Saturday, February 23, 2013

Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen

The family of Dashwood had been long settled in Sussex. Their estate was large, and their residence was at Norland Park, in the centre of their property, where for many generations they had lived in so respectable a manner as to engage the general good opinion of their surrounding acquaintances.

I thought the plot of Persuasion sounded a lot more interesting than that of Sense and Sensibility, but I ultimately ended up liking this Jane Austen much better. (Who knows? Maybe if I reread Persuasion I'll enjoy it more). It feels kind of silly to re-summarize the book, since many probably already know the plot, but here we go: Basically, Mrs. Dashwood and her three daughters, Elinor, Marianne, and Margaret, are cast out of Norland Park when Mr. Dashwood dies. They are cast out by his son by his first marriage. The son had promised his father on his deathbed that he would take care of them, but his wife Fanny manages to dissuade him from giving them any money, in a scene really well done and comic, if you think of them as villains. So the Dashwood sisters and their mother leave for another part of the country (though still fairly nearby), rent a cottage, and fall in with a whole different set: Sir John Middleton, Lady Middleton, and Mrs. Jennings, among others. They're all deeply flawed, but funny to read about. Mrs. Jennings is very vulgar, and basically likes to pry into everyone's business. She means well though. Lady Middleton is cold and insipid; she reminded me a bit of Lady Bertram from Mansfield Park. There's also Colonel Brandon, a gentleman of thirty-five who Marianne considers "old". 

Margaret does not figure much in the story, as she is only thirteen, but the characters of Elinor and Marianne must be addressed before we continue. Elinor is practically perfect; she is sensible, smart, pretty, and basically all-around rational, never assuming anything, and she is very prudent. Marianne, however, likes to wax rhapsodic about dead leaves and twisted trees and passion, and she never does anything by halves. As Jane Austen says, "She was generous, amiable, interesting: she was every thing but prudent." (pg. 6). Willoughby comes into her life, and charms everyone, before suddenly having to leave.

I think I'm correct in saying that this is the only one of Jane Austen's novels that has two heroines (although one could argue for Jane and Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice). I liked Elinor, but Marianne has an appeal about her. She's fiery, and passionate, and opinionated, full of sensibility, but little sense. There's always an appeal to someone like that, especially in Regency England. It's so hard to reconcile these two widely different notions of love: Elinor's and Marianne's. Elinor's suitor, Edward Ferrars (the brother of Fanny) and herself seem not to feel much passion, Elinor "does not attempt to deny...that she thinks very highly of him- that I greatly esteem, that I like him." (pg. 21). To which Marianne replies, "'Esteem him! Like him! Cold-hearted Elinor! Oh! worse than cold-hearted! Ashamed of being otherwise. Use those words again and I will leave the room this moment.'" As you can see, Marianne likes to use a lot of exclamation points. She requires seven to take leave of Norland: "'Dear, dear Norland!' said Marianne...'when shall I cease to regret you! - when learn to feel a home elsewhere! - Oh! happy house, could you know what I suffer in now viewing you from this spot, from whence perhaps I may view you no more! - And you, ye well-known trees! - but you will continue the same. No leaf will decay because we are removed, nor any branch become motionless although we can observe you no longer! - No;  you will continue the same; unconscious of the pleasure or the regret you occasion, and insensible of any change in those who walk under your shade! - But who will remain to enjoy you?'" (pg. 27). Elinor is more calm and level-headed.

There are some amazing characters in this novel. Elinor and Marianne are both so well drawn, as are Lucy Steele, Mrs. Jennings, Colonel Brandon, Willoughby, Edward, and many more. Jane Austen is amazing at creating character sketches. She manages to say so much through so very little. Though as in most of her books, many of the characters are deeply flawed, they also feel so real. Much more real than if everybody was just perfect or drawn in black-and-white.

Somehow, the writing style of Sense and Sensibility was so much better than Persuasion; it was more compelling, and it flowed better. Though Sense and Sensibility is one of those books, like Mansfield Park, that are hard to reconcile with, I loved it a lot. It's probably my second favorite Austen novel, after, of course, Pride and Prejudice. There are so many subtleties that make this book well worth reading slowly. There are so many witty lines of dialogue and witty sentences.

I read The Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition, and I actually liked the tempest in a teacup design, though it's obviously not the traditional classic cover. I loved Sense and Sensibility, and I like forward to reading Lady Susan, the Watsons, Sanditon and Catharine and Other Writings (hint hint). I've now read all of Jane Austen's complete novels!

Read Sense and Sensibility:
  • if you like Jane Austen
  • if you like classic romance
  • if you like British fiction
353 pages.
Outstanding Book That Will Stay On My Bookshelf For Rereading (jf I own it)!


  1. I am that one person that doesn't know the plot so thanks for that summary. With a name like Fanny no wonder shes such a... you know what. Marianne sounds like my type of character. I rather read about someone who's a little wild than really safe. I don't know how wild writing about passion is but it's better than being a prude.
    Everybody is flawed. To not show it would be a mistake. They wouldn't be real like you said. I think I would like this story somewhat but ultimately the reality is that I couldn't get through Pride and Prejudice because of the way it was written. So old which makes sense but maybe not for me. I will try reading Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte which I think has the same sort of feel to Austin's writing. Happy you enjoyed this book!

    1. Ah, but Bronte has a whole different sensibility from Austen. They're not the same at all, though I do love Jane Eyre too. I think that Sense and Sensibility's writing may actually have been better than Pride and Prejudice, though the story wasn't as good.