Sense and Sensibility
For the spoiler-averse, this is probably not the post for you as it glides over plot points.
It’s been many years since I last read Sense and Sensibility, and it’s interesting to me to observe how much my recollections of the story are actually colored by the 1995 Emma Thompson film version. (Which means, of course, that I didn’t remember the novel accurately. But that’s why we reread—among other reasons.)
Films necessarily differ from their novel source material, of course, as the formats have different limitations and possibilities. But one thread that holds true throughout the adaptations of Austen, is that much emphasis is placed on the romances that unify the stories. This is no criticism of the films, but when I return to the source material, at least here in Sense and Sensibility, I see so much more.
There is no denying that marriage is a central theme to Austen. For a middle-class woman without sufficient means to leave independently, there were few other respectable options for survival, as Austen makes clear across her novels. But marriage as a subject is different than romance, and while we can rely on an Austen novel to contain both, neither is necessarily what a given novel is about.
Sense and Sensibility is the story of the Miss Dashwoods, and while superficially it details the romantic trials and triumphs of the sisters, I find on returning to the original source material, that it is so much more. On reread, it appears that any romance is merely the wire skeleton on which hangs the real meat of the story: the relationships (between Elinor and Marianne Dashwood as well as between the sisters and their friends and neighbors) and the character studies.
Indeed, one thing that surprised me was to realize how little ‘screen time,’ as it were, the ultimate ‘heroes’ of the story, Edward Ferrars and Colonel Brandon, actually share with their eventual spouses. It is not until the Dashwoods have moved from Norland to Barton Cottage that we observe a direct interaction between Elinor and Edward. (The annotations in my edition point to this as a weakness in the story, that we are asked to consider Edward as worthy of Elinor’s love merely because she loves him, rather than for any direct observation the reader can make.) And I can’t recall a single instance of a direct conversation between Colonel Brandon and Marianne. (Please correct me if I’m wrong.) This in contrast to the ample page time of the ‘villain’ of the story, Mr. Willoughby, who we see on multiple occasions, giving him ample opportunity to charm the reader as well as the Dashwoods.
On the other hand, we spend much time with the Dashwoods, their neighbors Sir John and Lady Middleton, Lady Middleton’s mother Mrs. Jennings, and Mrs. Jennings’s cousins the Miss Steeles. Colonel Brandon and Edward Ferrars thus become talked about more than they are seen (and in some sense, the same may be true of Mr. Willoughby).
All this conversation and this variety of characters allows for both ample opportunity of character study, and also the observation of the many contrasts present between these characters: Elinor’s repression vs. Marianne’s exuberance, Willoughby’s cowardice in the face of adversity vs. Edward’s constancy, Mrs. Jennings’s genuine kindness vs. Mrs. Ferrars’s cold-heartedness. As the very title hints, Sense and Sensibility is a study of contrasts. But while we may be meant to weigh some of these contrasts entirely in favor of one characteristic over the other, I do not believe the title contrast is meant to be viewed in so harsh a light. The depth of the characters, and their sufferings and triumphs show that neither sense nor sensibility, taken to the extreme is ultimately the better, but each may temper the other.
Although I find on reflection that Sense and Sensibility is currently my least preferred of Austen’s novels (a distinction without meaning), this reading reminds me how well it is worth revisiting all of Austen’s major novels, a project I am only too happy to continue!
I read this for Back to the Classics, “19th Century Classic” and my Realists and Romantics project. It is completely by chance that I read it before my summer read of The Mysteries of Udolpho, which reminded me so much of the later novel.