Review: Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

Welcome to the first review of 2014! And what better way to set a tone for the year than with another dip into the work of Jane Austen? While Pride and Prejudice undoubtedly remains my favourite of her works, there are certainly a couple of worthy rivals. Sense and Sensibility is among them. My first encounter with the book was some years ago when, as a teenager, I was devouring every classic in sight. While I have returned to Pride and Prejudice a number of times across the years, Sense and Sensibility has not received the same attention. Following my first reading of Mansfield Park, towards the end of last year, I decided that it was time to give Sense and Sensibility another perusal with a view to reviewing it for The Book Habit. I did not expect, however, to find that my reading of the novel would be so drastically different on this second time around.

“Encouraged by this to a further examination of his opinions, she proceeded to question him on the subject of books; her favourite authors were brought forward and dwelt upon with so rapturous a delight, that any young man of five-and-twenty must have been insensible indeed, not to become an immediate convert to the excellence of such works, however disregarded before. Their taste was strikingly alike. The same books, the same passages were idolised by each – or, if any difference appeared, any objection arose, it lasted no longer until the force of her arguments and the brightness of her eyes could be displayed. He acquiesced in all her decisions, caught all her enthusiasm, and long before his visit concluded, they conversed with the familiarity of a long-established acquaintance.”

Sense and Sensibility was the first of Jane Austen’s published works, appearing to the public in 1811. Originally titled Elinor and Marianne, the novel follows the story of these two Dashwood sisters. Moved to a small country cottage following their brother’s inheritance of the family’s large estate, Elinor and Marianne find themselves mixing in new society. Through the warm reception of their mother’s cousin, Sir John Willoughby, the girls are exhibited before a variety of wealthy and connected individuals, including the serious and respectful Colonel Brandon. Despite a substantial gap between Marianne’s 16 years and the Colonel’s 35, Brandon forms an unrequited attachment to Marianne. He is, however, rivalled in this affection by the philandering cad, John Willoughby. Willougby is drawn to Marianne’s charm, romanticism, and the extremity of her emotions – an attachment equalled by Marianne’s attraction to Willoughby’s looks and cultural sensibilities. As the battle for Marianne’s affections is played out, the sensible and selfless Elinor finds herself embroiled in her own affairs of the heart. After developing an attachment to the kindly soon-to-be parson, Edward Ferrars, Elinor finds her convictions and priorities challenged. Edward’s early (and originally unacknowledged) engagement to a Miss Lucy Steele stands as an obstacle in the path of Elinor’s happiness – Edward’s own sense of responsibility leads him to prioritise his promise to Lucy Steele, despite any real affection for her. As the novel develops and progresses, both Elinor and Marianne find themselves at the centre of potentially devastating heartbreak.

The plot of Sense and Sensibility reads much like Austen’s later novels. Those familiar with her works will be informed to expect many of the major developments and altercations that occur. The novel remains, however, an excellent example of Austen at her best. Unlike Northanger Abbey and Mansfield Park, Sense and Sensibility moves with a pace reminiscent of Pride and Prejudice. It holds interest without effort, not least through Austen’s fantastically vivacious characters. Elinor and Marianne are, in most respects, antithetical. Their outlooks, priorities, and expression are key aspects of their inherent difference, and the juxtaposition of two such contrary characters serves as an effective narrative device. Allowing the reader to compare the manner in which these two personalities execute their priorities and pursue their futures, Austen utilises the difference between Elinor and Marianne to provide a fundamental insight into the consequences of actions and outlook. Marianne’s highly emotive expressions provide for particularly engaging passages:

“Many were the tears shed by them in their last adieus to a place so much beloved. ‘Dear, dear Norland!’ said Marianne, as she wandered alone before the house, on the last evening of their being there; ‘when shall I cease to regret you! – when learn to feel a home elsewhere! Oh! happy house, could you know what I suffer in now viewing you from this spot, from whence perhaps I may view you no more! – And you, ye well-known trees! – but you will continue the same. – No leaf will decay because we are removed, nor any branch become motionless although we can observe you no longer! – No; you will continue the same; unconscious of the pleasure or the regret you occasion, and insensible of any change in those who walk under your shade! – But who will remain to enjoy you?'”

As ever, however, it is Austen’s ability to tap into human emotions and experiences that gives Sense and Sensibility its power. Her attention to her characters, the necessity of ascribing them multifaceted and complex motivations, lies central to her skill as an author. She is, fundamentally, an observer of human nature. And her novels are steeped in the whys and whats of the human experience:

“Elinor made no answer. Her thoughts were silently fixed on the irreparable injury which too early an independence and its consequent habits of idleness, dissipation, and luxury, had made in the mind, the character, the happiness, of a man who, to every advantage of person and talents, united a disposition naturally open and honest, and a feeling, affectionate temper. The world had made him extravagant and vain – Extravagance and vanity had made him cold-hearted and selfish. Vanity, while seeking its own guilty triumph at the expense of another, had involved him in a real attachment, which extravagance or at least its offspring, necessity, had required to be sacrificed. Each faulty propensity in leading him to evil, had led him likewise to punishment.” 

Sense and Sensibility is undoubtedly one of Jane Austen’s best works. As with Pride and Prejudice, the novel is an exemplification of Austen’s skill – the pace of plotting, the complex characterisations, and the engaging narrative are all expert in their execution. Sense and Sensibility reminds us of the reasons for Austen’s continuing relevance. Despite their settings, her works offer a universality in their perception of fundamental human emotions and responses. It is, I believe, this fact that most contributes to Austen’s success and the brilliance of Sense and Sensibility.

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