There are some books which it’s impossible for me to review with anything even vaguely approaching objectivity, and the works of Jane Austen feature very high up that list. I love everything about all of them, even the aspects which, critically speaking, might be weaker or less good. I don’t often reread books (too many books, too little time) but I’ve read Jane Austen’s works often enough for them to be like old friends to me, and I’m no longer sure whether I love them in spite of or because of their perceived faults. Consequently, this is going to be a less of a review and more of an appreciative enthusing about her first published work, Sense and Sensibility. Needless to say, there are spoilers aplenty here, so if for some inexplicable reason you haven’t read this book yet (or seen the lovely Emma Thompson film and so know the ending anyway) stop reading now and go away and do so instantly.
When I noticed that a group read of all of Jane Austen’s novels was proposed for this year on LibraryThing I jumped at the chance to revisit these old friends again, chiefly because it gave me an excuse to buy myself copies of the Virago Modern Classics editions of the books. Jane Austen isn’t an author that I automatically associate with the Virago Modern Classics imprint, mostly because (rightly or wrongly) I think of it as a press which rescues female authors from obscurity and Miss Austen is the very antithesis of obscurity. However, on reflection, her work fits perfectly within Virago’s remit: it is intelligent fiction which focuses on the day to day lives of women and, although its subject matter is mundane, the writing transcends that to say far more than the story does. Although I read this book last week, my review is ready just in time for Rachel and Carolyn‘s Virago Reading Week, and it’s done a marvellous job of reminding me quite how wide Virago’s range of authors is.
Purely by coincidence, I read Sense and Sensibility for the first time when I was the same age as Margaret Dashwood, for the second time when I was Marianne’s age and for the third time when I was Elinor’s age. Now I’m reading it for the fourth time, and only the impending September nuptials stand prevent me from being an object of pity for being an unmarried spinster past my prime (at the grand old ago of twenty four, that is). At Margaret’s age, most of the humour and subtlety of Austen’s wonderful writing went way over my head, but I just about grasped the story and thought myself very grown up for doing so. When I was Marianne’s age I was far more open to Austen’s caustic wit but was unsatisfied with the plot, as the ending seemed a huge disappointment. I wanted Willoughby to see the error of his ways, for him to beg Marianne to take him back, for Austen to somehow rid him of his inconvenient wife in a way which didn’t implicate him, and for Marianne to end up happily married to him as romance surely required. At Elinor’s age I was no longer reading the book for pleasure but studying it as part of a required ‘Inventing the Novel’ first year English course at university. This really brought Jane Austen’s writing skill alive for me and I appreciate having this critical background just as much as I appreciate having read the novel for the first time without it. This is the context in which I approached my most recent reread of Sense and Sensibility.
This is definitely the time that I’ve enjoyed the novel most. It was a relief not to be reading along underlining passages with a pencil going, ”Behold! Amusing social commentary!” and, “Ooh, irony!” but at the same time I was far more aware of all the different layers and literary devices which work to give the novel its delightful light yet serious tone which is so typically Austen. Many critics find this much less polished in Sense and Sensibility than in her other novels, but I actually find I quite enjoy this; it is a book about passions, after all, so it seems appropriate that the writing style should be a little less tightly controlled than it might otherwise have been. In particular, Sense and Sensibility conveys real, raw pain through Marianne, an emotion which I don’t think Jane Austen ever really covers again. There is sorrow, displeasure, regret and gentle anguish such as Elinor displays, but never the wild outpouring of passion which she shows here. Yes, it is melodramatic and overdone and yes, it can be seen at least partially a satire of the typical heroine of sensibility, but I have never had any doubt that Marianne’s suffering is real.
Because I was reading for pleasure this time, I was also far more aware of the individual characters, which somehow often fade into the background when studying a novel, odd as that may seem. This time I thoroughly enjoyed watching Marianne behave like a typical teenager, alternating between being genuinely concerned at her suffering and rolling my eyes at her overblown ways of expressing it. Her exclamation to Elinor which essentially boils down to,”You couldn’t possibly understand! No one could ever understand my pain!” in particular had me grinning with recognition. Although I have always loved Elinor herself, she is far less staid than I remember her. I don’t think I’ve ever really noticed the incident where Edward appears wearing a ring containing a lock of hair and Elinor somehow convinces herself that the hair is hers, despite knowing intellectually that it can’t be, and I found this wishful thinking incredibly endearing. The secondary characters were also more pronounced this time around: I greatly enjoyed Mrs Jennings’ unrefined warmth and kindness and found Fanny Dashwood and her weak husband completely odious.
The ending of the novel seemed much more appropriate this time around too. Previously I had thought that she merely settles for Colonel Brandon and so I didn’t really believe in her happiness, and while I still think that she settles, it made sense to me this time. Marianne spends much of the novel talking about how she doesn’t believe in second marriages and romances, so it seems logical that she wouldn’t hold out for another love match after her experiences with Willoughby. Instead she vows to spend the rest of her life devoting herself to her family, and the thing most likely to make them happy is to do what they think best for her and to marry Colonel Brandon. Because Marianne isn’t a character to do anything by halves, it similarly makes sense that her regard for her husband should eventually turn into love and that she should be happy with him. It is not a spectacular romance, but that would have been at odds with the way the novel develops and indeed with Marianne’s character.
Ask any reader of Jane Austen what their favourite of her novels is and it’s unlikely that the answer will be Sense and Sensibility. I know it’s not my favourite, but that doesn’t stop me from loving it and from finding something new to appreciate in it each time I revisit it.
Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen. Published by Virago, 1989, pp. 279. Originally published in 1811.