel’s estate, called Barton, and the Ferrars live in the nearby parish of Delaford.
Austen’s novel ends with these four people. In the parlance of this time, the men would not be called only brothers-in-law but simply “brothers”. So Elinor and Marianne—after enduring John Dashwood’s failures and acts of unsettling at the beginning of the novel—find husbands who behave more like brothers to each other than their own brother did to them. The last words of this novel are narrated from the female perspective: One hears about “their husbands”. This is a story about sisters and their husbands, not about husbands and their wives.
Common Questions about the Love Triangles in Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility
A ‘breach of promise suit‘ was a lawsuit that could be brought by fathers whose engaged daughters were jilted. If the court found that a suitor’s legitimate promise of marriage had been breached, then he could be ordered to pay damages to his abandoned fiancée’s family.
Willoughby had previously run away with, impregnated, and abandoned Eliza. This mattered to Brandon because Eliza was the daughter of his first love. Willoughby had ‘ruined’ her reputation and her opportunity to ever marry politely. So Brandon and Willoughby decided to meet ‘by appointment’, a phrase that means that they were meeting to have an illegal duel.
The last words of Sense and Sensibility are narrated from the female perspective: One hears about ‘their husbands’. This is important because this is a story about sisters and their husbands, and not about husbands and their wives.