'On the Wrong Side of Five-and-Thirty': How Jane Austen Grew Up

As a teen writing a draft of the book that would become Sense and Sensibility, the novelist poked fun at her older characters. By the time it was published, she was their age.

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Every year, I try to read a book by an author who was my age when the book was published. This year, that book was Sense and Sensibility. It’s not a perfect match: Jane Austen had not yet turned 36 (my age) when it was published in 1811. But given the occasion—this month marks the 200th anniversary of her death—I figured I’d cheat the rules this once.

It turned out to be an appropriate choice. A principal trait of Colonel Brandon, one of the book’s main characters, is that he’s also viewing his 35th birthday in the rearview mirror, and the book contains no end of commentary about it. We’re introduced to Colonel Brandon through the perspective of Austen’s young heroine, Marianne Dashwood, and the character’s younger sister Margaret: “He was silent and grave. His appearance however was not unpleasing, in spite of his being in the opinion of Marianne and Margaret an absolute old bachelor, for he was on the wrong side of five-and-thirty.”

The book is laced with wry little barbs about Brandon’s age, typically from Marianne’s point of view, written with tongue firmly in cheek: “[Marianne] was reasonable enough to allow that a man of five-and-thirty might well have outlived all acuteness of feeling and every exquisite power of enjoyment. She was perfectly disposed to make every allowance for the colonel’s advanced state of life which humanity required.”

The character of Marianne becomes a vehicle for comically wrongheaded ideas about when, exactly, one is required to give up hope for a fulfilling life. At the wise old age of 17, Marianne reconsiders “the desperation which had seized her at sixteen-and-a-half, of ever seeing a man who could satisfy her ideas of perfection.” But at 35, Brandon, in Marianne’s eyes, is well into his declining years. “If he were ever animated enough to be in love,” Marianne muses, he “must have long outlived every sensation of the kind.” She pities the aged colonel enough to reprove the meddling Mrs. Jennings for poking fun at him:

“When is a man to be safe from such wit, if age and infirmity will not protect him?”

“Infirmity!” said Elinor, “do you call Colonel Brandon infirm? I can easily suppose that his age may appear much greater to you than to my mother; but you can hardly deceive yourself as to his having the use of his limbs!”

“Did you not hear him complain of the rheumatism? and is not that the commonest infirmity of declining life?”

Marianne spends much of the book believing that the lives of the older people around her are frozen in place, their circumstances set sometime in their youth. Because, as several characters intimate, little but death can change a person’s marital circumstances after a wedding, and none of the main characters of the novel are newlyweds, the years after marriage come to seem to Marianne like a sort of afterlife, and spinsterdom or bachelorhood a sort of purgatory. Children may be born, allowing for more vicarious thrills after the marriage vows are spoken, she suggests, but one ceases to mark milestones of one’s own.

But the events of the book disabuse Marianne of this way of thinking. She finds Colonel Brandon, to her surprise, fully “animated enough to be in love,” and comes to perceive marriage not as the end of a life, but as the beginning of one, with new attachments, new duties, and a new home. An even deeper transformation in the character emerges by the novel’s end: Marianne, who has spent the entire book fixated on finding a husband, utters her most heartfelt profession of love late in the novel, not to any man, but to her sister Elinor. While a concise account of Marianne’s marriage passes quickly, the novel dwells in its closing lines on the continued comity of the two sisters, and the lives they forge within sight of one another’s houses. In many ways, Sense and Sensibility isn’t the story of two women who find husbands—it’s the story of two sisters who discover one another.

It’s perilous to read Austen’s biography into the lives of her characters, yet it’s impossible to avoid the resonances. When she first drafted the text that would become Sense and Sensibility, Austen was a late teenager, around the age of her elder heroine, Elinor. But by the time the book was being readied for publication, Austen was almost exactly the age of Colonel Brandon. (And both were about the same age, I should add, as Emma Thompson when she starred in Sense and Sensibility as Elinor, performing a screenplay that Thompson herself wrote and won an Oscar for.)

We don’t know exactly how the 30-something Jane Austen might have revised the writing of the teenage Jane Austen, but we do know that her own life was an effective rebuttal to the philosophy of the teenage Marianne Dashwood. Sense and Sensibility’s printing marked the beginning of Austen’s life as a published novelist. The extraordinary body of work that has inspired Austen’s readers over these past two centuries entered the public record in those six brief years that she lived “on the wrong side of five and thirty.” And like Elinor and Marianne, the relationship at the center of Austen’s life was the one she had with her sister Cassandra, her closest friend, whose correspondence with her is the window through which we comprehend the author.

I wonder whether Austen, like Colonel Brandon, experienced her mid-30s as a new beginning. I wonder if, upon re-reading her early drafts of the book that would become Sense and Sensibility, she thought about how her younger self imagined that age, and smiled at the bounty ahead of her. Above all, I wonder what she might have illuminated for us all—about love, about kinship, about growing older—if only we’d had more time with her.