Friday, October 24, 2008

The Complete (and Unabridged) Jane Austen: Sense and Sensibility

“’At my time of life opinions are tolerably fixed. It is not likely that I should now see or hear anything to change them.’”

In her first published novel, Jane Austen presents us with two very different sisters who are treading very different paths towards love and marriage. One is guided by her sense and propriety, the other by her emotions. So which path leads to happiness? As always, the answer lies somewhere in the middle, and in order to find it, the sisters discover that some of their fast-held opinions and ideas must be traded in for truth.

The Plot:

Elinor and Marianne Dashwood are the two eldest daughters of Mr. Dashwood by his second wife. Upon their father's death, the family estate passes to their elder half-brother John, and the girls, along with their mother and their younger sister Margaret, are left in reduced circumstances until a distant relative offers them a small cottage in Devonshire. Though Elinor is devastated to leave behind her budding relationship with her sister-in-law's brother, Edward Ferras, she soon takes charge of the situation and handles the move with grace.

The Dashwoods soon find themselves almost constantly in the company of their cousin, Sir John Middleton, his wife and children, his mother-in-law, Mrs. Jennings, and his longtime friend Col. Brandon. Passionate Marianne is rather bored with the company until the arrival of a new neighbor, John Willoughby. As Elinor quietly hopes for a reunion with Edward, Marianne and Willoughby grow closer and closer and family and neighbors begin to suspect an engagement. Then, two startling revelations come to light, threatening to separate the Dashwood girls from the ones they love. As the novel reaches its climax, true natures are revealed and happiness is found for both of the sisters in very unexpected ways.

My Review (Caution-Spoilers):

Sense and Sensibility holds a very special place in my heart because it was the first Austen novel that I read. It is probably the most subtle of Austen's works, and many readers often feel that the ending is somewhat unsatisfactory. I am always seeing comments by readers who doubt whether Marianne was ever able to really love Col. Brandon after having so passionately loved Willoughby. Basically, they want to know "Did Marianne settle?". This is a rather interesting question, because if Marianne did "settle" for Col. Brandon, she would be the only Austen heroine who didn't get the man that she really wanted and/or needed. Fortunately, the novel does answer this question, and with a little digging, we can find a satisfactory ending.

First, we must look at what was happening in the world that influenced Austen's entire theme for this book. At the meeting of the 18th and 19th centuries, two intellectual movements were beginning to war. On the one hand there were the remnants of the Age of Enlightenment that had been the main intellectual movement of the 18th century and had maintained that reason was the primary source of authority. Then, in the late 18th century, a new movement began that would try to counteract the "Enlightenment" period by stressing strong emotion and nature: Romanticism. Though it would not really gain steam until the Industrial Revolution, Romanticism was already having a profound effect on the culture in Western Europe, as seen especially in the works of Lord Byron. Austen uses the Dashwood sisters as embodiments of these two intellectual thoughts with Elinor representing "reason" and Marianne representing "romanticism", and asks the question "Which movement is right?". Austen's answer is that neither thought is entirely connected to reality.

Let's take "reason" (Elinor) as a first example. Though this is certainly the thought that Austen seems to lean towards, it is not perfect and neither is Elinor. Elinor is very practical and kind and is always placing the needs of others above her own. That is one of the main reasons that she strives so fervently to hide her own feelings, especially when she thinks that her showing them might hurt someone else. This presents a problem in two areas. The first is in her relationship with Edward. Edward never reveals his previous engagement to Elinor because he does not think that she cares for him like he does her. "I was simple enough to think, that because my faith was plighted to another, there could be no danger in my being with you; and that the consciousness of my engagement was to keep my heart as safe and sacred as my honour. I felt that I admired you, but I told myself it was only friendship; and till I began to make comparisons between yourself and Lucy, I did not know how far I was got. After that, I suppose, I was wrong in remaining so much in Sussex; and the arguments with which I reconciled myself to the expediency of it were no better than these:- The danger is my own; I am doing no injury to anybody but myself." If Elinor had only shown a little of her feeling towards Edward, he might have told her of his engagement (or at least distanced himself from her) and thereby saved her the heartache of dealing with Lucy Steele directly. The other area where Elinor's lack of openness causes a problem is with Marianne. Marianne will not open up to Elinor about her relationship with Willoughby because Elinor would not be open with her. "You have no confidence in me, Marianne." "Nay, Elinor this reproach from you- you who have confidence in no one!" "Me!" returned Elinor, in some confusion; "indeed, Marianne, I have nothing to tell." "Nor I," answered Marianne with energy; "our situations then are alike. We have neither of us any thing to tell; you, because you communicate, and I, because I conceal nothing." So, though Elinor's good reason is certainly an asset, her not showing emotion causes her much heartache.

Marianne, of course, is the complete opposite of Elinor. She lets her feelings be known, even to the point of impropriety at times. She also "...requires so much..." of the man that she will love. "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. . . ." Her outlook on life is a pure product of the Romanticism movement, and she does not see love and happiness in any other form than overwhelming passion. And that is what she finds in Willoughby, or so she thought. But here again we have the one thing that separates the Austen heroes from the Austen villains: CHARACTER. Willoughby is dashing and passionate, but he is also a complete cad who trades life with Marianne for money. Col. Brandon is not really a romantic character (no matter what the films try to make him), but he is a man of sound principle who loves Marianne deeply. Basically, Willoughby is an illusion while Col. Brandon is solid truth. Through her heartache, Marianne learns that happiness is not always found in passion, but most often in quiet devotion. "It has not made him happy. His circumstances are now unembarrassed--he suffers from no evil of that kind; and he thinks only that he has married a woman of a less amiable temper than yourself. But does it follow that had he married you, he would have been happy?--The inconveniences would have been different." As Elinor matured and learned to open herself to others, so Marianne matured and learned to recognize what true love is and what it isn't.

"Marianne Dashwood was born to an extraordinary fate. She was born to discover the falsehood of her own opinions, and to counteract by her conduct her most favorite maxims. She was born to overcome an affection formed so late in life as at seventeen, and with no sentiment superior to strong esteem and lively friendship, voluntarily to give her hand to another--and that other, a man who had suffered no less than herself under the event of a former attachment, whom, two years before, she had considered too old to be married, and who still sought the constitutional safeguard of a flannel waistcoat!"
In the end, we can see that Marianne didn't settle for second best, just as Elizabeth Bennett didn't "settle" for Mr. Darcy just because Mr. Whickham had more pleasing manners. In all of her novels, Jane Austen stresses the importance of character when judging a person, not their rank, wealth or manners. And we all know that when it comes to character, Col. Brandon has it in spades!

The Movie:

There are 2 older versions of Sense and Sensibility, one done in 1971 and one done in 1981. I haven't seen either of these adaptations, so I have no opinion to give.

Then we have the absolutely wonderful 1995 version starring Emma Thompson, Kate Winslet, Greg Wise, Hugh Grant and the great Alan Rickman. Though there are a few problems with this adaptation (mainly Thompson's age when playing Elinor), it is still one of the best Austen adaptations out there. A definite must see!!

And then we have the recent Masterpiece adaptation starring Hattie Morihan and Charity Wakefield. Though it doesn't quite knock the '95 version off the top, it is still a very good adaptation (even if Andrew Davies did steal a few things from Thompson's version). See my review here.

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