Jane Austen is often described as a novelist of manners. Her works illustrate in great detail the workings, habits, customs, and manners of high English society in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. This is a society that is dictated by a rigid social and economic hierarchy. People are not simply rich or poor: rather, there are very specific gradations of wealth and status. Most of the characters in Sense and Sensibility (especially including but not limited to Lucy, Fanny, and Mrs. Ferrars) are obsessed with maintaining their family’s place on the social ladder and potentially moving up the ladder through either marriage or simply associating with wealthier, higher class friends. These kinds of social dynamics are at play at the many events like dances, parties, dinners, and more casual gatherings where people can make acquaintances, develop friendships, and maybe even meet a future spouse. These events are governed by codes of behavior, manners, and proper speaking. Elinor, for example, always takes care to say the right thing, restrain her emotions, and not always say exactly what she is thinking while in the company of people like the Steeles, or even Mrs. Jennings. (Marianne, by contrast, is often unable to restrain herself, as shown by her angry outburst when Mrs. Ferrars insults Elinor’s painting.)
The high society Austen depicts is a complex, dangerous landscape through which characters have to navigate strategically. Indeed, the novel is at times like a complicated game, with all the characters like players competing with each other in an attempt to maximize their happiness and end up with the best husband, the largest fortune, or the nicest mansion. Lucy certainly approaches her social life like a game she is determined to win. The clever strategy of the novel’s characters is reflected in their witty conversations, artfully written letters, skillful persuasion, and meddling in others’ affairs. Elinor and Marianne are to some degree exceptions to this pattern. While they also participate in the same societal circles as other characters, they are less ruthless than someone like Lucy. They look out for each other and their own interests, but are less concerned with rising in society and besting others in competition for “Beaux” than they are with finding their own happiness. In the end, this strategy of mostly minding their own business and staying (to some degree) out of the games everyone else plays works out well for the Dashwood sisters, as they are at last successful in finding happy, comfortable marriages.
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Society and Strategy Quotes in Sense and Sensibility
Some mothers might have encouraged the intimacy from motives of interest, for Edward Ferrars was the eldest son of a man who had died very rich; and some might have repressed it from motives of prudence, for, except a trifling sum, the whole of his fortune depended on the will of his mother. But Mrs. Dashwood was alike uninfluenced by either consideration. It was enough for her that he appeared to be amiable, that he loved her daughter, and that Elinor returned the partiality. It was contrary to every doctrine of hers that difference of fortune should keep any couple asunder who were attracted by resemblance of disposition.
Mrs. Jennings was a widow with an ample jointure. She had only two daughters, both of whom she had lived to see respectably married, and she had now therefore nothing to do but to marry all the rest of the world. In the promotion of this object she was zealously active, as far as her ability reached; and missed no opportunity of projecting weddings among all the young people of her acquaintance.
Elinor was again obliged to decline her invitation; and by changing the subject, put a stop to her entreaties. She thought it probable that as they lived in the same county, Mrs. Palmer might be able to give some more particular account of Willoughby's general character, than could be gathered from the Middletons' partial acquaintance with him; and she was eager to gain from any one, such a confirmation of his merits as might remove the possibility of fear from Marianne.
Marianne, now looking dreadfully white, and unable to stand, sunk into her chair, and Elinor, expecting every moment to see her faint, tried to screen her from the observation of others, while reviving her with lavender water.
All that Mrs. Ferrars could say to make him put an end to the engagement, assisted too as you may well suppose by my arguments, and Fanny's entreaties, was of no avail. Duty, affection, every thing was disregarded. I never thought Edward so stubborn, so unfeeling before. His mother explained to him her liberal designs, in case of his marrying Miss Morton; told him she would settle on him the Norfolk estate, which, clear of land-tax, brings in a good thousand a-year; offered even, when matters grew desperate, to make it twelve hundred; and in opposition to this, if he still persisted in this low connection, represented to him the certain penury that must attend the match. His own two thousand pounds she protested should be his all; she would never see him again; and so far would she be from affording him the smallest assistance, that if he were to enter into any profession with a view of better support, she would do all in her power to prevent him advancing in it.
That Lucy had certainly meant to deceive, to go off with a flourish of malice against him in her message by Thomas, was perfectly clear to Elinor; and Edward himself, now thoroughly enlightened on her character, had no scruple in believing her capable of the utmost meanness of wanton ill-nature.