Sense and Sensibilty by Jane Austen

Oh - isn't it great to read Jane again? I have enjoyed myself very much in this reading. I hope some of you are enjoying it too and will share some thoughts and favourite scenes or passages with us. This book should be shared aloud. I confess it took me 50 or so pages to get back into the rhythm of her prose but once having achieved that I smiled and sometimes laughed all the way through the book.

Sense and Sensibilty (1811) was Austens first published novel . The story centres around the Dashwood young women , Elinor and Marianne , their mother , a step brother and his family and a host of family friends and occasionally, would-be enemies. It is a first rate domestic comedic drama with a very simple plot line - and there in lies the genius. The dialogue between the characters and the musings of Elinor , her sister and others bob along with wit, incisive observation on character ,in the small and larger matters of love life , enough to delight anyone. The main twists in the story are related to who is going to marry who and the very important associated issue of how much money each couple is going to have for their reasonably relaxed and indolent lifestyles. In this novel as contrasted with some of the later novels - Emma for instance- no one is observed, even obliquely , working at earning a living - men or women. Whatever farming supervision and management is undertaken on estates owned by some family members gets very little or no mention - it all gets done out there somewhere but doesn't impinge on the plot line at all . We don't meet any dependent governesses needing salvation or support either.

But who do we meet ? A wonderful array of people who in the course of the novel exhibit for us love, selfishness, wisdom, cunning, generosity, meanness, cleverness, stupidity etc etc. In fact just about all the juxtaposed qualities used by many of us in our day- to- day lives. If the social scenery we are observing is relatively contained, even by comparison with other Austen novels, it is so so stylishly presented from the point of view of Sense and Sensibility. I think the very restricted view concentrates the minute observation so clearly. I particularly love the author's obvious delight in summarising foibles so well. One passage among many illustrated this point well for me - a summary of the characters of two of the least attractive women in the book , Lady Middleton and Mrs Dashwood junior - the wife of the step brother , not Mrs Dashwood senior - mother of Elinor and I quote:
"There was a kind of cold hearted selfishness on both sides, which mutually attracted them; and they symathised with each other in an insipid propriety of demeanour, and a general want of understanding". Ch 34 - Ouch.

Austen , in this early novel, uses this strong criiical approach to behaviour and communication to bring home her acute observations time and time again - but , of course in the end the good girls get the right husbands . But then also, the more selfish ones manage allright also - particularly if they have a good income. This work is possibly the most romantic of her novels yet spiced with the most acerbic observations of relationships, interdependence and enlightened self interest. A passage toward the end of the novel shows this intent very clearly . Lucy Steele ,a young woman of no fortune who needs to marry well , curries favour with her wealthier relatives and family acquaintances to get by and move in "Town" (London) circles .She successfully and surprisingly marries Robert Ferrars, a man of good income, by a circuitous and dubious route - much to the shock of most of the people who know her. The author summarises as follow and I quote:
"The whole of Lucy's behaviour in the affair, and the prosperity which crowned it, therefore, may be held forth as a most encouraging instance of what an earnest, an unceasing attention to self interest, however its progress may be apparently obstructed, will do in securing every advantage of fortune, with no other sacrifice than that of time and conscience" Ch 49. Ouch again.

I just love it - do you?

Going back to look at some of the other characters - First , the sisters Elinor and Marianne are central to the story . We have the opportunity to view their romances through a range of betrayals and misunderstandings to eventual successful marriages at the end of the book. Elinor is a typical Austen heroine - wise and her family's rock of sense. Marianne is lovely but with a little too much sensibilty although very kind hearted and bright . Mrs Dashwood senior, their mother , loves her family of three daughters unselfishly .We know very little about Margaret , her youngest daughter, mostly because she is not of marriagable age and therefore of no use to the storyline. Mrs Jennings , a would-be duenna with wealth to spare, is a great character who bubbles along talking and indulging in written communication continuously. Her misunderstandings are an important humorous element in the novel. There are a range of fairly cardboard cut-out men who have important associatve roles too in exemplifying mores of selfishness and occasionally , nobility.

I think you will be pleased with this book about a certain class of English country folk at a certain stage of society going about the important task of achieving and arranging marriages by one of the best novelsts ever. Love to hear your take which will be bound to be different from mine.


John Kennedy said...


Thanks for your comments. I am still re-reading this, in the midst of a few distractions, but I found what you say very interesting.

What you say about nobody in the novel needing to work for a living, or being in any kind of economic hardship, touches on something that has long made me a bit uneasy about Austen, much as I do admire her wit, insight, and beautiful prose. Although her own life was not spent in untroubled luxury and opulence, in her writings, and as you say, perhaps more in this novel than the other five, people who have to earn a living seem at best on the periphery. It has been suggested that her idea of the absolute minimum one can live is is about five hundred pounds a year - enough in her time to have one or two live-in servants, and be spared domestic drudgery. What she does, she does superbly well, but as she herself said, it is in some ways limited.

John Kennedy said...

I finished re-reading 'Sense and Sensibility' a few days ago, in a rather un-Jane-Austen environment of torrential rain and serious flooding in some parts of Wagga Wagga, where I live, though fortunately a couple of minor roof leaks were the worst I had to endure. It had been many years since I had read it previously, and I enjoyed re-reading it very much, with only a very hazy idea of how the plot would resolve itself, and who would marry whom.

I find myself fully in agreement with you, Faye: it is a beautifully written and highly amusing work full of sharp insight into human folly (and human goodness, though this is perhaps less entertaining).

The world Jane Austen presents is indeed one in which little attention is given to a need to work, and none at all to those, the vast majority in her time, condemned to 'earn their bread by the sweat of their brow'. But it is very far from being all croquet on the lawn and afternoon tea at the vicarage. The business of finding the right marriage partner, especially as it concerns women, is presented as a very serious business indeed, which of course it was for the class portrayed in the early nineteenth century (and which it still is today, even though women's economic wellbeing is now a good deal less dependent on the income and status of their husbands). Money and marriage are closely related concerns for men as well as women in the novel: Willoughby, as he openly acknowledges with regret, has married on account of her wealth a women for whom he feels little affection, and cruelly thrown over because she is not rich the woman he does love. Doubts are expressed as to whether the much more admirable Edward Ferrers will be able to marry on the modest income he will have as a clergyman after his mother has disinherited him.

I have been inclined to link this novel with 'Pride and Prejudice' in my mind, probably because of the similarities in the form of the two titles. 'Sense and Sensibility' is a less sunny book: the comedy is less constant, and the ending has a less fairy-tale quality: only one of the heroines finds a handsome and seriously wealthy husband. The tone is more sombre, and the cruelty of the unpleasant characters more disagreeable. But I am thoroughly glad to have been encouraged to re-read it.

Faye said...

Dear John,
Thank you for those comments . Your insights are so perceptive and I have gained from them in my understanding. I find it quite interesting to note that this is Austens earliest published novel (the more light hearted spoof "Northanger Abbey" was the first written , i think) and then to note just how strong and biting it is in social observation.
I take your point that the getting of husbands, wives or partners is just as serious today - and the economics of it all is taken quite seriously too - look at that pre-nup talk that goes on today - and how is that different.

I am glad you enjoyed it. Your mentioning the very perfectly sunny "Pride and Prejudice" brings home to me that all her works are different in tone . "Emma" for instance is such a stunning characterisation of a young woman and "Persuasion" is quite complex ,as I remember, both socially and mannerly.. I willl need now to re-read those two again.
I hope your weather trials are coming to an end and you have a peaceful summer.


John Kennedy said...

You are definitely right about all the six novels being different, Faye. 'Mansfield Park' has a good deal of comedy, but it is probably the most serious in tone. I rather like the comment of a critic who remarked that the prospect of an invitation to dinner with its decidedly moral heroine Fanny and her clergyman husband would be a somewhat daunting prospect promising little light-heartedness.