2011 is the 200th anniversary of the publication of Jane Austen’s first novel, Sense & Sensibility. I’ve read it 3 or 4 times over the years but it’s been a while so I was pleased to have the anniversary to prompt yet another reread. Sense & Sensibility is probably my second favourite Austen after Persuasion. I love my old 1980’s Penguin paperback with the portrait of the Linley Larks by Gainsborough on the cover. Elizabeth (who married Richard Brinsley Sheridan) & her sister Mary were famous singers & actresses in the late 18th century. This is how I always imagined Elinor & Marianne. Even after the 1990’s movie, I still see them this way although I found I had the music from the movie in my head as well. One of the loveliest movie soundtracks ever, I think.
It’s hard to review such a famous novel. The story is that of two sisters, Elinor & Marianne Dashwood. Left very badly-off after their father’s death, Elinor & Marianne, with their mother & younger sister, Margaret, must leave Norland, the family estate & eventually rent a cottage in Devonshire, part of the estate of Mrs Dashwood’s relation, Sir John Middleton. Elinor, calm & prudent, has met her sister-in-law’s brother, Edward Ferrars, at Norland & they have formed an unspoken attachment. Marianne is all sensibility, all romance & when she meets the dashing John Willoughby, she is ready to fall passionately in love.
Sir John Middleton is a hospitable man with a very boring wife & a vulgar, garrulous but kind-hearted mother-in-law, Mrs Jennings. Sir John’s friend, Colonel Brandon, is immediately attracted to Marianne but she dismisses him as a virtual invalid. He’s in his 30s & wears a flannel waistcoat, his life is practically over. Willoughby is young, handsome, drives a curricle & is just as passionate about Shakespeare’s sonnets & dancing as Marianne could desire. Their absorption in each other makes them a source of gossip to Sir John & Mrs Jennings & concerns Elinor, who hopes they are engaged but has no definite information from either of the lovers.
Elinor is also hoping to hear from Edward but knows that his mother & snobbish sister, Fanny, would not welcome the match. Elinor’s hopes are dashed when she learns from Lucy Steele, a young relation of Mrs Jennings’s that she has been engaged to Edward herself for four years. When Willoughby suddenly leaves Barton without explanation & is soon after heard of courting a young heiress, it seems that both Elinor & Marianne will never have their heart’s desire.
A brief plot summary can never give the flavour of Austen’s witty, romantic writing. Elinor & Marianne are loving sisters but they are contrasted in their responses to every situation. Elinor is the sensible, polite, courteous one who does all the work of keeping up their social relationships with the Middletons, the Steeles, their own half-brother, John & his horrible wife, Fanny, while Marianne is rude to everyone & totally self-absorbed. Elinor’s situation regarding Edward is just as hopeless as Marianne’s but while Marianne indulges her misery, forgetting to sleep or eat & ruining her health in the process, Elinor keeps up appearances while keeping Lucy’s secret from everyone. The scene where Elinor finally admits to Marianne her heartbreak is very moving, as much for the fact that Marianne finally begins to see how selfish her own behaviour has been, as for Elinor’s emotional declaration of love & misery.
The famous opening chapters when John & Fanny Dashwood discuss how much help they can give his stepmother & half-sisters (ranging from £3000 to an occasional chicken or some vegetables) sums this mercenary, selfish couple up immediately. The minor characters are also wonderful. I love Mrs Jennings. She may be vulgar & irritating but she has a kind heart. Trying to cheer Marianne up with a glass of the best Constantia wine is one of my favourite moments in the book. Mrs Jennings’s pretty, flibbertigibbet daughter, Charlotte & her sarcastic, bored husband, Mr Palmer (I must admit I always see them now as Imelda Staunton & Hugh Laurie). Edward’s brother, Robert, a fop who enthuses about living in a cottage of palatial proportions & spends hours choosing a toothpick case. Sly, knowing Lucy Steele, engaged to a man she knows prefers another woman but enjoying the fact that she can torture Elinor while having sworn her to secrecy.
If I started quoting lines & passages, I’d never stop, so I won’t start. If you haven’t read Sense & Sensibility, you must. It’s an astonishing first novel, although we know that Jane Austen had written a lot of juvenilia & Sense & Sensibility was revised in 1811 from an earlier epistolary novel called Elinor & Marianne. I plan to reread all Jane Austen’s over the next few years as the anniversaries of their publication come round. It will a delight & I’m looking forward to it.
It’s taken me over a week to write this review as I’ve been preoccupied with two new additions to my household. If I can get some good photos, I’ll introduce them to you over the weekend.