Thursday, January 10, 2013
Pages: 400, give or take depending on the edition
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.
I think that I'd almost like to have been a gentry lady in Ms Austen's time. Her characters-- in Sense and Sensibility, the sisters Dashwood and their many privileged friends-- seem to spend the vast majority of their time either playing piano and chatting about the cutest boyfriends or "beauxs" in sitting rooms, visiting other country mansions, or whiling away the day reading. Of course, the downside is that women's fortune and lifestyles depended completely on whoever they married, and wealth was everything.
What I loved so much about Pride and Prejudice is how brilliantly it depicts the romance and society of the era-- Austen is a very frank writer, especially for her time, I think, and sometimes downright hilarious. Sense and Sensibility was her first novel, but I really could hardly tell and liked it almost as much as P & P (which I recently watched the movie version of, the one with Keira Knightley-- it was awesome). Her style of writing is sometimes hard to decipher, but once you get 50 pages into the book, you become entirely used to the long sentences and abundance of commas and early nineteenth century prose. Her masterful prose is one of the things which make her books so special and popular in the modern day.
But: Sense and Sensibility. The three Dashwood sisters live a modest (for rich English gentry) life after the death of their father and know that their well-being depends on their being able to marry well, to someone wealthy and suitable. The eldest sister Elinor is about as sensible a young lady as you would ever meet; she's very hesitant to express great emotions and uses logic in every decision she makes. Meanwhile her sister Marianne is much less sensible (...and you see where the titles comes in. Actually, Marianne's downright excitable, vivacious and overly dramatic. While walking near a country estate, Marianne chances to fall and twist her ankle, only to be rescued by a young man who happens to be hunting right by where she has her accident and who graciously carries her safely home. Marianne proceeds to lie in bed with her ankle for several days (when people where I live sprain an ankle, they usually just keep on limping) and, upon recovering, spends all her time with her rescuer, the equally excitable and passionate Willoughby. Willoughby and Marianne seem to be a perfect match, but Marianne's suitor has little money or prospects, and the always logical Elinor doubts his suitability.
Elinor, meanwhile, also has a suitor: a young man called Edward, who comes from a wealthy family and wants to join the clergy. Edward, to me, was the least interesting of the gentlemen characters in S & S. In Austen language, he "seemed to me to be rather droll". Willoughby is like the Austen version of a literary bad boy, so he and Marianne's romance, and the knives which get thrown in it, is much more interesting than what goes on between Elinor and Edward. It's not that I didn't like Elinor; more that I really didn't care anything about Edward. We get no sense of his personality, except that he's much more restrained and reluctant to go against the wishes of his domineering mother. Elinor has a romantic rival for Edward's heart in the form of Miss Lucy Steele, a slightly less well-off and "well-bred" girl who it's difficult to decide whether to love or hate. All of the characters, with the exception of Edward, are fantastically interesting and for the most part likeable. The outspoken and gossipy Miss Jennings takes the Dashwood girls under her matronly wing and lets them stay with her for a season at the social capital of London-- she was one of my favorite characters, and added to the comedy and confusions of the novel. I sorta felt sorry for the third Dashwood sister, Margaret. Just like the fourth sister in P & P (now what was her name again?), she has no adventures or romantic prospects whatsoever. Maybe someone should write some fanfiction in which Margaret becomes the first woman Chancellor of England, travels to Narnia, or at least gets married or something.
Tangent aside, the only question which remains is which Jane novel I should read next. I kind of like the title Northanger Abbey, but Emma also sounds interesting. You shouldn't need my advice to read this well-loved and always acclaimed book, but I'll say it anyway: read Sense & Sensibility, because its funny and clever and beautifully written and memorable. And just generally awesome.