What if Jane Austen wrote a novel where all good girls like herself were punished for being proper and obeying the conventions of the day, and the villains got what they wanted instead? It might have been so, if Jane wasn’t set on giving her heroines the ending she never got.
Jane was a proper girl in most respects, and did everything expected of her, yet she lost the love of her life because she was not from a wealthy family. I believe this loss influenced how she treated her heroines, and acted as fate to give them their heart’s desire, particularly in Sense and Sensibility.
The 1995 film adaptation (screenplay by Emma Thompson) gives some solid examples that Thompson is following Jane's lead, and is successfully attempting to convince us that fate punishes those who give in to selfish desires, and rewards those who maintain their character under duress. By examining the heroes and heroines lives if things had turned out poorly instead of lovely like they did, it will become clear that the argument we are to believe in Sense and Sensibility is truly that if one perseveres and doesn't abandon character for selfishness, there will be a reward.
In Sense and Sensibility there are four heroes. Marianne, Colonel Brandon, Elinor and Edward. The villains are Fanny Dashwood (the sister-in-law), Lucy Steele (Edward’s intended), and Willoughby (Marianne’s object of infatuation).
Are Marianne And Colonel Brandon A Good Fit?
In the movie, Marianne and Colonel Brandon marry and both have made a good match. Marianne gets devotion and desired passion, and Brandon gets life breathed back into him again because of Marianne's lively spirit. Elinor and Edward are also well-matched in their uprightness, and desire to be and do good. All ends well for them. Fanny dislikes the Dashwoods and Lucy who become her in-laws, so when she finds out that Lucy and Elinor have hooked her brothers, she is not pleased.
Willoughby gains 50,000 English pounds and a pretty but snobby wife, but as seen in one of the final scenes he deeply regrets losing Marianne. In each character’s storyline there are moments that can be turned around to the worst possible outcome, so I'll show how that scenario would play out.
Marianne Wouldn't Have Been Happy With Willoughby
First, there’s Marianne and Willoughby. If Willoughby married despite Marianne's impoverished state, would they be happy? I’m sure there are some who wish they could have made it (and I’ll admit I wanted this myself at one point), but upon further inspection, I believe they would have been miserable, because Willoughby’s weak character. I can imagine him getting into more of the same trouble he got into in the film.
Colonel Brandon informs Elinor that Willoughby abandoned Colonel Brandon’s charge after having his way with her. After being disinherited he leaves Marianne without an explanation of why he wouldn’t propose to her when that was clearly what she expected from him. He said as he left, “I’ll not subject myself to this torture any longer!” Marianne’s own torture and bewilderment weren’t mentioned.
She didn’t even find out why he left — despite her numerous attempts — until Mrs. Jennings came with gossip about his recent engagement. The minute he was told by his relations that because of his debts, he would be cut off financially, he bailed.[insert photo] Yes, he loved her, but only in so far as his needs were served. In the end he chose himself, and it left Marianne reeling.
So, how will their look ten years later? If they wed would they still be turning heads with their crazy-in-love antics? I don’t think so. In true Willoughby form, he would continue to rack up gambling debts, serve his ego by having dalliances with ladies all over the county, and causes Marianne more pain than he's worth.
Marianne fell for the wrong guy. She ends up neglected and worried all the time, and as Willoughby has sucked all of the spirit out of her, she grows old before her time. Looking at the horror Marianne’s life could have been, it’s grand that things did turn out well for her when fate rewards her for letting Willoughby go (eventually) and maturing.
Colonel Brandon Would Have Suffered Without Marianne
If Willoughby had chosen Marianne, Colonel Brandon's life would have been worse than he deserved as well. Would he try love again? Mrs. Jennings would likely see to it that he had plenty of opportunities for a match, but he would resist. Seeing Marianne and Willoughby together would eventually take it’s toll on him, but I believe he would have remained alone.
The revelation that Elinor believes there is a mutual affection between Willoughby and Marianne, and with the loss of the love of his youth, it was the proverbial last straw. He would despise Willoughby, but he selflessly loves Marianne so he would remain constant, and his punishment would be ongoing. He treats her kindly though she chooses Willoughby, and tells Elinor of Willoughby’s indiscretions only when it may ease Marianne’s pain after he jilts her.
There doesn’t seem to be any redemption of his happiness--though he deserves it--only more quiet suffering, as he has done since his family forbade him from marrying his first love, so his punishment continues.
Brandon kindly offers his parish to Edward so he and Lucy can marry, and Brandon’s life could be so much sadder than he deserves if he wasn't rewarded for doing for others what was not done for him. What if Edward and Lucy Steele would have made a permanent match? Would life turn out any better for them than for the others?
What About Lucy?
Edward's impeccable character deserves to be rewarded, but what about Lucy? She isn’t outwardly awful, but when I imagine Lucy as a villain I see her insinuating herself with Edward's sister, Fanny. So does like cleave to like in this case? Yes.
Lucy is cunning, but when she meets Elinor for the first time, her facial expressions tell us she has an agenda; that she has a plan to overturn all that is good for Elinor. During the evening the Dashwood’s spend with Mrs. Jennings and her daughter Charlotte, Lucy intentionally spills to Elinor the “great secret” of her engagement to Edward, in order to cause Elinor pain, so by all accounts she should be punished. If she got what she wanted, and Edward was punished this is what their misery would look like.
Envision hordes of children, created solely to pin Edward eternally to Lucy's side. Imagine a social climber who tries to ingratiate herself to anyone in high society who will give her a leg up, so sincere and forthright Edward has to live with a sly, deceitful liar he can't trust. Tragic.
Because Lucy needs lots of attention--after she has borne said hordes--she over-engages herself socially and leaves Edward to care for the children. He's a disinherited vicar so because nannies and housekeepers aren't possible, Edward would try to take it all on. He’d end up burned out like Marianne, and much sadder and lonelier than his good character deserves.
Thankfully, in the movie, Lucy falls for Edward’s brother Robert, so a good man won't have to be unfairly miserable.
Elinor Would Be Alone
If Lucy and Edward wed, then Elinor must face her undeserved punishment as well. Maybe she ends up caring for her sister-in-law, Fanny. She hates Elinor, so although she has the character to be a caregiver, she would be miserable.
If she were punished instead of rewarded, she would also remain alone. She is so very practical that friendly companionship and financial partnership would be important, and although she cares nothing for riches, rich conversation like she shares with Edward is meaningful to her, so in this scenario, she must be a spinster.
It’s difficult to pair her with someone besides Edward, but it’s just as difficult to think that all her goodness might not be passed on. She should have children and raise them to be as good and kind as she is, even if they don’t get Edward for a father.
It would be a sad thing if Fanny had gotten her way where Elinor and Edward are concerned, and she remained alone, if fate turned her life upside down and punished her goodness. Meanwhile Fanny ends up with not one, but two sisters-in-law she believes are beneath her and Lucy marries a Ferrars like she wanted, but he is as weak-minded as she is, so that may end badly...
And as for Willoughby, he is seen at the end of the film high on a hilltop watching the wedding of Marianne and the Colonel. His look is regretful and sad, and the storm around him matches his demeanor. He is so far from happiness (Marianne), that the weather is different where he is.
Looking at Sense and Sensibility in the opposite way it was intended, brings to light that in the movie, the heroes and heroines are rewarded and the villains are punished and that's exactly how it should be.
Edward and Elinor wed in beautiful sunshine and smiles, as do Marianne and Colonel Brandon. They are seen driving off to cheering family and friends, looking like life is as full and joyful as it can be. Though it was difficult, the heroes and heroines persevered. Elinor kept her sense, Edward kept his promise, Brandon kept his honor, and Marianne earned sensibility.