One of the more interesting aspects of the way that Jane Austen’s Sense & Sensibility has been portrayed is the different feelings and judgments people make towards two of its male characters. When Marianne falls passionately in love with Willoughby, some people find him to be dashing, while others are dismayed as his villainy, which includes seducing Eliza Williams and leaving her pregnant and alone while then moving off to court Marianne until forced to leave Allenham by his elderly relative and then marrying the heiress Miss Grey for her cash. Willoughby’s villainy is obvious and so is his charm, as many readers are willing to forgive him everything for his use of that charm to attempt to captivate Elinor and explain himself, even if the narrator is less kind to him.
Whatever strong feelings Willoughby excites, though, do not tend to be excited by the bland and unimpressive Edward Ferrars. If he comes off less badly than his two siblings, it is because his younger brother Robert Ferrars is an empty suit of a gentleman who Elinor judges rightly as not being worthy of rational opposition, and his sister Mrs. John Dashwood is among the most mercenarial and selfish people in a novel peopled full of them, just like their mother, Mrs. Ferrars. Yet it must be noted that Edward Ferrars behaves not so differently from Willoughby, and their similarities demonstrate something of the vulnerability of both Marianne and Elinor, and more generally of people (and women) at large when it comes to the way that others behave.
We meet Edward Ferrars when he shows up at Norland Park in the period after the death of Elinor, Marianne, and Margaret’s father, and is so friendly and attentive to Elinor that he is widely supposed to be her suitor. This is not exactly accurate, but Edward, for all of his diffidence and modesty, does nothing to convince his sister or the Dashwoods that he is not eligible for being considered as a suitor to the sensible and responsible Elinor. He later goes to visit the Dashwood ladies in Barton Park and stays at their cottage for a period of a week, immediately after leaving Exeter, and though his spirits are noted to be low, he does not in any way open up to Elinor (or anyone else there) how he is both interested in Elinor but unable to do anything about it. It is only when Lucy Steele shows up at the end of Book One of Sense & Sensibility that Elinor and the reader are told about Edward’s secret engagement for the past four years.
One of the most notable aspects of Sense & Sensibility, and one that attracts little notice, is that all of the male romantic characters are in fact examples of Mr. Wrong. If Willoughby is the most charismatic of the potential romantic partners, he is a spendthrift and seducer who casually plays with Marianne’s heart and leaves her in despair after abandoning any connection with her to marry for money, while then blaming his behavior on the (understandable) jealousy of his wife. If Colonel Brandon comes off as being one of those understanding and gallant middle-aged gentlemen of literature, like Mr. Knightley, he is also somewhat opportunistic in his courtship of Marianne after her disappointment with Willoughby, and if his sponsorship of Edward Ferrars for the living he has to bestow is an act of fortunate generosity, it is also an act that is also intensely shrewd in helping his pursuit of his own interests. Edward Ferrars quite honestly does not deserve Elinor, after leading her own and leading her into her own more private and less showy despair, in being a self-absorbed mope who cannot see the harm he is doing to others, and in enlisting Elinor’s help to get him a living when he has been cast aside by his mother for his unwise engagement.
What Sense & Sensibility is telling the reader in the parallel stories of Elinor and Marianne is that neither open-hearted sincerity and emotional sensitivity nor practical sense is necessarily of any safety when it comes to matters of the heart. Regardless of how sensible and practical we are, we can be led astray by others, and we can be led astray both by charming rogues and people whose timidity and diffidence indicates a near total lack of charm at all. We can be led astray so easily because we do not have all the information we need to make wise decisions about the character of others–not least because the information we most need to know is what others are most inclined to hide or disguise. If things work out for the best, it is usually because of divine authorial providence and not because of our own doing. We simply do not and cannot know enough to be safe in our dealings with others. There are risks in being too cautious and too reckless. We can simply never be sure how things are going to turn out no matter how much we to work things out ahead of time. And if that is often a less than enjoyable reality, it is reality all the same.