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.