Thursday, July 14, 2011

Sense and Sensibility

Sense and Sensibility. Jane Austen. 1811. (The Complete Novels) Random House. p. 3-175.

The family of Dashwood had been long settled in Sussex. Their estate was large, and their residence was at Norland Park, in the centre of their property, where for many generations they had lived in so respectable a manner as to engage the general good opinion of their surrounding acquaintances.

I don't know why I didn't love Sense and Sensibility the first time I read it. I really don't. Because it's just as good as all the other Austen I've read--or reread as the case may be. Could it be that some Austen novels just need to be read twice to be appreciated? Or could it be that this novel was just in the right place at the right time for me to love it? Mood does factor into my experience after all! Could me loving Colonel Brandon's Diary by Amanda Grange have something to do with it? And I couldn't help making comparisons between Sense and Sensibility with Anthony Trollope's The Small House of Allington. Couldn't help concluding that if Austen had been writing it, readers would have had a FULLY, FULLY satisfying ending! (And if Trollope had been writing Sense and Sensibility, well, Marianne might not have given up some of her notions.) Let's just be thankful that Thomas Hardy did not write Sense and Sensibility or The Small House of Allington!

I almost feel silly not including a summary, but it also feels silly to include a summary. I feel so many people will already be familiar with the basics of the story. So here it goes.

Soon after the novel opens, Mr. Dashwood dies. The second Mrs Dashwood has three daughters and not much money. For most everything went to Mr. John Dashwood, the eldest son, the son of the first Mrs. Dashwood. He promised his father--promised--that he would provide for his half-sisters and step-mother. (For the father was very distraught about his family and how they would be able to live.) To borrow from Dr. Seuss, he said and said and said those words, he said them but he lied them*. Is that exactly fair? Yes and no. He just didn't remember that he's not allowed to have thoughts and opinions of his own. He forgot to take into account his wife, Fanny Dashwood. He forgot that she would most definitely have an opinion on his her their newly inherited money. The scene between the two is quite remarkable and clever. If you can view them as villains providing comic relief. If you consider them as human beings, well, their actions can't be justified so don't even try.

So after many uncomfortable months sharing a home with John and Fanny Dashwood (and their son), Mrs. Dashwood decides she's had enough. She agrees to move with her three daughters to a small cottage (on the estate of Barton Park) where they can afford the rent. It isn't a perfect situation because it brings them into the company of Sir John Middleton, Lady Middleton, and Mrs. Jennings, just to name a few. (A little of their company goes a long, long way). But they are happy enough in their own way.

So Elinor is the oldest daughter, Marianne is the middle daughter, and Margaret is the youngest daughter. Marianne is the one most like her mother. And Marianne and Mrs. Dashwood can clash quite a bit with Elinor. Not in a needing Dr. Phil way. Not in an outrageous way. Just that they have different ideas about love and life and the finer things in life like art, music, poetry, novels, etc. To be quite honest, I found myself taking Elinor's side for many of these conversations. Marianne's strong opinions, well, they irritated me in many ways. And quite a few actually disgusted me. I had to keep telling myself, she's seventeen, she's seventeen, she's seventeen. She just hasn't experienced enough of life, of love, to know any better. Not that I believe she needed to outgrow her spirit. For her passionate spirit, her love of life, isn't a bad thing.

So Sense and Sensibility is a romance. Readers meet the men in Marianne and Elinor's lives. We meet Edward Ferrars, the brother of Fanny. Perhaps because she is already connected--for better or worse--with Fanny, Elinor doesn't hold that against him. It helps that he's not really anything like his sister. We meet John Willoughby, Marianne's ideal romantic hero. He wins Marianne and Mrs. Dashwood over with very little effort. They're just convinced that he's the best thing ever. The problem may just be that he knows it. He knows the effect he has on women--the more romantic, the more passionate, the sillier, the easier it is for him to make them swoon. And then there is Colonel Brandon. The man that perhaps only Elinor can fully appreciate--at least at the beginning. Marianne being too silly, going "he's so old, he's so ancient, who could ever love someone so old and decrepit?" Never considering that he is close to her mother's age--give or take a few years. How old is old? Well, he's 35. (Not so old in my opinion! Definitely not so old that he should just give up living life.)

I loved Sense and Sensibility. I did. I wouldn't say it was like I was reading it for the first time. Because goodness knows that when I read it the first time I was obviously not paying attention to the little things or even the not-so-little things. I suppose I was reading with a limited attention span? Or maybe I just wanted to get done quickly? I read with attention and appreciation this time. I read for pleasure. I read at my own pace. I took in each scene without rushing, without pushing. I saw just how much there was to see.

For example, I noticed that sometimes it wasn't always what was being said that mattered. That sometimes it was all about what was NOT being said. There were many, many times when the words that were being said, weren't meant at all. There were conversations veiled in polite words that were actually quite mean-spirited, full of insult, and revealing some jealousy. The text actually has quite a bit of sarcasm and humor or wit to it. That Elinor might say all the right things--at times--but that doesn't mean she's always sincere. "It was impossible for [Marianne] to say what she did not feel, however trivial the occasion; and upon Elinor, therefore, the whole task of telling lies when politeness required it always fell" (57). And so I was able to "see" more of Elinor this time through, perhaps, in her conversations with the Middletons and Palmers and Steeles and Mrs. Jennings. Like this little gem:
"I have a notion," said Lucy, "you think the little Middletons rather too much indulged; perhaps they may be the outside of enough; but it is so natural in Lady Middleton; and for my part, I love to see children full of life and spirits; I cannot bear them if they are tame and quiet."
"I confess," replied Elinor, "that while I am at Barton Park, I never think of tame and quiet children with any abhorrence." (58)
Almost from start to finish, I thought about each conversation, each relationship. Was it all pretense and politeness? Was it sincere or genuine? What wasn't being said? Was what being said the truth and nothing but the truth? Who did Elinor feel comfortable with? Who was she real with?

So there was much to think about this time through. And I wasn't solely thinking of Elinor throughout. I was trying my best to appreciate all the characters--even the ones I didn't especially Willoughby. What I noticed was that Austen created plenty of flawed characters. That there are characters that have a few quirks, a few flaws, a few weaknesses, but that also have their good qualities too.

So I definitely LOVED this one and would recommend it. I would suggest that you go at your own pace, that you don't read it in a hurry. That you let yourself enjoy it in the moment, enjoying each scene as part of the whole, instead of trying to rush to the happily ever after ending.

*Adapted from "What Was I Scared Of?"

© 2011 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews


DesLily said...

i haven't read the book but of course LOVED Alan Rickman as Col. Brandon in the movie!
I never knew there was a Col Brandons Diary! I must have missed that one when you reviewed it. I pretty much read all your reviews even if they aren't books I might like to read!

Jillian said...

I can't WAIT to read this. I have the annotated version pictured here. :-)

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

I've come to believe some Austen's are just better the second time around. I do love S&S though. My sister and I are really different so I felt very connected to the Dashwoods.

Photographic said...

I read Sense and Sensibility a while ago and its probably one of my favourite Austens...but I think the happy ending was a bit rushed with everything working out for Elinor and Edward and Marriane and Colonel Brandon. Check out my blog, I've only just started it last month and I've done a couple of reviews/writings on two of my favourite books.