My Year with Jane Austen: “Sense and Sensibility” Part I

14935._sy475_Book: “Sense and Sensibility”

Publication Year: 1811

Book Description: Marianne Dashwood wears her heart on her sleeve, and when she falls in love with the dashing but unsuitable John Willoughby she ignores her sister Elinor’s warning that her impulsive behaviour leaves her open to gossip and innuendo. Meanwhile Elinor, always sensitive to social convention, is struggling to conceal her own romantic disappointment, even from those closest to her. Through their parallel experience of love—and its threatened loss—the sisters learn that sense must mix with sensibility if they are to find personal happiness in a society where status and money govern the rules of love.

History – “I read it a little as duty, but it tells me nothing that does not either vex or weary me.”

“Sense and Sensibility” was Jane Austen’s first published work, but it was a long time in the making. It is thought that work was likely started on this book when Austen was only 19 in 1975. The manuscript was originally titled “Elinor and Marianne” and went through several re-writes, including likely a major change from an epistolary format to the current form, before settling as the book we now know. Austen self-published the book with its author only listed as “a Lady.” Over the next two years, the entire first run of the novel was sold out and Austen was able to publish a second run and collect earnings on it for several years. (source)

“I am never too busy to think of S & S.  I can no more forget it, than a mother can forget her sucking child; & I am much obliged to you for your enquiries.”

 —Jane Austen, letter to Cassandra Austen, April 25, 1811

Part I – Chapters 1 – 31

Story – “The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.”

In this first half of the book we meet the Dashwoods, a family consisting of Mrs. Dashwood and her three daughters, Elinor, Marianne, and Margaret. They are left without a fortune of their own after Mrs. Dashwood’s husband dies. Their half brother and his wife move into their home bringing with them Mrs. Fanny Dashwood’s brother, Mr. Ferrars. Elinor and Mr. Ferrars form an attachment. Seeing the match as unsuitable, Fanny Dashwood puts pressure on the Dashwoods to leave and find an establishment of their own. Thinking it for the best that Elinor and Mr. Ferrars continue their relationship out of sight of his meddling sister, Mrs. Dashwood and her three daughters move to the countryside into a cottage rented to them by a distant cousin, a Sir John Middleton.

Sir John and his family are all oddities, though mostly harmless. The Dashwoods also meet a family friend, Colonel Brandon, who, in his upper 30s, is seen as an established bachelor. It is quickly noticed, however, that he seems to have an interest in Marianne. She, however, quickly dismisses him as both too old and too reserved. Instead, through a romantic first introduction, she forms a fast, strong, and apparent to all attachment to a Mr. Willoughby. The two are incredibly open and frank about their attachment, but no formal engagement is ever mentioned. Elinor warns Marianne to curb her enthusiasm and behave in a more reserved manner as her and Willoughby’s current level of attachment is drawing the eyes and gossip of those around them.

Willoughby and Marianne’s attachment reaches a point where her family and friends cannot but assume they are secretly engaged. More questions are raised however when Willoughby suddenly quits the neighborhood and returns to town; Marianne is devastated, but still sure of his attachment. Presently, Mr. Ferrars does appear, though he is out of spirits. The family notes a new ring on his finger that looks to have a lock of hair the same color as Elinor’s. There is speculation, but Elinor says she never gave him any of her hair.

Eventually, a new party of two young women, the Ms. Steeles, join the party. Through the endless jokes of Mrs. Jennings, Sir John’s mother in law, the younger sister, Lucy Steele, guesses that at some point Elinor and Mr. Ferrars might have been speculated to have an attachment. She privately shares with Elinor that she, Lucy, has been in a secret engagement with Mr. Ferrars for several years, only kept secret due to the sure disapproval of his family; it is revealed that it was her hair in the ring. Elinor is hurt, but understands that Mr. Ferrars never made any promises or outright overtures to herself. Instead, she grieves at the poor match between the sensible Mr. Ferrars and the conniving Lucy Steele.

Mrs. Jennings asks Elinor and Marianne to join her in London. They agree, with Marianne becoming increasingly excited by the likelihood of meeting again with Mr. Willoughby. When there, she writes him several times and waits for him daily to make an appearance; he does not. Eventually, they meet at a ball and it becomes clear that Willoughby has broken with her and is now only days away from being engaged to a wealthy young woman. He writes a cruel letter to Marianne, apologizing for her “having been mislead” and returns Marianne’s letters. Marianne confides in Elinor that they were never engaged formally. Marianne sinks into a deep depression, confused and inconsolable.

Colonel Brandon appears, and still attached to Marianne and concerned for her welfare, shares his own personal history. He lost his first love when she was forced to marry her brother. The marriage went poorly and she ended up bereft. Colonel Brandon only rediscovered her when she was on her deathbed with a young girl child. Brandon took the girl under his wing. Early in this year, the girl disappeared from her keepers. When Brandon rediscovered her, she was pregnant and had been abandoned by her lover, Willoughby. Elinor is shocked and agrees that this news must be made known to Marianne.

Heroines – “I hate to hear you talk about all women as if they were fine ladies instead of rational creatures.”

First off, I think that book description is very misleading. For one thing, it represents Marianne as the primary sister of the two, where the book reads very much from Elinor’s perspective (the reader is in on the same secrets she knows, is unclear on the same information she is, and is privy for private conversations between her and other characters). I also think the last line is misleading about the overarching conclusion that Austen leads readers towards in this book, but I’ll go more into that in my concluding thoughts in the second part of this review in a few weeks.

It’s hard to be objective about Elinor and Marianne because of this greater focus on Elinor and said conclusion at the end. We are told that Marianne is sensible, clever, and a fine lady but we see her behave fairly poorly in this first half. But really, she mostly behaves the way most seventeen year old girls would. We are simply used to our young historical fiction leading ladies often doing better. But, of all Austen’s heroines, other than perhaps Catherine in “Northanger Abbey” (who also behaves poorly and like a teenage girl at times), Marianne is the youngest heroine we get. It’s a testament to Austen’s strength as an author that she is able to walk the fine line when creating a character such as Marianne that the reader is never pushed too far over the edge into dismissing her as romantically foolish and not worth rooting for. From the beginning, given that we are seeing things through Elinor’s eyes, the reader understands that Marianne’s actions are not ideal. Beyond that, the reader on their own can read her grandiose statements and see in them the naivety of youth.

Elinor, of course, is our solid rock. Throughout the entire book, we never see her make a misstep. At times, however, this leaves her as reading a bit more dull than some of Austen’s other ladies. She definitely falls on the Fanny Price side of the spectrum, being more reserved and providing most insight through personal reflection rather than witty dialogue. She’s not the most exciting heroine, but there’s a certain comfort in knowing that the story is safe in her hands, and, because it’s Austen, she’ll be rewarded in the end. Her handling of Lucy Steele is probably her at her finest. Here she almost takes her sense of propriety too far! Yes, Lucy told her a secret. But it’s hard to imagine taking that so to heart that you don’t even tell your beloved sister. Marianne, however, while not a blabber mouth, is also not the most discreet in her actions, so I do understand to some extent. However, it is never specified that this is a factor in Elinor’s thought process. Had she had Jane Bennett for a sister, one of the most demure and trust-worthy characters in all of Austen’s books, we can only assume that Elinor would still keep it to herself. Perhaps it is technically the right and honorable choice, but it is also one that almost stretches the believability of Elinor’s character to the breaking point. Is anyone really that dedicated?

Heroes – “What are men to rocks and mountains?”

We will get into this more when I review one of the movie adaptations for this book, because I think it’s the director who addresses this same thought in a commentary section, but the heroes of this book are, in my opinion, the weakest offerings Austen has to offer. Mr. Ferrars and Colonel Brandon are both decent characters and good men. But as romantic heroes, they are lacking. Mostly this because we are given next to nothing as far as interactions between them and our two ladies.

In this first half, Edward and Elinor’s burgeoning relationship happens entirely off page. We get zero examples of their interactions together and only hear about their relationship through the eyes of others and through Elinor’s modest, restrained discussions of her views on him. When he does finally appear again, we are once again limited to few interactions and zero between only Elinor and Edward. Indeed, I think it’s fair to say we hear more dialogue between Marianne and Edward debating various points on appreciation of art. And from there, we are mostly left with a man who is described as being withdrawn and moody. We later learn why, but compelling it does not make him.

Colonel Brandon fairs better as we do get to see more from him. To a certain extent, we can see his admiration for Marianne grow. And through his later communications with Elinor about his past and the comparisons he sees with Marianne, we get real insights into the emotional depth he has. But, again, there is very little to no interactions between him and Marianne herself. We hear their feelings on each other as communicated to Elinor, and very little else.

In this first half, it is clear who the heroes are, but frankly, they don’t feel very heroic. Brandon will ultimately fit this description much better than Edward, but as far as romantic plots lines goes, this first half clearly illustrates why this book fell lower on my preferences when I was looking for a swoon-worthy read.

Villains – “I do not want people to be very agreeable, as it saves me the trouble of liking them a great deal.” 

There are two main villains in this first half, Fanny Dashwood and Willoughby. Mr. Dashwood is also a villain, but mostly from being weak-willed and lead by his wife. In many instances, this plays more for comedic value than as a villainous depiction.

We get more from Fanny in the second half of the book, but the beginning scenes of the book with her talking Mr. Dashwood out of giving his sisters anything are a masterclass in despicable manipulation. That, and her snide comments to Mrs. Dashwood about Elinor and what does/does not belong with the house really cement readers’ feelings towards her early on. Through her, we’re set up pretty well to hate on the rest of the Ferrars family, Edward aside, when we later meet them.

Willoughby is a classic Austen villain. He shows up on the scene under mysterious, romantic circumstance, is charming and charismatic, attracting not only our main ladies, but the general esteem of the neighborhood, and while maybe not the absolute best prospect (Willoughby at least seems more financially secure than other similar characters in other books), would still be an agreeable match. Fans of Austen all know to beware of this type of character, but as we also see him and his courtship of Marianne through the sensible Elinor’s eyes, readers are immediately clued in to all not being well in this arena. While criticism is also thrown at Marianne for her behavior, Willoughby’s independence and control over his destiny, as a man, makes his actions much more reprehensible and Elinor quickly notes the dishonor in what she believes must be partially, if not all, his insistence that the assumed engagement remain secret.

We see most of his villainy laid out in this book, and in many ways he is one of the worst of the men presented in Austen’s books. He does become more pitiable in the second half when he can make his own case, but there is no ignoring the way he treats Colonel Brandon’s ward, a girl whose life has now been upended, her reputation beyond repairing, and at best has a future of quiet isolation in the country to look forward to. Marianne fairs better for being better protected and Willoughby’s own regard seeming to be stronger. But in the end, he makes the selfish decision to give her up for a fortune that has been lost to him (he at least thinks forever) due to his own reprehensible prior actions. Even in his affair with Marianne we see signs of his lack of regard for her reputation, bringing her to his future home and asking for a lock of her hair, all while knowing they are not engaged and these are not appropriate actions.

Romance – “A lady’s imagination is very rapid: it jumps from admiration to love, from love to matrimony in a moment.”

As I said above in the heroes section, this book is particularly light on the romance. The biggest romance we see on page is between Marianne and Willoughby, which is obviously not meant as an enjoyable love story so much as a cautionary tale. Elinor reflects quite a lot on both that relationship and that of the one between Lucy Steele and Edward. Lucy, while also perhaps fitting under the villain category, is an interesting character and I had forgotten just how manipulative and cleverly snide she was in her interactions with Elinor. To her credit, Elinor doesn’t downplay any of Lucy’s wits, but is given ample opportunity in personal reflection to list out Lucy’s flaws in case any reader remains unclear. With what little we have of Edward, it’s hard to fully picture how these two came together, but in many ways I see their future together, had it happened, to be somewhat similar to that of Mr. and Mrs. Bennett: a marriage where neither partner can love or respect the other.

We see several other flawed marriages as well. Mrs. Fanny Dashwood clearly manipulates her husband much of the time and he is too weak-willed to hold firm judgments himself. Sir John and his wife seem content enough, though they are painted as two individuals who take pleasure in very different things. And we have Mrs. Jennings’ other daughter and her husband, a marriage that Elinor reflects on with bewilderment. The wife is all smiles and laughs, tittering away about how silly her husband is. For his part, he is rude and dismissive of her and those around her. Elinor wonders at how a woman can be so happy with a husband who is so consistently saying unhappy things about and to her. But, as Austen often notes, marriage is peculiar thing.

Comedy – “For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbors, and laugh at them in our turn?”

I’ll have to reflect on this more as I go through this re-read, but I think this book might be one of the less humerous of the bunch. Sir John and Mrs. Jennings are clearly the main comedic figures who don’t also have an element of villainy to their characters. Mrs. Jennings is a familiar neighborhood great lady who often appears in Austen’s works and due to her age and position can get away with saying all kinds of ridiculous things. While many of these are funny to the reader, we also see how it can be very painful for others to be around her. Elinor in particular ends up suffering for Mrs. Jennings essentially cluing Lucy in to Elinor’s past with Edward. But in the second half we see much more of the good of Mrs. Jennings that makes up for some of this.

The elder Miss Steele is also a good comedic figure. She doesn’t get a whole lot of page time, but what she does have is probably some of the funniest parts of the story. Her obsession with “beau” and her constant attempts to get others to ask her about them. She has some great lines of dialogue and there are even several good lines from the narrative itself that really go to town with the silliness of this character. With a page-time to laughs ratio, I think she wins hands down.

Favorite quotes – “What did she say? Just what she ought, of course. A lady always does.”

“If I could but know his heart, everything would become easy.”

I’m sure most of us can sympathize with this thought.

“It is not everyone,’ said Elinor, ‘who has your passion for dead leaves.”

Simple, but a lovely illustration of Austen’s clever writing even in small moments. Plus, one of Elinor’s few funny lines of dialogue.

“She [Marianne] expected from other people the same opinions and feelings as her own, and she judged of their motives by the immediate effect of their actions on herself.”

This is a spot-on observation about people in general. I think most all of us fall in this category at one point or another. These are the type of lines that are just casually inserted in a larger scene that make you do a double-take as you realize that some tidbit of profound wisdom and insight has just been dropped on your lap.

In two weeks, I’ll review the last half of “Sense and Sensibility” and share my final thoughts on the book as a whole.

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