In this speculative essay, a professor and eight undergraduates reread Sense and Sensibility in light of the possibility that Marianne becomes pregnant when she and Willoughby visit Allenham House.
Miscarrying the Marriage Plot
coauthored with Julia Curry, Rose Frasier, Jenna Janssen, Andrea Jones, Anna Marie Oakley, Kathleen G. O’Donnell, Juliette Pisano, and Katherine White
This essay is the result of a collaboration between Rachel Feder and eight undergraduate students as part of a senior seminar on Jane Austen taught by Feder at the University of Denver.
1. After hearing a recent conference presentation in which I discussed my interest in the connections between Jane Austen and questions of what we might now call reproductive justice, a senior scholar in the field shared with me an interesting piece of gossip: that there exists, or once existed, a family that claims to be descended from the illegitimate child of Jane Austen’s sister and best friend, Cassandra. As the story goes, Cassandra Austen conceived this child with her fiancé, who died. Of course, the scholar impressed upon me, there would be no way to prove or disprove the efficacy of this claim. But so what? In recent years, I have become interested in the critical and pedagogical potentials of speculation, indeed, in speculation as a form of feminist praxis. In my book Harvester of Hearts: Motherhood under the Sign of Frankenstein, I consider some of the things that an adherence to argument as the gold standard of literary criticism keeps us from saying—about the connections between life and work, for example, or the entanglements of intellectual and bodily history, or things that might have happened, but we cannot know for sure. In the classroom, I offer my students low-stakes, hybrid, creative, and other non-thesis-driven writing assignments that encourage them to move beyond what they can prove to uncover truly experimental interpretations. I do this because I am interested in what Romantic era literature can help students understand about their own lives and worlds, and because these kinds of trans-historical applications often derive from provocations and possibilities, not only from thesis-driven, close reading–supported analyses (of course, we learn to craft those, too).
2. During a question and answer session at the 2018 meeting of the North American Society for the Study of Romanticism, Deidre Lynch claimed that “Austen is way more gothic than we have been told,” to which Sonia Hofkosh replied, “It’s fantasy fiction!” In the popular imagination, Austen’s novels are not just fantasy fiction in the sense of the augmented, perhaps idealized, reality they describe, but also in the extent to which Austen’s texts inspire personal and communal fantasies. If speculative, fan-fictional reading is a common mode of engagement with the novels, then what is its place in the literary studies classroom? Put another way, what might the modes and methods of literary criticism keep us from saying about Jane Austen’s novels, and what might we gain by saying those things—both in class, and in print?
3. What follows is a collaborative, speculative close reading of Sense and Sensibility that interprets Marianne’s illness as an illegitimate pregnancy that terminates in either a premeditated abortion (sense) or a somatic miscarriage (sensibility). This reading emerges from a free-flowing class discussion among eight undergraduate students—students that I encouraged, from go, to get to know one another as full people and to bring their own lives, concerns, histories, and preoccupations to bear on course materials—and me. By tracing this provocative possibility through the novel, our group demonstrates the pedagogical potentials of speculation. We cannot assert that this is the true or right reading of the text, just like we can never know whether Cassandra Austen bore a child out of wedlock. But by lingering on the possibility of secrecy and coded meaning and by thinking through the social, political, and trans-historical implications of this fantasy, we can develop a more nuanced understanding of Marianne’s universe, a universe in which the stakes of sexuality are higher for her than for her male counterparts and in which her choices—and lack of choices—may be, in Lynch’s words, “way more Gothic than we have been told.” Indeed, our experimental reading—the kind of reading that can emerge in the low-stakes environment of the student-centered, discussion-based classroom—reveals the darker potentialities hidden within the folds of Marianne’s dress, a fragile relationship to maternity haunting our lovesick heroine. For the eight undergraduate students in my seminar—and for me—this possibility acted as a sort of time machine transporting Sense and Sensibility into our contemporary sociopolitical moment.
Miscarrying the Marriage Plot
4. What if we read Marianne’s despair following Willoughby’s desertion not as naïve passion but as a physical experience of loss? This collaborative essay grew out of an undergraduate seminar in which we discussed the darker shadows and edges of Jane Austen’s fiction: realism that is really gothic; sex scenes that are not sex scenes; resolutions that are really condemnations. Our in-class discussion of Sense and Sensibility led us to develop a shared, speculative reading of the novel in which Marianne becomes pregnant by Willoughby and miscarries his child, whether this miscarriage represents a spontaneous abortion, a deliberately induced abortion, and/or a psychosomatic response in miscarriage to the emotional trauma of losing her first love. 
5. Read in light of a potential miscarriage, Marianne presents a young woman experiencing intense trauma. Her claim, at the novel’s end, that “My illness . . . had been entirely brought on by myself, by such negligence of my own health, as I had felt even at the time to be wrong” can be read as remorse following a physical, rather than emotional, transgression (Austen 350). When Marianne goes on to admit, “Had I died—, it would have been self-destruction,” her claim resonates with eighteenth-century fictional treatments of abortion such as Jemima’s experience in Wollstonecraft’s The Wrongs of Woman, or Maria (Austen 350). In that unfinished text, Jemima first regards an offered “phial” of abortifacient with the thought that “it was killing myself,” a description that encapsulates both her youthful confusion and the extent to which she identifies with her fetus as “ever called a bastard, a bastard appeared to me an object of the greatest compassion in creation.” When she finally decides to “procure abortion,” Jemima “swallow[s] it, with a wish that it might destroy me, at the same time” (Wollstonecraft 194–95). What might we learn if, for the duration of this essay, we let go of our attachments to standard readings of Marianne Dashwood and instead give Austen credit for the darkness that we have come to expect from Wollstonecraft? What if we add to that binary—sense vs. sensibility—the question of embodiment? In this article, we will hazard this provocative interpretation in order to rethink the lessons implied by Marianne’s marriage plot.
I. Marginal Intimacy
6. The whirlwind romance between Marianne and Willoughby, celebrated by her mother and judged indiscreet by her sister, culminates in an unchaperoned visit to the estate of Willoughby’s aunt. There, Marianne and Willoughby consummate their relationship. Austen does not describe the sexual nature of their short-lived relationship beyond winks and euphemisms. “Bound by pre-Victorian limitations of subject matter which had already turned sex into a topic for covert implication rather than overt description,” Austen asks readers to draw on clues such as the courtship narrative, the language surrounding that clandestine meeting, and the comparison to fallen Eliza in order to confirm the sexual nature of the excursion (Chandler 89). Marianne embodies unbridled and rebellious teenage sexuality, while Willoughby is all too willing to play into her love fantasy.
7. Just prior to Marianne’s fateful carriage ride, she gifts Willoughby a lock of her hair, and he promises her a horse. Marianne’s sister, Margaret, recounts the gift-giving scene, describing it to Elinor as follows:
8. While Willoughby procures hair from Marianne, he also offers to give her something: a horse named Queen Mab, which Marianne accepts and then must refuse for the sake of prudence. This seems on the surface to be just another example of her impulsiveness and propensity to say yes when it comes to Willoughby. However, this horse is not just a horse. As Elinor and Marianne walk alongside each other, Marianne describes Willoughby’s gift as “a horse, one that he had bred himself on his estate in Somersetshire, and which was exactly calculated to carry a woman” (Austen 93). Confer Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet: “This is the hag, when maids lie on their backs, / That presses them and learns them first to bear” (1.4.93–94). Queen Mab can be understood as a fabled being that teaches women to bear both penetrative sex and the children that result from it. Queen Mab is the gift that hangs between Marianne and Willoughby, foreshadowing that although Marianne is open to sex with Willoughby, she will ultimately be unable, or unwilling, to bear her pregnancy. 
9. Sexual excitement surrounds the pair. The immediate agreeability between them stems from their mutual openness of thought and speech. They giggle about everyone and everything around them. When Elinor begins to suspect Willoughby’s outright desertion of Marianne, Mrs. Dashwood counters, “Nothing in my opinion has ever passed to justify doubt; no secrecy has been attempted; all has been uniformly open and unreserved” (Austen 113). Except there has been secrecy, whether or not Mrs. Dashwood chooses to see it. When the family left in one carriage, and Marianne and Willoughby in another, “nothing more of them was seen till their return.” At Mrs. Jennings’s smug insistence that she knows where they have been, Marianne feigns ignorance, asking, “Where, pray?” while Willoughby jumps to say that they have been in his carriage, obviously (110). Their deception, albeit a weak attempt, does more to suggest sexual impropriety than anything else. Though doing so may not be her intention, Mrs. Dashwood confirms the seriousness of the incident by condemning secrecy.
10. After giving up the lie, Marianne confides in Elinor about her visit to Willoughby’s prospective estate. She exclaims, “I never spent a pleasanter morning in my life”; this is the closest she comes to describing their sexual encounter (Austen 102). Her official story is that Willoughby, without even the attendance of his aunt, showed her all the rooms of the house. Of course, “the implication is clear that the couple had been examining the bedrooms also” (Cornog and Perper 162). Marianne’s unbridled passion and proud contrarianism toward courtship etiquette at the outset of the novel make plausible an implied sex scene.
11. At this point in the novel, Willoughby has already had a tryst with Colonel Brandon’s ward, Eliza. People speculate that she has fallen ill, much like Marianne will; she gives birth to an illegitimate child in secrecy and shame. Willoughby, finally attempting to explain this indiscretion to Elinor, describes “the violence of her passions, the weakness of her understanding,” oscillating between hollow self-chastisement and blaming Eliza (Austen 329). He convinces skeptical Elinor to feel pity for him, though it is he who had sex out of wedlock, conceived with Eliza, and refused to marry her. (If, at this point, he has indeed lost a child by Marianne, and if Elinor somehow knows about this, then this might help explain Elinor’s feeling of pity, as well.) Even as he attempts to distance the two women intellectually, he draws exacting similarities. Marianne acts on him while his only fault is letting her. Willoughby reflects on “giving way to feelings which I had always been too much in the habit of indulging” with Marianne (327). This language, in combination with his remarks about Marianne’s own “deep regret,” suggests cause for remorse that goes beyond leading her on in words alone (Austen 331). Eliza’s demise alerts the reader to an alternate potentiality for Marianne in her imprudent interactions with Willoughby. Mrs. Jennings compares Marianne’s particular suffering with the youthful crushes that came and went among her own daughters: “as for Miss Marianne, she is quite an altered creature,” unable to recover with adolescent resiliency (205). She is altered; having lost her virginity and having been impregnated by the obviously virile Willoughby, Marianne’s future could look a lot like Eliza’s.
12. Pregnancy out of wedlock, in the world of the novel, is a direct route to social rejection and a defiled reputation. Eliza, daughter of Colonel Brandon’s first love, Elizabeth Williams, is seduced by Willoughby’s flirtations and promises of marriage, and impregnated by him at the age of 15. “[Willoughby] had left the girl whose youth and innocence he had seduced, in a situation of the utmost distress, with no creditable home, no help, no friends, ignorant of his address! He had left her promising to return; he neither returned, nor wrote, nor relieved her” (Austen 228). Marianne and Willoughby’s relationship directly parallels Eliza’s case. Colonel Brandon himself compares the two, saying, “your sister, I hope, cannot be offended . . . by the resemblance I have fancied between her and my poor disgraced relation” (227). Given the potential social consequences, it comes as no surprise that Marianne, an impressionable embodiment of “sensibility,” keeps her precarious situation a secret from everyone, including her family. In keeping this secret, she sometimes appears to be hysterical, a historically diagnosable illness that, Carroll Smith-Rosenberg contends, “can be seen as an alternate role option for particular women incapable of accepting their life situation” (655). 
13. Read through the lens of a possible pregnancy, what the other characters in the novel may understand to be young love, heartbreak, and hysteria emerges as a much more complicated and potentially damning experience. Marianne’s desperation to get in touch with Willoughby after he avoids and rejects her in public is divulged in her frenzied appeal to Elinor to force Willoughby to talk to her. Her language in this passage is not that of a scorned lover, but rather of someone whose entire future is on the line. She pleads that she “must see him again—must speak to him instantly.—I cannot rest—I shall not have a moment’s peace till this is explained—some dreadful misapprehension or other.—Oh go to him this moment” (Austen 200). The chapter ends with Marianne leaving a party because of her grief. Her actions in the time that follows—hiding in her room for weeks on end, walking through the rain, running away and hiding herself from the people she is closest with—can be understood as hysteria or as a radical act of social self-preservation. 
14. Although Marianne and Elinor have a close, sisterly relationship, there are several moments in the novel when Elinor is seen discussing her sister’s secrets with those who are known to gossip, such as Mrs. Jennings. Perhaps most striking is the moment when Elinor defends Willoughby, saying, “he has broken no positive engagement with my sister.” Mrs. Jennings is shocked by this and goes on to discuss the evidence that Marianne and Willoughby were engaged, saying, “No positive engagement indeed! after taking her all over Allenham House, and fixing on the very rooms they were to live in hereafter!” (Austen 217). While this evidence points to a potential engagement between Marianne and Willoughby, it also reinforces the possibility that something improper, something that could only be rectified through marriage, happened in Allenham house.
II. Removing the Infant
15. After leaving London with her sister and Mrs. Jennings, Marianne arrives at the Palmers’ house at Cleveland feeling partly renewed but mostly devastated at the incurred distance between herself and Willoughby, the father of her secret, unborn child. Here, she isolates herself from any company and only takes solace in walking alone around the property, despite the dangers of the temperamental climate. A short time into her stay, Marianne becomes dangerously ill, which leads to the sublimated denouement of the miscarriage as her illness here is used to mask the scene of her failed delivery.
16. After Marianne’s health worsens despite the household’s initial expectations, an apothecary is called in to consult. The Palmers’ apothecary, Mr. Harris, who does not believe that Marianne is gravely ill, allows the word “infection” to pass his lips, which “g[ives] instant alarm to Mrs. Palmer, on her baby’s account,” and causes Mrs. Jennings to then urge the “immediate removal” of the infant (Austen 316). By positioning concern for infant safety and mortality so close to the discussion of Marianne’s ailment, Austen insinuates a direct connection between the two. The mortal threat in question is not to Mrs. Palmer’s baby, but to Marianne’s fetus. The explicit departure of a baby from the house stands in as a socially acceptable substitution, a plot device that mirrors the parallel departure of an unborn child behind closed doors. 
17. Mr. Harris’s incongruent evaluation of the gravity of Marianne’s illness to the rest of the party also suggests that he may have some understanding of the true nature of the situation. The use of the term “infection” within the context of Marianne’s misery is interesting, because it positions the fetus as an unwanted, reviled threat to both Marianne’s physical wellbeing and her standing in society. John Wiltshire argues: “Austen is interested in illnesses’ cultural aspects, in the patient’s use of the body for social advantage. . . . At the same time, the novels also understand how social conditions register themselves in the body, especially in the bodies of women” ("Medicine, illness and disease" 306). In this case, Marianne is an example of how social conditions registered in the body can be dangerous and even life-threatening. Premarital sex threatens not only the social body, but also the body proper. Austen, when writing Sense and Sensibility, was cognizant of the idea of somatization, which suggests that the miscarriage could have been reactionary to Marianne’s devastation. Furthermore, in her thesis on Austen and illness, Pamela Kirkpatrick argues that “Austen shows, through many of her female characters, that the concept of somatic illness . . . is much more complicated than the naïve idea of ailments which are ‘all in the head’” (4).
18. In addition to the evidence that her loss could be somatic, there is also the suggestion that Marianne actively induces fetal abortion. When she first falls ill after roaming the property in the pouring rain, the narrator notes that the development of her sickness was “assisted by the still greater imprudence of sitting in her wet shoes and stockings” (Austen 314). This suggests that Marianne might have acted, at least in part, in a way that contributed to her miscarriage. Furthermore, it is possible to read Mr. Harris as complicit in an abortion. From the onset of Marianne’s illness, “prescriptions poured in from all quarters” (315). Kirkpatrick explains that, during the period, apothecaries provided most routine health care to citizens and that “apothecaries often supplied diagnostic services in addition to prescriptions, and many of them recognized the importance of addressing the patient’s emotional and social needs as well as the physical” (2). It would be impossible for Mr. Harris to be unaware of the massive social ramifications of an unwanted pregnancy, and so helping Marianne both induce and conceal a miscarriage might align with this consideration for patients’ social and physical needs, despite the fact that it was illegal in England, after 1803, to give a woman any substance that might procure an abortion. We must thus decide whether to read Mr. Harris as a stock character or as a radical activist.
III. Miscarrying the Marriage Plot
19. If we read Marianne as conceiving Willoughby’s child and then losing or terminating the pregnancy, what does this mean for the marriage plot? We commonly read Jane Austen’s novels as reinforcing social mores through optimistic endings centered on marriage. In these happy endings, the novels reaffirm the reader’s “hope of a personal reward for good social behavior and their faith that public progress promise[s] the stability and continuity of their way of life” (Magee 198). In Sense and Sensibility, the sisters share the goal of being safely conducted into the arms of respectable and wealthy gentlemen and then marrying them. Within this framework, on a surface level, Austen uses her two heroines to discuss passion and romance by contrasting each heroine’s expression of sensibility. In contrast to her reserved, sensible sister, Marianne is consumed by passion and desire for the romance of marriage, which carries her directly into Willoughby’s arms. After this dalliance with a rake and the ambiguous sorrow and sickness that follows, Marianne is redeemed through the proposal of Colonel Brandon, an older man, of a good reputation, financially stable, and, above all, pure in his love for Marianne, which endures even the problems caused by Willoughby.
20. Beyond forsaking Willoughby in favor of the better match, Marianne undergoes a miraculous conversion as she “discover[s] the falsehood of her own opinions” and grows in fondness toward Colonel Brandon, whom she originally thought was too old for her to marry (Austen 379). She chooses a man that has very little sex appeal, a move that stands in stark contrast to previous choices she has made, and embarks on a relationship that is not first love. This change is celebrated as an innate part of Marianne’s intrinsic purity and moral goodness, which lies even below the “sins” of her actions with Willoughby. Marianne can only accomplish this change because she “was born to an extraordinary fate” which blessed her with the ability to “counteract, by her conduct, her most favorite maxims” of the value of passionate sensibility; in turn, she stands against “falling a sacrifice to an irresistible passion, as once she had fondly flattered herself with expecting” (380).  Marianne, through this redemption, becomes a woman who never fell a sacrifice at all. Her indiscretions are absolved. As compensation for this moral restoration, Marianne is rewarded through the marriage plot with marriage, love, fiscal stability, and power, as she “found herself at nineteen, submitting to new attachments, entering on new duties, placed in a new home, a wife, the mistress of a family, and the patroness of a village” (380). Marianne goes from a damaged woman to a woman superior in life station, power, and wealth in comparison to her contemporaries.
21. But when we introduce a lost or terminated pregnancy into this equation, we see that this happy ending depends, not only on sense and sensibility, but also, and perhaps more foundationally, on the body. Should Marianne have carried Willoughby’s baby to term, she would have been as doomed as Eliza. Colonel Brandon acknowledges the sharp distinction:
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Chandler, Alice. "‘A Pair of Fine Eyes’: Jane Austen’s Treatment of Sex." Studies in the Novel, vol. 7, no. 1, 1975, pp. 88–103.
Cornog, Martha, and Timothy Perper. For Sex Education, See Librarian: A guide to Issues and Resources. Greenwood Press, 1996.
Heydt-Stevenson, Jill. Austen’s Unbecoming Conjunctions: Subversive Laughter, Embodied History. Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.
Kirkpatrick, Pamela L. In Sickness and in Health: Jane Austen’s Use of Illness and Accident in Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Emma, and Persuasion. ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 2017.
Magee, William H. "Instrument of Growth: The Courtship and Marriage Plot in Jane Austen's Novels." The Journal of Narrative Technique, vol. 17, no. 2, 1987, pp. 198–208.
Sedgwick, Eve K. "Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl." Tendencies. Duke UP, 1993, pp. 109–29.
Shakespeare, William. Romeo and Juliet, edited by Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen, Macmillan, 2009.
Smith-Rosenberg, Carroll. "The Hysterical Woman: Sex Roles and Role Conflict in 19th-Century America." Social Research, vol. 39, no. 4, 1972, pp. 652–78.
Thierauf, Doreen. "The Hidden Abortion Plot in George Eliot's Middlemarch." Victorian Studies, vol. 53, no. 6, 2014, pp. 479–89.
Wiltshire, John. Jane Austen and the Body. Cambridge UP, 1992.
———. "Medicine, illness and disease." Jane Austen in Context, edited by Janet Todd, Cambridge UP, 2006, pp. 306–13.
Wollstonecraft, Mary. Mary, A Fiction and The Wrongs of Woman, Or Maria, edited by Michelle Faubert, Broadview, 2012.
 Focusing on the Victorian period, Doreen Theiruf argues that medical professionals “sometimes conflated contraception, miscarriage, and abortion because they were ignorant about the physiological processes in question, or because they wished to avoid the dissemination of dangerously potent information. Since abortion in the nineteenth century was neither widely debated nor circulated in the press before the very end of the period, its presence remains dubious and its principles nebulous” (480). BACK
 Jill Heydt-Stevenson surveys different interpretations of this allusion in order to argue that “the nexus of associations, erotic and ideological, surrounding both the Shakespearean and the colloquial ‘Mab,’ coalesce in this moment as Willoughby’s covert marriage proposal doubles as a prophesy of her ruined terminus: like the first Eliza, dead from suffering and illness and like the second Eliza (or Maria in Mansfield Park, for that matter), who spins out her life isolated in a country cottage” (58–60). BACK
 While Smith-Rosenberg writes about the nineteenth-century American context, her pithy description of hysteria resonates with Marianne’s impossible position. See also Eve Kosofky Sedgwick’s famous essay "Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl," in Tendencies. BACK
 For example, upon guests’ arrival, “Marianne had left the room…”; Elinor claims that Marianne “has been very much plagued lately with nervous headaches, which make her unfit for company or conversation” (Austen 186, 237). BACK
 Furthermore, in his reading of Marianne as harboring an infantile attachment to Mrs. Dashwood, John Wiltshire points out that Marianne’s illness is characterized by “identification with the mother” whose safe arrival at her daughter’s side signals the end of the episode ("Jane Austen and the Body" 49). BACK
 There might be coded irony in the repetition of the word born, here: “Marianne Dashwood was born to an extraordinary fate. She was born to discover” (Austen 379, emphasis added). Marianne has borne her own redemption, rather than a child. BACK