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.