Sense and Sensibility

In which I review Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen’s 1811 novel about two penniless sisters negotiating romance and marriage in the status-and-money obsessed society of Regency England. 

What it’s about: England, the 1770s. Elinor and Marianne Dashwood are forced to leave their comfortable home following the death of their father, and move with their mother and younger sister to a cottage in Devonshire, near the home of their cousin, Sir John Middleton. Elinor, the elder and more practical sister, nurses a secret love for the mild-mannered Edward Ferrars, but learns that he is secretly engaged to Miss Lucy Steele. Marianne, the younger and more impulsive sister, falls passionately in love with the handsome and charismatic John Willoughby, ignoring the attentions of her older and more devoted admirer Colonel Brandon. Willoughby suddenly abandons Marianne in favour of a young heiress. Brandon reveals that Willoughby seduced and abandoned a ward of Brandon’s family and was subsequently disinherited, hence his need to marry a wealthy woman. Edward’s and Lucy’s secret engagement is revealed and he is disinherited. Brandon offers Edward a curacy on his estate so he can marry and support Lucy, and Elinor resigns herself to losing him. Marianne, still pining for Willoughby, falls dangerously ill and nearly dies; Willoughby reappears, confessing his love for Marianne and begging her forgiveness. Lucy breaks off her engagement with Edward and marries his brother, who is now the heir to the Ferrars estate,  allowing Edward and Elinor to marry. Marianne finally accepts Brandon’s offer of marriage, and the novel ends with the two sisters living happily “within near sight of each other”.

Why it’s a classic: Sense and Sensibility was Austen’s first published novel, begun in 1795 when she was just 20, and revised over many years, eventually published (anonymously, “by a Lady”) in 1811. It became a commercial success, and was the first of her novels to be reprinted in her lifetime, following the popularity of Pride and Prejudice and Mansfield Park. Contemporary reviews praised Sense and Sensibility as a wholesome morality tale that would be suitable reading for young women, apparently failing to grasp Austen’s gifts for social satire. The novel presents what were to become recurring themes in Austen’s later works: an intense interest in family life, particularly in the experiences of women and the relationships between mothers, daughters and sisters; a focus on the economic realities of women, and a critique of patriarchal inheritance laws that left widows and unmarried women destitute; a trenchant satire of fashionable Regency-era society and the pretensions of social climbers; and a bracingly cynical view of marriage as an economic necessity.

Austen is widely credited with popularising female-driven narrative fiction, and creating the genre now known as romantic comedy, combining the satisfaction of Cinderella stories with rollicking social satire. Sense and Sensibility was thrust to the top of the bestseller lists in the mid 1990s, with a hugely successful film version adapted by and starring Emma Thompson, directed by Taiwanese filmmaker Ang Lee. Following successful TV and film adaptations of Pride & Prejudice, Emma and Persuasion, the film of Sense and Sensibility re-established Austen as one of the world’s most popular, enduring and profitable storytellers – which one senses she would have been pleased with.

Bouquet or Brickbat: A huge bouquet, interwoven with a lock of hair. I’m slightly ashamed to say I never got around to reading Sense and Sensibility, despite being at university during the 1990s Austen revival, and seeing the Thompson/Lee adaptation over 300 times.

In literary terms, Sense and Sensibility isn’t the easiest of Austen’s novels to tackle, especially if you’re a first-timer. Her sentence structure is overlong, the syntax is complicated, and her tendency to name nearly every male character John (albeit an excellent name) can be confusing. By modern standards, her plot can meander a bit. Much of the action involves Elinor and Marianne sitting around waiting for something to happen, while the men pop up from time to time and disappear to London. Key plot twists are delivered second-hand via conversations between characters, and there are long diversions about characters we never meet, including the two generations of fallen women cared for by  Brandon. By contrast, Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion are much pacer reads, with crisp clean dialogue and a more assured handling of narrative.

What is remarkable about Sense and Sensibility is Austen’s creation of not one but two heroines, who are neither tragic figures nor saintly paragons of virtue, but fully realised women with their own thoughts, desires and critical appreciation of the world. Elinor and Marianne represent the two opposing moral forces that gives Austen’s writing its prickly energy: the wish to be a good person and behave properly, which might require the sublimation of our own desires, as represented by Elinor; versus the wish to fulfil our desires and live by the tenets of our own beliefs, as represented by Marianne. Austen’s early reviewers were partially correct – Sense and Sensibility is a morality tale, in which Elinor’s good sense, caution and determination to behave properly is rewarded via a happy marriage to Edward. Her heroism comes from following her internal moral code and choosing to be good, even at the potential cost of her own happiness. By contrast, Marianne’s impulsive romanticism leads her nearly to her death. Her reward only comes after she acknowledges her own selfishness and determines to become more measured, allowing her to see Willoughby’s faults and appreciate the steadfastness of Colonel Brandon.

While this should feel didactic, it doesn’t, largely due to Austen’s ability to create complex, interesting characters, who experience doubt, disappointment and resentment. Elinor and Marianne in some ways feel very far away from us, as they’re under social constraints that largely no longer exist. It’s difficult for contemporary readers to understand why Elinor would keep Lucy’s engagement a secret from her own family, or why Edward would feel similarly bound to keep up his unwanted engagement. But what Austen understands is that no one lives wholly unconnected from their society. Even her heroines who find husbands and true love still have to endure the disappointments of lost opportunity, the prying attention of family and the pressures of social duty. Austen’s acidic final description of Elinor and Marianne “living almost within sight of each other… without disagreement between themselves, or producing coolness between their husbands” makes the point that happiness in marriage is largely a matter of luck, and more the exception than the rule.  By contrast, the book is littered with examples of unhappy marriages: Sir John, who feels the need to fill his house with company to compensate for the dullness of Lady Middleton; Mr Palmer, whose sarcastic comments about his vacuous wife Charlotte go blithely unnoticed; Willoughby, who expresses contempt for a woman whom he has only married for her money; and Lucy Steele and Robert Ferrars, who we are told have “frequent domestic disagreements“.

Ultimately, what makes Sense and Sensibility such delicious fun is Austen’s deft knack for social satire, and her pithy, searing comic portraits. Elinor is the prototype for all Austen’s heroines – a sensible woman surrounded by idiots – and there’s great fun to be had as she navigates the mass idiocy on display, her critiques hidden behind a veneer of feminine politeness. When Elinor meets the insipid Robert Ferrars, she agrees with his criticism of Edward, “for she did not think he deserved the compliment of rational opposition.” Austen is a connoisseur of a particular type of well-meaning stupidity, whether it’s Sir John assessing merit by acreage and dogs; the moronic Charlotte, who is unable to comprehend her husband’s insults; or the hapless John Dashwood who allows his wife Fanny to talk him out of financially supporting the Dashwood sisters. There are also a number of satisfyingly mean judgments about spoiled children: one of Mrs Middleton’s brats gets accidentally stabbed by a hairpin while being coddled, an immensely comforting scene for anyone who’s had to listen to friends raving about their exceptional offspring.

Some of Austen’s harshest judgments are saved for her female characters, including Fanny, who clings onto her husband’s inheritance by any means necessary, and the insipid Mrs Middleton. When these two characters meet, Austen observes “[t]here was a kind of cold hearted selfishness on both sides, which mutually attracted them; and they sympathised with each other in an insipid propriety of demeanor, and a general want of understanding.” Of Edward and Robert’s mother, Mrs Ferrars, we are told that “she was not a woman of many words; for, unlike people in general, she proportioned them to the number of her ideas.” The ambitious, amoral Lucy Steele is critical to the moral framework of Sense and Sensibility, since she represents the antithesis of Elinor and Marianne’s approach to romance and marriage. Austen’s final summation of Lucy is scathing, but possibly also admiring of her character’s ruthlessness: “The whole of Lucy’s behaviour in the affair, and the prosperity which crowned it, therefore, may be held forth as a most encouraging instance of what an earnest, an unceasing attention to self-interest, however its progress may be apparently obstructed, will do in securing every advantage of fortune, with no other sacrifice than that of time and conscience.”

Austen’s novels are to some extent wish-fulfilment fantasies, in which her heroines get to keep their fine moral principles and get the wealthy guy at the end. But she also understands that real life seldom allows for happy endings, which is why women like Fanny and Lucy must become hustlers, defending their corner in a harsh, patriarchal society. It’s this glimmering of insight into even the most selfish of her characters that makes Austen feel decidedly modern, and a perfect fit for our money-and-status obsessed capitalist world.

Quotable Quote: “Marianne Dashwood was born to an extraordinary fate. She was born to discover the falsehood of her own opinions, and to counteract, by her conduct, her most favourite maxims. She was born to overcome an affection formed so late in life as at seventeen, and with no sentiment superior to strong esteem and lively friendship, voluntarily to give her hand to another!… Marianne could never love by halves; and her whole heart became, in time, as much devoted to her husband, as it had once been to Willoughby.”

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