Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

Title: Sense and Sensibility (Authoritative Text, Context, Criticism: A Norton Critical Edition)
Author: Jane Austen
Published: 1811
Genre: Classics
Pages: 412
Rating: ****1/2
sense and sensibility nortonIn her first published novel, Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen presents us with the subtle portraits of two contrasting but equally compelling heroines. For sensible Elinor Dashwood and her impetuous younger sister Marianne the prospect of marrying the men they love appears remote. In a world ruled by money and self-interest, the Dashwood sisters have neither fortune nor connections. Concerned for others and for social proprieties, Elinor is ill-equipped to compete with self-centered fortune-hunters like Lucy Steele, while Marianne’s unswerving belief in the truth of her own feelings makes her more dangerously susceptible to the designs of unscrupulous men.Through her heroines’ parallel experiences of love, loss, and hope, Jane Austen offers a powerful analysis of the ways in which women’s lives were shaped by the claustrophobic society in which they had to survive. (from Goodreads)
Thoughts: This book is divided into three sections: Jane Austen’s novel, a ‘contexts’ section which explores social issues discussed in the novel by way of excerpts from writings from contemporary authors whose work Jane Austen would have been familiar with; and a ‘criticism’ section which has 6 early early and 12 modern essays on the novel. The rating I have given above is just for the novel itself.
So First off, Sense and Sensibility:
     Oh Sense and Sensibility, before I read you I already knew all about you; I’d seen the the 90’s movie and enjoyed it. But even so, I was unprepared for how much I would love you!
     One of the things that I was presently surprised about when reading this novel was how much the book focused on the women characters- their inner lives and relationships with each other. The men, even the love interests, are very much on the periphery. Although it is true that the relationships and interactions between the women are often defined by the men in their lives, the focus of the work is very much on the women.
     Of course, of the women in the novel, Elinor and Marianne are the ones whose lives are most explored. Although I was partial to Elinor, I have to admit that I am an amalgam of both women. I tend to be more reserved like Elinor, and though I feel things deeply I don’t feel the need to necessarily express those feelings. However I am also very much like Marianne in her love of reading and the fact that she doesn’t always participate in polite conversation and small talk and so can appear rude.
     I also loved the minor characters in the book. I adored Mrs. Jennings, and liked Mrs. (and Mr.) Palmer. I also liked Lady Middleton in her own insipid, watered-down way. I also, surprisingly, admired Lucy. As Austen says:
     The whole of Lucy’s behaviour in the affair, and the prosperity which it crowned, therefore, may be held forth as a most encouraging instance of what an earnest, and unceasing attention to self-interest, however its progress may be apparently obstructed, will do in securing every advantage of fortune, with no other sacrifice than that of time and conscience.
     Lucy is undoubtedly selfish and her simpering attitude towards Lady Middleton, Mrs. Ferrars, and Mrs. John Dashwood is disgusting. She uses other people and can be purposely cruel. However, her tenacity and steadfastness towards her goals (however questionable they may be) is admirable. In the end she does what she sets out to do. I certainly don’t like her, but I do respect her in a weird way.
     The male characters in the story are much less impressive. I liked Sir John Middleton and Mr. Palmer (although I’m not sure why). I absolutely hated John Dashwood though. Hated, hated, hated him. What a jerk!
He was not an ill-disposed young man, unless to be rather cold hearted, and rather selfish, is to be ill-disposed.
     Cold hearted and selfish- that’s the only way to describe him. Consumed with greed and utterly devoid of love of family, the way he absolutely refuses to help his sisters, when he himself becomes filthy rich and them improvised solely because of sexist, archaic laws regarding inheritance, is unconscionable. Hate him!
The romantic leads, Colonel Brandon and Edward Ferrars, are not what one typically thinks of in regards to Austen’s heroes- Mr. Darcy and the like to not appear in this book! Colonel Brandon is described as ‘being on the wrong side of five and thirty’ and ‘his face was not handsome.’ Edward Ferrars is also not physically attractive and ‘was not recommended to their good opinion by any particular graces of person or address’; he is shy and lacks ambition. In fact, the only male depicted as handsome and charming, along with other characteristics suitable for a romantic hero- is Mr. Willoughby, who turns out to be anything but. But, ‘grave and serious’ as Colonel Brandon may be, his love for Marianne is unwavering, and his good character and his financial independence are enough to make him a good partner for her. I confess I wished there has been more interaction between him and Marianne and more development in their relationship. Although we are told that she eventually grows to love him, at the time they marry we are told that she ‘had no sentiment superior to strong esteem and lively friendship’ towards him. I must also say that the 19 year age difference between the two made me slightly uncomfortable.
A 19th century illustration showing Willoughby cutting a lock of Marianne's hair.

Willoughby cutting a lock of Marianne’s hair

     Edward and Elinor, although undoubtedly a love much, is also slightly dampened by the fact that, even though Edward knows that he is engaged to Lucy and that nothing can come of his increasing attachment to Elinor, he continues his acquaintance with her because he believes that he is ‘only harming himself.’ He completely fails to consider how Elinor might feel about their relationship. In this instance, he behaves disappointingly like Willoughby.
     I also have to say that I was quite upset that Austen gives us no detail about Edward and Elinor actually get engaged! I wanted details! I wanted to witness them confess their love to each other! Instead all I go was : ‘in what manner he expressed himself, and how he was received, need not be particularly told.’ Madness!
     But despite this I really did love this book. It’s funny, ironic, the characters are fully formed and interesting, and their relationships with each other are enjoyable. Sense and Sensibility is generally not considered one of Austen’s best works, and from what I’ve seen it is rarely a favorite. I loved it! I can’t wait to read more Austen!
     In the ‘contexts’ section, it was interesting to read from works that I knew Austen had either read herself or was familiar with. I didn’t enjoy Edmund Burke or Hannah More (which I am fine with because Austen wasn’t fond of her either). I enjoyed Samuel Johnson, who I’ve never read before, and Thomas Paine, who I have read some excerpts from previously. I really enjoyed Mary Wollstonecraft and the Maria Edgeworth excerpts, both of whom I know Austen admired. I’ve been wanting to read A Vindication of the Rights of Women for forever so this was a nice taste. Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent has also been on my radar, as has her Belinda, an excerpt of which I got to read here! I just wish there had been some Fanny Burney included!
There ‘criticism’ section was also interesting, although I don’t really have anything to say about the 6 early responses to Sense and Sensibility. Claudia L. Johnson’s (who also happens to be editor of this book) Sense and Sensibility: Opinions Too Common and Too Dangerous was a good read for the fact that it made me aware of just how selfish most of the men in the novel really were. It also led me to think about the depressing similarities in the actions of Willoughby and Edward. Gene Ruoff’s Wills was not only absorbing but it was also helpful as if also talked of and explained some of the excerpts that I read in the ‘contexts’ section. And although I do not think I agree with her argument, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl was interesting to read (although I admit that I may not have understood everything as there was a lot of specialized terminology that I wasn’t familiar with). The last essay, Deborah Kaplan’s Mass Marketing Jane Austen: Men, Women, and Courtship in Two Film Adaptions, was also enjoyable, especially since I’ve seen the movie adaption by Ang Lee; it was nice to compare the differences between the book and the movie.
     I only got this version of the book with all the extra sections included because it was the only copy of the novel my library had, but I’m glad I read it! It really added to the novel and my understanding of it!
Watercolor of Jane Austen done by her sister Cassandra on a hot summers day.

Watercolor of Jane Austen done by her sister Cassandra on a hot summers day.

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About hillarypat

I'm a recent college graduate and this is my blog where I talk about whatever happens to be on my mind- mostly books!
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10 Responses to Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

  1. A.M.B. says:

    I re-read this one recently, and my husband read it for the first time. I wasn’t sure if he was going to like it, but he did. We particularly liked Austen’s subtle wit and the way she conveys the time it takes for emotional changes to take place (as opposed to falling in love at first sight or overnight the way characters often do in contemporary romances). Have you seen The Jane Austen Book Club, a 2007 movie staring Maria Bello? It’s a rom com, and I would recommend it to any Austen fan (as a blogger-friend recommended to me a few months ago).

    • hillarypat says:

      One of the things I really like about Austen is her wit! I have heard of The Jane Austen Book Club but I haven’t seen it. Maybe I’ll watch it as a reward for when I finally finish all of Austen’s novels!

  2. TBM says:

    Okay, I’m going to confess that I didn’t read the full review. This is one of the books I’ve set aside for my trip and even though I’ve read it before I’ve forgotten quite a bit about it. will have to come back to this when I finish.

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  4. Mabel says:

    One of my favorite books. 🙂 I’m glad you liked it!

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