JANE AUSTEN – Sense and Sensibility
“I shall call hills steep, which ought to be bold; surfaces strange and uncouth, which ought to be irregular and rugged; and distant objects out of sight, which ought only to be indistinct through the soft medium of a hazy atmosphere.”
This telling line comes from Edward, our protagonist Elinor’s love interest. And as is so common in an Austen novel, the questions of sense and who we are, people in general and how varying things drive us, take central focus.
From pride and our bias in judging others, to how we differ wildly in similar circumstances, and hold and present ourselves to the world in light of it all… Sense and Sensibility is a novel of character study, and a novel one at that. 😉
But isn’t a novel about people, and who we are inherently, going to maybe, bore a reader? All those questions of why, how, and then throw in class and money… how can that be at all entertaining? How can it fill 394 pages with tiny type, and keep you enthralled?
Why, it is fascinating simply by being the focus on one of the most interesting animals on the planet… humans! We are the most unique species, in all of our differing views, the things that drive us, our individual opinions and those things that light our fire… the way we respond to things or NOT, and even how we conduct ourselves in our day to day… Jane Austen takes these questions and applies them to, yet another love story.
An interesting one. (There is no other option for her).
The story focuses primarily on the two eldest sisters in a family of 3, after their father has fallen to illness and passed on. Elinor, our protagonist: reserved, careful and smart with her statements which are well thought out and considered before they are brought to air –
“…as Elinor had had time enough to collect her thoughts, she was able to give such an answer, and make such observations, as the subject might naturally be supposed to produce.”
And then Marianne, the slightly younger sister, and also you could say, young and immature in heart and nature. Because Marianne is such a polar opposite of her sister, it is this difference that makes the story move in such an interesting fashion. Marianne is passionate, liberal with her thoughts and opinions, and thinks anything that isn’t bold and brash and colourful is just plain boring.
“I could not be happy with a man whose taste did not in every point coincide with my own. He must enter into all my feelings; the same books, the same music must charm us both… to hear those beautiful lines which have frequently almost driven me wild, pronounced with such impenetrable calmness, such dreadful indifference!”
And an interesting picture begins to form. Perhaps Elinor says it best (and so eloquently as she does) in regards to Marianne’s statement about having no one to watch falling leaves with:
“It is not everyone who has your passion for dead leaves.”
The outline of the story is that Elinor has feelings for a man named Edward – he like her is serious, introverted and takes care before he speaks, but whether that is due to a regard for others or due to his own character, is either here or there. Marianne meanwhile falls head over heels for the animated and vivid Willoughby – a character to match her own, he is passionate and robust, and the two hit it off immediately and you can imagine nothing but a bright future for the two… or can you? It is a novel after all, and if the characters are happy at the start, you can be assured that romance will not ride a steady course right through to the end.
Not only does the love story for both girls take a decidedly different course from the other, both still with an emphasis on the unfavourable, but the way both girls take to their disappointments also varies wildly. It is summed up perfectly and with such eloquence by Marianne when she says:
“..our situations then are alike. We have neither of us any thing to tell; you, because you do not communicate, and I, because I conceal nothing.”
Marianne cannot be reminded of Willoughby and her distress at his parting; she seems to be reminded of him wherever she goes, as portrayed here:
“…and though her family were most anxiously attentive to her comfort, it was impossible for them, if they spoke at all, to keep clear of every subject which her feelings connected with him.”
It is so true how when you are missing someone, you tend to see them in every place you go, every song you hear, every spot of sunshine and drop of rain… all these things, in one way or another remind you of the absence of who you love. Their loss, amplifies the memories and the reminders.
Elinor on the other hand takes an entirely different approach. It reads:
“Elinor sat down to her drawing-table as soon as he was out of the house, busily employed herself the whole day, neither sought nor avoided the mention of his name, appeared to interest herself almost as much as ever in the general concerns of the family, and if, by this conduct, she did not lessen her own grief, it was at least prevented from unnecessary increase, and her mother and sisters were spared much solicitude on her account.”
We see this theme dominant within Elinor throughout the novel, and even though she can be ‘practical’ around her loved ones and play pretend that all is ok, she cannot hide from her true inner feelings only known to herself in private, and us the reader:
“In Edward – she knew not what she saw, nor what she wished to see; – happy or unhappy, – nothing pleased her; she turned away her head from every sketch of him.”
This quiet torment isn’t lost on Marianne who is otherwise preoccupied with her own unattachment, or even their mother Mrs Dashwood, who later reflects that Elinor’s suffering may not have been as grand, loud or excessive in display as Marianne’s, but that does not mean it was not as strong.
Even in happiness, Elinor is subdued:
“Elinor could not be cheerful. Her joy was of a different kind, and led to any thing rather than to gaiety… it led to no outward demonstrations of joy, no words, no smiles. All within Elinor’s breast was satisfaction, silent and strong.”
The starkly different characters that Austen paints does not stop with the two sisters. As is common in a Jane Austen novel, the supporting cast are hilarious, comical, and so vividly clear as your read their lines, it is hard to imagine Austen not basing these on actual people she came across, so precise is her description of them.
A fantastic passage that very accurately paints a clear picture of many characters is this section:
“Here comes Marianne,” cried Sir John. “Now, Palmer, you shall see a monstrous pretty girl.”
He immediately went into the passage, opened the front door, and ushered her in himself. Mrs Jennings asked her, as soon as she appeared, if she had not been to Allenham; and Mrs Palmer laughed so heartily at the question, as to show she understood it. Mr. Palmer looked up on her entering the room, stared at her some minutes, and then returned to his newspaper. Mrs. Palmer’s eye was now caught by the drawings which hung round the room. She got up to examine them.
“Oh! dear, how beautiful these are! Well! how delightful! Do but look, mama, how sweet! I declare they are quite charming; I could look at them forever.” And then sitting down again, she very soon forgot that there were any such things in the room.”
The subtleties and nuances on display here are so obvious in reading, and they paint such a vivid picture of each person. Another example of character is here, with the animated Mrs Jennings talking:
“… and how forlorn we shall be, when I come back!-Lord! we shall sit and gape at one another as dull as two cats.”
Some of these lines are so ridiculous, I think they surely came from a real person, they are just that outrageous to make up. Nonetheless, Austen’s ability to show character through dialogue is remarkably strong and a true talent.
Elinor makes her own observations on character when thinking about Mr and Mrs Palmer:
“…wondering at Charlotte’s being so happy without a cause, at Mr. Palmer’s acting so simply, with good abilities, and at the strange unsuitableness that often existed between husband and wife…”
Perhaps Austen’s character descriptions ring so true, because at their foundation they do display the genuine human condition. Regardless of this being written over 200 years ago, human emotions are fundamentally the same, and whether we have servants or not, how we react to misfortune, to good news, and to others, will remain as is through the years… subject to our own personal character of course.
It led me to calling out ‘I know people like this!’ when I read the following. In talking about her sister Marianne’s temper, Elinor thinks:
“Opposition on so tender a subject would only attach her the more to her own opinion.”
Ha! Tell me you don’t know someone like that!
Again with Marianne, and also her mother, Elinor reflects:
“They gave themselves up wholly to their sorrow…”
You know there are people who just get on with it and try to move on when something bad happens, and then there is the aforementioned, who wallow in pity and feel it in every part of their bones, body, and soul, and let ALL who pass their path know about it?
She captured that perfectly.
Even the practical Elinor falls prey to this pity at times, with the humorous thought:
“After sitting with them a few minutes, the Miss Steeles returned to the Park, and Elinor was then at liberty to think and be wretched.”
And there can even be stark differences between two outwardly passionate people, especially where matters of the heart are concerned. Here Elinor is observing Marianne at the shop compared to Mrs Palmer:
“Restless and dissatisfied everywhere, her sister could never obtain her opinion of any article of purchase, however it might equally concern them both: she received no pleasure from anything; was only impatient to be at home again, and could with difficulty govern her vexation at the tediousness of Mrs. Palmer, whose eye was caught by everything pretty, expensive, or new; who was wild to buy all, could determine on none, and dawdled away her time in rapture and indecision.”
Perhaps it was most hilarious (or I found it so as I have a child and know it to be true!) at the following observation early on in the novel:
“On every formal visit a child ought to be of the party, by way of provision for discourse. In the present case it took up 10 minutes to determine whether the boy were most like his father or mother, and in what particular he resembled either, for of course every body differed, and every body was astonished at the opinion of the others.”
As is the case with a Jane Austen novel, you (at least I) find things to be highly fascinated with, at the very least because of the time and era her stories were based in, as well as the way she writes and how she paints certain characters… well this time it was the reoccurrence of a certain word… monstrous.
Monstrous pretty. Monstrous glad. Monstrous lucky. There were so many ‘monstrous’ mentions, and by so many differing characters, I almost went around saying it myself… monstrous!
And then again, the era difference came through strongly in specific moments. Not just with their hierarchies of class or strong dependence on continual income through inheritance, but in the way they dealt with stress, or sickness.
Wine. Now I know that people do de-stress with a glass of red, I am not throwing stones from my glass house, since I do it too. But when you are sick with agony and distress and feel weak with an aching head, and the treatment is, wine?
Hell maybe they had something going there.
This is what Elinor ‘procures’ for her sister upon receiving some devastating news for her. It allows her to finally ‘speak.’
And on another slightly more comical note, when Marianne leaves a room beside herself with sadness, Mrs Jennings laments:
“…how it grieves me to see her! And I declare if she is not gone away without finishing her wine! And the dried cherries too! Lord!”
Excuse me for a moment for being so blunt… but lady, the girl doesn’t give a shit about your cherries. She is heartbroken!
Be prepared, for there are a lot of characters. I am ashamed to say it took me well over a year to start and finish this book, to no fault of the novel, but moving house happened somewhere in between the reading, and every time I read the book in dribs and drabs, I honestly had to turn back to earlier pages and remember who everyone was, and why so many names seemed so alike… from Dashwoods to Steeles to Ferrars’ and Jennings’… not to mention the Sirs, Colonels and Lady’s! Keeping them straight was a task, yet towards the end of the book it was slightly easier to remember a cast you had been acquainted with for a while already.
But while we are at it, can I say, what kind of daft name is Fanny? Why, Austen cast that name perfectly I think 😉
At the end, things wrap themselves up perfectly, as is common in this type of classic literature… but Austen’s clever storytelling definitely has you stressing and guessing ‘how,’ repeatedly. In fact she writes herself into such a corner, that at one point I could see no way out! And then, an escape hole!… and not the garish “wake up and realise it was all a dream” weak attempt to solve everything and bring everyone to some kind of equilibrium. Austen managed to untangle the situations she had set up so brilliantly, doing it so realistically, and using the one main important trait the whole book was about: sensibilities.
And yet it was this thing that slightly irked me. Sure I was content with the ending… but the way it came about, and what was said… no, not really. Sacrifice and settling were themes that prevailed, and in one such situation the matter of ‘duty’ was heavily featured… I was at first quite jarred by this sentiment, but I took a step back and looked at the time this book was set in… and even though I was in complete disagreeance with the choice and how it came about, I was understanding that that is just how it was at the time.
My frustration due to my preference for passion and outward displays continued with the theme of ‘settling’… what? This seemed like a bit of a weak explanation for me, and even though things evolved to something grander and fuller, still this was something that upset me. I could understand the story, the realistic ending, sure, but it was something that did not sit well, even now as I think back. I still like the story, and yet this one thing, maybe more so than the ‘duty’ theme, irritated me to no end. I wondered, just because I disagreed, does that mean it was not right, it was not true? Many questions may arise when reading this book, and nothing more so than the ending will have you questioning: what would you do? What would you be happy with?
This novel in short, is a great character study on why we do the things we do, what drives us to do them, and more specifically, why we do the things that we do when in love. What makes sense for some can be completely alien for another, and yet it is in these differing ways that we learn about each other, we grow, we experience something we have not been privy to before, and we gain an enormous insight into the ‘monstrous’ complicated human condition.
And that is what Jane Austen does so well, and explores methodically with great humour, wit and sensitivity.
I will close on some lovely observations. I loved the insight and attention to detail in the following expression:
“Mrs. Ferrars,” added he, lowering his voice to the tone becoming so important a subject…”
Oh wow. Just magical. Her observation of how people speak and react is another level. She has to be one of the greatest writers of all time. And lastly, this gem:
“But it was too late. Hope had already entered; and feeling all its anxious flutter, she bent over her sister to watch – she hardly knew for what.”
Ahh… Goosebumps. If you haven’t already, please do yourself a favour and read this book… it would be highly un-sensible, not to. 😉
Please let me know your thoughts on Sense and Sensibility in the comments below, I would love to discuss with you. 🙂