Sense and Sensibility

by Jane Austen

Cover image

Publisher: Penguin
Copyright: 1811
Printing: 1983
ISBN: 0-14-010649-9
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 222

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I read this book as part of The Complete Novels of Jane Austen omnibus. The sidebar information is for that edition.

I, like just about everyone educated in English, previously read a Jane Austen novel (Pride and Prejudice in my case and I suspect many cases) as assigned reading in school. I found it surprisingly enjoyable and always intended to go back and read more, but then never made the time to do it until now. It won't take me as long to get to the next one. Despite not being quite at the level of Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility is a delightful book.

Elinor is the eldest of three daughters. She opens the book living at her family estate with her mother, an estate which has just been inherited by her half-brother. The means by which the estate fell into the hands of that half-brother are somewhat elaborate and an early introduction to the careful attention to money, property, and inheritance that's typical of Austen. Suffice it to say that he is rather excessively focused on wealth, and his wife is even worse. In short order, the Dashwood girls and their mother are displaced, with very little of the family money, but luckily find a place in a cottage (well, an Austen sort of cottage, which apparently has at least four bedrooms and multiple sitting rooms) on the property of Sir John Middleton. It's there that much of the book takes place.

The title of the book, and most of its tone, derive from the contrast between Elinor's character and that of her mother and younger sister. Elinor is the sense of the book: a reasonable, careful, cautious person who pays attention to things like living within her means. She is being slowly courted by Edward Ferrars, but that situation is tricky because she has little money and Edward's mother is determined that he marry someone of a higher station. Her sister Marianne and her mother are the opposite: given to flights of emotion, actively encouraging and intensifying anything they feel until it takes over their lives, and prone to deciding on very little evidence how matters must be and then reading into all subsequent events support for their feelings. (The youngest sister is too young for romance, gets about five lines in the entire book, and for the most part isn't present.) Marianne will soon fall desperately in love, various complications will arise in part due to unwillingness to heed Elinor's reasonable advice, Elinor's romantic situation will become unbearably complicated, and by the end there will be hidden pasts, dramatic love, and drama galore.

This book was written in 1811, and while that's not far enough back to pose any significant challenges to reading, it is far enough back that the style feels very strange to the modern reader. Austen is, for her time, a fairly concise author, but that's not saying much. If one has previously been reading modern fiction, the style feels extremely elliptical at the start. An example:

Mrs. Jennings was a widow, with an ample jointure. She had only two daughters, both of whom she had lived to see respectably married, and she had now therefore nothing to do but to marry all the rest of the world. In the promotion of this object she was zealously active, as far as her ability reached; and missed no opportunity of projecting weddings among all the young people of her acquaintance. She was remarkably quick in the discovery of attachments, and had enjoyed the advantage of raising the blushes and the vanity of many a young lady by insinuations of her power over such a young man; and this kind of discermnent enabled her soon after her arrival at Barton decisively to proclaim that Colonel Brandon was very much in love with Marianne Dashwood.

This is typical for the book, even in dialogue. Reading that, you may notice that some of the wording and punctuation feels just a little odd. Austen uses some prepostions and some word structure differently than feels "natural" today. But you may also notice that it has a certain headlong flow and a habit of sneakly dropping revelations into the middle of paragraphs. I found that, once I got past the first few pages, I could barely put it down.

The other delightful thing about Austen is that the narrator is wonderfully snarky. The narrator always seems to be taking the side of whoever she's describing, shifting viewpoints in third-person omniscient and even changing styles of expression to suit the focus character, putting him or her apparently in the best light. But underneath there are often little digs, little twists, little moments of irony where you can see that the intended meaning is the opposite of the apparent description. In this book, that's often in the form of describing some trait in a way that shows that the person carries it to stunning extremes. It's hard to overstate how delightful this is. Sense and Sensibility isn't funny, in the traditional sense, but I was laughing out-loud repeatedly while reading it.

One needs this, since apart from Elinor and the narrator (who is not a named character, but who is so present in the writing that I have to consider her a character), and the rare sensible supporting character like Colonel Brandon, one wants to take every character in this book and shake them. The rest of Elinor's family, in particular, shouldn't be let outside without a minder. This book is full of people being hopelessly optimistic, willfully blind, uncommunicative, overly dramatic (teenage girls on LiveJournal have nothing on Marianne), or just completely and utterly impractical. The reader can't help but be entirely on Elinor's side because she's nearly the only person in the book with a lick of sense.

This could be quite frustrating, but thankfully Elinor is also so good-hearted that it can't help but rub off on the reader, and the narrator is so wonderfully nasty to some of the characters that the story constantly confirms one's emotional reactions. There's real emotional pain and even danger, but one always has the feeling that Elinor will both be proven right and find some way to make it through.

One of the things I find remarkable about Austen is how full and interesting stories she can tell about people who basically do nothing. Essentially everyone in this story apart from some incidental servants and other lawn ornaments is leisure rich. No one seems to have a job, or at least not the sort of job that requires one to work regularly, apart from the clergy or military (and even there, all actual work is off-camera). People are supported by their property and the income they derive from interest. And on that topic, both Austen and her characters are both precise and extremely specific. One very quickly works out the interest rate one should expect on money (5% per year) because people convert between fortunes and annual incomes as routinely as I'd discuss the weather or sports. The sole goal of all men appears to be to secure a good inheritance that will provide a reasonable income for their family. The sole goal of all women appears to be to marry into reasonable money, unless they already have some of their own.

This all sounds very mercenary, but it provides Austen with some interesting and effective structural support. We're used to the standard romance pattern of conflict between emotion and family desires, or perhaps social standing, but in Austen much of the conflict is between romance and money, and that conflict is sharper and often easier to understand. The opinions of one's family matter because they're family, but they matter even more because one can be disinherited, or not get gifts of fortune from one's rich relatives, and this can be a show-stopper for a marriage. Dramatic romance thrives on adversity, and this gives Austen lots of adversity to work with.

As 19th century novelists go, Austen's books are relatively short, but only relatively. This one may look brief from the sidebar page count of just over 220 pages, but that's in an omnibus edition with miniscule font. In a modern mass market paperback with a reasonable font, I suspect this would come to 400 pages of rather verbose phrasing. But Sense and Sensibility kept me way up my intended bedtime twice because I couldn't stop reading. It may feel a bit padded at first, but once I got the flow, rooting for Elinor sucked me right in.

The lack of sympathetic characters apart from Elinor and the degree to which many problems in this book could have been bypassed if the characters didn't have turnips for brains causes Sense and Sensibility to fall short of the best books that I've read. If you're somehow new to Austen entirely, or don't remember her from high school, I'd start with Pride and Prejudice instead. But Sense and Sensibility is still worth reading, and you can't beat the price. It's both a classic and out of copyright, so there are numerous print editions, or you can download it in various electronic formats for free from your favorite purveyor of out-of-copyright literature.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2010-03-31

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