After visiting the Regency world by re-reading Emma and reviewing it here at the end of last year, I thought I would continue to reacquaint myself with the four Jane Austen novels that remain to be reviewed.
You might remember that in my review of Emma I confessed to being an Austen fan from a young age but that time and *maturity* had altered some of my enjoyment of her work. Sense and Sensibility continued this trend for me.
This is the first of Austen’s published works; it is set in the 1790s, when it was originally written, and follows the two Dashwood sisters.
Elinor and Marianne Dashwood are daughters of their father’s second marriage, and when he dies their elder brother from the previous marriage takes over the family home, Norland. Like many women of the time, they are solely reliant on his good graces and a meagre amount of their own money on which to keep themselves. In Austen’s usual style their step-brother John is influenced by his greedy wife, Fanny, and chooses to settle nothing on them. Instead, they and their mother are treated rather like unwelcome guests in what had been their own home.
While Mrs Dashwood is searching for a suitable, affordable property for her family to remove to Fanny’s brother, Edward Ferrars, joins the household. It becomes clear that he and Elinor form an attachment over the time he is with them. Both are reserved, but it is still obvious to those around them. Unfortunately, the Ferrars family are bent on his ‘becoming’ someone important and that results in Fanny speeding the Dashwood’s exit from Norland by insinuating that Elinor is, in essence, gold-digging. Fortunately for the ladies, a distant cousin comes to the rescue with an affordable cottage on an estate in Devonshire, far removed from Norland. They grasp it and move out with all haste.
Mrs Dashwood, Elinor, Marianne and younger sister Margaret, remove to Devonshire and Barton Cottage. They are under the attentive eye of their cousin, Sir John Middleton. He, his wife, his mother-in-law Mrs Jennings and Colonel Brandon, a friend of Sir John’s make up the party at Barton Park.
After a short while it becomes clear that Colonel Brandon forms an attachment for Marianne, but she considers him to be an old bachelor and of no attraction for anyone, least of all herself.
Mrs Jennings, a well-off widow who has married her daughters off, now takes on the task of doing the same for the Dashwoods.
In the meantime, Mr Willoughby joins the story when Marianne slips while out walking and twists her ankle. He rescues her and returns her home. Thereafter he is included in the regular balls, parties and events of the neighbourhood. It becomes clear to all that he and Marianne form a strong and unconcealed attachment, which eventually leads people to suspect that they must have become engaged.
All seems to be going along well when in short order both Edward Ferrars and John Willoughby turn the Dashwood sisters’ worlds on end, and a romantic farce ensues. The sisters go to London under the auspices of the very kind Mrs Jennings, and a comedy of manners involving secret engagements, social climbing, and snobbery takes place.
The main theme is laid out in the title of the novel – Sense and Sensibility.
Elinor is all about prudence, good judgement, careful behaviour and attending to all the social graces even when she is put out and in emotional distress. It never occurs to her to spread her own pain and grievances to her mother or sister, or friends. She is self-control personified. She is sense embodied.
Marianne, on the other hand, is all about feeling. She must gush, feel every pain and pleasure to its utmost. She does not attempt to be civil or considerate of others when her own emotional state is in flux, and gives no thought to the pain that her excesses give to her mother and sister. She is ungoverned and makes no exertion to control her excesses of feeling. She is all sensibility.
The question of how the farce resolves – does good sense result in happiness, or does sensibility? – is well worth the occasional tedious passages, and slightly melodramatic way that the outcome is arrived at.
But do check your modern sensibilities at the door. There is plenty for a modern eye to disdain in the conduct of more than one character. It also helps to keep in mind that the characters and some of their actions are meant to be excessive and ridiculous. It is partly an 18th century send-up after all, not just a social commentary.
Happy reading !