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Thursday, August 28, 2014

“what is Miss Morton to us?”! – Class Values in Sense and Sensibility | guest post from Lindsay

Earlier in Austen in August, Lindsay gave us her dissection of class values and nature vs nurture in Emma; today she's back to take a similar look at the equally class-contentious (but from a different perspective) Sense & Sensibility.
Check it out, and let us know your thoughts in the comments!

“what is Miss Morton to us?”! – Class Values in Sense and Sensibility
by Lindsay Zaborowski

As with Pride and Prejudice and Northanger Abbey, themes of personal characteristics attached to class permeate the events of the novel Sense and Sensibility. Here, however, the positive qualities of the middle class are weighed against the potential for evil that can result from going to an extreme in individualistic, capitalistic strains. In the novel, characters exercise class values in a range of ways that can all be construed as middle class, but they have radically different results as the lesson in the problem of taking any thing to extremes is imparted upon the reader.
Lucy Steel presents a classic picture of the social climber. She was born and raised in the lower middle class, but rejects this simple background in favor of doing whatever she can to gain access to the upper classes. In this way, Lucy Steele exhibits a sort of depraved capitalism, a capitalism taken to the nth degree and used on people instead of commodities. Though not well educated she is clever, and uses her charms to flatter the right people. Eleanor, whose opinion the reader is arguably supposed to respect, calls her “illiterate, artful and selfish” (134). When Edward loses his fortune because he remains faithful to his promise to marry her, she diverts her attentions to the younger brother Robert, who is now to inherit, finding his weakness of vanity and exploiting it so he will marry her instead. In addition, she flatters Mrs. Ferrars so well that in the end she accepts Robert and Lucy into her company despite Lucy’s low background (345). Thus, Lucy gets everything she wanted (riches, a good social standing), but we are to understand that these things are irrelevant in comparison with the true affection found in the pairing of heroines Marianne and Eleanor because of Lucy’s unlikable and selfish character.
Robert and his mother belong to the upper middle class, but their tastes reflect more upper crust tendencies than Edward’s. Edward values people based on personal merit while his mother and brother are more concerned with outward behavior and appearances. Thus, Robert chooses Lucy Steele because on the outside she appears to be something worth having, but underneath she is all selfishness and ambition with little education. Mrs. Ferrars similarly chooses to try to marry Edward to a certain Miss Morton not because of her personal qualities, but because of whose daughter she is. When Marianne enquires on why they should be concerned with Miss Morton’s supposed talents, all Mrs. Ferrars can say is that “Miss Morton is Lord Morton’s daughter” (221). In the end, their predilection for choosing people based on outward appearance and their behavior toward themselves, however false, backfired for Mrs. Ferrars and Robert when they gain Lucy Steele as a member of their family. In the end, her ultimate worth to them will only be her ability to appeal to their vanity.
In terms of selfishness and artifice, John Willoughby serves as the male counterpart for Lucy Steele in the novel. Though they differ in that Willoughby appears to have really felt something for Marianne at one time, he is nevertheless as self-involved as Lucy Steele. He fully admits to his dissolute tendencies to Eleanor in the end, but instead of reforming himself he stays on the same course. In dictating his cruel letter to Marianne, he claims to have has no choice, that “In honest words, [Miss Grey’s] money was necessary to me, and in a situation like mine, anything was to be done to prevent a rupture” (306). Eleanor retorts with the opposing view that “You are very wrong, very blamable…You have made your own choice. It was not forced on you” (307). Eleanor recognizes that he only came to see Marianne because he is afraid she will die thinking badly of him, not because of his fears of her actually dying. He chose to marry Miss Grey because she had the fortune and played the part of the society woman, not because she had an intrinsic value. He, like Lucy Steele, tries to make himself seem innocent in all situations, but the characters around them can see what they really are. The selfish tendencies of Lucy and Mr. Willoughby blind them to any possibility of their having faults.
To balance these portraits of middle class values gone wrong, there are characters that, despite their upper class lives, favor a more middle class approach. Mrs. Jennings is the most prominent example: as she rose through the ranks and joined the upper classes, she does not change, despite the ridicule she engenders from those around her. Robert Ferrars has only this to say about her: “we only knew that Mrs. Jennings was the widow of a man, who had got all his money in a low way; and Fanny and Mrs. Ferrars were bother strongly prepossessed that neither she nor her daughter were such kind of women as Fanny would like to associate with” (215). He does not consider that her personal qualities may affect the relationship, but only that her husband making money in a “low way” must have some bearing on her character. Though she at times seems vulgar, her true intentions are good, something that Eleanor recognizes as she helps her nurse Marianne (288).
Similarly, Colonel Brandon and Edward Ferrars chose their ideal partners from among the middle class, despite the presence of upper class candidates (such as Miss Morton). Their insistence on viewing people as individuals earns them happy relationships. Though it may seem that Eleanor and Marianne do not get a rich enough reward at the end of the novel, it is important to note that they get exactly what they said they wanted in the end (90). They may not have fabulous riches, but their happiness and satisfaction is more important.
The characters of Sense and Sensibility reflect the different qualities of the newly risen middle classes in a way that fits into the overall themes of the novel, which direct the reader towards realizing that nothing in excess can be good. A balanced approach to life, not unlike the one Austen takes in her plotlines and writing, is the more sensible course for achieving reason and happiness.
Work Cited:
Austen, Jane. Sense and Sensibility. New York: Penguin Books, 2003.
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  1. Thanks for this well-written look at class distinctions (and classism) in S&S! Definite food for thought.

  2. Lindsay's article certainly does give food for thought and I agree with the principle she discovered in Austen's work about happiness and wealth not necessarily achieved together. It is interesting that in pointing out that Col. Brandon and Edward finding their happiness in the middle classes. I always thought of the Dashwoods as upper class, but impoverished now b/c of their brother not caring for his father's widow and children so I would have considered them equals to the men they married.

    Enjoyable, thanks!


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