Marianne’s Passion for Dead Leaves

Benjamin Leader, "The Beech Wood" (1859)

Benjamin Leader, “The Beech Wood” (1859)

My Jane Austen class has been thoroughly enjoying Sense and Sensibility. Since our weather in southern Maryland has finally turned autumnal, I share today Marianne’s passion for dead leaves.

Among the poets that Marianne loves is James Thomson, a Scotsman and early Romantic poet. (We used to call such poets “pre-Romantic” to give Wordsworth and Coleridge credit for kicking off the “actual” movement.) Thomson’s “The Seasons” (1730) taught sensibilities like Marianne how to appreciate nature. Here’s an excerpt from “To Autumn”:

But see, the fading many-colored woods,
Shade deepening over shade, the country round
Imbrown, a crowded umbrage, dusk, and dun,
Of every hue from wan declining green
To sooty dark. These now the lonesome muse,
Low- whispering, lead into their leaf-strown walks;
And give the season in its latest view… 

Thus solitary and in pensive guise
Oft let me wander o’er the russet mead
And through the saddened grove, where scarce is heard
One dying strain to cheer the woodman’s toil.
Haply some widowed songster pours his plaint
Far in faint warblings through the tawny copse;  
While congregated thrushes, linnets, larks,
And each wild throat whose artless strains so late
Swelled all the music of the swarming shades,
Robbed of their tuneful souls, now shivering sit    
On the dead tree, a dull despondent flock,
With not a brightness waving o’er their plumes,  
And nought save chattering discord in their note.  

As I revisited the relevant passages in Sense and Sensibility, I noticed for the first time a subtle shift that shows Austen, like Elinor, gently mocking her enthusiast. When Marianne is first leaving the family home of Norland, she imagines that all will remain changeless, even the leaves:

Many were the tears shed by them in their last adieus to a place so much beloved. “Dear, dear Norland!” said Marianne, as she wandered alone before the house, on the last evening of their being there; “when shall I cease to regret you!—when learn to feel a home elsewhere!—Oh! happy house, could you know what I suffer in now viewing you from this spot, from whence perhaps I may view you no more!—And you, ye well-known trees!—but you will continue the same.—No leaf will decay because we are removed, nor any branch become motionless although we can observe you no longer!—No; you will continue the same; unconscious of the pleasure or the regret you occasion, and insensible of any change in those who walk under your shade!—But who will remain to enjoy you?”

When some time later she has a chance to query Edward about Norland, however, the leaves are no longer resisting decay:

“And how does dear, dear Norland look?” cried Marianne.

“Dear, dear Norland,” said Elinor, “probably looks much as it always does at this time of the year. The woods and walks thickly covered with dead leaves.”

“Oh,” cried Marianne, “with what transporting sensation have I formerly seen them fall! How have I delighted, as I walked, to see them driven in showers about me by the wind! What feelings have they, the season, the air altogether inspired! Now there is no one to regard them. They are seen only as a nuisance, swept hastily off, and driven as much as possible from the sight.”

“It is not every one,” said Elinor, “who has your passion for dead leaves.”

“No; my feelings are not often shared, not often understood. But sometimes they are.”—As she said this, she sunk into a reverie for a few moments…

The “sometimes” is a reference to Willoughby, who shares her sensibilities. Marianne has essentially shifted from “Ode on a Grecian Urn”–with its focus on timeless beauty–to Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind,” which also focuses on dead leaves (although the two poems were written eight years later).

Austen then offers a counter perspective from Edward, who appears to be as unromantic as Elinor—although, to be fair, the two of them may simply be teasing Marianne. When Marianne urges Edward to appreciate nature’s beauties, he responds with utilitarian pragmatism:

“Now, Edward,” said she, calling his attention to the prospect, “here is Barton valley. Look up to it, and be tranquil if you can. Look at those hills! Did you ever see their equals? To the left is Barton park, amongst those woods and plantations. You may see the end of the house. And there, beneath that farthest hill, which rises with such grandeur, is our cottage.”

“It is a beautiful country,” he replied; “but these bottoms must be dirty in winter.”

“How can you think of dirt, with such objects before you?”

“Because,” replied he, smiling, “among the rest of the objects before me, I see a very dirty lane.”

“How strange!” said Marianne to herself as she walked on.

And later in the book:

You must not enquire too far, Marianne—remember I have no knowledge in the picturesque, and I shall offend you by my ignorance and want of taste if we come to particulars. I shall call hills steep, which ought to be bold; surfaces strange and uncouth, which ought to be irregular and rugged; and distant objects out of sight, which ought only to be indistinct through the soft medium of a hazy atmosphere. You must be satisfied with such admiration as I can honestly give. I call it a very fine country—the hills are steep, the woods seem full of fine timber, and the valley looks comfortable and snug—with rich meadows and several neat farm houses scattered here and there. It exactly answers my idea of a fine country, because it unites beauty with utility—and I dare say it is a picturesque one too, because you admire it; I can easily believe it to be full of rocks and promontories, grey moss and brush wood, but these are all lost on me. I know nothing of the picturesque.”

On the one hand, Edward is playing the classicist to Marianne’s romantic, arguing for an 18th century balance of beauty and utility. Through him, Austen is correcting Marianne’s tendency to go to extremes. To be sure, Austen doesn’t entirely dismiss Marianne’s excitement and has Elinor accusing Edward of a counter affectation: she says he pretends to appreciate nature less than he actually does.

Whether he’s guilty or not, however, the satire has a serious side. Just as Marianne’s romantic notions lead to her disastrous entanglement with the unfaithful Willoughby, so one of her long nature walks nearly kills her.

In other words, Austen knows how dangerous nature can be. Don’t be fooled into thinking that it’s benign, she seems to be saying. Nature can run women into imprudent relations, render them mad, and even kill them. We romanticize nature, whether internal or external, at our peril.

Still, Marianne is right to enjoy a beautiful autumn. There is nothing like it.

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