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Article: “Faultless” Cottages: A Comparison of Edward Ferrars & John Willoughby in Sense and Sensibility

Oh Edward! How Can You? An illustration from Sense and Sensibility

“Faultless” Cottages: A Comparison of Edward Ferrars & John Willoughby in Sense and Sensibility

"Oh Edward! How can you?" - Marianne chastises Edward for joking about Willoughby looking for a wife. Austen, Jane. Sense and Sensibility. London: George Allen, 1899, page 104.

Abigail Rinkenberger considers the similar motivating factors that influence the characters of Edward Ferrars and John Willoughby in Sense and Sensibility, comparing the ways in which each responds to their own particular social pressures.

Differing from many male Austen figures, Edward Ferrars and John Willoughby are bound by actions of the past – what occurred before the novel, not the present – what occurs in the novel. Although, in Sense and Sensibility, both men commit erroneous decisions, Willoughby’s idealisation taints his viewpoint, eliminating his empathy and focusing his attention on his ambitions. Comparatively, in his unobtrusive demeanour, Edward Ferrars possesses neither Willoughby’s charisma. nor the attractive qualities of other Austen heroes, such as Mr. Darcy’s eloquence or Mr. Knightley’s geniality. However, Edward’s consciousness of his earlier mistakes and his willingness to rectify them, regardless of how it torments him, reveals his nobility and stable perspective. In light of the men’s economic dependence on their maternal figures and the consequent social pressures they confront, idealisation and a false sense of security narrows Willoughby’s perception of other individuals and his setting, resulting in thoughtless decisions, while the maturity Edward attains from personal experience balances his perception of others and his setting, resulting in the maintenance of his integrity.

Both Edward and Willoughby’s economic stability rest on unstable ground: the grace of their maternal figures. As a member of the “gentry,” Edward Ferrars “has to have inherited, not made, [money]” (Segal 133). Thus, his economic security, in a word, depends “on his mother’s goodwill” (Hopkins 76), endowing him with the role of a sycophant. Although, as he expresses to Mrs. Dashwood, Edward desired to pursue a career in “the church,” his family’s disapproval of its lack of prestige resulted in his status as an “idle, helpless being” (Austen 99). Edward’s family deemed his unemployment as “advantageous and honourable,” likely as it elevated him from the toil of the nineteenth-century labor class. As a result, Edward perceives his fortune as a form of confinement, denying him the independence he desires and tying him to the wishes of his family. Similarly, Austen relates that “Willoughby had no property of his own in the country; he resided there only while he was visiting the old lady at Allenham Court, to whom he was related, and whose possessions he was to inherit” (42).

Willoughby’s attainment of wealth, comparable to Edward’s, revolves around the death of his aunt, which, as Willoughby notes, is an “event being uncertain, and possibly far distant” (312). Like Edward, Willoughby does not appear to possess a profession, yet he does not, unlike Edward, appear to desire one. Because Willoughby’s status and access to resources pivots on the reception of his friends, gratifying others becomes an occupation for him. Through his “open, affectionate manners” (46), Willoughby rapidly gains the favor of the Dashwoods and becomes a regular attendant at Mr. John Middleton’s dinners and dances. Consequently, when Willoughby treats Marianne with coldness in London (170-171) and, eventually, when his engagement is ascertained (187), Mrs. Jennings, the Middletons, and their associates shun him (209-210). Because Willoughby, at that point, can no longer gain a financial advantage from his relationship with the individuals from Devonshire, he feels compelled to please his future wife more than his former friends. Accordingly, by forming a more lucrative connection, Willoughby loses his position in the Barton Park circle and acts counter to his “open, affectionate manners.”

During the interim in attaining their wealth, the men differ in how they establish relationships considering their economic insecurity. Both men face the pressure to marry a wealthy woman; however, while Willoughby’s is primarily economic, Edward’s is primarily familial. Willoughby’s prospect of affluence endows him with an idealized notion of security, resulting in imprudent actions and his subsequent marriage to evade their consequences. Willoughby confesses to Elinor that when he first met Marianne, he “endeavoured by every means in [his] power, to make [himself] pleasing to her, without any design of returning her affection” (312). Previous to meeting Marianne,

“[h]e had left [Eliza, Colonel Brandon’s ward,] whose youth and innocence he had seduced, in a situation of the utmost distress, with no creditable home, no help, no friends, ignorant of his address!” (204).

His remiss attitude manifested in his relationships with women reflects one of a man financially secure. However, while an opulent gentleman can afford liaisons, protected by his wealth and reputation, Willoughby’s imprudence carries more weight due to his financial dependence. Willoughby’s indiscretion paired with his general “expensive” tastes (205), which liken him to Robert Ferrars, indicate his illusion of security: he acts as if he had already attained his inheritance. When Mrs. Smith discovers his misconduct, she presses him to marry Eliza (317). Her command fractures his illusion, confronting him with the reality that he does not possess the agency he had exercised. Thus, unable to reconcile his expensive desires and face the consequences of his misconduct, he perceives his marriage to Miss Grey as the solution to sustaining his chimera of financial security.

Comparatively, Edward, in his dignity, accepts and binds himself to the relational errors of his past, while confronting the expectations of his marriage to an affluent woman and his own feelings for another. As a pupil of Lucy Steele’s uncle, Edward had become enamoured by Lucy Steele, as his

“youthful infatuation of nineteen would naturally blind him to every thing but her beauty and good-nature” (134).

This shallow persuasion formed the foundation for their secret engagement – secret due to the anticipated disapprobation of his family, as, similar to Eliza, Lucy does not possess high status. Yet, when Edward recognizes Lucy’s “defects of education” (134) and frivolous nature, he does not break off the engagement. Edward comprehends his personal despondency and the looming financial diminution facing his decision, imbuing his person with a “melancholy” air (134), yet he empathizes with Lucy’s dependence on him. Lucy’s guise of attachment for him, visible through her letters, persuades him of her constancy of affection (359). The couple’s distance and lack of in person communication prevents Edward from detecting Lucy’s schemes for his wealth, which are revealed when Lucy later marries Edward’s brother (352), proving that “Lucy attaches herself to the current heir apparent” (Easton 120). Although, similar to Willoughby’s “indifference” to Eliza (Austen 314), Edward is internally unattached to Lucy, he acknowledges, to his dismay, his role in his initial devotion to her and accepts the consequences. Unlike Willoughby, in Edward’s eyes, no exit to wealth – in Miss Morton – or happiness – in Elinor – exists to rescue him.

Willoughby’s idealisation differs from Edward’s candour, transcending their view of their surroundings from preferences to perspectives. When Mrs. Dashwood announces her plans for renovating Barton Cottage, Willoughby expresses a passionate defense of the building, reminiscient of that of Robert Ferrars (245):

“To me it is faultless. Nay, more, I consider it as the only form of building in which happiness is attainable; and were I rich enough, I would instantly pull Combe down, and build it up again in the exact plan of this cottage.” (70)

In response to Elinor’s queries of its defects, Willoughby remarks, “in no one convenience or inconvenience about it, should the least variation be perceptible” (71). Willoughby possesses an idealized perception of his setting. Disregarding its faults, he focuses, in a Romantic sense, on the feelings which the house elicits – feelings tied to Marianne. Willoughby’s narrow perception of the cottage reflects his own understanding of humanity and flawed notion of his security; it blinds him to his misconduct and empowers the exclusive attention he pays to Marianne in social settings (47).

Further, the extremism which characterises Willoughby’s behaviour juxtaposes with the balance imposed by Edward’s. When inquired by Marianne of his opinion on the country setting, Edward remarks, “It is a beautiful country [...] but these bottoms must be dirty in the winter” (86). Edward’s perception yields a balanced view of his surroundings. He notes “its full dynamic, its winter muddiness as much as its summer verdure” (Edgecombe 616), appreciating its beauty but also acknowledging its capacity for dirtiness. His own experience of the dangers of extremism, such as his “blind” (Austen 134) affection for Lucy, shapes his perspective. In addition, Edward possesses a “sense of change more mature than Marianne’s aestheticism of savored moments” (Edgecombe 616). While the setting may radiate in “its summer verdure,” Edward perceives how defects can transpire when seasons shift. In other words, while Lucy initially appears flawless, time and personal maturity unveils her flaws to Edward. Further, his gesture to the “bottoms” counters Marianne’s earlier praise of the “hills” (Austen 86), which symbolize an idealism similar to that of Willoughby’s. Edward later expands on his insight: “I like a fine prospect, but not on picturesque principles. [...] I do not like ruined, tattered cottages” (95). While Barton Cottage does not meet the standard of a “ruined” or “tattered” cottage, Edward’s statement contrasts with Willoughby’s idealization of it. In his affinity for uniting “beauty with utility” (94), Edward does not perceive “tattered cottages” as emblems of beauty but as inadequate places of habitation. Essentially, both men harbor a regard for Barton Cottage. However, while Willoughby’s regard arises from the building’s association with Marianne and causes him to ignore its faults, Edward, as evinced by his balanced view of his environs, would appreciate the comfort of Barton Cottage but acknowledge its defects.

In addition to their distinct perceptions of their settings, Austen employs the men’s differing reactions to art to unveil the deception of Willoughby’s actions and the sincerity of Edward’s. Willoughby’s spirit and enthusiasm for art first attracts Marianne. Austen writes,

“The same books, the same passages were idolised by each – or, if any difference appeared, any objection arose, it lasted no longer than till the force of her arguments and the brightness of her eyes could be displayed. He acquiesced in all her decisions, caught all her enthusiasm” (44).

Willoughby, though equipped with certain aesthetic ideals to converse well, possesses less depth of opinion than Marianne attributes to him. He acts more fully as a mirror to Marianne, concurring with all her “decisions,” causing Marianne to fall in love with her ideal, a man who “[enters] into all [her] feelings” (16). In the discussion of art and setting, Willoughby intends only to please, while Edward, in his “spiritless” readings (16) and view of his surroundings, does not. Despite Marianne’s criticism of Edward’s deficiency of “real taste” in the artistic sense, Edward’s openness to acknowledge this (94) and his self-awareness of his perceptions bests the thoughtless expressions of Willoughby. At heart, Edward’s actions and responses reveal the self-reflection that Willoughby lacks.

When Willoughby, in retrospect, contemplates the potential result of marriage to Marianne, he maximizes Marianne’s capabilities and minimizes the monetary suffering the couple would endure. Addressing Elinor, Willoughby laments,

“To avoid a comparative poverty, which [Marianne’s] affection and her society would have deprived of all its horrors, I have, by raising myself to affluence, lost everything that could make it a blessing” (313).

Elinor, when she later contemplates Willoughby’s statement, conveys that while Willoughy “[a]t present” “regrets what he has done,” she questions whether he would have been “happy” with Marianne (343). She argues,

“He would have had a wife of whose temper he could make no complaint, but he would have been always necessitous – always poor; and probably would soon have learnt to rank the innumerable comforts of a clear estate and good income as of far more importance” (343-344).

Willoughby’s present discontentment – his lack of conjugal satisfaction – blinds him to his natural proclivity for wealth. Moreover, his claim that Marianne’s “society” would have remedied the “horrors” of “poverty,” and the ardour in which he phrases it, demonstrates his perilous magnification of Marianne’s capacities. He perceives her as the sole benefactress of his happiness, an ideal which, if executed, would have pressured Marianne to please him continuously and suppress her own anguish. Fundamentally, Willoughby perceives women as saviors from the immediate affliction he experiences: in Eliza, a savior from sexual desire or ennui, in Miss Grey, a savior from financial strains, and in Marianne, a savior from the absence of domestic happiness. Thus, in an attempt to reckon Marianne to the likelihood of her and Willoughby’s domestic discontent, Elinor reveals the inconstancy of affection which undergirds Willoughby’s behaviour toward women and the idealisation which underlies his perspective.

Conversely, in alignment with his principled behaviour, Edward withdraws from Elinor and acts to secure the happiness of his future wife, Lucy Steele. Moreover, when he and Elinor are free to marry, they do not romanticise the financial context of their marriage but approach it pragmatically. While Edward admits he was “wrong in remaining so much in Sussex,” where Norland is located, he claims that he perceived only his own threat of falling in love, unconscious of Elinor’s regard (360). After Elinor’s exit from Norland, Edward checks his conduct by maintaining physical distance from her, utilizing reserve when they reunite, and often exiting the room when they are alone (36-37, 87, 93). While Willoughby also conveys reticence in London when he meets Marianne at a party (170-171), he does it not to guard his own honor but to appease his fiancé, who is physically present. Thus, Edward’s “integrity” (262), as Elinor notes, radiates even further as he faces trials without the presence of his fiancé and anticipates no economic gain, as Willoughby does, in his marriage. After Mrs. Ferrars’ dismisses Edward from

her graces once she discovers his secret engagement, Edward, with the aid of Colonel Brandon, assumes control of a rectory in Delaford (280-282) and actively prepares for his marriage; he does not, as Willoughby does, idealize Lucy’s role as a remedy to economic instability. At the end of the novel, when Edward and Elinor prepare to marry, Austen indicates that “they were neither of them quite enough in love to think that three hundred and fifty pounds a-year would supply them with the comforts of life” (361). Dissimilar to Willoughby, the couple perceives their economic situation clearly and acts to regain the favor of Mrs. Ferrars in order to marry with greater financial stability (364-366).

In essence, both Willoughby and Edward face similar economic and social pressures due to their financial reliance on others. However, Willoughby, assured in his eventual acquirement of wealth through inheritance, establishes and demolishes relationships without care. Consequently, when confronted with the repercussions of his actions, he views a well off marriage as the solution to his present economic troubles and personal dejection. Through his idealized perspective, Willoughby’s fixations become like “faultless” cottages. He cannot see Marianne’s nuances, the insecurity of his situation, nor his dependence on wealth. In contrast, Edward accepts the consequences of the imprudent actions of his youth, namely his secret engagement to Lucy Steele, and endures familial ire on account of his compassion for her. The personal development Edward undergoes as a result of his experience levels his perception of others and his environs. At heart, Edward models the ideal view that one should possess: a view from the “bottoms” (86), which captures the mire of the grounds and the grandeur of the hills, the faults of humanity as well as its virtues.

Abigail Rinkenberger is a writer and reader with a found love for obscure words and nineteenth-century tomes. She publishes blog posts surrounding art, life, literature, and beauty at Her work can also be found in Blue Marble Review, and she has received a prize in the Youth category of the Maria W. Faust Sonnet Contest

Works Cited

Austen, Jane. Sense and Sensibility. ViVi Classics, 2018.

Easton, Celia A. “‘Sense and Sensibility’ and the Joke of Substitution.” The Journal of Narrative Technique, vol. 23, no. 2, 1993, pp. 120. JSTOR,

Edgecombe, Rodney S. “Change and Fixity in ‘Sense and Sensibility.’” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, vol. 41, no. 3, 2001, pp. 616. JSTOR,

Hopkins, Lisa. “Jane Austen and Money.” The Wordsworth Circle, vol. 25, no. 2, 1994, pp. 76. JSTOR,

Segal, Lore. “The Uses of Story: Jane Austen on Our Unwillingness to Be Parted from Our Money.” The Antioch Review, vol. 54, no. 2, 1996, pp. 133. JSTOR, 

1 comment

Really enjoyable and enlightening article. You opened up the characters of Edward and Willoughby, bringing forth some deeper aspects I hadn’t picked up on. I shall definitely be reading S&S again with eyes opened wider. Thank you Poppi

Poppi C

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