Review: Sense and Sensibility

Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

This semester, I’m taking a class on Jane Austen. It’s absolutely fascinating–not only do we get to sit around and suck the very marrow out of stories, one of my favorite activities, but there’s a focus on placing Austen squarely in her historical context. Of course, for the class, we have to read her entire canon; the way it’s structured, we’re usually reading one novel while discussing another. So before the year is out, I will have read and reviewed all of Austen’s novels (but not Love and Freindship, as picking on little girls is mean). We’re already read Pride and Prejudice this semester, so I’ve just finished Sense and Sensibility.

Sense and Sensibility follows the fortunes of the eldest Dashwood sisters, Elinor and Marianne (the third, Margaret, is too young to be of consequence)–Elinor is calm and practical, while Marianne is romantic and excitable. After the death of their father, the family sets up in Barton Cottage, where Elinor and Marianne are pursued by Edward Ferrars, the brother of their sister-in-law, and the dashing Sir Willoughby, as well as befriended by Colonel Brandon, whose affections lie firmly with Marianne. But there’s something more to all three of these gentlemen, and it will take a trip to London and several surprising reveals to sort things out.

Unlike Pride and Prejudice, I had no idea who the sisters were fated to end up with, so I was able to enjoy Austen’s foreshadowing and pacing. In fact, I was well into the ending before I realized which sister would end up with who, and I’m still not so sure I’m okay with who they did end up with. Luckily, I can rant about that in a paper rather than spoil anyone who is innocent of the pairings here. All the romances that Austen presents as ideal have a slow burn, which is something that starts here, in her first novel, although, again, I don’t like how one character’s fate is dealt with. For a first novel, it’s uncommonly polished–there’s comedy and wit to spare, and some honestly beautiful language. There’s a moment where Marianne, having finally decided to try and be a calm and rational person, starts to run away with her passions, and her attempts to remain calm and rational are rendered desperately and beautifully. These dark, passionate looks are what elevates Sense and Sensibility from being simply a glancing parody of sentimental passion.

But Sense and Sensibility is still quite obviously Austen’s first novel; the satire is broader, as the sisters continually encounter ridiculous people worthy of ridicule and very few worthy of their respect and there’s the problem of having two protagonists, one of whom is so part of the very thing Austen is satirizing–overblown passions and delicate sensibilities (more on that in a moment). Elinor is the true heroine here, suffering quietly as she’s disappointed in love while Marianne lapses into depression and goes into hysterics. While Marianne has her good and wonderful qualities, Elinor is presented unrelentingly as an ideal person, though not without her own flaws. In the end, Marianne learns the error of her hysterical ways while Elinor doesn’t go through much of a character arc, unlike Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice. It’s quite fun as a satire and would make a great entry into Jane Austen, especially for young adult readers, but it’s not as refined or clever as Pride and Prejudice, though I did enjoy it.

As a little kid, I was often confused by the apparent redundancy of the title, but my class has elucidated me as to its true meaning. In Austen’s day, “sensibility” meant something akin to what we mean today when we say “delicate sensibility”; it was a sensitivity to other people that often incited passion. Hence, prudent Elinor is all sense and hysterical Marianne is all sensibility. This sort of sensibility is exactly what Austen is aiming her knives at (although here, to be honest, they’re more like cleavers) in most of her work. While I won’t review Love and Freindship for this blog, she parodies the same thing in a piece written in her early teens, and it’s apparently a fond subject for Austen. I did enjoy Sense and Sensibility, and I look forward to analyzing it in class, but I prefer Pride and Prejudice over this; it’s just more human and realistic. Still, I wonder what I’ll think of it once I’ve read the whole Austen canon…

Bottom line: Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen’s first novel, is a broader satire of overblown passions and delicate sensibilities in the early 1800s and doesn’t quite hold up to Pride and Prejudice, which is more human; part of this stems from having one of the heroines be part of the very thing being made fun of. Still, it’s quite enjoyable and would make for a great introduction into the world of Austen.

I bought this book from Barnes & Noble.

18 thoughts on “Review: Sense and Sensibility

  1. I like Sense and Sensibility quite a lot, but I agree with you that it’s not nearly as good as Pride and Prejudice, which is probably my favorite (on some days, I prefer Persuasion). It’s funny about the fate of Marianne. I wasn’t sure how I felt about it either, but I’ll confess that Emma Thompson’s film adaptation brought me around to liking the ending of Marianne’s story. Thompson’s screenplay gave the character a bit more, well, character than I think is evident in the book. (The casting no doubt helped as well.)

    • Really? Now I’m looking forward to Persuasion.

      I would definitely trust Thompson to fix that in her adaptation–I’m going to get around to watching as many of the adaptations I can before I forget what happens in the books themselves.

  2. I’ve never been able to get into Jane Austen’s books. I am looking forward to all your reviews throughout the semester. Maybe I’ll even end up reading one of Austen’s novels!

  3. I’m glad you enjoyed it in the end. While I do agree that Pride & Prejudice is probably better, (little more humor, very clever, moves faster) this one still stands out as my favorite. I adore both Elinor and Marianne and, yes, the ending/marriages are not what you would expect, but I think that in the end convention won out and Marianne’s sensitivity is tempered by Colonel Brandon’s, well, blandness and stalwart behavior. At least that’s how I rationalize her marrying him, even though he is a character I like. I just don’t think they’re a good match though.

    Emma Thompson’s film is very good. Kate Winslet is fantastic as Marianne. If you get a chance, watch it. I think you might like it.

    Persuasion is very good too. I read that one this summer and found it quite enjoyable. I have all her books but still haven’t read them all. I was hoping to do it this year but I not sure that will happen.

  4. I’ve read five of Austen’s novels, plus some of her juvenilia (which are hilarious, though not at all subtle) – in some ways I liked ‘Sense and Sensibility’ better than ‘P&P’, mainly because I identified so much with Elinor’s character. My favourite of her novels is ‘Persuasion’, though – which is just perfect.

    I wonder what you’ll think of ‘Emma’, which I’ve never been able to read because Emma’s character repels me so much!

  5. I never did get into Austen at all–maybe because I’m forced to read one of her books every other quarter or so–but I’m glad to hear that you’re enjoying it! Seminars that focus on just a single author can be so enlightening and fun.

    And your enthusiasm is almost catching…who knows, maybe I should give Pride and Prejudice another shot. It’s actually been years since that one has popped up on a syllabus. Maybe I’ll like it better now. 🙂

    • Pride and Prejudice is quite good, and I’m enjoying Northanger Abbey; it manages to lightly mock its heroine without risking making her unlikable, a la Marianne.

      (Plus, then you can read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which is what I’m going to do soon.)

  6. I made the fatal mistake of reading Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters this year. I despised it, so much so that not even the parts that has Austen’s writing could redeem it. Now I find it hard to even consider picking up Sense and Sensibility. And Austen is my favourite author, so I need something to get me over the dislike..

    I agree with Teresa, the movie of Sense and Sensibility helped me like Marianne more, as well as Colonel Brandon (because I’m easily convinced when it comes to Alan Rickman).

    • I’m sorry you didn’t like it, but don’t let it keep you from reading Sense and Sensibility itself–while not her best, it’s still enjoyable.

      I also love Kate Winslet, so I’m prepared to be sold on their relationship in the film, but it just blindsided me as a reader.

  7. I know it’s an early book and should therefore be cut some slack, but I just didn’t care for Sense and Sensibility. Whereas Northanger Abbey, which she wrote earlier on still, is one of my favorites. I didn’t like the characters in S&S, that was the problem. Colonel Brandon was sweet, but apart from him, I got impatient with everyone. :/

    • Marianne is just a problem for me, and it’s almost disheartening to see Austen pull off Catherine, who is worthy of being mocked but still fundamentally a decent kid (I suppose it helps that she’s young), before Marianne.

  8. I also didn’t love this nearly as much as P&P. I wasn’t crazy about the fates either — I just despised Marianne. It’s interesting how people tend to have strong opinions about one of the other of the sisters, depending on which personality they are most like. I’ll second the opinions of the movie by Emma Thompson. Very well done.

    How fun to have a class just on Austen! Although I suspect the books will all start to feel somewhat alike by the end.

    • I’m starting to think the film will endear me to Marianne only by the virtue of her being played by Kate Winslet.

      I just finished Northanger Abbey, and I quite enjoyed it; I’m hoping they’ll remain different enough in theme as we go through the canon.

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