Sense and Sensibility

As my “fun” reading this past week, while I slogged through Henry James’ novel The Golden Bowl (as exhausting as I always find him, I loved it — but I’ll tell you about my love-hate relationship with Mr. James another time), I enjoyed Jane Austen’s Heroines: Intimacy in Human Relationships, written by an academic named John Hardy. I picked up this lovely little tome at the South Orange dump. I know, hard to believe someone was throwing it away!

Seriously, though, I adore Jane Austen. Everyone gets what they deserve in her books, good or bad. And I love her clever, heartfelt heroines, especially Elizabeth Bennet from Pride and Prejudice — she’s such a badass, and she really knows how to handle that Mr. Darcy. The sweet orphan Fanny Price from Mansfield Park, which may be my favorite Austen novel. And Emma Woodhouse from Emma, the most adorable and sympathetic busybody you ever met.  The scene where she finally gets together with Mr. Knightley is one of my favorites in any book.

I hadn’t ever thought as much of Elinor Dashwood from Sense and Sensibility until I read the essay about her in Jane Austen’s Heroines.  The adjectives in the title have to do with Elinor — who uses her “sense,” in this context her reserve and her intellect, over her feelings — and her younger sister, Marianne — who uses her “sensibility,” or raw emotion — to operate in the world. As an open wound-type emotional person myself, I always related more to Marianne, even though she’s kind of clueless and screws a lot of things up. I viewed Elinor’s reserve as coldness, or a lack of ability to truly feel. Poor her.

But as the essay helped me to see, Elinor is no cold fish. She may not be in everyone’s face emotionally; she may even hide her more intense feelings from most of those around her. But she’s quite self-aware. She interacts with people carefully, from a position of comfort and ease in who she is and what she wants out of her relationships. Her “sense” translates into self-possession, versus the self-absorption of her little sis, who indulges her every emotion and rushes into “intimacy” with a man who isn’t really appropriate or able.

According to Hardy, “Elinor realizes that intimacy can only result from a privacy capable of being shared.” Elinor isn’t incapable of intimacy; she simply takes time to deliberate when it comes to her emotions and interactions. She’s discriminating, and that’s not a bad thing. Her experience of intimacy is more refined for it. It’s more valuable. In the end, she’s the one who enters into a successful, lasting relationship.

As much as I appreciate rules, plans and structure, it only recently occurred to me that emotional structure might be useful to me as a feeling person. Setting boundaries for your children is an act of love, so it follows that setting some for yourself would be loving as well. Like creating structure and foundation in yoga (you knew I was going to bring this back to yoga) allows you more freedom, creating emotional structure actually allows you to be more genuinely intimate.

Perhaps this is one reason I often felt frustrated with my emotional connections, or believed that others couldn’t go as deeply as I could. I held that as a point of pride, even though it didn’t necessarily bring me much satisfaction.

I think at some point, when I felt really emotionally burned, I thought that protecting myself was actually going to mean shutting down, closing myself off. And I didn’t have any idea how to do that. So I figured I was just destined to go through life as an emotional mess. What a relief to find that creating boundaries and becoming more self-possessed has actually opened me up.


4 Comments on “Sense and Sensibility”

  1. Denise says:

    Sense & Sensibility and its Elinor have always been my Austen favorite. I weep each time Elinor is finally rewarded with her true love after all of her measure, sacrifice and control…hmmm? Would love to borrow your Hardy, junk yard find. Thanks for another another beautiful post Tracey.


  2. Rita says:

    Thanks for this post. Boundaries are one of those topics that are often misunderstood for being cold or cutting yourself off from your emotions or others. Boundaries are different from walls. Walls are put up when we’ve been hurt and we want to cut ourselves off from ever being hurt again. Walls are solid- they keep the positive and negative out.

    Boundaries are semi-porous. They keep the negative out and let the positive in. They allow for us not to take on the energy of the other. They are beneficial for all parties. They create balance.



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