Austenfest Week One: Sense and Sensibility

Welcome, friends, to a celebration of the novels of Jane Austen! Each Monday we will honour one of her six beloved full-length books (in order of publication) concluding with an appraisal of the impact and implications of her life-long work. Austen wrote posthumously in the regency era (around the turn of the nineteenth century), and has a large body of work, that, though admired, was never appreciated in her lifetime as it is now. For those of you new to Austen, or limited to the movie adaptations of her novels, I hope I can induce you to select one of her compelling stories to read.  For others who, like me a few weeks ago, have limited their knowledge to only one or two of her novels, I hope my guide will help you continue your journey with Austen. And for the ones who don’t think Austen is for you, check this out before you make a mistake. If that doesn’t work, try this or that. Boom, you’re hooked.

Sense and Sensibility

As Austen’s first full-length book, she certainly sets the tone for all of her books to come. Full of the virtues of marriage for love along with the consequences of wealth, Austen uses her two favorite themes well, interlaced so perfectly with intrigue and little twists you don’t expect. 

Having thoroughly researched the novel as I do for all my books, I came across a review I feel could hardly be a better summation and critique.  Despite preferring my own analysis, I can’t let my pride get the better of me, and for your benefit, I’ll use parts of it in this report.  I highly suggest you check out the original, by Russ Allbery, here.

At the onset of the book we see Mr. Dashwood, father of John and his half-sisters Elinor, Marianne and young Margaret, upon his deathbed making his son promise to take care of his sisters and step-mother after his passing. Since legal entanglements make most of his wealth go directly to his son, he has left little for his wife and daughters, whom John quickly promises to look after. Unfortunately we are soon made aware of his character and, even worse, of his wife, Fanny’s, which bask in vanity and snobbish behavior and quickly lead them to decide on drastically limiting the ‘help’ they will offer their family. The women soon vacate their beloved home for a cozy though chilly cabin in another county, but not before Elinor is courted by Edward Ferrars, her unfriendly sister-in-law’s eldest brother. The shy Mr. Ferrars seems to be perfectly amiable and well-suited to Elinor, which delights her mother and sisters but terrifies Fanny, who with her indomitable mother, have high aspirations for him: plans which definitely don’t include the penniless Miss Dashwood.

Sense and Sensibility

1995 Movie Poster

The title of the book, and most of its tone, derive from the contrast between Elinor’s character and that of her mother and younger sister. Elinor is the sense of the book: a reasonable, careful, cautious person, juxtaposed with her mother and Marianne who are the opposite: given to flights of emotion, actively encouraging and intensifying everything they feel.[1]  At their new home, Barton Cottage, we meet their distant cousin, Sir John Middleton, and other fascinating characters like Mrs. Jennings, Colonel Brandon and Mr. Willoughby, the latter two of which quickly become enamored with Marianne. Colonel Brandon is reserved and much older than Marianne, while Mr. Willoughby is full of life and excitement. Mrs. Jennings is all too pleased to work out the logistics of their romance with Marianne. We are next introduced to Miss Lucy Steele, an uneducated yet attractive young lady who befriends Elinor and by confiding long-held secrets to her, makes Elinor’s romance with Mr. Ferrars problematic. While our characters move to London for the season, Marianne has fallen desperately in love, from which various complications will arise in part due to unwillingness to heed Elinor’s reasonable advice.[2] Hidden pasts, dramatic love and both senseless and sensible behavior will come to pass leading to love and heartbreak, not to mention near-death illnesses, and disownment, with Austen’s usual dramatic climaxes at their best.

Despite Elinor’s dogged sensibility, one cannot but help to side with her, and she is good-hearted enough to ease our affections. It is sometimes hard not to go mad at the hopelessly optimistic, willfully blind, and overly dramatic characters which make happy endings seem impossible, and further endear us to Elinor.[3] Fortunately Austen is ‘wonderfully nasty’ to some of these making Sense and Sensibility quite enjoyable, and a masterpiece of its time.

The full text can be found here.

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