Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Janespotting: Sense and Sensibility (Austen's original)

I'm giving P&P pastiches a rest for a while and moving on to Sense and Sensibility and the works it has inspired. Perhaps I should say I'm moving back, as S&S was the first novel Austen wrote (as Elinor and Marianne at the age of 19) and also the first novel Austen published, anonymously in 1811 (when she was 35, after a long process). This is one of the novels that I didn't read early on. I first experienced the story via the 1995 film adapted by and starring Emma Thompson, a film I found so delightful that it immediately sent me back to the original text. Having first encountered it in that context, I still find it hard to read and think about Austen's original without having the film in mind ... but I shall try.

A brief summary: The three Dashwood sisters and their recently widowed mother find themselves losing their home, which has been bequeathed to their elder half-brother. (It is the same situation that Mrs. Bennet fears in P&P, making her so obsessed with marrying off her daughters.) With their avaricious sister-in-law Fanny now mistress of the house, the Dashwoods look to find a new living situation, and eventually move to Devonshire—but not before the eldest sister, Elinor, falls in love with Fanny's brother, Edward Ferrars. Edward is heir to a fine estate, but Fanny has made it clear the family expects him to marry highly, so Elinor does not believe an offer of marriage will come her way any time soon. She is the sensible one in the family, often having to encourage her mother to economize, and she will not indulge her feelings when they may come to nothing.

Her younger sister Marianne, however, is an emotional girl full of romantic (small and big R) notions. She pooh-poohs the need to control her feelings, and when she meets the dashing (of course) Mr. Willoughby, she soon falls head over heels and doesn't care who knows it. Obviously she embodies the "sensibility" of the title, while Elinor represents "sense." Both girls find themselves in the same situation: in love with a man who, it turns out, is not free to marry them. Elinor responds by keeping her feelings secret, even when she becomes the unwilling confidente of Edward's scheming fiancée. Marianne, on the other hand, indulges her emotions, refuses to eat, and eventually becomes ill and nearly dies. In the end, both girls find love and marriage: Elinor through her steadfast devotion and convenient plot twists, and Marianne by acquiring sense and learning to appreciate a worthy man who was close by all along.

As I re-read the book, I tried not to envision the film—just focus on the text, I told myself. I found it difficult, and I think it's because of the the conflict inherent in characters Austen chose to represent the contrasting viewpoints of the title. Elinor's viewpoint wins out in the end, but Elinor herself is a restrained character, with little sparkle or wit, always having to be the voice of reason. Marianne, on the other hand, is beautiful, musically talented, passionately articulate, and modern in her outlook. So while Elinor's behavior is more sympathetic, she's not as appealing a character as Marianne. I know some people are unsure about how to feel about the end, when Marianne accepts a man she previously overlooked as too old and boring. Has she been tamed? Is she settling? I don't really think so, because Colonel Brandon's character is shown as sweet, faithful, and intelligent from the beginning of the book. But there still seems to be a little something lacking.

Of course, there is still plenty of wit and amusement in the minor characters. The scene where Fanny Dashwood convinces her husband that his promise to take care of his sisters shouldn't mean more than an occasional basket of fruit or piece of game is priceless. Many minor characters provide tons of fun through their inappropriate behavior (as is typical for Austen). And while I may have mixed feelings about the characters themselves, the journeys they make are interesting and emotionally satisfying. So overall, I consider this mid-range Austen: not my favorite, but not at the bottom of my list. And mid-range Austen is still better than any modern romantic fiction I might encounter.

A last note, about editions. There are tons of versions of each Austen novel out there, some cheaper, some more detailed, some fancier than others. The one I have I picked up at a very small bookstore (the only one within half an hour of where I lived at the time, long defunct) so I could use the cover for work. Now, this edition came out shortly after the 1995 film, from a publisher who normally focuses on genre fiction but had recently decided to branch out into young adult. So, take a classic romance that's public domain (no royalties to pay, yay!), slap a girly cover with frilly dresses and secretive whispers on it, and boom! Extra money! Of course, they would have done better to pay a little more for their foreword. The more expensive editions get literature professors to write their forewords. This one ... I'm not sure who it was, but I don't think they'd read the novel recently. It says, "Elinor, the eldest sister, is engaged to be married to conservative Edward Ferrars...." Well, no, she isn't, that's the whole point of the book! Then it says, "Marianne, the younger sister, is smitten with Holloway, a man of dubious lineage." Well, no, it's Willoughby—I don't think there's any character named Holloway in any Austen novel—and he isn't of dubious lineage, just behavior. I should just tear that page out of my book so the next time I read it I don't start it in a bad mood. Or else spring for a new edition with a real foreword. Because, of course, I will read it again (and again) in the future.


  1. I first came to the book after the 1995 movie as well. I, too, had a difficult time reading the book without picturing the film version in my head. I like Sense and Sensibility well enough, but not as much as Emma or Pride and Prejudice.

    I have the movie tie-in mass paperback that came out with the movie, and I also have a Borders Classics reprinting. I can't believe the errors in the foreword in your copy! That's pretty funny.

  2. The errors are mostly annoying.... Maybe TSU will read this and make a note for future reference: decent edition of Sense & Sensibility.