It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good taste must be in want of a Jane Austen book club. I am not single but I’m tasty, so it happened that one rainy May afternoon I did find myself elected chair of the Jane Austen book club at my work (it is an excellent place of work). My first order of business: the reading order of books will be chronological. No other way. Hence, Sense and Sensibility (1811). And there will be some spoilers.
The name, Sense and Sensibility, I have to admit, has baffled me for ages (non-native speaker, remember). For this reading I decided to do some research on the subject. My adventures brought me to a very fine and comprehensive place of information called Wikipedia that revealed to me that a modern name for the book would be Sense and Sensitivity. Now, that does make much more sense (sic).
Sense and Sensibility mainly follows Mrs Dashwood and her three daughters (Elinor, 19, Marianne, 16 1/2, and Margaret 13) after Mr Dashwood passes away in the beginning of the book. Typically, to set things properly in motion the estate is inherited by Mr Dashwood’s eldest son, John which is a half-brother to the Ms Dashwoods. So, they don’t have a home anymore. Even though the late Mr Dashwood has made his son promise to assist his half-sisters and the widow, the daughter-in-law manages to influence her husband gradually–and comically–to diminish the financial support until it consists only of some furniture, household linen, china, and plates, that Mrs Dashwood and her daughters can take with them to their new dwellings, Barton Cottage (four bedrooms and two sitting-rooms, not really a cottage). Even that is too much for the daughter-in-law: Mrs Dashwood’s income is small, so handsome articles of furniture shouldn’t be in her possession. There is even a pianoforte! To no avail, the items are transported to the cottage.
To further denote the dire straits of Mrs Dashwood, it is mentions that they can only afford to keep three servants. (To be honest, the number of servants really does not matter. They are silently oppressed and uninteresting. Moreover, the Dashwoods of Barton Cottage have no material plight of any kind, they are poor only in way that a rich person would be: slightly inconvenienced at times. Only three servants. My working-class background may show in this review.)
Elinor is Sense. She is the ultimate gentleman’s daughter, so immersed in the etiquette and noble behaviour suitable for a proper lady, so careful in communication, so stoic in absorbing all the slings and arrows of outrages fortune that are thrown at her during parties, dinners and other daily social occasions. Elinor is intelligent and even wise beyond her years. She really does not live her life; she merely observes others living theirs.
Marianne represents Sensitivity. She lives as fully as possible, without behavioural or any other filters; even so, she is mostly confined to the same—most narrow—societal space and norms allowed for young unmarried ladies du jour. Marianne’s passionate and tragic love of Mr Willoughby (almost wrote Mr Wickham, as there are clear analogies; more in the next review) is the driver in Sense and Sensibility, even though the story mostly folds via Elinor, including revelations by Colonel Brandon and, or course, Mr Willoughby himself. However, in the end, after nearly dying from sudden illness (so 19th century to have violent illness due to emotional shock) Marianne is transformed: she joins the Sense camp. Sense does prevail; and sense brings the ultimate prize for both of them—marriage. Marianne’s is told in the last chapter which feels like a very expository coda.
Upon reading the novel now, it dawned to me that Sense and Sensibility is not a very romantic novel. At least, it is a dispiriting, painful depiction of love and its aftermath. Let’s look at some of the existing marriages in the book. The Palmers: Mr is moody, silent and rude, a total introvert; Mrs is bubbly, outgoing and most positive. The Middletons: Sir John, 40, likes having people around, even to the point of nearly forcing people to gather and have fun; likes hunting etc. Lady Middleton, 26, dotes on her three children who are her sole interest in the world; quiet and withdrawn. This couple has zero common interests which explains Sir John’s compulsive socializing. Next, Mr John Dashwood (the brother) and her wife: there maybe love between them, but John really is weak-willed and talks only of money. His wife is very selfcentered and greedy to the point of not wanting to give the widow Mrs Dashwood and her daughters that which his husband promised to his dying father. At least they have the obsession of wealth in common.
Then there is Mrs Ferrars, a semi-mythical, rich, and feared person who is only referred to in the first half of the book before her ominous entrance. She is said to love his sons (Edward and Richard) but she shows it by trying to control them–at least her eldest son, Edward–and even at times, to blackmail them. Maybe it’s the prerogative of the rich. Nonetheless, not the mother of the year.
Finally, Elinor and Marianne. They love and are loved back, but the true love is actualized only in the very end. Most of the book is depiction of Elinor trying to endure, to get information and to exert the minuscule amount of control that she possess to nudge things in her way. Mostly, though, she is a stoic spectator, trying to hold it together.
It is love birthed by forceps.
Spoilers, remember! Elinor is eventually paired with Edward Ferrars which maybe a sensible thing. In reality, it is Edward’s weak character–having no focus and agency in his life–that causes problems. I do think (and I maybe going to mansplaining territory here) that the pairing will be a mistake. Elinor will have to take reins in the marriage. She will be deciding everything; Edward will follow. It could start to wear her down, especially as they do not have anything in common: Edward’s no intellectual. Barring a miracle, the vicary’s failure is a certainty unless Elinor will step in and start writing the sermons, too.
Some might call what I wrote above ranting and raving. However, I have to insist that while Sense and Sensibility would not necessarily pass the Bechdel test, it is a darn entertaining book that shows the skill of Jane Austen to create a gripping and, even at times, snarky tale. There are very tight, suffocating, societal norms in which the heroines must survive and persist. Within those boundaries the eloquent language and the fate of Elinor and Marianne makes Sense and Sensibility a classic page-turner. But don’t ever ask me to like Edward Ferrars.