Jane Austen and Elizabeth Inchbald, two female novelists of the nineteenth and the late eighteenth century respectively, belonged to two generations, twenty years apart. This gap of twenty years had created a huge difference in the conception of the main female characters in their novel. This essay is an exploration of the difference in the treatment of womanhood in their novels. The heroine in Inchbald’s novel A Simple Story is Miss Milner, a character who embodies the open expression of her emotions. On the other hand, emotional control dictated the character of Austen’s heroine, Elinor Dashwood. This essay compares and contrasts the two characters and shows how two almost contemporary novelists had portrayed their female protagonists.
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Miss Milner in A Simple Story is a personification of sensibility in the late eighteenth-century society. Milner is an epitome of passion and sympathy, and through her, Inchbald demonstrates the dangers of heightened sensibility posed by women in society. The story of the novel is that of Miss Milner. The sensibility demonstrated through Miss Milner is in close relation to her sexuality, and the reformation she undergoes on curtailment of such intensified desire. Dorriforth is entrusted to be Miss Milner’s guardian upon her father’s death. He, in the latter part of the novel, marries her. The beginning of the novel shows Dorriforth, a Catholic priest, undertaking the guardianship of Miss Milner, on her father’s death, later marries her. At the beginning of the novel, Dorriforth exhibits sympathy and compassion for Miss Milner, who passionately falls in love with him. This creates a problem in the plot of the novel. Miss Milner is the one who overtly expresses her passion for Dorriforth.
The equation of patriarchal expression of passion is reversed in the novel, and it is Dorriforth who becomes the object of Miss Milner’s desire. In a way, Miss Milner undermined conventional male authority to express her sexual needs and sensibility. Inchbald herself, in introducing Miss Milner as the heroine, expresses that she was less than the perfect heroine. Miss Milner was brought up in a Protestant boarding school for women of the upper-class society. Her behavior, as her father acknowledged, required improvement as he finds her education to be shallow. Though Miss Milner had undergone faulty training, there was no want of sensibility in her disposition. She was beautiful and her natural wit helped her place herself comfortably in the London society: “an inordinate desire of admiration, and an immoderate enjoyment of the art of pleasing, for her happiness, and not for the happiness of others” (Inchbald 19). Thus, the readers get the image of a young woman, in pursuit of her contentment, generated self-flattering sensibility, rather than self-discipline. Thus, the “quick sensibility” (Inchbald 15) of Miss Milner denoted an expression of passion and spirit.
However, under the guardianship of Dorriforth, he was happy to find that Miss Milner assumed a more composed demeanor fitted to the image of a woman of a good education: “Charmed to find her disposition do little untractable” (Inchbald 33). Miss Milner then starts showing her attraction to the Catholic priest. Her sensibility draws her not only to the beauty of Dorriforth’s morality but also to his physical appearance. Miss Milner indulges in impropriety and engages in the desire of not only a catholic priest who was also her guardian who she finds “both young and handsome” (Inchbald 16). Miss Milner responds to her natural impulses without nay restraint, which was enforced by her sensibility, and openly expresses her admiration of Dorriforth and his physical beauty. This triggers an erotic tension within Miss Milner, which characterizes her further relation with her guardian.
On the other hand, Elinor Dashwood, Austen’s heroine in Sense and Sensibility is the epitome of rationalism. Elinor’s character has no place for emotional outbursts even though she felt deeply for the rest of her relations. Elinor was in love with Edward Ferrars, however, due to her characteristic composure, she did not express her love for him. Elinor’s morally upright conduct was apparent in her interaction throughout the novel with other major or minor characters. Her character’s moral conduct strongly opposed unethical interactions with other characters. Austen points out in the very first chapter “her feelings were strong” (Austen 4). She was deeply concerned about others whenever certain knowledge of their distress. Her feelings are genuine, and not guided by an overabundance of passion. The very first description of Elinor as presented by Austen is:
Elinor … whose advice was so effectual, possessed a strength of understanding, and coolness of judgment, which qualified her, though only nineteen, to be the counselor of her mother, and enables her frequently to counteract to the advantage of them all… She had an excellent heart; – her disposition was affectionate, and her feelings were strong, but she knew how to govern them” (Austen 4)
In the first half of the novel, the readers agree with the other characters of the novel and with the narrator, that Elinor did not show any emotions, even when her situation demanded it. It was not until chapter 29 that the readers see an emotional expression from Elinor when she tried to console Marianne to handle the shock of Willoughby’s letter. Initially, Elinor goes to Marianne to hear of the letter from Willoughby, but finding her grief-stricken sister stretched on the bed:
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“Elinor drew near, but without saying a word; and seating herself on the bed, took her hand, kissed her affectionately several times, and then gave way to a burst of tears, which at first was scarcely less violent than Marianne’s.” (Austen 155)
The idea of Elinor devoid of any emotional expression will be a wrong presumption, as Elinor was not emotionless. Instead, she was composed, and her reserve and thinking personality prevented any overt outburst of emotion. Her composure was so great that on hearing of Edward Ferrar’s engagement to Lucy, she chooses not to reveal her attachment to the gentleman: “composure of voice, under which was concealed an emotion and distress beyond anything she had ever felt before” (116) even though this revelation left her “mortified, shocked, confounded” (116). Further, about this love triangle, Elinor does not express her emotional thoughts. Instead, she expresses the discursive thoughts of her mind.
Even when Austen portrays the internal turmoil that Elinor experiences on hearing the news of Edward’s engagement to Lucy, she does not amply portray the heroine’s intensity of emotion. Instead, pages are filled describing Elinor rationalizing this situation with analytical thinking. Thus, Austen wanted the mind of Elinor to rule over her heart. On the other hand, Miss Milner of A Simple Story who indulges in her emotional sensibility and acts in a fashion that the eighteenth-century society condemned. The two characters – Miss Milner and Elinor Dashwood – are completely different in their mannerism and sensibility. Her wild, passionate, and emotional heart drives Miss Milner, while Elinor Dashwood is driven by her analytical, composed, and reserved mind. Elinor excels for her coolness of judgment, while Miss Milner for her passionate heart.
Austen, Jane. Sense and Sensibility. London: Penguine Classics, 2001. Print.
Inchbald, Elizabeth. A Simple Story. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991. Print.