In Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility, when Marianne Dashwood marries Colonel Brandon, she puts her heartbreak over dashing scoundrel John Willoughby in the past.
Three years later, Willoughby's return throws Marianne into a tizzy of painful memories and exquisite feelings of uncertainty. Willoughby is as charming, as roguish, and as much in love with her as ever. And the timing couldn't be worse—with Colonel Brandon away and Willoughby determined to win her back, will Marianne find the strength to save her marriage, or will the temptation of a previous love be too powerful to resist?
When Marianne Dashwood weds Colonel Brandon both are aware of their past attachments; Marianne’s grand passion for the charming but ruthless John Willoughby, and Brandon’s tragic amour for his first love Eliza. When Brandon’s responsibilities to Eliza's child, now a young woman, take him constantly away from home, Marianne becomes increasingly resentful, especially knowing how much the young Eliza resembles the colonel's lost love.
News that John Willoughby has returned to the area brings back painful memories but
Marianne concentrates, instead, on promoting a match between Brandon’s nephew Henry and her unmarried sister Margaret. When it transpires that Willoughby is a friend of Henry’s and that she has unwittingly invited him to a ball at Delaford, Marianne is faced with a dilemma. Should she alert Henry to Willoughby’s character, thereby divulging past secrets or say nothing of his misdeeds? And how will she break the news to Colonel Brandon?
It was arranged that Marianne would drive over to Barton on Wednesday, two days prior to the ball, in order to collect her mother and sister. Margaret, who was in high spirits, had expressed her excitement about their invitation in a letter that had arrived on the very morning Marianne was to head into Devonshire. This news did not come as a surprise, but the remaining content of the letter disconcerted Marianne to a greater extent.
I can hardly believe that the day of the ball is almost upon us. I look forward to seeing my friends at Delaford. The prospect is too exciting! My gown arrived yesterday morning. Marianne, you will not believe how beautiful it looks, it has surpassed all my expectations. It fits me quite perfectly and Mrs Jennings has sent some silver ribbon and silk flowers for my hair that she bought in London and has been saving for such an occasion as this. Wasn’t that kind?
You will never guess whom I bumped into in Barton village yesterday when I went to collect the post. John Willoughby himself! He was very gentleman-like and kind, not in the least brusque as he was when we saw him in Exeter. He asked me how I did and enquired after Mother. He said he was sorry he had not been able to converse more when he saw us in Exeter but that the surprise of seeing us had taken away his power of speech. He especially asked to be remembered to you. I did not know that Mr Willoughby was acquainted with Henry Lawrence, and it was a great surprise when he said that he was very pleased to have been invited to the Delaford Ball. Can this be true? Has Colonel Brandon forgiven Mr Willoughby? I must admit that I was very surprised to hear about his invitation, but it did seem as if he was very keen to attend. I have not mentioned this to my mother or to Mrs Jennings as it seemed so very strange to me that you have not written of this in any communication regarding the ball. I thought I should mention it, however, but in any case I shall see you before you have time to pen a reply.
Believe me to be,
Your loving sister,
Marianne folded the letter carefully. “I will not think about its contents now,” she thought, placing it inside her reticule, “I must concentrate on getting ready to make the trip to Barton. William must not know about this, it will not make any difference whether he knows of Margaret’s meeting with Willoughby or not. Neither will it be a good idea to have him worried about the matter before I set off and, with this news, he might even prevent me from going. No, some things are better left unsaid.”
She pulled on her bonnet and fastened her cloak about her shoulders, busying herself with the final preparations and instructions to the coachman. But despite all this activity, she could not eradicate certain parts of Margaret’s letter from her mind. “So Willoughby was sorry he had not been able to converse more when we saw one another in Exeter and he had asked especially to be remembered to me. I cannot help but smile at the thought that his manner was not quite as it had appeared.” She took her seat in the carriage and gave the signal to move off. The journey to Barton seemed to take an age. The settled weather of the last week had given way to rain and wind, the roads were muddy and the lanes become as dirt tracks. The coachman and his boy had to step down twice to push the carriage out of the mire and had made a wrong turning before they reached Honiton. Marianne felt unsettled by Margaret’s letter and though she could not believe that Willoughby had any intention of coming to Delaford to attend the ball, a part of her imagined that he might, after all, brazen it out. “But will he really wish to embarrass his wife? Surely Mrs Willoughby will refuse to attend when she understands the connection. It is not worth worrying about. I cannot think of such an unlikely event as the Willoughbys attending a ball at Delaford Park.”
They had just passed the turning for Stoke Canon and were within a half-mile of Allenham when Marianne first saw the pall of dark mist, rising in undulating columns. Even in the rain, the plumes of black smoke could be seen rising up above the grey clouds where torrents of water poured from the heavens. Seized by a sense of longing, Marianne experienced a feeling of great curiosity that was impossible to override: consumed by questions that would not go away. She must and would take a look at the house. Urging the coachman to take the turn, the carriage set off down the lane, flanked on either side by tall, dripping hedgerows, whose overhanging branches clawed and scratched the glass windows. She felt no alarm; after all, she had been down this bridleway a hundred times before. Trees, contorted into the grotesque by the gales, twisted and entangled their boughs to form a dim tunnel over their heads. They made slow progress through the mud, which splashed the carriage up to the windows and the horses to the tops of their tails. At last the track widened to reveal a pair of ornate gates opened to the road like inviting arms, to swallow the coach as it rumbled to a standstill several yards from the house, the ancient manor which even now had the power to arrest Marianne’s heart. There, to one side by the outbuildings, were a series of huge bonfires, as had been reported, piled high with all manner of items. Several trees worth of wooden planking, panelling, painted doors, and redundant furniture, blistering in the heat, were being consumed by the fire, licked to the bare bones by the rapacious flames. Beyond the haze and smoke the house itself looked shut up, the shuttered windows like unseeing eyes, closed and drawn. Only the main doors were ajar but there was no sign of life. Marianne felt it was the saddest scene she had ever contemplated: the violation of a home with her precious memories buried at its heart. She did not think she could stay longer to witness such destruction. Banging on the roof to alert the coachman, the wheels turned her carriage towards the gates once more before she looked back, as if in final salute. A shutter moved. Someone looked down from an upstairs window. The unmistakable silhouette of a gentleman threw back the remaining screen. Their eyes met and connected with lingering recognition. Then he was gone. Marianne started; kneeling up on her seat to look out through the window behind her, straining to see what she imagined might only have been in her head. She heard the coachman’s cry; he cracked his whip in frustration as they slowly rounded the last bend. The house grew small. And then he appeared, running hard, his greatcoat flapping behind him, as though he wished to catch her up. Should she stop the coach? She did not know what to do and was on the point of calling out when she saw that he had stopped to close the gates. John Willoughby stood, motionless, like a ghost. Marianne watched until he was out of sight, a lone figure staring after her.
Mrs Dashwood and Margaret were ready to travel immediately. They had enough boxes and trunks piled up in the hall as if they were going for half a year instead of a few weeks. Marianne felt weary after her journey and was pleased to rest in front of a cheerful fire in the sitting room and glad, despite the eagerness of the other women, that they would not be travelling until the morrow. She was also grateful that on this occasion there was no mention of going up to the Park to see the Middletons and Mrs Jennings. She would be seeing them quite soon enough, she felt, for they were to come for a visit to Delaford, arriving on the eve of the ball and stopping a fortnight. Still, it could not be helped, and she hoped that it would all be to Margaret’s benefit.
Marianne had not expected to relate anything of the goings-on at Allenham Court or for the subject to be raised at all, so she was greatly surprised when Mrs Dashwood brought up the topic; not only of the poor deceased Mrs Smith but of Mr Willoughby himself.
“I wrote to you about Mrs Smith, did I not, Marianne?” Mrs Dashwood fussed about with the cushions on a chair, patting and plumping them and setting them straight.
Marianne noted that her mother did not look at her directly as she spoke. She waited to hear more.
“We had a visitor early this morning,” Mrs Dashwood said, pausing to take up her needlework to stitch furiously along a seam. Marianne could not help notice her mother’s agitation, or the colouring about her throat.
“Mr Willoughby came here,” said Margaret.
Still Marianne remained silent.
“I was determined to snub him for your sake, Marianne,” Mrs Dashwood continued, “but I think when I tell you all, you will see that it was quite impossible for me to be so unkind.”
“He was very charming,” Margaret added with enthusiasm. “Please don’t be cross, Marianne. He came to make amends.”
“What did he say?”
“Well, we were sitting after breakfast as we always do,” interrupted Mrs Dashwood, “and Tom came in to say Mr Willoughby had called. He said he was most anxious to see me. I could not refuse to see him but I was prepared to give him a piece of my mind. Well, he came in, looking quite as handsome as ever, in a dark brown coat to mirror those dark eyes to perfection and I was a lost cause from the moment he entered the room. Oh, Marianne, forgive me, but the years melted away and though I can never forgive him for his conduct toward you, please let me say this. He has suffered, truly suffered for his crimes. I believe he has regretted you since the day he severed the connection.”
“Did he say as much?” Marianne asked, rather astonished that such an intimacy had been established on so soon a reacquaintance.
“Not in so many words,” admitted her mother. “At least that was the impression he gave most earnestly. What did he say, Margaret?”
Marianne sighed. Her mother was always easily charmed and no doubt Mr Willoughby had eased his way back into her good books with little effort. Smiles and compliments had been his most likely method, thought she.
“He said that now he was coming back to the neighbourhood, he was sure that we would meet from time to time and he was most concerned that his past behaviour to our family might rightly prejudice us against him. He wanted to ask our forgiveness and apologise most profusely for what had happened. He said he knew there was probably little hope that we would ever accept him back as the friend he had once been, but that his dearest wish was to be able to meet with cordiality. However, he would be content if he could at least greet us in the street as we passed by. I think that was about the drift of it, wasn’t it, Mama?”
Mrs Dashwood nodded and her eyes appealed to Marianne for Willoughby’s forgiveness.
“He asked after you and wanted to know if you were happy,” Margaret added.
“I told him you were very happy, Marianne,” said Mrs Dashwood. “Indeed, because you are so settled and everything has turned out so much better for you, I did not think you would mind if he called on us occasionally. I did not have the heart to be cruel to the man. He seemed so genuinely to regret losing our friendship. I suggested he might call again and perhaps bring Mrs Willoughby.”
“Mother! How could you do such a thing,” Marianne shouted. “I cannot believe you could be so thoughtless. Have you forgotten William in all of this and the other business of Brandon’s ward?” Marianne could not bring herself to say Eliza’s name out loud. “You know how William detests Willoughby. He would have killed him when they met to duel if he had been able. Have you forgotten Eliza Williams and her child?”
“Mr Willoughby is keen to make amends to his natural child. He told me as much.”
“And William will never allow it,” Marianne cried, standing up and pacing to the window. “It is as well that we are going to Delaford in the morning.” She stared out at the landscape, the rolling hills and green valleys undulating before them. “Oh, goodness,” she started, “whatever will I do if he presents himself at the ball?”
“That is highly unlikely, Marianne. Why on earth should Willoughby do that?” Mrs Dashwood walked over to her daughter and put out her hand to stroke her arm in an affectionate gesture.
“I haven’t said a word on the matter, sister,” cried Margaret, observing her mother’s expression of puzzlement and alarm at these words.
“Because he is an acquaintance of Henry Lawrence,” Marianne announced, turning to look her mother in the eye, “and because I have invited him!”
The whole story came out, about how she had unwittingly invited Willoughby to the ball, about how Sir Edgar Lawrence was interested in buying a property for Henry that Willoughby had to sell. “I was certain that he would not come once he found out that the ball was at Delaford, but now you have given him so much encouragement, Mama, I cannot be sure. There will be trouble, I know it.”
“There is no point worrying about it now, Marianne,” her mother soothed, taking her arm in her own and leading her back to the sofa. “We must hope for the best. And if he does come, we will deal with that too, if and when it happens. Now, come along, let us have no more on such a distressing subject. You must calm yourself or you will be ill.”
But Marianne could not be calmed, she would not eat any dinner and excused herself as soon as she could, saying that she had a headache from the journey and that she wanted an early night. “We will set off as soon as we rise, Mama,” she said. “James is so looking forward to seeing you both and William will be anxious until we reach home. I will feel better in the morning, but I must rest now. Goodnight.” She did not add that she wished to be as far away from Barton as soon as she could be, for fear of running into a certain gentleman who had promised would call again before long.