Saturday, May 31, 2014

Sense and Romanticism

The two elder Dashwood sisters in Sense and Sensibility, Elinor and Marianne, exemplify two different temperaments, two different manners of intercourse with life. Elinor’s reserve, for instance, contrasts neatly with Marianne’s demonstrative frankness. But they also represent two historical eras: the passing Classical age and the oncoming Romantic era. The Classical eighteenth century favored clarity, reason, the common rights of all humanity; the first half of the nineteenth century courted mystery, emotion, and individualism. The Classical garden is symmetrical, with neatly trimmed shrubbery; the Romantic garden grows wild according to  Nature’s own whimsy. When educated people of a Classical mindset looked to the past, they thought of Rome; when Romantics looked to the past, they dreamt of the Middle Ages. The Classicist’s favorite poet was Virgil, the Romanticist’s Shakespeare.

About halfway through the novel, Edward Ferrars appears at the Dashwood home, and Marianne questions him on the picturesque scenery he has just walked through. “I have no knowledge of the picturesque,” the Classically tempered Edward replies. The area, he says, “exactly answers my idea of a fine country, because it unifies beauty with utility.” A little later he explains more: “I like a fine prospect, but not on picturesque principles. I do not like crooked, blasted trees. I admire them much more if they are tall, straight, and flourishing.” Did I mention the Romantic’s fascination with death and the macabre?

When I teach music appreciation, I always introduce the Romantic era with a portion from Emma Thompson’s wonderful adaptation of the Austen classic, a segment of exactly ten minutes, running from 41'07" to 51'07". In the clip Marianne walks in the rain, is dwarfed by Nature in the form of a giant tree and powerful storm clouds, chases a patch of blue sky, and is rescued after a fall by a dashing man on a white horse. How could she be any more Romantic? After Willoughby carries Marianne back to the house, where Mrs. Dashwood praises his honor and decorum, Marianne cites his spirit and feeling. The next day, Colonel Brandon comes to visit the hurt Marianne carrying a bouquet. Willoughby later arrives with some wildflowers, and Marianne notes that they didn’t come from a hothouse. Willoughby sees that Marianne has been reading Shakespeare’s sonnets and pulls out his own copy, which he keeps, no doubt, next to his heart. When he leaves from this second visit, Elinor questions Marianne’s enthusiastic conversation with a man she barely knows, and Marianne defends herself by saying that if she had shallower feelings, she would show them as seldom as Elinor. She apologizes immediately, but then confesses to her mother that she doesn’t understand her sister. The viewer, though, gains some important understanding of Elinor in the very next shot, where we see her in her bedroom silently holding a handkerchief with Edward’s monogram. She feels every bit as deeply as Marianne, but carries herself in the world with a more stoic face. I couldn’t possibly give a more efficient ten-minute introduction to the Romantic outlook.

I’m a great fan of exaggerated, simplistic history. Grand patterns hung on a scaffolding of round dates give me a sense of scope and general direction and provide a clean background against which to judge the details of the much messier truth. I know that Europeans didn’t wake up on January 1, 1800, and start to express their feelings more openly. The English didn’t all suddenly begin taking nature walks and reading poetry at the turn of the nineteenth century. But it’s awfully handy to know that the emphasis changed about then. The Elinors and the Mariannes of the world always live side-by-side. But oscillating cultural trends seem to give first one and then the other a more comfortable world to operate in.

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