Review: Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

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Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen book cover
Sense and Sensibility (1811) is Jane Austen’s first published novel, and is typical of her satires of social convention, love, marriage, and propriety. Elinor and Marianne Dashwood are sisters, but very different. Elinor, the elder of the two, is calm and understands the necessity of mastering one’s emotions and navigating social situations politely, if not always honestly. Marianne is ruled by her emotions and cares little for social convention. Following the death of their father, the sisters, along with their mother, depend on the charity of others for their continuing survival. Moving from lodging to lodging, the women meet a range of carefully-observed characters, and both Elinor and Marianne find themselves falling for men whose paths cross theirs. For Elinor this is Edwards Ferrars, a respectable young man with money to his name, but who is not freely available. For Marianne, romance is no less easy: both the dashing John Willoughby, and the older, less vibrant Colonel Brandon, fall for the younger of the Dashwood sisters. Marriage is not a destination easily arrived at, and for both girls there is a lot to learn before they can achieve this end.

The novel’s key concern, as indicated by the title, is the conflict between sense and sensibility. Sense, represented by Elinor, refers to cool and sensible behaviour, to not allowing one’s emotions to rule one’s behaviour. With sense, propriety is everything. Sensibility, represented by Marianne, is the opposite: full of affect, she lives on her emotions, experiencing life without restraint. This reckless abandon leaves Marianne vulnerable, and by the novel’s close she has learnt that to survive one must find a balance between sense and sensibility. To a modern reader, Elinor can feel overly restrained, and Austen’s conclusions rather conservative, but, as with her writing, Austen favoured clear-sighted realism, always. However, this pragmatism has its limits: both Marianne and Elinor seek partners for companionship more than financial stability. While Austen plays with the idea of love, gently satirising Marianne’s na├»ve and idealised view of it, ultimately with Austen, love is always a better reason for marriage than money (better still is the combination of both).

Elinor’s insistence on good manners and propriety is important – they are a social lubricant, which allow characters to navigate, and interact with, a difficult world. It’s worth noting, however, that nearly all civilities are conducted between people of equal station. Austen does not talk about, or extend pleasantries, to those of the lower classes, and thus one is left with a rather limited idea of manners.

Besides the core dialectic between sense and sensibility, Austen uses the Dashwoods to discuss the condition of being an upper-class woman, particularly one without a fortune to her name. The Dashwoods are wholly reliant on others for their well-being, and, without the option of working for a living, Elinor’s and Marianne’s long-term financial stability is dependent on their marrying well. This leaves them in the hands of men at all times, and, as they find out to their detriment, this is a position which can be readily abused. Knowing the importance of marrying well, the young characters, not just the Dashwoods, consistently have pressure exerted upon them from the older generation, who seek to look out for their interests by promoting sound (financial) matches while fending off unsuitable suitors.

How characters deal with the money-world they find themselves in is of constant interest, and the favoured characters are those who do not place money at the centre of their worlds. Fanny Dashwood – wife of the Miss Dashwoods’ brother, John – is the perfect example of someone who thinks too much of money, and too little of others. It’s the intervention of Fanny that prevents John giving the Dashwoods a proper slice of their father’s wealth to look after themselves at the novel’s opening, which sets in motion their new life of dependence.

Austen understands and depicts perfectly the human emotion surrounding her topics of choice, and it’s this, more than the stories themselves, that give her novels an enduring quality. However, her writing is rarely limited simply to the interaction of her characters with each other and the world. With Sense and Sensibility, it seems Austen is gently satirising Romantic fiction, brilliantly lampooning scenes oft used in fiction of excess, and inverting their meaning. There is a wider discussion of art too: of the importance of discernment, and the tension, as with the titular struggle, between the need for structure and reason in art, and for the core sensory experience of creation. Only when the two are married can truly brilliant art be created.

Simply, though, it is the Dashwood sisters’ struggles with the world – with men and mothers, money and manners – that grip the reader and make Sense and Sensibility readable to any generation. Inheritance laws may have changed, conventions altered, but the battleground for young women remains much the same.

Originally written in the 1790s under the title 'Elinor and Marianne', the book took a long time to reach the reader as Sense and Sensibility. When it did, the world was a different place: the scars of revolution marked the psyche of all in Western Europe, regardless of their own involvement or otherwise in the upheaval. In this new world, Sense and Sensibility feels like a novel that falls back onto conservatism too readily. Certainly, a more radical interpretation is possible, but this requires replacing Elinor as the novel’s centre point, with Marianne. This is rather an appealing idea, as Marianne marries sense and sensibility almost satisfactorily by the novel’s end, but this displacement of the older sister would appear to run against Austen’s own want for her characters.

What one might say is that Austen believes firmly in the individuality of experience. Her characters all have rich private lives, which they conduct internally, but which few express outwardly. Elinor’s caution, her refusal to leap to conclusions on other’s behalf, seems the sensible response to a world of manners, where much is repressed and conversation is a dance around truths hidden from its participants. That said, one could equally argue that a world more open, as Marianne is, would be a world where conversations were not things to be carefully negotiated, but simply experienced. This is symptomatic of Austen’s conservatism: does one adapt to one’s surroundings in order to survive (as Elinor does), or does one demand that surroundings change to fit in with one’s worldview (as Marianne might)? That she appears to favour the former pushes Austen towards the conservative and away from the revolutionary. But Austen does seek a middle-ground: to curb Marianne’s rebellious nature without utterly extinguishing it. It’s a compromise between individual and societal need and, while imperfect, is an attempt at balance.

For all the wider themes, however, at its end, Sense and Sensibility is a novel about the happiness of women: both barriers, and routes, to it. The change in title from the manuscript’s conception to its publication, might point to the larger themes discussed by the book, but it’s the simple human reality of Elinor and Marianne’s lives that mean readers are still picking up Sense and Sensibility today.

I've had a few false starts with this book, but finally managed to get right through it. I enjoyed it, but I have some reservations about the central message and where Austen falls on it.


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TV Adaptation of Sense and Sensibility on Amazon (US)
 
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