Sunday, November 27, 2011

Sense and Sensibility, Part 1

When I was in high school, a friend and I read all of Jane Austen's books together, from Sense and Sensibility (1811) to Persuasion (1817). That experience was enough to certify me as an Austen lover for life; however, since then, I've only re-read Pride and Prejudice about once a year, and haven't touched the other novels. This week I decided it was about time to dive back into the rest of Austen's oeuvre, and I began again with her first published novel, Sense and Sensibility. 

For those of you who haven't read the book or seen the movie, here's a plot summary: 
The Dashwood women are ousted from their family home after Mrs. Dashwood's husband dies and the estate is bequeathed to his son from a former marriage. The son, John, is married to the self-centered Fanny Dashwood, nee Ferrars. Fanny's brother Edward, a shy and contemplative man, falls for Elinor Dashwood, the eldest of John's sisters, but Fanny strongly disapproves of the match. When Elinor, her mother and two sisters, Marianne and Margaret, are removed to a cottage on a cousin's country estate, they are all hopeful that something will eventually come of the attachment between Elinor and Edward. 

At the country estate, the family becomes acquainted with Colonel Brandon, an older man with quiet integrity, who instantly falls for Marianne. His love is not returned, however, because while exploring their new pastures, Marianne trips and falls, and is rescued by a handsome man on horseback, John Willoughby. Marianne, a romantic and passionate young lady, cannot restrain her open admiration for Mr. Willoughby, and he, being of similar temperament, returns her feelings. Their courtship is marked by improprieties that scandalize Elinor and her mother, but they are soothed by the certainty that Willoughby is about to propose. On the day of the expected proposal, however, Willoughby seems a changed man. He makes a poor excuse and leaves the county. Marianne's heart is in tatters, but she perks up when Mrs. Jennings, the mother-in-law of the cousin whose estate they reside on, offers to take Elinor and Marianne to London, where both of their romantic interests currently reside. 

Meanwhile, the nieces of Mrs. Jennings, the Steele sisters, have come to visit, and Elinor receives a great shock when Lucy Steele shares with her that, unbeknownst to his family, she has been engaged to Edward Ferrars for four years. Lucy swears Elinor to secrecy, forcing Elinor to carry the burden of knowing that the man she loves is engaged to another, without the relief of sharing her pain with her mother and sister, who still think Edward will propose to her. 

The two sisters' love stories, which mirror each other in substance, contrast each other in character. Elinor keeps her still-burning love for Edward locked inside her along with the secret pain of knowing that he is engaged to another, while Marianne displays her agony at Willoughby's flight for all the world to see. The sisters each try to struggle with their passions separately, but it is only when they come to understand the other's struggle that they are able to conquer their own. 

Great stuff, right? Austen may have penned these novels in the early 1800s, but her themes of love, sisterhood, scandal and courtship are still engaging today. If you want to know how it turns out, read the book!

While I enjoyed the book, I was actually quite surprised by Austen's writing. It certainly doesn't have the polish of Pride and Prejudice or her other, later works. I was particularly surprised by the lack of detail at the beginning of the novel. Her description of Elinor and Edward's courtship leaves much to be desired. There are no scenes, no stories of their interactions together while Elinor is still living in her family home. It is simply stated that the two are attracted to each other, and that Fanny disapproves. Their later interactions in London and at their country cottage are much more full of detail and feeling, but I felt that Austen did a poor job of setting the reader up to be invested in one of the major relationships in the book. 

I also was surprised by the lack of dialogue, which Austen handles with so much wit in Pride and Prejudice. Sense and Sensibility has much less dialogue, and as a result, Austen resorts to narrative to explain the characters. It would be a better novel if she had revealed more of the characters through dialogue instead. 

Though it is her first novel, and even with these apparent deficiencies, the Austen that I know and love comes through. Her writing is full of wit and irony. Take this example, a description of Charlotte Palmer, Mrs. Jennings' daughter, encountering the Miss Dashwoods in London: 

"So surprised at their coming to town, though it was what she had rather expected all along; so angry at their accepting her mother's invitation after having declined her own, though at the same time she would never have forgiven them if they had not come! "Mr. Palmer will be so happy to see you," said she; "What do you think he said when he heard of your coming with Mama? I forget what it was now, but it was something so droll!" 

Later, after Marianne is rebuffed by Willoughby, Charlotte Palmer gives her opinion:

"She was determined to drop his acquaintance immediately, and she was very thankful that she had never been acquainted with him at all... she hated him so much that she was resolved never to mention his name again, and she should tell everybody she saw, how good-for-nothing he was."

Austen is at her best when she describes silly, vacant characters like Charlotte, but she also describes her more sensible characters with complexity and understanding: 

"Marianne abhorred all concealment where no real disgrace could attend unreserve; and to aim at the restraint of sentiments which were not in themselves illaudable, appeared to her not merely an unnecessary effort, but a disgraceful subjection of reason to common-place and mistaken notions. Willoughby thought the same; and their behavior at all times, was an illustration of their opinions."

To be continued in part 2....

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