One of my goals for this year is to reread all six of Jane Austen’s novels. Sense and Sensibility seems like an appropriate starting point, as it shares the distinction of being Austen’s first published novel and my first ever reading experience of any of her works. I remember becoming immediately enchanted by this story of the Dashwood sisters and their sudden upheaval from their family home. I enjoyed it so much that it wouldn’t be long before I picked up Northanger Abbey which remains one of my favorite novels of all time. They say you never forget your first, but sadly many of the details of that original reading of Sense and Sensibility seem to have faded from my memory. I don’t believe this issue to be the fault of the book, as it is wonderful, nor problems with my own memory, although I am making peace with the fact that I’m getting older (slightly). I think the reason lies in the richness of the novel itself. Jane Austen is the type of writer whose works are not only reread countless times, but in fact should be religiously reread as there are so many subtle moments that it is impossible to catch them all on the first experience. Let me tell you that reading Sense and Sensibility was even sweeter the second time around.
As with all of Austen’s novels, the plot in itself is rather simple. The Dashwood sisters, along with their widowed mother, are forced to abandon their home, Norland Park, as it has been passed down to John, Mr. Dashwood’s son from his first marriage. Due to the kindness of a distant relative, the ladies relocate to Barton Cottage, where love, romance, and heartbreak occur in generous quantities. However, I believe we don’t read Austen just for her romantic plots. What elevates this novel into one of the greatest books ever written is the amount of complexity that Austen fuses into each and every line. There is a confidence in the writing itself that is rather impressive for an opening number. The ability to craft memorable characters in such a way without being overwhelming is pure genius. They can be quite over-the-top without necessarily seeming that way. Her prose is simply breathtaking, beautifully written yet still tight and with a purpose. Also, there are so many moments in this novel that are really funny. I’m thinking of the scene when the cruel Fanny Dashwood convinces her husband to not give any money to his sisters. While in another writer’s hands, this scene would appear quite sad, here it becomes quite comedic. This book is also full of slight jabs at several aspects of society. Without a doubt, Austen has to be one of the wittiest human beings ever born.
“Sometimes I have kept my feelings to myself, because I could find no language to describe them in but what was worn and hackneyed out of all sense and meaning.”
Sense and Sensibility is unique among Austen’s novels in that the story focuses on two heroines rather than just one. Older sister Elinor is ruled by reason and social restraint, while younger sister Marianne is ruled by her fierce emotions and impulsive actions. Both sisters struggle with heartbreak towards the men they both love, but each handles her disappointments differently. Elinor remains calm and seemingly detached from her feelings for Edward Ferrars, while Marianne shows no regard for society’s opinions as she struggles with losing the dashing yet diabolical John Willoughby. This dichotomy between the ideas of “sense” and “sensibility” reflect the changing times for which this novel was developed. Originally written in the late eighteenth-century as an epistolary work titled Elinor and Marianne, Austen later revised it in the form of a novel several years later. Elinor clearly represents the ideas associated with neo-classicism such as rationality, judgment, and balance. On the other side, we have Marianne symbolizing the spirit of sensibility with exaggerated displays of passion, such as weeping at the loss of the family home or offering a lock of hair to her lover. There was a shift in the literary landscape to which this novel represents. Of course, miscommunication is the motif that keeps the plot going until the final pages.
During my second reading, I reflected on these polar opposites and how much they reflected my own developing personality. Although male, I definitely was more Marianne as I would let passionate feelings rule my actions. Unlike the first time, I felt more attachment to the character of Elinor, who, while still possessing strong feelings, demonstrated rationality and sound judgment as dictated by her place in society. I’m at a place now where I see the value of both sides–fire that needs some control. I also noted just how much love there was between the sisters, always making the needs of the other a priority. Elinor put her own heartbreak to the side as she nursed Marianne back to health, and Marianne would defend her older sister with no regards to society’s expectations of decorum.
“If I could but know his heart, everything would become easy.”
The supporting characters are all richly drawn and represent particular archetypes without seeming as such. Personally, I loved the well-meaning if slightly clueless Sir John Middleton as well as the kindly Mrs. Jennings. Of course, there are the characters you love to hate, like the manipulative Lucy Steele and the greedy Fanny Dashwood. In regards to the love interests, I really wanted to punch John Willoughby (more than once) while I found Colonel Brandon to be well-meaning but rather dull. I still haven’t decided how I feel about Edward Ferrars.
One way that Austen’s novels are relaxing is that we know that everything will work out in the end. Austen always gives her stories a happy ending, and rest assured the Dashwood sisters find love in the end. On first reading this novel, I was surprised by one of the sister’s resolutions while the other one made sense to me. Of course, the fun is in trying to figure out how Austen is going to tidy everything up. Like a magician, she succeeds in doing this with what appears to be a seamless effort. When I have some free time, I’m going to watch the Ang Lee film version of this story to see if it captures those subtle nuances that makes this novel so perfect. For a first novel, Austen proves why she deserves the honor of being one of the greatest novelists who ever lived.
“I wish, as well as everybody else, to be perfectly happy; but, like everybody else, it must be in my own way.”
Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts! Let me know with a comment below.