“Elinor, too, was deeply afflicted; but still she could struggle, she could exert herself. . . . and could strive to rouse her mother to similar exertion” –Sense and Sensibility, chapter 1.
Elinor Dashwood, who faces many trials, constantly “exerts herself.” Today we might think of exertion as working hard, probably with physical labor. But Elinor’s exertions always begin in her mind and heart, with self-control. They result in right, honorable external behavior.
In Austen’s view, there is a right path through every situation, and we must exert ourselves to follow it. By exertion, she means “struggling to do the right thing out of a sense of religious duty,” according to Laura Mooneyham White (60). Religious duty, for an Anglican like Austen, includes duties to God and duties to other people. Elinor’s exertions in Sense and Sensibility are mostly to do her duty towards other people. Duties to others, according to the Anglican catechism, are summed up in Jesus’s commands to love your neighbour as you love yourself, and to treat others as you would want to be treated.
Exertions for Family (however irritating they are)
After Elinor’s father dies, her half-brother John and his wife Fanny rudely take over the house while Elinor and her mother and sisters are still grieving. Her mother can barely tolerate them, but Elinor, despite her grief, struggles and exerts herself to receive them properly and attentively, as is her duty.
John has promised his father that he would provide for his sisters. He intends to give them dowries, but, in a hilarious parody of selfishness, Fanny persuades him that all he needs do is help them move houses. He plans to make this one “exertion,” but they move too far away, so he can’t even assuage his conscience by helping them a little. Later Fanny “exerts” herself to say she is sorry that Elinor and Marianne are leaving London, rather than doing what she should have done earlier, inviting them to stay with her. John and Fanny’s “exertions” to do far less than their duty are a caricature of Elinor’s true exertions.
Exertions for Love
Elinor falls in love with Edward Ferrars, but Lucy Steele tells her that she and Edward are secretly engaged. Elinor has to respond “with an exertion of spirits, which increased with her increase of emotion.” Convinced that Edward and Lucy are truly engaged, “she was almost overcome—her heart sunk within her, and she could hardly stand; but exertion was indispensably necessary; and she struggled so resolutely against the oppression of her feelings, that her success was speedy, and for the time complete.” She promises Lucy to keep the engagement secret, but needs “unceasing exertion” to hide it from her family. It takes even more exertion for her to tell Edward about the living Colonel Brandon is giving him, which will enable him to marry Lucy. This again is Elinor’s duty, an act of kindness she has promised to do, but she suffers as she exerts herself to do it.
What duties is Elinor exerting herself to fulfill? Her duties to love other people and treat them as she wants to be treated are:
- First, to keep her promise to Lucy, thus acting with honesty and integrity.
- Second, to overcome her feelings for Edward, who belongs to Lucy, since he is already promised to her. (Loving a married man—or even an engaged one—would be a sin.)
- Third, not to make her family miserable by showing her own misery.
When the secret is finally revealed, Elinor tells her sister that she has found peace and comfort only through “constant and painful exertion” over a period of time, as she suffered silently while doing what she knew was right.
Marianne: Exertion vs. Selfishness
Elinor’s sister Marianne, on the other hand, falls in love with the dishonorable Willoughby. When he leaves her she wallows in her suffering, not exerting herself either to overcome her own pain or to give less pain to her family.
Elinor tells her, “”Exert yourself, . . . if you would not kill yourself and all who love you. Think of your mother; think of her misery while you suffer: for her sake you must exert yourself.” When Marianne finally recognizes Elinor’s exertions, at first she tortures herself even more and sinks deeper into misery. However, after her life-threatening illness, Marianne repents of her selfishness, of having failed in “every exertion of duty or friendship.” When she returns home she exerts herself to face her disappointment and to be as cheerful as she can for her family’s sake. She tries to do her duty towards them rather than selfishly considering only her own feelings.
Colonel Brandon’s Exertions of Love
Colonel Brandon has been very reserved about his past sufferings. But because he loves Marianne, and wants to mitigate her sufferings, he tells Elinor the story of his lost love Eliza and her daughter, and Willoughby’s seduction and abandonment of the daughter. Brandon hopes this will help Marianne to grieve less over the worthless man she has lost. He has to “exert” himself to do what is right, what will benefit his “neighbour” Marianne, and tell his story. His “painful exertion of disclosing past sorrows and present humiliations” at least causes Marianne to pity him, and to realize that she is better off without Willoughby. Brandon’s exertions for Marianne’s sake finally lead to his reward: she marries him.
Elinor’s Exertions Rewarded
Near the end, Elinor is devastated to hear that Edward is married. When he visits, she resolves to “exert herself” and ask about his wife, knowing this is the right and polite thing to do. She is rewarded by learning that Lucy has married Edward’s brother, and that Edward is now free!
I think, however, that even if Edward had married Lucy, Elinor would have exerted herself and truly gotten over him and been happy with someone else. She had learned to control her actions and emotions, and to do what was right and necessary: to do her religious duty. A clear conscience (which, at the end of the book, Lucy, Fanny, and John could not have), and the ability to be content and do right, were already Elinor’s reward.
In the modern world, we are more often encouraged to selfishly indulge ourselves than to selflessly exert ourselves. Is there any area of your life where you might need to exert yourself more, to do something you know is right? For myself, today I have some hard tasks to do. I want to exert myself to do them cheerfully, lovingly, and without complaining.
“A Catechism.” The Book of Common Prayer. Cambridge: John Baskerville, 1762. The catechism, a series of questions and answers that Anglican children memorized, explains one’s duties to God and man.
Austen, Jane. The Complete Works of Jane Austen. Palmera Publishing. Kindle Edition.
Tave, Stuart M. Some Words of Jane Austen. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973, pages 112-113.
White, Laura Mooneyham. Jane Austen’s Anglicanism. London and New York: Routledge, 2016. Taylor and Francis, Kindle edition.