While Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen is free on Project Gutenberg, it isn’t on the Big Read list. Despite numerous full-costume adaptions, the novel didn’t make it into the top 200.
No, dear reader, S&S is not part of my main reading challenge – it’s part of my latest challenge. Before you recoil in horror, I should say that this challenge is mini indeed: it’s to read All Roads Lead to Austen by Amy Elizabeth* Smith alongside the three Jane Austen novels it covers. Which I thought matched the three on The List exactly, but they don’t. So I’ve been reading S&S rather than Persuasion but if AJS helps get me through Emma, I’ll be well pleased.
S&S is an important book – it’s taught in schools, it’s been made into countless full-costume dramas, and has been rewritten to include sea monsters, a clear sign of modern relevance in a classic work.
The novel tells the story of two sisters, Elinor and Marianne Dashwood. It starts just after the death of their father: the estate has been left to their half-brother, so the female Dashwoods have to move out. They have very little money, and would normally stay put, I should think, or live in smaller house on the estate but the brother is grouchy, his wife is worse, and their mother’s cousin offers them a cottage in Far Awayshire, so they go, leaving behind the man Elinor hopes to marry. Marianne immediately falls in love with a handsome stranger, but naturally it’s not as easy as that.
I have mixed feelings about this book – if it was a modern romance, set nowadays, I would have thrown it at the wall. If it had been written by a modern author, I may have given it shorter shrift, too. The problem is that I liked one of the sisters (Elinor) and found the other deeply annoying. I enjoyed one romance (Elinor’s, again) and found the other unsatisfying.
Selfish and self-effacing
Marianne and her mother are all about feeling – Marianne is 17 when the story opens, with all the arrogance, melodrama and selfishness that entails. She says things like:
A woman of seven and twenty…can never hope to feel or inspire affection again
which got my back up slightly, and constantly tells her sister, who is quietly nursing a broken heart and painful secrets she mustn’t share for much of the novel, that her silence means she can’t be feeling anything.
One always brings one’s personal perspective to a novel, and being in the process of wading through a deep sadness, I’m more than ever on Elinor’s side and more than ever furious with Marianne. If anyone is to have breakfast, someone has to stop weeping long enough to make it – a fact that Elinor accepts and Marianne ignores. Her behaviour is thoughtless, selfish and cruel to her sister – and she glories in it as right, just and romantic. It’s bloody infuriating.
So why didn’t I give up on the book entirely? Well, dear reader, it’s the writing and the firm knowledge that Austenn is on my side. After all, she describes Marianne’s trials as
that violent sorrow which Marianne was in all probability not merely giving way to as a relief, but feeding and encouraging as a duty.
which is just right. I’ve seen that – have you?
Elinor is only 19, as far as I can tell, when the book starts but her chance to be young and carefree is sucked away by the behaviour of her mother and sister. I don’t really see what else she could have done, but I could wish a bit more backbone for her occasionally, if only because Marianne would so benefit from a short, sharp shock. But there again, that sort of thing was known to send a delicate girl into a decline – I struggle to suggest any suffragist actions for Austen’s characters as they are so bound about by respectability.
Romantic and pragmatic
I mentioned in my review of Pride and Prejudice that I was surprised by how pragmatic everyone in the novel is about marriage. S&S shows what could happen when people weren’t so pragmatic – on two levels, minor flaws and major falls. Like P&P it has a moral warning, in the shape of a young girl (two, in this one in fact) seduced and abandoned by a rogue. The rogue, one discovers, is fairly quickly forgiven while the young woman – if she survives at all – can be glimpsed only from afar as a cautionary tale. I’m sure it was the reality at the time, but I find it disgusting.
The minor fall is almost more interesting – Marianne, seems to almost ruin herself merely by hankering after a man who has made her no promises, longing for him and – most shocking – writing to him. As he is a cad of the first water, she has a lucky escape. Naturally, she’s duly grateful and gets tidied away neatly.
This tidying away of Marianne, who is somehow soiled before she’s even 20, just by falling in love with the wrong man, annoyed me no end, and I can see why the marriage seemed a good one on paper, but it seemed a soul-crushing punishment for a spirited girl – and I use the phrase deliberately, she’s part of a long tradition. I don’t like Marianne, but I don’t want her destroyed, and those seem to be the only options.
*Apologies for getting the author’s middle name wrong initially.