Jane Austen, Sense and sensibility (Vol. 1)

Ch 22 of Sense and Sensibility, (Jane Austen N...

From Chapter 22, illus. by CE Brock (Presumed Public Domain, via Wikipedia)

This year is the 200th anniversary of the publication of Jane Austen’s first (published) novel, Sense and sensibility. To celebrate this, my local Jane Austen group plans to discuss the novel over the next three months, volume by volume. We tried this last year with Mansfield Park and valued the opportunity it presented to delve a little more deeply into the novel – not only the characters and themes, but the writing and structure. Consequently, in this post I’m going to focus on Volume 1 (chapters 1 to 22) which ends with Lucy Steele’s dramatic announcement to Elinor.

But first, some caveats. I’m going to assume that most readers who come to this post will know the story – and if you don’t, the Wikipedia article provides a good summary. Also I am not going to write a formal review but just share some of the ideas that have struck me during this slow reading*.

I have always liked Sense and sensibility, partly because I’m fascinated by the dichotomy Austen sets up between the two sisters: Elinor (sense) and Marianne (sensibility). And yet, it’s not an easy-to-like novel. The heroines aren’t as sparkly nor the heroes as dashing or heroic as in Austen’s next novel, Pride and prejudice. It feels more serious, less witty – though not as serious as Mansfield Park. This could be because its premise – the sudden drop in wealth for Mrs Dashwood and daughters and their dislocation from their family home, due to the death of their husband/father – mirrors what happened to Jane and her mother and sister after Rev. Austen’s death in 1805. It wasn’t until the family settled in Chawton in 1809 that Austen, to the best of our knowledge, returned seriously to her writing. I wonder if this novel is her working through this very real experience of grief and insecurity. (Interestingly, a very similar story is played out at the beginning of Tracey Chevalier’s Remarkable creatures in which she describes the removal of the Philpot sisters from London to Lyme Regis in 1805).

That’s the historical background to the novel – and forms its social milieu. But there is more to the novel than social history. Austen is a far more complex writer than that. Take, for example, the money issue. There is a lot of focus on money and income in volume 1 – on who has what – indicating Austen’s real awareness of the issue, and yet Mrs Dashwood does not focus on husband hunting for her daughters. In fact, she says:

“I do not believe,” said Mrs. Dashwood, with a good humoured smile, “that Mr. Willoughby will be incommoded by the attempts of either of my daughters towards what you call catching him. It is not an employment to which they have been brought up. Men are very safe with us, let them be ever so rich. …”

This is no Mrs Bennet … but she’s not without her faults either.

And, take the dichotomy issue. It’s actually not quite as clear-cut as the title would suggest. Check the way our two heroines are introduced:

Elinor … possessed a strength of understanding, and coolness of judgment, which qualified her, though only nineteen, to be the counsellor of her mother, and enabled her frequently to counteract, to the advantage of them all, that eagerness of mind in Mrs. Dashwood which must generally have led to imprudence. She had an excellent heart; her disposition was affectionate, and her feelings were strong: but she knew how to govern them: it was a knowledge which her mother had yet to learn, and which one of her sisters had resolved never to be taught.

Marianne’s abilities were, in many respects, quite equal to Elinor’s. She was sensible and clever; but eager in everything; her sorrows, her joys, could have no moderation. She was generous, amiable, interesting: she was everything but prudent. The resemblance between her and her mother was strikingly great.

In other words, Elinor has sense (“coolness of judgment”) but is also emotional (“her feelings were strong”); and Marianne is emotional (“eager in everything … no moderation”) but also has sense (“sensible and clever”).

However, as I read the volume 1, the issue that kept raising its head was that of “judgment”. I’m not sure whether it will continue to do so in the next two volumes, and I need to think about how the judgment issue plays out in other novels, but it does seem that Austen is exploring people’s ability to judge – and most seem to be not very good at it. Sir John Middleton, who praises the Steele sisters, is confident in his judgment, as is Marianne of hers on Willoughby – and we know how those turn out. Meanwhile, Edward, says, Elinor, “distrusts his own judgment” – and he is probably right to (in some matters at least!) Elinor, on the other hand, recognises that she has made errors at times and suggests that you need “time to deliberate and judge”. Related to all this is the fact that Marianne tends to judge people by surface factors, whereas Elinor tries to understand what makes people (such as Edward, Col Brandon, Mr Palmer) behave the way they do. I look forward to seeing whether this idea continues to be specifically explored in volumes 2 and 3.

But let’s move on to Austen’s writing; specifically, her plotting. Until recently, Emma was my least favourite Austen. Then I read it again more attentively and was bowled over by how beautifully it is plotted. I started to notice something similar in Sense and sensibility but will just give one particular example – how Austen uses parallels to create links between the storylines and move the plot along. These parallels, though, aren’t all slavish, aren’t exact. Here are some from volume 1:

  • Willoughby asks for/is given a lock of Marianne’s hair; Edward wears a ring made of Lucy’s hair
  • Willoughby and Edward both leave Barton Cottage in different but less than happy circumstances, and the Dashwoods ascribe this, in both cases, to the influence of strong controlling women – Willoughby’s aunt, and Edward’s mother
  • Elinor states that correspondence between Marianne and Willoughby would convince her of their engagement; later, evidence of correspondence between Lucy and Edward convinces her of their engagement.

And here I shall finish, mainly because I’ve gone on long enough. There is so much more to say, but maybe they will still be relevant in volume 2. Meanwhile, I’d love to know what other Austen readers think …

* Our little nod, perhaps, to the Slow-Reading Movement which I must admit does hold some attractions for me.

24 thoughts on “Jane Austen, Sense and sensibility (Vol. 1)

  1. I love the idea of slow reading. David Ulin recently wrote a short book entitled ‘The Lost Art of Reading’ which is about just that. I know that over the past few years I have been putting quantity before quality and one of my ‘secret’ aims this year is to get back to reading with the same careful eye that I did when I was studying and lecturing full-time. I think this is a great idea and I’m going to have to try and find a way of developing it locally. Thanks for the inspiration.

    • I’m glad I’m not the only one Annie … the person in our group who suggested this approach last year is a retired high school English teacher. We enjoyed it so much. I was listening to an interview the other day with lawyers who read, and one said that when he reads to pleasure he says the words to himself. He knows this is not what speed reading teachers recommend but he wants to enjoy the words. I can relate to that. Speed reading is fine for informational reading but for literature you want to feel the flow of it don’t you?

  2. Fascinating! For some reason I can’t remember if I’ve read Sense and Sensibility – I’m sure I have, and yet I can’t pinpoint the moment when I did so. I definitely don’t know its story as well as some of the other, so I look forward to benefitting from your analytical eye!

  3. You know I am planning to read this book this year and your post makes me want to start right now! You can go on and on if you want to about the book, I don’t mind 🙂 I like what you say about judgment and the comparison and contrast between Elinor and Marianne and even other characters in the book to. I think you are onto something with your thoughts. Would you say that in addition to surface and depth, there is also snap judgment and delayed judgment made after the facts are known? Perhaps this is also what you mean by surface and depth?

    • Yes, they are closely related I think. Marianne’s judgments tend to be surface partly because she makes them in a hurry and if you make them in a hurry you can usually only look at superficial things, so I think the two go pretty much hand in hand with her. Elinor on the other hand takes time to make her judgments. For example she talked to Col Brandon, watched him and came to some sense of who he was based on this NOT based on how he looked (old), and what he wore (flannel etc!). Marianne, also, I think, is so wedded to her surface/snap judgments that she doesn’t try to reconsider as time goes on even though there may be useful information there right under her nose.

  4. While I see the sisters as real people (fully developed characters in other words), I also consider the question of the Age of Reason vs. Romanticism & the shifting values in culture as society moved from one to the other.

    • Yes, that is definitely there in Austen’s work – her bordering the two “ages” – and it’s particularly clear in this one through the obvious dichotomy. She so effectively, here, combines the “real” (engaging readers’ hearts) and the “symbolic” (engaging readers’ minds). The fun challenge is to decide exactly where Jane Austen stood in it all … some argue she was with the status quo (the old “reason”) and some the opposite. In reality she probably, like most of us, had feet in all camps … I think she saw that life really isn’t a simple case of this OR that, but rather this and a bit of that…

  5. Dear Sue, I loved Sense & Sensibility almost as much if not more than Pride & Prejudice. I started Emma but never finished it and I have Mansfield Park still collecting dust on my shelves.
    I so enjoyed your thorough analysis of the characters and especially the sisters….Marianne and Elinor…thank you!!
    My most favorite line from Marianne is when she tells Mrs. Dashwood, “The more I know of the world, the more I am convinced of never finding a man I can really love. I require so much.”
    Oh that last line is so me…
    I linked up my own review here under my name for you to see as well. Austen is a classic and will always be so – I hope to read more of her when things settle down a bit in my life!!

    • Ah, Farnoosh, I’ve found your mysterious lost post. For some reason it went into the Spam folder, along with comments from a regular commenter here. Weird. Anyhow, I’ve responded before to your replacement comment – but will now go check out your review.

  6. Thanks for an insightful post… rich background and analysis. I think one of the major contrasts between the two sisters rests on the element of restraint. While I don’t feel Elinor is any less romantic than Marianne, she is more restrained in her feelings and words. And Marianne is like a wild horse refused to be tamed, because she believes in freedom of expression, anytime, anywhere. It’s no coincidence that in the recent TV adaptation of S & S, Willoughby would present to Marianne a horse, which of course, Elinor dissuade her to accept, while she sees no reason not to. And you’ve said it well: “She was everything but prudent.” I look forward to your celebrating S & S’s 200th anniversary in your posts this year.

    • Ah yes, Arti – restraint is a good way of seeing it. The horse is in the text too in volume 1: Elinor does as you say eventually dissuade Marianne but she is only able to do it on the practical grounds of cost impact for their mother (engaging Marianne’s feelings for her mother), and not on the grounds of propriety (since Marianne has no concern for social rules). I like your description of Marianne as a bit of a wild horse! Anyhow, I look forward to sharing more this year – and love the fact that you, Guy, Stefanie (and others I think) are interested in JA.

      • Thanks for the reminder about the horse, … I must re-read it together with you all, since it’s the 200th Anniversary of its publication. Now, the falcon-training Col. Brandon in the TV production must be an invention… no?

        • LOL Arti. I think that might be an invention … I can’t recollect that one in the book, but in my re-reading I’m only up to the end of Vol. 1! It’s been over 10 years since I last read it BUT I really don’t think Brandon trained falcons in the book. Will let you know if we are wrong.

  7. Your post brought back that dichotomy between ‘Sense’ and ‘Sensibility’ which struck me so powerfully while reading the novel. Is ‘Pride’ and ‘Prejudice’ also a dichotomy? That one is a little more difficult to explain.

    • Thanks Tony. Yes, P&P is, though a little more subtle again. Darcy is the proud one, and Elizabeth the prejudiced one. (She judges Darcy too quickly and is therefore prejudiced against him, and has to learn the error of that prejudice as Darcy must learn to be less proud). But, as with S&S the dichotomy isn’t black and white, because the characters are more than their “characteristic”. They’re real (rounded) as well. At least, that’s how I see it.

  8. Sue, I love Austen and I think I loved S&S more than Pride & Prejudice in some ways. The sisters and their dynamics are truly brilliant. Mansfield Park is still sitting on my shelf. I only read 20 or so pages. Maybe I will return to it.

    My favorite line from S&S is Marianne talking to her mother when she says: “Mama, the more I know of the world, the more am I convinced that I shall never see a man whom I can really love. I require so much.”

    Oh that last line, “I require so much”, is plucked from my own heart and it is expressions and articulation of language in this caliber that makes Austen the brilliant author that she was. Thank you for your review, Sue.

    (Farnoosh’s summary of her first comment which got lost in the system, somewhere)

    • Thanks Farnoosh … I have a favourite line from S&S too … but I’m saving it until it appears, in Vol 3 if I remember correctly. It is all these wonderful observations that make her timeless isn’t it – regardless of the trappings of era.

  9. Why did the frist and second edition of Sense and Sensibility end with ch. 22? Did Austin wait to write the conclusion? What happened to make this the end of the book?

    • Thanks for commenting Jen. As I understand it novels were usually published in two different ways in the nineteenth century – either serialised in magazines (as many of Dickens’ novels were – so he was often writing them as they were published I believe) or as 3-volume sets as all (or most, anyhow) of Jane Austen’s were. The three volumes were published together so Austen didn’t wait to write the third. However, I’ve been slack and haven’t written up my thoughts on the third volume of Sense and sensibility. In all editions published today the three volumes are published in one volume.

      I guess they were broken into volumes at points that seemed sensible for the reader to stop and break open a new book – and perhaps lend the volume just read to someone else!

  10. Pingback: Aunt Jane’s Marriage Advice to the Young and Romantic | I'm All Booked

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s