Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen
Final Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0
Jane Austen is a subtle vixen. My first attempt at reading her work was about 8 years ago, when I decided to declare myself an English major and realized that I had best get to work on reading some of these “canonical” texts. I started with Pride and Prejudice, but only made it about one-quarter of the way through before giving it up. I wasn’t ready to take Austen seriously – I was under the common, misconceived notion that she was just a “romantic” writer. But then, in graduate school, Austen’s Northanger Abbey was assigned in one of my seminar courses, as a precursor/companion to the study of Victorian Lit. How quickly my opinion of Austen changed! To this day, Northanger Abbey remains one of my favorite books, and my favorite work by Austen. I attempted Pride and Prejudice again not more than a year later and was stunned to find myself crazy-in-love.
Sense and Sensibility is my third experience (or fourth, if you count that first time with P&P) with Austen, after more than 5 years’ absence and I could not be more thrilled to be back. The book was, somehow, more than I hoped it to be. I believe I was frightful that the last two experiences were flukes, and I was sure to hate the next Austen novel I read, because who can continue to surprise and delight a discerning reader time after time? Well, Austen can. In fact, after reading Sense and Sensibility, I truly believe Austen might be the perfect novelist. Her prose is tight and purposeful, her description just present enough to be important without being overwhelming; her characters identifiable, independent, and drawn to reflect a “type” without ever becoming grotesques (here’s lookin’ at you, Dickens!). And her humor. Her wit. What can one say about this? I will start by referring to those experts who found her completely lacking:
Rowland Grey tells us that Dickens was “blind” and “ungrateful” when he would “deny women humour”, particularly in that he denied Austen her due in this regard. Ignoring the woman who write Emma, when speaking about humour in literature by women, “was an act of scandalous injustice,” says Grey. I would whole-heartedly concur and, though Dickens was certainly not the most shining example of decent humanity (he was quite the bigot and sometimes applauded violence against/extermination of other races), but he was, in a way, a suffragist, so for him to make such a blanket statement, when such a positive example of female humor in literature was present in his nation’s own literary history, seems not just inaccurate, but almost willfully ignorant and sexist.
Then, of course, there are the infamous critiques of Austen’s work by my personal all-time favorite writer, Mark Twain, two of which (out of many) are below:
“I haven’t any right to criticise books, and I don’t do it except when I hate them. I often want to criticise Jane Austen, but her books madden me so that I can’t conceal my frenzy from the reader; and therefore I have to stop every time I begin. Everytime I read ‘Pride and Prejudice’ I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone.” – Letter to Joseph Twichell, 13 September 1898
“Jane Austen’s books, too, are absent from this library. Just that one omission alone would make a fairly good library out of a library that hadn’t a book in it.” – Following the Equator
Whether Twain himself was being satirical by violently hating, on purpose, an author so beloved just for the sake of being contradictory, I do not know (though I certainly wouldn’t put it past him). Unfortunately, we have only the many direct anti-Austen quotes to go on and, in or out of context, they seem to point to the fact that Twain truly despised her writing, including her prose and her characters. How could he and Dickens, both literary giants and geniuses, be so wrong? Conjecture about their potential biases could go on forever, so it is enough, I think, just to say that they were wrong – they either refused to give her a fair chance, from the start, or they completely misunderstood her, possibly from a lack of empathy in regards to the female psyche or, particularly in Twain’s case, from a great and real disconnect between Austen’s background and his own.
All that being said, my experience with Sense and Sensibility (S&S) was a great one. I found it to be not quite so perfectly written or constructed as Pride and Prejudice (P&P), nor quite as bold and funny as Northanger Abbey (N.A). There is a clear development of skill and practice, however, from that first novel (N.A.) and her second (S&S). Her narrative voice is more confident, her satire and wit are more subtle and refined, and the story’s overall structure and pace are delivered with a cohesive clarity which N.A. lacked. Also, though not a parody of Gothic fiction, S&S does pick-up where N.A. left off, in regards to Austen’s critique of Romantic themes. Austen is much more of a Realist than people tend to give her credit for, and while her books are certainly romantic, they are almost a counter-argument to the sensationalism of the Romance (capital R) movement.
The story itself is about the two Miss Dashwoods, Elinor and Marianne (they also have a third sister, Margaret, who is largely left out). The sisters have an extraordinary bond, being great friends and siblings alike. They are also quite devoted to their mother and are, though not from a well-to-do family, quite happy overall. Elinor, the eldest, is calm and collected at all times – always sensible of her situation, acting with propriety and class in any situation. Marianne is more passionate and unreserved – she falls in love quickly and deeply and sometimes acts in the present with little regard for the future consequences. The two both find themselves in love with men they cannot have and their eventual let-downs, recoveries, and final resolutions provide the crux of the story and also the means for deeper investigation of the sisters’ characters (and Marianne’s growth).
Elinor and Marianne’s personalities and relationships actually reminded me quite a bit of those of mine and my
sister. My elder sister is very much like Elinor and I (though a man) saw much of myself in Marianne. There is a scene where the two sisters are engaged in conversation with some ladies and gentlemen of society, and the conversation has dulled to the point that two mothers are discussing the relative heights of their young boys. Each mother, of course, properly defers to the other – indicating that the others son, surely, is the tallest. The grandmothers, as grandmothers will, make no qualms about their grandchild being the absolute tallest, sturdiest boy alive. Then, everyone around the room is courted for his/her vote in this oh-so-serious survey. When it is Elinor’s turn, she, true to form, acts with the greatest propriety, assuring both mothers that each of her sons is surely strapping and tall for his age, indeed! Marianne, the would-be tie-breaker, decides to vote for neither, indicating that she does not know either of the boys and really cannot be bothered with the question. And the whole party is shocked and disturbed! Hilarious!
What I enjoyed most about the novel, separate from the story which was entertaining in and of itself, was the prose and construction. The pace is deceptively slow, but because each new character, scene, or event is included with a specific purpose in mind, the story is in continuous motion, which makes a non-sensational story somewhat of a page-turner (though it is hard to tell, in the moment, what it is exactly that is gripping you!).
There are characters who were easy to love (like the adorable older lady, Mrs. Jennings, who dotes on everyone and who reminded me of Mrs. Santa Claus) and characters who were easy to hate (like John Dashwood, the girls’ brother, and his wife, one of the most convincingly selfish and manipulative wives in literature) but, though certain characters were clearly drawn to represent something in particular, be it a personality type, or a certain level of the caste system, none were developed in such a way as to be a “character type” rather than a “character.”
I was slightly disappointed by Marianne’s ultimate fate and found Elinor’s to be fairly expected but the way in which Austen wrapped-up the near-contrived plot (much happens suddenly at the end which allow things to go the sisters’ way) turned out to be quite masterful. There were moments near the end when I thought to myself “Okay, Jane, how will you get us out of this one?” – wholly expecting to have to believe in a resolution for the sake of believing in it, but she tied things up in believable ways, which left the expectedly saccharine ending satisfying. Yes, the dessert was always going to be sweet, but instead of the quick and easy candy bar ending, we get a crème brulee, crafted and presented with skill, to be savored and remembered forever.
“And they were neither of them quite enough in love to think that three hundred and fifty pounds a year would supply them with the comforts of life.”
“People always live for ever when there is any annuity to be paid them.”
“Where I have most injured I can least forgive.”
“He had just compunction enough for having done nothing for his sisters himself, to be exceedingly anxious that every body else should do a great deal.”
“She hated him so much that she was resolved never to mention his name again, and she should tell every body she saw, how good-for-nothing he was.”
“It is not time or opportunity that is to determine intimacy; it is disposition alone. Seven years would be insufficient to make some people acquainted with each other, and seven days are more than enough for others.”
“Thunderbolts and daggers!”
Sense and Sensibility is Book #1 completed for Austen In August.
You have to love Austen once you get over all the stereotypes. She’s postively scathing in social criticism in her novels and sometimes I feel is dripping with disdain and it’s hilarious to all of a sudden have it click and be like WHOA, go Ms. Austen!
I’m so glad you loved this one. I first read it about a decade ago and then re-read it earlier this year. Austen’s wit and her wonderful descriptions of sibling relationships are unlike any other. I can’t wait to hear what you think of Persuasion whenever you read it. As much as I love her other work, it remains my favorite of her novels.
I’ll definitely read Persuasion sometime, though probably not this month. I’m reading three short works (Lady Suson, The Watsons, Sanditon) and then Mansfield Park.. and I think that’s about all the time I’ll have in August. =/
Great review, Adam! I read Sense & Sensibility for my British Literature II class, but I don’t work well with both I HAVE to read over a certain period of time, so I don’t think I enjoyed it as much as I could have. I’ll probably read it again at some point, but at present it’s the least favorite of my Austen reads.
It is technically my least favorite as well, but I don’t think it’s the worst. I tend to appreciate different things in books, though, and technical perfection doesn’t necessarily mean it will be my favorite. In any event, it’s only my least favorite by the slightest margin, considering I gave P&P and NA 4.0 out of 4.0, and this one gets 3.75. So, really, it’s an injustice to even scale these…
First time I’ve seen Mark Twain en Jane Austen in one sentance. Chapeau!
Perfect novelist? I would like to see a “face off” between Jan Austen and Gustave Flaubert. Should prove to be interesting!
Ah, interesting – I haven’t read any Flaubert (I started to read Madame Bovary many years ago, but abandoned it). I do think Austen vs. Emile Zola or Austen vs. Nabokov could be good matches, though! There are, of course, many brilliant writers… but each time I revisit Austen, I’m reminded of how incredibly well-planned and well-executed her novels are. Nothing is out of place, everything is a means toward the end.. nothing is superfluous.
Yes, yes! All of that!!!
I also started then abandoned Madame Bovary. No issues with the novel — it just wasn’t the right time. It’s on my list. I’d love to eventually read it in the original French. I don’t think it’s fair to gage Flaubert’s craftsmanship until I have. 🙂
This is my least favorite Jane Austen novel. I’ve read it once and it was a struggle for me to get through. I don’t even watch the movies, except for the adaptation From Prada to Nada. I’m currently listening to The Weissmanns of Westport which is an adaptation and while it took me a bit to get into it, I’m finding it quite enjoyable. It changes up the plot a bit, but I find I like the changes!
AWESOME review, Adam!!! Persuasion is technically my least favorite by Austen, but I adore it, so no love lost by being last. (And I still need to read Emma and Mansfield Park.)
I agree S&S isn’t technically superior to P&P. But I don’t know that that matters. When it’s the right novel for me, it’s the right novel. 😉
(Mrs. Jennings *is* Mrs. Santa Claus!! Ha!)
S&S this one is on my club list for a second visit. I’m going to pick the perfect moment. 😀
I’m currently re-reading Sense and Sensibility….it’s one of my favorite Austen books!
I read this book last year and enjoyed it, though it’s not one of my favourite Austen novels. I could identify more with Elinor, but I liked Marianne too and I agree that the way her story ended was slightly disappointing.
I’m re-reading Emma at the moment and enjoying it much more than I did the first time I read it!
I read S&S for the first time last year, and quite adored for much the same reasons you’ve mentioned. I love how concise and all encompassing your review is! I’ve often wondered if the likes of Dickens and Twain were simply prejudiced. I wouldn’t be surprised if they’d never even read Austen! Their comments sound much like the rivalry found among theatre directors in my little city…not one of them goes for a play directed by any other director simply because it’s a matter of pride!
Only yesterday I finished reading Gaskell’s North and South, and in my mind I found myself comparing her to Austen (and Dickens). Content wise I found Gaskell meaty and more wholesome, but it came home to me more clearly that Austen’s real charm is not her plot but her language and wit.
Read this one this year too. I actually got the unabridged audio book which was much fun to listen to all those great lines.
I feel exactly the same about S&S as you do about NA, it was my first and will always hold a special place in my heart. I am however reading P (for the second time) as Anne Elliot is my favorite of all Austen’s characters.
It’s not just the male writers that take issue with Austen though. Charlotte Bronte hated Austen as well, though for the life of me I can’t understand why any of them felt that way.
Sense and Sensibility isn’t my favourite of Austen’s work (Marianne tends to annoy me a great deal) but it is a fantastic novel, regardless. Great review! 😀
Yes, indeed (Joseph Conrad was another), but I think Charlotte, at least, attempted to explain why she was not a fan of Austen’s works. Charlotte was a woman of passion, feeling, and emotion. Her style reflects this; Jane, on the other hand, was a woman of thought, composure and intellect (you could almost put these two into the roles of Marianne and Elinor). Also, I believe Charlotte was irritated by the fact that many of her mentors (G.H. Lewes included, I believe) encouraged her to write more like Austen – and Charlotte absolutely hated being told to write like anyone other than herself.
Charlotte didn’t just flat-out hate Austen, either. Where she did, she explained why. But she also praised her on some occasions. This she wrote in a letter to Lewes:
“If you find no inspiration in Miss Austen’s page, neither do you find mere windy wordiness; to use your words over again, she exquisitely adapts her means to her end; both are very subdued, a little contracted, but never absurd.”
This is true, at least Charlotte is willing to explain her dislike, where many of the men don’t. But at the same time it does sound like rather a back-handed compliment, lol: There’s never anything absurd in Austen, but there’s little of anything else either.
But I would agree that at least part of Bronte’s irritation was due to being told that she should write more like Jane. After all, I don’t think there’s any writer anywhere (including myself) who would enjoy being told to write less like yourself and more like someone else. 🙂
Sense and Sensibility is my favourite Austen, so far. I have Northhanger Abbey and Emma staring at me from my shelf. I don’t know which to read next though.
I did love this one when I read it last December. It seems as if every time I read an Austen, it becomes my favorite. Then I read another one, which replaces it. 🙂 I will say that I still consider Persuasion my favorite (I think it has a bit more maturity in theme), but this one was so good on that read in December that it is right there with Persuasion. And I love that you consider yourself a Marianne. I am definitely an Elinor!
Well said, Adam! I like how you introduced Dickens and Twain in this review. While I see your point(s), I can’t agree on this being a likable Austen. The pace was too slow for me, even though there was not one part that could have easily been left out, and I had to let the ending sink in for a while, before I could really accept it. I didn’t see Elinor’s fate coming – as you did – nor did I find Marianne’s decision at the end very credible.
The John Dashwoods are indeed despicable, and if they had been my family, I’d have cut the ties a long time ago.
Mark Twain sure does have a way with words…
I think part of the reason I love this story so much is because of the relationship between the sisters. I find it to be a classic oldest/youngest dichotomy as far as personalities go. It’s funny how much of myself I see in Elinor and my sister I see in Marianne. Jane had such a knack for getting people right – their behaviors, their quirks, and the ways in which they try to hide their feelings. Great review, as usual!
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I agree with you that Austen has an incredible witty sense of humor, and also in that though the pace IS slow, every scene advances the plot, and though none should be omitted, I’m not sure why the sister Margaret is included at all – I’m sure if someone would ‘edit’ her today they’d tell her to toss her and leave just a pair of sisters to the family.
This review is very elegantly worded – it was very in depth and informative – bravo 🙂