Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen, 1811
I have a lot of thoughts about Austen. I won’t lay them all on you today. I put all five of her novels on the list, so we will get to them over the next few weeks. I will say that Sense and Sensibility is a brilliant title. It keys the reader in to the central concept of the novel, the contrast between the two sisters’ reactions to heartbreak, hardship and injured pride. Elinor’s measured, restrained, self-denying response highlights the selfishness of Marianne’s effusions of grief, wallowing and lack of concern for the effect her emotions have on those around her.
I do appreciate the point that Austen illustrates about being over-emotional or perhaps excessively restrained and I appreciate the way that she makes it. I think she presents a valuable observation about human nature. However, I must be missing something when it comes to Jane Austen overall. I find her a bit dull and considerably spiteful. I know that other readers love the sharp-witted barbs she slings at her characters. That’s perfectly valid, but I get weary of her constant enumerations of the character flaws of aristocrats. Yes, there are people in this world who are frivolous or mean-spirited or unintelligent, but surely Austen knew some admirable people. Right? This really boils down to a matter of taste. Some readers will delight in what I see as tiresome cattiness.
Like all Austen novels the main concern in Sense and Sensibility is who everyone will marry. Frankly, I don’t really care who they marry. Recently, I was complaining about this to my best friend who said “but, you were the one who explained to me why that’s so important.” What did I explain? Deciding who to marry was the only chance a woman had to determine the course of her own life. Women had few means of accumulating wealth. So, “making a good match” was their one chance to improve their circumstances; something women can now do throughout their adult lives without getting accused of being mercenary or callous too often. I think I may have made this point in reference to “Middlemarch” in which George Eliot clearly delineates the causes and consequences of deciding who to marry. She shows how ill-equipped Dorothea and Rosamund are to make this decision; how ill-suited they are to get along with the husbands that they choose. Austen does not do this. The reason I don’t feel invested in the Dashwood’s marital prospects is not that I don’t think marriage is an interesting topic for a book. I don’t care who they end up with, because the gentlemen in question lack dimension. I guess I want Elinor to marry Edward, but only because she seems to want to. I can’t remember a single thing he says from the entire book, but I distinctly remember that he doesn’t do anything until he proposes to Elinor. Not one thing. Sorry, Austen fans, but that’s terrible. She spent so much time establishing exactly how nasty and self-interested Lucy Steele is in her attempts to impede Elinor’s marriage to Edward, that she failed (yes, FAILED) to give us a reason to root for said marriage. This is supposed to be a canonically awesome item of literature. In the 1995 Ang Lee movie they had to add scenes and plot elements to Edward’s character (remember the bit where he sends the atlas to the little sister?), because not even the irrepressibly charming Hugh Grant can make something out of nothing.
That’s enough anti-Austen rhetoric for now. Next up, Sydney vs. Mansfield Park. For the record, I do mostly respect Jane Austen as an author. I just don’t enjoy her as much as everyone else in the world seems to. Sense and Sensibility with all its imperfections is not a bad first novel and Austen’s later novels improve a bit in some areas. She gets a bit better about showing rather than telling, for example. A bit.
Oh wait, one more thing. SPOILER, BY THE WAY, IF YOU HAVEN’T READ IT DON’T SCROLL PAST THE PICTURE.
I am completely not ok with the way Austen disposes of Marianne. She marries Colonel Brandon because her family wants her to and she feels bad about wearing on their nerves during her long mope over Willoughby? She grows to love him eventually? You’ve got to be kidding! I mean here’s Austen’s explanation of why they wish for a marriage between Marianne and the Colonel:
Precious as was the company of her daughter to her, she desired nothing so much as to give it up to her valued friend; and to see Marianne settled at the mansion-house was equally the wish of Edward in Elinor. They each felt his sorrows, and their own obligations, and Marianne, by general consent, was to be the reward of all.
Really? Really? Colonel Brandon has been through so much, we should do something nice for him, like, I don’t know, give him our daughter as a prize. Literally, a consolation prize. You may want to make the claim that Austen is being ironic and mocking her characters. However, Colonel Brandon and Marianne end up super happy together and in love, which is how Austen rewards the good decisions of the characters she herself has deemed deserving. Blerf.
You may like Sense and Sensibility if:
- you like Jane Austen, generally.
You may not like Sense and Sensibility if:
- you need action in your novels. I know some readers like characters to do more than loll about wondering who to marry.
Final thoughts: I have no final thoughts. My thoughts on Austen are to be continued.