Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen

Brona’s Books: Austen in August

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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.

Previous Jane Austen posts –
Three Novels, Jane Austen, here
Love and Freindship, here
Jane Austen: Independent Woman, here
Jane’s Fame, Claire Harman, here
Sue at Whispering Gums, here

12 thoughts on “Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen

    • I can’t remember what they were now, though I think I know where my form 6 folder is (it’s a measure of how much work I did that I only had one folder) and I’ll look it up when I get home. I’ve probably only read Dostoyevsky and War & Peace.

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  1. We had no Russians I’m sure either, though we did have several long Victorians!

    Enjoyed your reflections Bill.

    I think Edward does apologise, but I’m away from my library at present.

    I think we could call Lucy and Anne genteel poor.

    Your YA comment is fair enough though I would say that age of protagonist on its own doesn’t define YA.

    One of my favourite JA quotes comes from S&S, and it’s concerning Marianne eventually contradicting her dearest maxims. Although I identified more with Elinor, I did see in myself Marianne’s proclivity to making pronouncements about things she hadn’t experienced. It’s these insights Into people, including myself, that I most love in Austen.

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    • I’ve apologised for so many things over a lifetime of relationships that I don’t rate apologies very highly, so I can see myself in Edward and Willoughby – as you say JA’s insights into people.

      The point about Lucy and Anne is that they are ‘genteel’ but this reading gives them accents which in Australia would be Bogan, and I think they are often portrayed that way.

      As for YA, I wasn’t trying to be definitive but to suggest that even Elinor’s ‘sense’ is immature, that S&S could be considered as the story of two teenagers caught up by emotions they can neither understand nor control.

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      • Thanks for these clarifications, Bill. Re Lucy & Anne, I guess a bogantype accoent is shorthand for conveying their silliness. But you’re right that aspect has been exaggerated in some versions, adaptations.

        Fair point re YA and Elinor’s sense also needing to be developed.

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  2. I re-watched the Emma Thompson movie of this not so long ago (it’s one of my favourite Austen movie adaptations). Thompson’s screenplay ‘fixes’ many of the concerns you’ve expressed above about apologies, secrets and silliness, but naturally leaves out just as many important references like the duel.
    The early scene where the sister-in-law talks down her husband’s idea of what is fair is hilarious in the book and in the movie.

    I’ve just started Persuasion and the same snobbery that infects the S&S sister-in-law is reflected in Anne’s father and eldest sister.

    I’ve always seen myself as a combination of Anne and Elinor – Mr Books is a lovely combo of Captain Wentworth and Mr Knightley 🙂

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    • That’s very high praise for Mr Books, though I’ve always thought that JA’s leading men are over-inclined to give advice (especially Knightley) and I find I have a soft spot for those women JA parodies for not knowing the ‘rules’ – like the vicar’s wife in Emma.

      I’ve seen the Emma Thompson movie but my goldfish mind doesn’t retain any of it. Thompson is very good but hardly suitable for my suggested YA interpretation. Still, except that my daughter pinches my dvds – for the education of my grandchildren – I am happy to watch JA movies/series over and over (yes I know, goldfish mind!)

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  3. I enjoyed reading your thoughts about re-hearing S&S.

    It’s not my favourite Austen. I think Emma Thompson was too old for the role and that they should have picked actors that were the right age. Otherwise we totally forget the teenage angle of the novel.

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    • If I have a favourite I guess it’s P&P. I hadn’t really thought about the teenage angle before but it really struck me this time. Reading JA’s immediate predecessor Fanny Burney now, fascinating.

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