As the novel shows, the corruption of sense in the form of prudent self-interest leads to marriages based solely on money, and the corruption of sensibility in the form of license leads to elopement, seduction, and children out of wedlock. Both attitudes destroy the ideal of marriage that forms the basis of civilization in Austen’s novels. Mrs. Ferrars’ demand that Edward marry the wealthy Miss Morton and also receive his inheritance as heir and favored son prompts his defiance of his mother’s wishes—even at the loss of his entire family fortune. The romances that mature and culminate in marriages at the end of the novel do not begin on the note of sensibility that precipitated Marianne’s falling in love at first sight with Willoughby, and they do not conform to the romantic model of exclusively first attachments. Edwards’ four-year engagement with Lucy Steele, his first attachment, neither meets the approval of his mother nor expresses the deepest sentiments of his own heart. Colonel Brandon’s first attachment to Eliza never blossomed into the true love or the marriage he envisioned.
The engagements of Marianne to Brandon and Elinor to Edward have elements of true romances, the natural surprises of love rather than the exaggerated overreactions of “violent agitation” and “impetuous grief.” They escape the worldly motives of Willoughby’s match to Miss Grey and Mrs. Ferrars’ idea of marriage based on family fortunes, and they do not begin as single attachments, love at first sight, or premature ideas about marriage without courtship. While both Elinor (sense) and Marianne (sensibility) suffer rejection, experience broken hearts, and feel betrayed by lovers, their sorrows lead them to true love based on both reason and feeling as they both eventually marry men who prove themselves worthy of their esteem and affection—men whose constant devotion to their beloved transcends the momentary sensations of sensibility and disregards the cold calculation of fortune as the foundation of marriage.
When Marianne hears the news of Edward’s engagement to Lucy Steele and discovers that Elinor has kept this secret to herself for the past four months, she learns the wisdom of sense over sensibility. Whereas Marianne’s sensibility refused all comfort and luxuriated in self-pity, Elinor’s sense never mentioned her grief to a single person: “[A]nd I owed it to my family and friends, not to create in them a solicitude about me, which it could not be in my power to satisfy.” Whereas Marianne’s broken heart rendered her moody, weakened, and rude, Elinor’s dejection at the news of Edward’s engagement does not rob her of composure, courtesy, or kindness to others. Marianne is moved by Elinor’s compassion for the grief of others while burdened by her own sorrow: “What!—while attending me in all my misery, has this been on your heart?—and I have reproached you for being happy!” Because Marianne felt powerless when abandoned by Willoughby, she wonders at the source of her sister’s strength: “Four months! … so calm—so cheerful!—how have you been supported?”
Elinor’s simple answers explain the moral resources that exalt sense above sensibility. Elinor hid her despondent heart from others because she honored her promise to Lucy to keep the engagement a secret (“I was doing my duty”). She kept her sadness private because of special thoughtfulness for others (“I would not have you suffer on my account”). And Elinor governed her feelings, moods, and melancholy by reason and will power: “The composure of mind with which I have brought myself at present to consider the matter, the consolation that I have been willingly to admit, have been the effect of constant and painful exertion;—they did not spring up of themselves;—they did not occur to relieve my spirits at first.” At this moment in the novel Marianne admires the self-command of her sister, not as stoic apathy or insensibility, but as tender kindness and sensitive delicacy for the feelings of others. Acknowledging Elinor’s virtue of sense that embraces both good judgment, moral firmness, and refined feeling, Marianne now also exerts herself as she promises Elinor never to speak “with the least appearance of bitterness” about Edward’s change of heart, never to show “the smallest increase of dislike” to Lucy, and never to express “any diminution of her usual cordiality” to Edward. Once Marianne gains sense, her whole idea of romance, love, and marriage begins to conform to reason and to know the true state of her heart.
After recovering from her life-threatening illness and hearing of Willoughby’s apology from Elinor, Marianne acknowledges the unreasonableness of a marriage to Willoughby: “I never could have been happy with him, after knowing, as sooner or later I must have known, all this;—I should have had no confidence, no esteem.” She instead offers her hand to Colonel Brandon “with no sentiment superior to strong esteem.” While romances in Jane Austen’s novels require economic and social considerations and consider manners, temperament, and mutual attraction, the sure foundation of a happy marriage depends on this virtue Austen refers to as “esteem”—an admiration and respect for the moral character of the beloved. Colonel Brandon and Edward as friends and brothers-in-law (both praised for “good principles” and “good sense”) share the same ideals of integrity, honor, magnanimity, duty, and charity that inspire the “esteem” of the two sisters for the men they marry. In his kind, fatherly care for his niece little Eliza, in his generous offer of the living at Delaford to Edward upon the suggestion of Elinor, in his kind offer to travel a long distance to accompany Mrs. Dashwood during the crisis of Marianne’s illness, in his kind, gentle manners and “genuine attention to other people,” and in his constant, devoted attachment to Marianne throughout her romance with Willoughby, Brandon proves, as Elinor observes, that “his character and principles are fixed.” His virtue is a habit, not a mood, a habit that has proven itself over the course of a lifetime in his relations with all people.
Likewise, Edward also demonstrates a similar character of integrity and honor that earns him the esteem of Elinor. Unwilling to marry his mother’s choice of Miss Morton because of wealth and social status, true to his engagement with Lucy Steele rather than renege on his word because of his mother’s disapproval, Edward only proposes to Elinor after Lucy ends the engagement and marries Robert Ferrars: “I thought it my duty, … independent of my feelings, to give her the option of continuing the engagement or not, when I was renounced by my mother….” Unlike Willoughby who was courting Marianne while engaged to Miss Grey, Edward honorably disentangles himself from his relationship with Lucy, his “foolish engagement,” before declaring his love for Elinor. Thus the role of sense in marriage acknowledges and cherishes this moral dimension of marriage more than the worldly considerations of money and status that rule Mrs. Ferrars, Willoughby, Lucy, and Mr. and Mrs. John Dashwood. Austen’s virtue of sense discerns and values this inestimable quality of “esteem” in the moral character of the beloved because it endures in the course of a lifetime and a marriage and does not come and go like Willoughby’s sudden appearance and disappearance in Marianne’s life which promises much but leaves nothing.