Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

Sense and Sensibility: An Annotated Edition. Slightly unwieldy to read, but so pretty and with some useful notes.

Sense and Sensibility
Jane Austen
England, 1811

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.

Completed: Lady Susan by Jane Austen

Cover: Lady Susan, The Watsons, Sanditon by Jane AustenLady Susan, The Watsons, Sanditon
Jane Austen
(England, c. 1794-1818)

It is a pity that Austen didn’t live to complete her final novel.

Although I picked Lady Susan/The Watsons/Sanditon off my shelves intending just to read Lady Susan, which was completed, though unpublished in Austen’s lifetime, in the end I decided to reread the two unfinished novels as well.

The first time I read this collection, I was disappointed primarily that The Watsons was left hanging–Emma’s story held so much interest to me. But coming at it years later, I realized that there are so many elements of The Watsons in her other novels that the plot seems anticipatable by inference, while on the other hand Sanditon appears to have just enough variation from Austen’s “norm” that it tantalizes with a world of possibilities of what might have been. While I would assume the marriage plot elements of her complete novels would be present, there’s little enough of the novel (though ever so much more than The Watsons) that I can’t say for sure who would end with who, though I may make some guesses. Nor, perhaps more importantly, can I be sure of which characters will see growth–for there are plenty of silly, or perhaps in the case of Sir Edward, dangerous, characters. Will Arthur Parker remain indolent or will a pretty girl prompt him to action? Will Sir Edward remain on his path of intrigue, or will rejection strike sense into him? (Doesn’t seem likely.) And perhaps the biggest question of all: Will Sanditon see success as a holiday town, or was part of Austen’s satire to be its failure, or even just indifference? All such questions must remain only in speculation, alas (though there seems to be no shortage of continuations by other authors).

Lady Susan, on the other hand, is very much finished. According to the introduction in my copy, Austen had even written it out in a fair copy, but did not submit it for publication, perhaps because she was unsatisfied with the epistolary style. While the style leads to a quick read, it does place limitations on how much of the story we can see –for only that which can be told in a letter can be portrayed.

There is exquisite pleasure in subduing an insolent spirit, in making a person pre-determined to dislike, acknowledge one’s superiority. (Letter 7, Lady Susan to Mrs. Johnson)

Lady Susan herself is a frequent contributor to these letters. A widow with a teenage daughter, it seems plain that her ambitions are to get her daughter out of the way–by way of a wealthy husband, if at all possible–and to perhaps make a new match for herself, or at least to divert herself a while until she can, perhaps, resume her affair with a married man. She is clearly a clever woman, and one with much spirit, who seeks her own amusement and entertainment, feeling little true sympathy for others. Although at times one may wonder if she is not unfairly treated by her times and society, limiting as it is with its expectations of “proper” female behavior and the limited opportunities for female advancement or even survival, Lady Susan’s own letters give her away as unfeeling towards her own daughter and cavalierly toying with the emotions of men in pursuit of her own motives. She cares not if she breaks hearts or tempts a man away from his relationship with another woman (though perhaps, in at least one case, this will be better in the long term for the young woman in question). Despite the limitations of the form, there is still enough here to form quite an entire picture of the Lady.

Lady Susan is by no means Austen at her finest, but it is an early example of her keen observation of society around her and remains entertaining for all its brevity. It formed the basis for the 2016 film Love & Friendship, a film I have yet to see but which I eagerly look forward to watching.

I read Lady Susan as part of the 2018 TBR Challenge, for “A Classic by a Woman Author” for the 2018 Back to the Classics Challenge, and for my Classics Club list.

Completed: Longbourn by Jo Baker

Cover: Longbourn by Jo BakerLongbourn
Jo Baker
(2013, England)

Some years ago I reread Pride and Prejudice for the third or fourth time, and so enjoyed my time in the world of the novel, that I thought I should like to spend some more time there, specifically by way of Longbourn by Jo Baker. The “upstairs-downstairs” premise intrigued me, especially in light of my enjoyment of the 1910s-20s-set Downton Abbey. I was well aware that Austen’s world only represented a small slice of all the possible experiences of Regency England, and very curious to read a novel representing the lives of the “downstairs” staff at the Bennet’s home, Longbourn. (And yes, it did take me well over a year before I returned to Longbourn. I make plans, but the follow-through…)

In that particular goal I was not disappointed. The novel opens with wash day, and the detail which Baker incorporates quite naturally into the scene both speaks to the level of research she must have completed as well as informing the reading just how physically difficult life could be for the poor and working classes of the pre-electrified era. The novel was also a compelling read, tying in cleverly to the source material. Baker knows Pride and Prejudice quite well; she picks up on (and quotes, at the start of each chapter) little details from Austen that I had not fully noticed before. In one particular scene, as the young ladies of the house are greatly anticipating the Netherfield Ball, the weather prevents them going into Meryton themselves, and so, Austen tells us, the “very shoe-roses for Netherfield were got by proxy.” Baker fills in the rest–it may be too wet for refined young ladies, but not so for the housemaid; she it is who must make the muddy, soaking trek, for new decorations for ladies’ dancing shoes must be had. This may strip the “romance” from the “world of Austen,” but it fleshes out an era that many of us may only know via period film or novels.

However, I am reminded again–or maybe just finally forced to admit–that commercial historical fiction just isn’t for me. (I qualify because I have found some more “literary” historical fiction, such as The Bluest Eye, more compelling.) No matter how well researched, there always seems something just a bit “off,” a hint of the social mores or biases of the writer’s own time period that ultimately takes away from my enjoyment of the story. I can’t point to anything particular here (the way I can with Year of Wonders), but there’s just this niggling feeling that the 21st century has crept into the plot. And perhaps I bring that in as the reader as much as the author has. So while I feel I could recommend it to a fan of the genre, I think I can safely leave my reading time for other literary horizons. Maybe Austenesque satires? I do have a copy of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies on my shelves…

Completed: Pride and Prejudice

Cover: Pride and Prejudice (Dover Thrift Edition)Pride and Prejudice
Jane Austen
England, 1813

My most recent reread of Pride and Prejudice (I believe this was my third time through Austen’s most famous novel) was over my September vacation, and I confess I wasn’t really reading it for anything other than pure enjoyment of the story. And it was a pure joy. I had forgotten quite how much I enjoy Austen’s writing and her tales; although I reread Northanger Abbey about a year previous, it was one of Austen’s earlier works and its charms are different than those of Pride and Prejudice.

(And from here, I assume you’ve read this or otherwise know the plot and don’t care about “spoilers.”)

But as I thought about it afterwards, I recognized that while on the surface–and this is perhaps the Austen we most commonly see in pop culture–Pride and Prejudice seems in many ways a fairy tale: poor(ish) girl + rich boy = happily ever after (in the case of P&P x 2), this is only the surface, and only the central characters. Elizabeth and Jane Bennett’s marriages to the wealthy Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley, respectively, may have all the elements of happily-ever-after, but even if we don’t question that supposition, there are two other weddings that happen in the course of the novel. To imagine that Lydia and Mr. Wickham will ever end happily…well. I can think of any number of outcomes, one of which Austen actually illustrates in Mr. and Mrs. Price in Mansfield Park – and that’s the best alternative. Let’s just say I imagine that Lydia will hardly be Mr. Wickham’s last conquest.

Without thinking highly either of men or of matrimony, marriage had always been her object; it was the only honourable provision for well-educated young women of small fortune, and however uncertain of giving happiness, must be their pleasantest preservative from want. (Ch. XXII)

And then there’s Charlotte Lucas and the ridiculous Mr. Collins – a marriage of pure practicality. And her reasonableness in entering into a wedded state with such an unreasonably silly man serves to illustrate to readers even centuries later just what the situation was for a woman of Austen’s era. No, the fairy tale may be the surface that pulls us in, but the reality that lies beneath is the reminder of just how fortunate the eldest sisters–and we today–really are.

Completed: Northanger Abbey

Cover - Northanger Abbey, An Annotated EditionNorthanger Abbey: An Annotated Edition
Jane Austen
1818 (posthumous), England
Susan J. Wolfson, ed. (2014)

“And what are you reading Miss——?” “Oh! It is only a novel!” replies the young lady, while she lays down her books with affected indifference, or momentary shame.–“It is only Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda;” or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language. (Vol I, Ch. 5)

Here I am, sneaking in at the very last minute a post for “Austen in August.”

This isn’t because I’ve been avoiding Austen, or a lack of enjoyment, no, the tardiness is entirely of the busyness type; I barely had time to read this month, alas, and so only finished my reread of Northanger Abbey late yesterday. And enjoy it I did. It has been years—at least ten!—since I’ve read the entirety of an Austen (longer for one of the “big six”), and my memory of how delightful they can be didn’t fail me, though I admit to a bit of surprise at how quickly and easily the reading moved along. Which makes the following seem a bit of an odd statement: rereading Northanger Abbey made me feel, as I have so often of late, that I am still not that good of a reader. But this is perhaps not so unexpected once it is known that I read an annotated edition, which was only too happy to point out all the tricks and twists of language that I surely would have missed otherwise. The play of the words “fortunate” or “misfortune” to hint at the high importance of a fortune to so many of the characters. The shifts of meaning in words such as “awful” from the 18th to 19th to 21st centuries. It was obvious, indeed, that Henry Tilney is a pedant, too-overly precise in choice of word or phrase, but the annotations began to make me feel as naïve and ignorant as Catherine Moreland!

But here I’ve run on ahead, tossing out names without so much as a one-line plot summary.

Northanger Abbey is perhaps best known as a parody of the Gothic romances which were greatly popular at the time of its writing (c. 1798-99). Many such are mentioned (including Castle of Wolfenbach, which I confess I only read for its connection to the Austen), and the late-mid section of the novel provides the most direct satirization, in the form of Miss Catherine Moreland, our heroine, letting her overfed-by-Gothic-romances imagination run quite away with her. Yet, setting this section aside, the novel is not unlike any of the other of Austen’s primary novels: more realistic than not, with much of the focus on romances and relationships and characters. As alluded to above in mentioning the wordplay on “fortune,” the marriage market is of utmost importance. While Catherine may be content to let her fancy run free–whether in a Gothic novel or a more mundane romance–many of the surrounding cast are laser focused on marriage as investment and profit-making venture. What chance has a naïve country girl? And indeed, though this is Austen and we may know what to expect of the ending, we discover that the extremes of the Gothic romance Austen so fondly teases may have found appeal in the very real dangers that could befall an unprotected–or unmoneyed–young woman.

Even had I read this without annotations (which despite my inferiority complex, were actually quite helpful), I would have concluded much the same as I recently did with Beowulf: I don’t know enough of the context. I’ve only read two of the Gothic novels Austen might have known, the aforementioned Wolfenbach, and The Castle of Otranto. I think perhaps a wider reading–especially of Ann Radcliffe–would give me a better context. For that matter, reading more of Austen’s near-contemporaries–Richardson, Burney–must surely be helpful as well. As I’m finding so often of late, every book I read seems to pull me into a more complex web, with many strands leading to and from it. But surely, these are the best books to read, the ones that intertwine so that the richness of the experience can only grow the deeper we venture.