Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen’s first published novel, appears to be a straightforward romance. Men and women of contrasting and complimenting character are thrown together, but, the chances of love are thwarted by the social conventions of the period that prevent honesty and openness and instead breed duplicity and secrecy. But, on reflection, Sense and Sensibility is also a carefully crafted critique of social ethics and leaves the reader with much to think over.
Sense and Sensibility is largely a story of two contrasting sisters; Elinor and Marianne Dashwood. The novel begins with the death of their father, Henry Dashwood. Elinor, Marianne, their mother and younger sister are left with only small inheritances while the bulk of Mr Dashwood’s wealth and property is passed to John; his son from an earlier marriage. On his deathbed, Henry presses John to take care of his second family which John assures his father he will.
However, John’s selfish, snobbish wife, Fanny, convinces him that he need not show any great responsibility to his step-sisters and their mother, and John is not difficult to persuade. Faced with having to leave their home, the Dashwood women struggle to find a suitable new home within the means of their limited income. Though there is some friction between them and John and Fanny, they are soon joined at Norland Park by Fanny’s brother, Edward Ferrars, who forms an attachment with Elinor.
Sensing the growing affection between Elinor and Edward, Fanny intervenes to try and spoil any possible connection and to motivate the relocation of the Dashwood women. Fortunately, a cousin of Mrs Dashwood, Sir John Middleton, has offered them a cottage in Devonshire that would suit them well and they readily accept. The Dashwoods try to make the best of their new home and assimilate themselves in the society of Sir John. It is not easy as Sir John and his mother-in-law, Mrs Jennings, take great pleasure in teasing, prodding and gossiping with their new young companions.
One member of their new social circle is Colonel Brandon who immediately takes a liking to seventeen-year-old Marianne. Though he appears quite respectable and has considerable wealth, he is in his mid-thirties and not at all to Marianne’s liking.
But at least, mama, you cannot deny the absurdity of the accusation, though you may not think it intentionally ill-natured. Colonel Brandon […] is old enough to be my father; and if he were ever animated enough to be in love, must have long outlived every sensation of the kind. It is too ridiculous! When is a man to be safe from such wit, if age and infirmity will not protect him?
There are also rumours circulating about the Colonel’s past.
When Marianne falls and sprains her ankle while out walking, she is rescued, in the most romantic sense, by a dashing stranger; John Willoughby. Willoughby and Marianne begin spending a great deal of time together and it is no secret that Marianne is rapidly falling in love. While Elinor’s ‘sense’ compels her to keep her thoughts and feelings to herself, even from the man she has feelings for, Marianne is convinced of the greater integrity and sincerity of ‘sensibility’, and freely shares her wishes and feelings.
Elinor, this eldest daughter whose advice was so effectual, possessed a strength of understanding, and coolness of judgement, which qualified her, though only nineteen, to be the counsellor of her mother, […] She had an excellent heart; – her disposition was affectionate, and her feelings were strong; but she knew how to govern them: it was a knowledge which her mother had yet to learn, and which one of her sisters had resolved never to be taught.
Marianne’s abilities were, in many respects, quite equal to Elinor’s. She was sensible and clever; but eager in every thing; her sorrows, her joys, could have no moderation. She was generous, amiable, interesting: she was everything but prudent.
Marianne is correspondingly distraught beyond help when she and Willoughby are separated after Willoughby is sent to London by his aunt to whom he is financially dependent.
Mrs Jennings offers to help the two young women in their romantic disappointments by giving them both the opportunity of accompanying her on a trip to London. Elinor and Marianne both journey to London on Mrs Jenning’s kindness, a trip that promises to bring them in close proximity to Willoughby, Brandon and the Ferrars family. What Elinor and Marianne duly discover is that there is much in these three men’s previous lives, and their plans for the future, that they were not aware of. Revelations that will threaten to dash their hopes for love rather than inspire cause for hope.
Sense and Sensibility is the fourth Austen novel I have read. I cannot help but smile when I open a new one and begin reading the first few chapters; her style is so distinctive. It is the way she sets the scene with such-and-such a family of such-and-such regard, living on an estate in such-and-such county and, of course, with so-many pounds a year! Her style is to spell these things out for the reader so that we can quickly appreciate the setting and its tensions. She even tends to spell out the traits of her characters, at least when we first meet them, rather than allow the reader discover them.
Where she does not spell things out, and where I find myself tested as a reader, is when it comes to the dialogue between these characters. Here, instead, is found the subtle and not-so-subtle intentions and motivations, the conforming and breaking of social norms and manners, the hints and suggestions of inner-turmoil, conflict between private and public selves and telling silences. It requires the reader to read between the lines and is as much a part of the story as the events of the plot.
It made me realise that it has been a while since I’ve read a novel like this and I am out of practice. More modern writers tend to make these aspects clearer and it has probably made my reading lazier. In particular, where characters appear to be having conversations unrelated to the main story, I failed to question those instances and figure out what Austen is trying to say there. Also, I did not pick up on many parallels and contrasts between the characters. Instead, I needed some help, but more on that in a moment.
Overall, I would say that I did enjoy it but not as much as my favourite Austen; Pride and Prejudice. I was a bit surprised by how much of the story takes place in town since I usually associate Austen with country estates and villages. I enjoyed the story arc Austen takes the reader through as half-way through the novel things look very bleak for the Dashwood sisters. I also enjoyed the humour, even though there was only a little of my favourite source of comic relief; Mrs Jenning’s son-in-law Mr Palmer. But I also thought the novel suffered a few flaws.
I also enjoyed the 1995 film. Forgive me for digressing for a moment, but I can’t help but share a silly anecdote. While I was waiting for my wife to join me, once I had loaded the DVD into the player, I was watching an old episode of one of my favourite shows – Will and Grace. Grace comes out of her bedroom and says she just had a sex dream about [Sense and Sensibility director] Ang Lee. What was that like? ‘Slow-paced but visually stunning’ says Grace!
The film was what I expected it to be; a very typical adaptation. I provides all the essentials of the plot, the characters and the drama, and eliminates all that might be superfluous – other characters, scenes and events – given the limitations of time and focus of the medium. Like a typical adaptation, it was enjoyable for what it was but a lover of the novel would surely miss the nuance and sophistication of the original. Like the novel, I liked it enough.
My Penguin Classics edition of Sense and Sensibility comes with an introduction by Oxford Fellow Ros Ballaster as well as the introduction to the original Penguin Classics edition by Cambridge Fellow Tony Tanner. I read these after reading the novel and seeing the film and I have to say they gave much to ponder. If discussing the details of a novel that was first published over 200 years ago (1811), that has been widely read and adapted several times, can be considered ‘spoilers’, then be warned; spoilers follow!
One of the reasons I prefer Penguin Classics is for the value of expert opinion and they did not let me down here. For example, Ballaster points out that, almost unique among Austen’s novels, Sense and Sensibility is largely devoid of father-figures while being overwhelmed with mothers. Mothers who seem to show favouritism for one child over their siblings and children who seem to repeat the experience of their mother’s. Mothers who also, like the Dashwood sisters, have either too much sense or too much sensibility.
Ballaster further exposes the parallel events in the lives of Marianne and Elinor, or Willoughby and Edward and analyses scenes in the novel that show Austen’s thematic intentions. Ballaster also discusses the political connotations of ‘sensibility’ at the time and the parallels and contrasts between Sense and Sensibility and other novels of the period that Austen was known to have read before and during the writing of Sense and Sensibility. It all made me want to read the novel again, perhaps alongside Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792), and armed with the insights these introductions have provided. It also reduced my estimation of the 1995 film as its simplification of the novel became even more plain to see.
Ballaster also makes the important point that Elinor’s ‘sense’ is reactive. That is, her trials follow those of her sister’s and she has the benefit of observing Marianne’s behaviour and its consequences. So, do we give Elinor too much credit if we attribute her ‘sense’ to her maturity or strength of character when she may instead be learning lessons from Marianne’s experience?
The peculiar logical twist at the centre of the novel is that Elinor’s ‘sense’ only makes sense by contrast with sensibility; indeed we might argue she only reaches her right decisions, or, at least, rationalises their value, by keeping quiet and assessing Marianne’s wrong ones.
Tanner’s introduction discusses the issue he believes to be at the heart of the novel; the conflict between the need to express oneself against the social pressure to comport oneself and the paradox of living in a society that requires you to be both sociable and private. In discussing this issue and Marianne’s illness, Tanner notes the high prevalence of nervous-breakdown-type sickness in the late 18th century.
To me, the greatest flaw in Sense and Sensibility is the matching of Marianne and Col Brandon in the end. I don’t buy them as a good match. Tanner, I think is inclined to agree but makes some good points. He reminds us that Austen does say that Marianne’s illness has changed her. Because it comes so late in the novel, we may not appreciate how much she has changed and perhaps she might make a good match for the Colonel after all.
On the other hand, the ending is really a new beginning with the wedding of Marianne and Brandon and we can’t say what may happen from there. It may not be a successful marriage. Tanner compares Marianne to two other women of similar character in later novels – Maggie of George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss (1860) and Cathy of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1847). Each of whom had less than happy fates. Food for thought indeed!
I frequently say that there is value in reading books again. Dostoyevsky was one who wrote novels intended to be read more than once. Reading Crime and Punishment again was a very different experience from the first time and my impression was far more positive the second time around. I foresee a similar experience with Sense and Sensibility. This first experience was fair, but it leaves plenty to think about and I certainly want to read it again. Now that I know the plot and can allow the rest to soak in, I believe I will be far more appreciative and find it far more enjoyable the second time around.