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Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Why Edward Ferrars Fails...But I Still Like Him | Guest Post from Harriet Jordan

I feel like, in the realm of Austen characters, Edward Ferrars is a controversial one. Harriet Jordan, one of the hosts of the Reading Jane Austen podcast, joins Austen in August today (welcome!) to tell us why E. fails as a hero -- but why he still might be worth loving, anyway...

Why Edward Ferrars fails as a hero – and why I like him anyway

Edward Ferrars, of Sense and Sensibility, is unlikely to top many lists of ‘favourite Austen heroes’. Some readers may actively dislike him, but I suspect the majority simply find him dull. Why is this so?

Although I haven’t done a detailed comparison, I believe Edward is the most off-stage of all Jane Austen’s heroes. There are 50 chapters in Sense and Sensibility, and Edward is present in only twelve of them (and even this is a generous estimate):

  • Chapters 3-5: at Norland (and in Chapters 3 and 4 he is described, and spoken of, without being physically present in any scenes, even though this all happens when he is at the house)
  • Chapters 16-19: at Barton (but in Chapter 19, he is only present for the opening paragraph)
  • Chapter 35: the unexpected encounter with Elinor and Lucy
  • Chapter 40: when Elinor tells him about the living
  • Chapters 48-50: return to Barton and the wrap up of the story
Furthermore, in four of these chapters, he has no dialogue at all. In fact, by my count he only speaks 50 times in the entire book, and at one point he is even described as sitting for some time ‘silent and dull’.
So it is not altogether surprising that many readers find it hard to engage with a character who is given so little opportunity to come ‘alive’ off the page.

And I think the biggest failure in presentation is Chapters 3-5 – the crucial chapters in which he is not only introduced to us, but in which he and Elinor are falling in love. But we don’t see any of this. Edward is described, and the Dashwood women talk about him, but there’s no scene of him interacting with Elinor. So we have to take it on faith that he is as Elinor describes him: ‘his mind is well-informed, enjoyment of books exceedingly great, his imagination lively, his observation just and correct, and his taste delicate and pure’. But even Elinor silently observes his ‘want of spirits’ and ‘dejection of mind’. And Elinor’s reflections come after – not before – the narrator’s fairly tepid description of him (‘not recommended to their good opinion by any particular graces of person or address’, ‘his manners required intimacy to make them pleasing’, ‘open, affectionate heart’, understanding was good’) and Marianne’s criticism of his lack of spirit. It’s not a very promising introduction!

So we come out of these scenes at Norland having been told that Elinor sees something in Edward to make her love him, but not having been given any real evidence of it. 

After these unrewarding opening scenes, we wait eleven chapters before seeing Edward again, when he arrives at Barton. And I think that it’s only during this first visit to Barton that we get a glimpse of the character Jane Austen envisaged, but did not properly show us. But before looking at this, I want to briefly go over his appearances in the remainder of the book.

The Chapter 35 encounter with Elinor and Lucy is largely dialogue-free – entirely so until Marianne’s arrival – and Edward’s contribution is two commonplace lines, although we do get a sense of his extreme discomfort with the situation. He speaks rather more in the Chapter 40 scene – the first scene in the whole book that is just him and Elinor - and as readers we can feel the undercurrents of what is not being said, but by this stage it is a bit late to be developing his personality. In Chapter 49 he again has a scene alone with Elinor, in which he has at least one lengthy speech about himself, not dissimilar to Darcy’s conversations with Elizabeth when they are out walking. But by this stage in Pride and Prejudice we have formed a clear picture of Darcy, having seen him in multiple conversations and interactions with others, and so are much more engaged for this type of infodump. Not so with Edward!

Everything I have gone through so far seems to show Edward as someone who is shy, slightly awkward, and frequently in low spirits. He is perhaps a little weak in getting involved with Lucy, and avoiding conflict with his family, but he also has the strength to stand up for what he believes is right, even in the face of being disinherited. However, none of this makes him seem like particularly good company. ‘Silent and dull’ does seem to sum him up.

But I think there is another Edward, hidden under the surface, and to find him, we need to look at Chapters 16 to 18. In these scenes we see him interacting with the Dashwood family as a whole. Even though he is frequently not ‘in spirits’, we finally have him taking a significant part in fully reported conversations. And there are even signs that he has a sense of humour! When talking about himself – in arguably a slightly self-centred manner – he wryly observes, in a beautifully balanced set of sentences, ‘I always preferred the church, as I still do. But that was not smart enough for my family. They recommended the army. That was a great deal too smart for me.’

And he and Elinor join in gently (and lovingly) teasing Marianne. While this may sometimes seem a little ponderous (‘Forgive me, if I am very saucy’) at other times he is genuinely amusing: ‘among the rest of the objects before me, I see a very dirty lane’; ‘she would buy up every copy, I believe, to prevent their falling into unworthy hands’. This suggests that in fact he can be good company.

Is this enough to redeem Edward – to let him stand alongside the best of Jane Austen’s heroes? No, not really. But for me at least, it’s enough to keep him from last place in the list. I feel I would like to have known him better, and the failure is that the book doesn’t let me do so.

Harriet Jordan
August, 2021

Jane Austen, Austen in August, blog event, Jane Austen fan fiction, JAFF, The Book Rat, BookRatMisty
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  1. Wow, Harriet, you did a fab job of analyzing what it is about Edward that keeps him low on the list. I'm one of the ones who mostly shrugs my shoulders over him rather than feeling strongly one way or the other. I never gave much thought to it being because I wasn't given the chance to really know him. Only 50 pages for a hero of romance is unpardonable. LOL

    1. Thanks, Sophia. I also shrugged my shoulders over him the first few times I read the book. But then when I was working on it as part of my university Honours thesis, I started looking at him more closely, and realised there was more to him after all.

  2. Ditto what Sophia Rose said, but I'm not surprised. This is why I am an avid listener of the "Reading Jane Austen" podcast and I look forward to the next season! So far, Ellen and Harriet have done "Pride & Prejudice" and "Sense & Sensibility."


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