Jane Austen Sense and Sensibility
Edited with an introduction by Tony Tanner
Penguin English Library 1980 (1811)
Because [Elinor and Marianne] neither flattered herself nor her children [Lady Middleton] could not believe them good-natured; and because they were fond of reading, she fancied them satirical: perhaps without exactly knowing what it was to be satirical; but that did not signify. It was censure in common use, and easily given.
With a title like Sense and Sensibility it’s easy to think this is merely a novel of contrasting dichotomies. Elder sister Elinor is the sensible one (“sense”) while her younger sister Marianne is the sensitive one (“sensibility”); the countryside allows one access to nature and genteel living while the city is a hotbed of intrigue, duplicity and heartache; those who read have broad minds and sharp intellects whilst those who don’t are narrow-minded and vacant. But this would be a most crude way of looking at Austen’s first published novel and a complete travesty of her skills as a writer. Sense and Sensibility is much more than bald opposites: both sisters are able to show a cool logic as well as have their emotions in upheaval; many of the characters flit from countryside to town and back, demonstrating that individuals have their strengths and weaknesses wherever they currently reside; and the lack of an obvious bent towards literature is no bar to emotional intelligence and intellectual curiosity.
The plot of the novel is so well known that it seems almost churlish to attempt even a brief synopsis. Elinor and Marianne, together with their widowed mother and younger sister Margaret are reduced to living in a cottage near Exeter due to the extreme parsimony of the sisters’ half-brother John Dashwood. Early on the reader is witness to the cruel justifications John and his in-laws resort to in order to deny Henry Dashwood’s family from his second marriage its rightful income; the Dashwood women remove from Norland Park in Sussex to live frugally in Barton Cottage on the estate of a cousin of Mrs Dashwood, Sir John Middleton. Here Elinor quietly pines for the quiet Edward Ferrars, and Marianne falls in love with the lively John Willoughby. The fairytale tropes of Riches to Rags (which we hope will then reverse) and the Bumpy Ride Theory of True Love (“the course of true love never did run smooth”) are clearly set out within a few chapters.
There is something special in the way that Austen introduces around a score of distinctive characters without the reader getting confused; we get to know them not so much from the way they look, the way they dress or even much in the way that Austen tells us what to think of them but from what they actually say or how they reveal themselves from what they choose to do. (Of course, this is what Austen has chosen them to do.) She sustains this over fifty chapters introducing us to complete blackguards, near saints, and a lot of people in between, most very believable because we’ve all met people like that: the manipulative gold-digger in Lucy Steele, the snobbish fop Robert Ferrars, the weak and self-justifying John Dashwood, the self-effacing Colonel Brandon and the bustling but well-meaning Mrs Jennings who offers the two elder Dashwood sisters an extended winter break in London.
There is so much of interest in this novel that can and probably has filled book-length studies, too much to fit into a short review; a couple of points will have to do for now. The first is that, unlike in a many fairytale romances, the good and the bad don’t necessarily get their just deserts. Certain grasping individuals don’t fall on bad economic times but appear to continue profiting from their greedy attitude. Certain really deserving individuals, harshly treated during the course of the novel, don’t end up marrying their prince, or the prince isn’t as heroic as he seems. In these aspects — dismaying to some readers — Austen remains realistic and true to life, though as this is a comedy of manners there is a happy ending of sorts.
This is also a novel full of comic observations. In addition to Lady Middleton ascribing satirical intentions to those who read, she was of of the opinion, as Austen tells us, that “on every formal visit a child ought to be of the party, by way of provision for discourse” — a conversation piece, as we might say. Lady Middleton’s husband is similarly mocked: “Sir John was loud in his admirations at the end of every song, and as loud in his conversation with the others while every song lasted.” (We’ve all known someone like that, haven’t we?)Austen intrudes her voice into the novel in Chapter 36 when she relates “a misfortune … which befell Mrs Dashwood,” Elinor and Marianne’s sister-in-law. The misfortune? The sisters being mistakenly invited to a musical party of an acquaintance of that same snobbish sister-in-law. Later in the same chapter we have Fanny Dashwood’s impossible brother Robert declaring at length how he would like to have a cottage in the country as a suitably spacious venue for social occasions, seemingly unaware that the Dashwood sisters and their mother have been reduced by his own family to living in what was originally deemed suitable for the labouring classes.
This “novel … by a lady” (as the original title page has it) is both subtle and, yes, satirical. It is also, as the informative introduction by Tony Tanner tells us, about “secrecy and sickness”. The secrets that everybody keeps, including Elinor, through whose eyes we largely view the action; and the sickness that is not only manifested in Marianne, occurring as it does at almost the midpoint of the novel, but also in the malaise of a society where secrets are hidden behind virtual masks. In fact, Sense and Sensibility depicts a kind of masquerade or Venetian ball, where people engage in formal dances and woe betide anyone who literally steps out of line. Fluid and mutable as our modern times are, we are still subject to social strictures and sanctions two centuries later, different though the faux pas we may make may be. In this Sense and Sensibility still has the power to pack a punch whilst superficially appearing just a romantic comedy.
“I Am Half-Sick of Shadows,” | Said the Lady of Shalott — Tennyson
Postscript Yes, I am well aware that I’ve barely mentioned the main storyline(s) — the apparently unrequited love Elinor has for the rather vapid Edward and the infatuation that Marianne has for her feet-of-clay suitor Willoughby — but Austen’s novel is so much more than just about romantic attachments, even if they drive the plot along.