Some impressions on re-reading (listening to) for the nth time the great Jane Austen.
I don’t remember all the books that were set for English Expression in my matric year – Martin Boyd, A Difficult Young Man; Samuel Butler, The Way of All Flesh; Jane Austen, Pride & Prejudice are the three that stand out. Of the others, there were eleven in all I think, three were American which for confused political reasons I refused to read, and three were Russian which I didn’t read because I wasn’t reading the Americans (I said I was confused). The night before the exam I sat up in bed and re-read P&P just for the pleasure of the love story and I’ve read and re-read Austen ever since.
If you’re wondering, I failed Eng Exp, but seeing as I got firsts in Physics, Chemistry and Pure Maths, Melb Uni Engineering didn’t care, Trinity College didn’t care, and the headmaster of Mudsville High, Mudsville, Western Victoria had an excuse not to make me dux, so everyone was happy (except my father, so win-win all round really).
1. Why do I and so many others read and re-read Austen? I’ve already said I’m a sucker for a classic love story, so that’s no.1; then there’s the precise, spare writing; the sly wit. After that, as we get to know Austen better, some of you will say characters we love. I don’t really, though I have a soft spot for Lydia and Mrs Bennet (In high school I totally identified with Mr Bennet); then there are themes, descriptions, issues – there’s always something.
2. Sense and Sensibility was the first of Austen’s novels published, in 1811 when the author was 35. The first draft had been completed as early as 1800 so, under the title Elinor and Marianne, it had circulated amongst her family and friends – effectively been workshopped – for more than a decade. This of course allowed her to refine her language and her plot but also gave her freedom to experiment and, I think, to play up to her audience, to include jokes about pet topics.
3. It is an opinion generally held held and easily supported that the theme of S&S is the advantages of one and the ridiculousness of the other. The cult of sensibility which obtained amongst young women of refinement prevailed from Regency times right up to the turn of the Twentieth Century. It wasn’t just tight corsets making women swoon, it was the idea propagated by novels that the correct response, for a woman, to any adverse turn of affairs was firstly an excess of emotion, and secondly to fall down unconscious. Austen’s earliest long fiction, Love & Freindship (here), is a spoof on young women in novels and this carries over into S&S. It’s interesting that Elinor who throughout the novel is the embodiment of sense, is finally allowed when she learns that her lover is free, to give into sensibility, albeit behind closed doors.
4. I have not seen it discussed elsewhere but we should at least consider S&S as YA. Elinor and Marianne are respectively 19 and 16. Austen repeatedly makes fun of Marianne’s opinions which are fixed in a way that only teenagers’ are. We, the older reader, don’t ever really believe that Marianne won’t grow out of her tremendous distress at the failure of her first love affair. And we feel for Elinor who must deny her own feelings and act beyond her years to support her sister in the physical/emotional absence of their mother.
5. The two principal young men, the sisters’ love interests, both behave very badly, lying directly or by omission about prior commitments. Austen I think lets them both off lightly. Willoughby, whose belated apology is long, tedious and unnecessary to the plot, gets some undeserved sympathy from Elinor – undeserved but believable. I have daughters, I know how they respond to D & Ms. I’m not sure Edward even apologizes, he is freed when Lucy runs off with his brother and promptly rides to claim Elinor whom he had no right making up to in the first place.
6. This reading, by Sarah Badel for the BBC, reflects something I often think about when I’m reading/listening to/watching Austen and that is I think that our own social crawler instincts – our willingness to accept the gentry’s evaluation of ‘nouveaus’ – end up making some characters more vulgar than Austen intended. This dates back at least to the Olivier P&P (movie) where Mrs Bennet is portrayed as out of her depth in ‘polite’ society and Mr Bennet, as shamed and mocking where I think Austen intended him to be amused and tolerant.
All this gets back to class. Walter Scott wrote at the time (here):
… the author of Emma confines herself chiefly to the middling classes of society; her most distinguished characters do not rise greatly above well-bred country gentlemen and ladies; and those which are sketched with most originality and precision, belong to a class rather below that standard.
To the extent that class analysis is tolerated these days I think that we would grade Austen’s world as ‘upper middle’. Austen did portray a great deal of class mobility, not from the working classes whom she rarely bothers to name (the woman who cares for Marianne when she is ill is “Mrs Jenkins’ maid”), but from the well-off, ordinary middle – people in trade – into the gentry, the idle well-off. That said, I think the Steele sisters, Lucy and Anne, should be seen respectively as grasping and silly rather than lower class.
7. I have not mentioned the funniest and most quoted lines in S&S, as Elinor and Marriane’s sister in law talks their brother down by stages from his original intention to give his sisters a thousand apiece from the money he has inherited from their father, to a general intention to be of assistance to them in finding somewhere else to live; and I’ve probably assumed of my readership a familiarity with Austen which you don’t all have, in which case I apologize and suggest you make up the deficiency immediately.
Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility, first pub. 1811. Audiobook: BBC Audiobooks, 1996, read by Sarah Badel.