Sense and Sensibility: Character Profiles
Colonel Brandon is a retired military officer and a friend of Sir John Middleton. He falls in love with Marianne and befriends her family. He always acts honorably and generously towards them. He has had an unhappy love life, having been forbidden by his family from marrying the woman he loved and having lived to regret it. He exemplifies selfless love, treating Marianne with sympathy and respect even when she ignores him due to her obsession with Willoughby. His patience is rewarded when Marianne comes to value him, and ultimately marries him.
Elinor is the heroine of the novel. She is the eldest daughter of Henry Dashwood and Mrs. Dashwood. She has a good heart and strong feelings, but crucially, “she knew how to govern them” (Volume I, Chapter I). As such, her character exemplifies the “sense” part of the novel’s title. She is more prudent and mature than her mother, to whom she has become a counselor despite her young years - she is only nineteen when the novel opens. She falls in love with Edward Ferrars, but with characteristic composure and in contrast to her sister’s conduct with John Willoughby, keeps her feelings to herself until Edward is free to return them.
Fanny Dashwood (Mrs. John Dashwood)
Fanny Dashwood (born Fanny Ferrars) is John Dashwood’s selfish, snobbish wife, the daughter of Mrs. Ferrars, and the sister of Edward Ferrars. She persuades her husband not to give any money to Mrs. Dashwood and her daughters, in spite of the promise he makes to the dying Henry Dashwood to look after them. After Henry Dashwood’s death, she wastes no time in moving into Norland Park, which her husband inherits from Henry Dashwood, effectively making Mrs. Dashwood and her daughters homeless.
Henry Dashwood is the husband of Mrs. Dashwood and the father of Elinor, Marianne, and Margaret by his second wife. By his first wife, he is the father of Mr. John Dashwood. He is the patriarch and owner of the Norland Park estate but dies in the first chapter. He inherited Norland Park from his uncle, the old Gentleman, with a proviso that the estate must pass after his (Henry Dashwood’s) death to John and then to John’s son Harry, missing out his own wife and daughters. Henry Dashwood is concerned for his wife and daughters’ welfare and on his deathbed, elicits a promise from John to look after them. By not specifying an amount of money, he either shows himself to be lacking in prudence, or to be so naïve as to assume that everyone acts according to the same moral standards as he himself does - perhaps both. He is both a victim and a perpetrator of the system of male-line primogeniture.
John Dashwood is the son of Henry Dashwood by his first marriage. He is a wealthy young man, because he has been left a fortune by his late mother, and because he has made a good marriage to a wealthy woman. He also inherits Norland Park on his father’s death. He begins with good intentions towards the widow and daughters of his late father, wanting dutifully to fulfill his father’s last request that he look after them. However, he is dominated by his selfish wife and she easily persuades him not to help the family at all. His hypocrisy is shown when he justifies this decision by claiming that giving the women an annuity will only harm them by encouraging them to live more extravagantly. John’s tendency to greed and snobbery, which is encouraged by his wife, is shown in his preoccupation with people’s rank and status. His selfishness is reinforced by his enclosure of the common lands near Norland Park.
Margaret is the youngest daughter of Henry Dashwood and Mrs. Dashwood, and is thirteen when the novel opens. Early in the novel, the reader is told that she has much of Marianne’s romantic nature, but without her good sense. Her role is largely to blurt out facts about her sisters’ romantic lives to other characters, thus drawing attention to the reserve and secrecy that characterized social interactions of the time.
Marianne is the middle daughter of Henry Dashwood and Mrs. Dashwood, and is sixteen when the novel opens. She shares Elinor’s cleverness, but unlike Elinor, knows neither moderation nor prudence in her joys and sorrows. Her character exemplifies the “sensibility” part of the novel’s title. In this respect, Marianne is like her mother, and the two women feed each other’s feelings of outrage and suffering in times of difficulty, such as when they are dispossessed of their home by John and Fanny Dashwood. Marianne allows her spontaneous, passionate nature to lead her into an ill-considered relationship with the unreliable John Willoughby. He rejects her, and she finally marries Colonel Brandon.
Critics point out that Marianne may be named after the national emblem of the French Republic that was established as a result of the French Revolution of 1789-1799. The French Marianne is the figure of a woman representing liberty. She was portrayed in commemorative statues and on coins.
Mrs. Dashwood is the widow of Henry Dashwood and the mother of Elinor, Marianne, and Margaret. Like Marianne, she responds emotionally to people and situations and does not know how to govern her feelings with caution, realism, and detachment. She is often wrong in her judgment of character, becoming as infatuated with the charming and plausible Willoughby, in her own way, as Marianne does.
Edward Ferrars is the eldest son of Mrs. Ferrars and the brother of Fanny. He is sensible, affectionate, and sensitive, but shy. He is not handsome and, unlike Willoughby, does not possess a ready charm: his good qualities only become apparent when his shyness is overcome by familiarity. He is unsuited to meet his mother and sister’s ambitions of wealth and status, as he only wants a simple domestic life. Lacking any profession for the first part of the novel, he describes himself as “an idle, helpless being” (Chapter XIX).
Edward falls in love with Elinor but is initially unable to declare his feelings because of a long-standing secret engagement to Lucy Steele. His mother disinherits him when she discovers the engagement, an act that paradoxically liberates Edward to do as he wishes. He becomes a clergyman. Freed from his obligation to Lucy when she deserts him after he is disinherited, he marries Elinor.
Mrs. Ferrars is the formidable mother of Edward Ferrars and Fanny Dashwood. She is a wealthy woman because, unlike Mrs. Dashwood, she inherited the fortune of her husband when he died. She wants Edward to achieve a position of power in society, perhaps as a politician, and to marry a wealthy woman. Edward’s future lies in her hands: though he is her eldest son, she disinherits him when she hears that he plans to marry the fortune-less Lucy Steele. Her priorities are money and status, not her son’s happiness.
Sophia Grey is the wealthy heiress for whom John Willoughby deserts Marianne. She ends up in a loveless marriage with Willoughby.
Mrs. Jennings is the talkative, cheerful, yet vulgar mother of Lady Middleton. She loves to gossip. She appoints herself to the job of marrying off the Dashwood daughters, and to this end, invites them to stay with her in London. While Marianne is initially intolerant of Mrs. Jennings’ insensitivities, she finally comes to share Elinor’s appreciation of her kindness.
Lady Middleton is the elegant but cold and insipid wife of Sir John Middleton. Her only interest is her four spoiled children, and she has nothing to say on any other subject. She is a snob who plans to cultivate Willoughby’s wife’s friendship because she is a woman of wealth and fashion. This is in spite of the fact that she only recently condemned Willoughby’s betrayal of Marianne (a condemnation that was issued solely to appear to occupy the moral high ground).
Sir John Middleton
Sir John Middleton is a relative of the Dashwood women. He invites them to live at Barton Cottage on his estate after they are made homeless. A friendly and kindly but somewhat unimaginative and vulgar man, he is chiefly interested in hunting, shooting, and socializing, and sees everybody and everything through this narrow prism.
The old Gentleman
The old Gentleman is the unnamed Dashwood patriarch who leaves the Norland Park estate to his nephew, Henry Dashwood. Following the tradition of male-line primogeniture, and out of a whimsical affection for Henry Dashwood’s son John’s small son, Harry, the old Gentleman stipulates in his will that on Mr. Henry Dashwood’s death, Norland should pass directly down the male line to John and thence to Harry, leaving Mr. Henry Dashwood’s wife and daughters homeless and in reduced circumstances.
It can hardly be coincidence that “the old Gentleman” was a traditional English nickname for the devil. In her depiction of the plight of the Dashwood women, Austen was showing how much suffering could unintentionally be created by the whimsy and inattention of one rich (and not unkind) old man.
Charlotte Palmer is Mrs. Jennings' cheerful but foolish and chattering daughter, the sister of Lady Middleton, and the wife of Thomas Palmer. She invites the Dashwood sisters to stay at her home in Cleveland on their way from London to Barton Cottage.
Thomas Palmer is Charlotte Palmer’s brusque husband. He has little patience with his wife and treats her rudely, but comes to respect Elinor and Marianne.
Anne Steele is Lucy Steele’s older, unmarried sister. She is less discreet than Lucy and unintentionally reveals the secret of Lucy’s engagement to Edward Ferrars. Anne exceeds her sister in vulgarity, and her speech is full of grammatical errors and provincial turns of phrase.
Lucy Steele is the cousin of Mrs. Jennings. Lacking a fortune, she goes about luring a wealthy husband in a sly and calculating manner. She ingratiates herself with Elinor and lets her into her secret: she has been secretly engaged to Edward Ferrars for four years. Though at first she does not know that Elinor and Edward are growing closer, she eventually realizes this. Rather than confronting Elinor directly, she fishes for information in a roundabout way. Lucy professes to love Edward, but when he is disinherited, she instantly deserts him for the new heir, his brother Robert. She is revealed to be greedy and a social climber, pretending to be fond of Lady Middleton’s children only in order to gain the favor of this powerful woman within the family into which she intends to marry.
Lucy represents a recurrent figure in Austen’s novels, the unknowable person with secrets (Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill in her novel, Emma, are other examples; they also have a secret engagement). For much of the novel, the reader is in the dark about her motives and true feelings: all that is clear is that she is untrustworthy, and even this is only apparent to the most perceptive characters in the novel. Most of the characters, including the Ferrars, are taken in by her ability to preserve the social niceties and conventions. For the Ferrars, the veneer is finally broken by Anne Steele’s revelation of Lucy’s engagement to Edward, which immediately incurs the family’s hostility because their wealth and status are threatened. The resolution to Lucy’s story is heavily ironic: she marries Robert Ferrars, the new heir to the family fortune, even though Mrs. Ferrars disinherited Edward for intending to marry her.
Lucy is never open about her true feelings and motives, and the implication is that they would not bear up to close examination by honest people. The discrepancy between her inner nature and outer appearance is characterized by her speech, which has the appearance of gentility but which is full of grammatical errors.
John Willoughby is a charming and handsome young man who wins Marianne’s love. He proves unreliable, greedy, and deceitful, heartlessly deserting her to marry the wealthy Sophia Grey. While his true feelings for Marianne are not made clear until the novel’s end, he finally reveals that he did love her, but was too weak to resist the lure of a rich wife.
Willoughby’s name symbolically recalls the Will o’ the Wisp, a dialect name given in some parts of England to the mysterious lights that were said to lead travelers from well-trodden paths into treacherous marshes. The suggestion is that Willoughby leads Marianne astray and even puts her in danger of her life (when she falls ill) through his irresponsible flirtation.