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.