Jane Austen’s novel Sense and Sensibility illustrates a number of characteristics particular to Romantic Literature. Of these characteristics, few are better utilized to offer a view into the individual temperaments of her characters than the images of natural beauty present throughout the novel. In contrast to the Neo-classical ideal, which reserves no place for the appreciation of the sublime in nature in its structure and design, Romantic literature expresses a deep reverence and awe toward the natural world. In the case of Sense and Sensibility, this appreciation is manipulated to produce a subtle, but humorous reflection on the temperament of the Miss Dashwoods.
Upon Edward Ferrars’ arrival at Barton, he joins Marianne and Elinor on their walk back to the cottage. During this walk, a discourse on the surroundings begins after Elinor comments that Norland “probably looks much as it always does at this time of year” (p. 77). Elinor’s comment comes as a somewhat perturbed response to Marianne’s overzealous inquiries concerning the appearance of Norland. Elinor also mentions that it is probably rather gloomy and untidy because of the dead leaves that cover the woods and walks. This prompts and even more dramatic exclamation from Marianne: “‘Oh!’ cried Marianne, ‘with what transporting sensations have I formerly seen them fall!’” (p. 77). In this line, and in those that follow, it seems that Marianne gets carried away with her appreciation of the dead leaves on the ground. In the description of them as inspiring “transporting sensations” in her, the extent of Marianne’s “sensibility” is aptly conveyed in a very concise scene.
The “sense” that is characteristic of Elinor is depicted in her response to Marianne’s exaggerated praises: “‘It is not every one,’ said Elinor, ‘who has your passion for dead leaves’” (p. 77). It is not that she is unmoved by the beauty of her surroundings, but she understands the difference between what is truly worthy of praise, and what would be an exaggeration or possibly even an affectation. She does not have the propensity to swoon when she thinks of the dead leaves at Norland, but she has the wit and sense to subtly joke about her sister.
This brief, but telling exchange between the two sisters serves as a fine example of Austen’s ability to offer the reader a true sense of each sisters’ qualities, without overburdening him with a direct description. She uses the appreciation of nature as the crux of a humorous exchange between a sister who too often gets carried away and another who knows better. The reader can enjoy the humor of the scene, while gaining an understanding of the personalities of the sisters in a first hand manner.