The principal ingredients of Jane Austen novel are matrimony. She is preoccupied with the business of making matches for her heroines. Generally the heroine after a few false starts, meets the right man and, while a series of misunderstanding and frustrations may occur, she is eventually united with him. Morning calls, dinner parties, dances, shopping excursions, visits to beauty spots or places of historical interest, weddings, and similar other happenings are the chief ingredients of her novels. In addition to the realism of such events, we find in her novels an abundance of realistic character portraits. She shows an acute grasp of the human mind and human motives and reveals us with great skill. She is concerned not only with the external character, but also with a psychological study of it. Her portraits of women are more successful than those of men. And another noteworthy characterization in her novels is that there are neither any perfect or idealized characters nor any full villains.
Matrimony is a leading theme of Sense and Sensibility. Mrs. Henry Dashwood wants her daughters to be married happily; and, of course, she wants them to find well-to-do husbands who really love them and whom they can love too. She feels very happy to perceive a growing attachment between Elinor and Edward Ferrars, and she begins to feel confident that the two would get married soon. Similarly, she begins to hope for a marriage between Marianne and Willoughby soon after Willoughby has first met Marianne and has subsequently become a daily visitor at Barton Cottage. The Elinor-Edward affair and the Willoughby-Marianne affair, followed eventually by Elinor's marriage to Edward and Marianne's marriage to Colonel Brandon, constitute the two major stories of this novel. This is certainly a realistic aspect of the novel because most mothers in those days in England, and even in our times, and everywhere, are preoccupied with the matrimonial future of their daughters.
In this connection we cannot ignore the role of Mrs. Jennings, who is more interested in matchmaking than anything else. The author in this connection wittily tells us that, after her two daughters had respectably been married, she had nothing to do but to marry all the rest of the world. In the promotion of this object she was zealously active; and she missed no opportunity of projecting marriages among all the young people of her acquaintance. There is no exaggeration in these statements about an elderly woman like Mrs. Jennings.
Lucy is very keen to marry Edward, who has been engaged to her for the last four years and who had given her a promise of marriage. But she immediately changes her color when she learns that Robert, brother of Edward, is financially more secure than Edward. She gives up Edward and gets married to Robert. Sense and Sensibility gives us a comprehensive and faithful picture of the matrimonial market in England of Jane Austen's time.
We are given a true and realistic picture of the way in which women generally behave towards the relatives of their husbands. The opening chapters of this novel describe the conduct of Mrs. Fanny Dashwood towards her husband's step-mother and step-sisters. Fanny’s attitude towards these relatives of her husband is characterized by coldness, selfishness, and narrow-mindedness. John Dashwood would like to make a gift of some money to his stepmother and stepsisters: but Fanny argues the matter with him in such a shrewd and yet plausible manner that he has to change his mind. Fanny succeeds in prevailing upon her husband to give no financial help at all to his step-mother and his stepsisters. This sort of thing happens today also in most families, even in our own country where people are still very conservative; but this sort of thing was perhaps more widespread in Jane Austen's time. And here we have to note that Fanny's attitude towards her own family, to her own mother and brothers, is markedly different. She is very devoted to them all. She looks forward to a very bright and prosperous future for Edward; and she feels very disappointed when Robert gets married to Lucy instead of to an heiress.
Sir John Middle may be regarded as an epitome of an important aspect of the social life of the times. He Iives only to entertain his friends at his house and invite them to dinners, lunches and dances. To lead this kind of social life is his chief activity. He is a man of a very cheerful and optimistic temperament, and he takes as much pleasure in gossip as women do. He speaks of engagements and marriages in the same way as women do. He seems to be totally unaware of the dark side of human nature, and is amazed at learning that Willoughby has discarded Marianne. He is at pains to maintain intimate social relations with the Dashwood family. He seeks opportunities of inviting the entire Dashwood family for a lunch or a dinner at his residence. When the Palmers come to him for a short stay, he takes them immediately to Barton Cottage, in order to introduce them to the Dashwood family: and then he invites the Dashwood family for a lunch on the very following day. He feels very happy when Mrs. Jennings brings the Steele sisters to stay at Barton Park for a time. Indeed, in entertaining guests, he is entirely undiscriminating. He has no prejudices, and no preferences either. He sums this aspect of the social life of the times both in the countryside and in the town. Even his wife is by no means averse to these dinners and dance-parties at her residence. In fact, she feels proud of the elegance of her dining table.
Garrulity, gossips, rumor-mongering, and triviality of the society is projected realistically by Jane Austen. Mrs. Jennings is a garrulous, gossipy kind of woman who never tires of talking. There is hardly any subject under the sun, which escapes her observation, or her notice, or her comment. She introduces all kinds of details into her talk, straying from the main subject of a conversation at several points, and even forgetting to return to the main points. She gives us the impression that apart from marriage and engagement, the chief occupation of the people of the time was talk, gossip, and rumor-mongering. Mrs. Palmer is another talkative woman in the novel. She talks on the point of silliness. Her husband thinks her stupid. She goes on talking so as to show her a social being, whereas her husband, loves to be reserved for some time. But, later on, he starts talking and sometimes without having anything weighty to talk on. Their excessive talkativeness shows only their shallow-mindedness and superficiality. None of these persons are fit or competent to talk about politics or about social problems or about any other serious matter. The men talk about riding, hunting, horsemen-ship, and the women talk about social visits, engagements, marriages, and child-birth.
Robert Ferrars is another example of shallow-mindedness, and foolish talk. Elinor calls him a coxcomb He is really a boastful, egoistic young man, very proud of his public school education. He speaks about his elder brother, namely Eaward, in critical terms: the chief defect which he finds in that man is that he had not received public school education. There were numerous young men of his kind in those days. He is, indeed, a silly fellow who falls into the trap laid by a very shrewd and cunning woman, Lucy. His mother is also a silly woman, though she shows her silliness in quite a different way. She is too status-minded, and she has a commercial attitude towards marriage. She wants her sons to marry heiresses. Unfortunately for her neither of her sons fulfills her cherished desire. Each marries a girl from a family which is most ordinary from the financial point of view. Mrs. Ferrars’s attitude towards marriage is typical of the upper class ladies of the time. Class consciousness was one of the principal feature of the social life of the times.
Willoughby's expensiveness and dissipation, resulting from the irresponsibility of his early youth, was not something unique so far as the social life of the time was concerned. The number of such young men must surely have been large. There is nothing fanciful about the portrayal of Willoughby though his conduct towards women cannot be regarded as the norm of the conduct of the youth of the times. Similarly Edward's reserve and Colonel Brandon's gravity and seriousness have convincingly been portrayed though these are also not to be regarded as common characteristics of the young men of the time. The temperament of each of these three men has largely been molded by his domestic, social, and economic contexts.
To sum up, Jane Austen is successful in visualizing the details of the real and vivid pictures of the society of her time in all respects.