Quietly Keeping it Together Elinor Dashwood Style

Emma Thompson as Elinor Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility (1995).

Cruella is a true vibe of a movie, and I found Emma Thompson delightful to watch in it, but that’s unsurprising, as I find her delightful to watch in pretty much everything she does. A few days after going to see it, Sense and Sensibility was on television as I was flipping through channels, and that’s always a movie I keep on whenever I come across it. It’s a favorite of mine not only because it’s another great Emma Thompson performance, but because Elinor Dashwood holds a special place for me as one of the Jane Austen heroines whose personality most matches my own. I’ve always loved how perfectly Thompson is able to convey big emotions in someone who is naturally very reserved. And maybe it’s because going to see Cruella was the first time in over a year that I had been able to go to a movie theater, but watching Elinor this most recent time was different. The way she endures everything she goes through is the way that people like she and I always have, but it struck me that after the past year and a half, even people who may be more like Marianne in personality under normal circumstances might find themselves identifying with Elinor more than they may have previously, because she’s a perfect example of quietly making it through when there’s no other choice.  

Elinor falls into the role of being the “reliable one” of the Dashwoods. It’s not that the other women in her family aren’t capable, it’s just more in line with Elinor’s personality to fill that need, and these dynamics play out all the time in families. After the death of Mr. Dashwood, Elinor shoulders a lot of the load for her mother and sisters as they all try to carry on. Marianne bangs away on the piano to let her emotions out, and Elinor lets hers out by silently crying while listening to her sister play. Everyone handles grief differently, and Elinor isn’t any less devastated by Mr. Dashwood’s death just because she doesn’t always openly show it, and Marianne, Margaret, and Mrs. Dashwood aren’t any less strong just because they do. But it’s almost inevitable that one person is left with the burden of being depended upon as a steady force while everyone else falls apart. It’s Elinor who sets about finding a new home for her mother, sisters, and herself, and she’s seen worrying about the family finances while her younger sister falls in love with a man who turns out to be far less than worthy. Her own feelings about Edward are pushed to the wayside. Sometimes, needs must.

If there’s one moment that illustrates the modus operandi of the Dashwood ladies best, it’s when Willoughby (the aforementioned unworthy man) unexpectedly breaks things off with Marianne and leaves for London. Marianne is absolutely wrecked and locks herself in her room sobbing. Margaret is upset that Marianne won’t talk to her and starts crying too, also locking herself in her room. Even Mrs. Dashwood is overcome, and locks herself in her room as well. Left floundering and alone in the hall, Elinor could shed her fair share of tears. She certainly has plenty to cry about. But the good ship Dashwood can’t be completely rudderless, so instead she simply sits on the stairs and forlornly sips some tea. Many of us have been intimately acquainted with that emotion in the recent past. Just slapping some hastily mixed together plaster over all of your cracks to keep yourself from shattering.  

Sometimes life doesn’t care that you’ve had enough and keeps throwing things at you, and Elinor is also dealt another blow, although inadvertently, when she finds out that the man she loves is engaged to someone else, and it’s not until after she learns this heartbreaking fact that she’s sworn to silence about it, and can’t unburden herself even if she wants to. If we didn’t know that Jane Austen always comes through with a happy ending, the pile on might seem a bit ridiculous. Elinor is also the first to hear about how awful Willoughby is from Colonel Brandon (she’s as least able to share that with Marianne and thank goodness, something has to give), and she’s tasked with having to tell Edward about the offer from Brandon that will allow him to marry Lucy and keep him from Elinor forever. It’s absolutely brutal. And peppered throughout all of it are the accusations that anyone like Elinor is familiar with: that if she’s not outwardly showing an emotion it’s because she must not be feeling it.

For someone like Marianne that must seem true, and a question like “Where is your heart?” seems warranted. But of course Elinor Dashwood does feel, quite deeply in fact. Even in the most reserved of people those emotions have to come out somehow, and Elinor’s devastation about the situation with Edward finally comes to a head with Marianne’s unintentionally hurtful question. Assuring her sister that her heartbreak is crushing even though it hasn’t been on full display, Elinor snaps. It’s one of my favorite scenes in the movie because it’s such a stark reminder that even though customs and social norms change throughout history, certain aspects of the human condition remain the same. Sometimes our pain gets taken out on the people who are closest to us, the people who don’t deserve it, simply because they’re there. It’s messy, and incredibly real. Elinor adores her sister of course, and being faced with the prospect of life without her when Marianne becomes sick and almost dies tests Elinor’s ability not to crack even further.

Thankfully, at long last we make it to the famous final scene of the movie, when the turmoil is settled and Elinor is able to truly let everything go as she learns that Edward isn’t married after all. It’s so wonderful that when she finally breaks down and sobs it’s out of joy, and not because of yet another tragic blow that shattered her resolve. If there’s something in this world that’s worth going against your undemonstrative nature for, surely blubbering with abandon while the love of your life pledges their undying devotion to you is that thing. That sense of overwhelming relief is one we’re all more than overdue for right now, whether you’re an Elinor Dashwood by nature or by current necessity. Just one of the many reasons we love romance is because it celebrates beautiful sweeping moments and emotions, and fulfills our need for them when they’re not always provided by the world.

But seriously, come on Real Life! Jane Austen did her part hundreds of years ago, it’s time for you to get on her level. We can’t keep it together forever.

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