Making Sense(ibility) of it all

An alien, walking into the average Anglophone bookshop, would be forgiven for thinking that Jane Austen must have been the single greatest writer in the history of literature.  Despite only producing a handful of works, various editions of her novels tend to be scattered across the shelves, dominating the classics section wherever you go.  The fact that our Alien friend probably wouldn’t have made it that far, having been distracted by the gigantic vampire section at the front of the shop is a matter for another time – although, even here, you’re never far away from Saint Jane…

While I quite like Austen’s work, I’m not the biggest of fans myself, and the one novel I’ve had trouble with in the past is Sense and Sensibility, a book I read a couple of times in my youth.  A spate of reviews recently brought it to mind, and (as I was in the middle of my Women Writers Month) I thought I would give it another try.  Did I end up loving it, or was I able to find out what it is about the book that puts me off ?  Patience, patience…
Sense and Sensibility, as many of you will know, is primarily focused on the lovelives of the two eldest Dashwood sisters, Elinor and Marianne.  After the death of their father, they are forced into a move to pastures fresh by the stinginess of their half-brother (and the meanness of his wife…).  The move takes the sober, rational Elinor away from the man her sister believes her to be engaged to, Edward Ferrars; however, for the impetuous, passionate Marianne, the change of scenery brings with it two very different suitors.  Will the two sisters find love and happiness at the end of the novel?
Yep, stupid question.  A better question, of course, is who the lucky men will be, and how it will all pan out; a relatively happy ending is never in doubt.  Of course, there are many twists and turns before we find the answer, and we have ample opportunity to observe the two girls and marvel at their opposing attitudes to life.  Elinor’s clear-headed, over-cautious approach clashes at all points with Marianne’s uncompromising quest for the perfect romance…
…and this is exactly what Austen is aiming to do, as the sisters are more than just characters.  They are actually embodiments of two philosophical approaches, with Elinor representing the Enlightenment and Rationalism, while Marianne is the epitome of Romanticism.  The reader is able to compare and choose between two modes of life, the scientific and the natural, the cool and the passionate, the reserved and the uninhibited.  At first, it appears that the choice is an easy one, as much as we would all enjoy running barefoot up and down hills all summer; however, the longer the novel goes on, the more it becomes apparent that both extremes have their disadvantages.
Is it a good book?  Of course, but that is pretty much a given, and not the question I’m trying to answer for myself here.  Do I like it?  Yes, but…  There is a lot to like about Sense and Sensibility, not least the metaphorical rope Austen gives her characters, allowing them to commit social suicide at their leisure, but I have a few reservations which affected my enjoyment of the book.
The first is that unlike Pride and Prejudice and Emma, Sense and Sensibility delivers you into the hand (and mind) of a central character it is very difficult to feel for.  I get the impression that Austen began the book thinking that Elinor was the natural heroine, the sister most people would sympathise with, but the longer the novel goes on, the less clear this impression becomes.  It is also very hard at times to distinguish between what Elinor thinks and what the impersonal narrator is saying.  Occasionally, some very nasty things are said, and people are most cruelly depicted, but it is difficult to tell whose opinion this is…
Another problem is the resolution of the story and the matrimonial choices made.  The last part of the novel seemed rather rushed and contrived, and while Austen certainly justifies her decisions, I can’t say I agree with them (I would have chosen different partners for both Elinor and Marianne!).  Certainly, Marianne’s recovery and eventual surrender are very weak to the modern eye.
Finally, Sense and Sensibility, unlike other Austen novels I’ve read, seemed horribly claustrophobic.  I felt trapped inside Elinor’s point-of-view (not one I particularly enjoyed) while everything of importance was happening elsewhere.  Each time the sisters announced that they were to up sticks and visit another part of England, I rejoiced, grateful for the change of pace that would ensue.
I know that this restricted female life was the reality for the time, and certainly not restricted to this book; however, it’s something that I noticed much more here than in the other Austen novels I’ve read in recent years.  I am (as someone recently mentioned…) more in my comfort zone in the later Victorian era, and one reason for that is the extended palette the writers use.  After wandering through the vast Dickensian and Trollopian expanses of London, being stuck sewing in a cramped cottage seems a little tame by comparison…
Don’t let me put you off reading Sense and Sensibility: it’s an excellent novel, and this post has been more about helping myself to understand my feelings towards it than about coming to any objective conclusion as to the worth of the book.  Nevertheless, I fully expect outraged Janeites to disagree – comments and abuse in the usual place, please 😉
Sadly though, that’s all I’ve got time for today.  I’ve just had a call from the local bookshop – apparently, there’s a little green man, clutching a copy of Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, and he does not look happy.  Duty calls…
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9 thoughts on “Making Sense(ibility) of it all

  1. A great post on a subject that to me is similar to a,medical procedure without the appropriate drugs, have tried this & the others, several times & just don't get them, as you say there are other writers of that period that you don't have issues with & I'm in agreement there. As to the Janeites, let them come, they'd have to get past the Dickensians laying siege at the moment.

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  2. No outrage from this reader. While I do love Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility is my least favorite of her books, by a far margin.

    It's so nice to see someone agree with me! It's a nice enough book, but my issues with the book are identical to yours. I really had a difficult time caring about Elinor. It's been years since I read it, but I remember her coming off as annoying and boring, if that is even possible. With all of Austen's heroines generally marrying for love, I just don't buy that Marianne did.

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  3. Its werid because Ive read three of Austens novels but only the lesser known three Northanger Abbey, Mansfield Park and Persusion (I know thats not spelt right)

    I will have to make sure I read the others as although you know its all going to end happily I do quite enjoy the journey there, S&S is the one I know the least about.

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  4. Whilst I still think Sense and Sensibility is wonderful, I do know what you mean and I would put a lot of the things you've written down to the fact that this was (I believe) Austen's first novel, so she wasn't necessarily fully into her writing groove yet. And as for the cramped setting, I think that's pretty representative of what women's place in society was at the time, so Austen was basically just writing about how she saw the world. Which doesn't mean you have to like it, obviously! Just that, we can all appreciate and go damn it was hard/boring/claustrophobic to be a woman in 19th century England.

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  5. Kristi – It's good that I'm finding some common ground here 🙂

    And, no I don't buy Marianne's marriage at all 😉

    Jessica – I'd like to reread those first two at some point – 'Persuasion' is another I wasn't overly keen on (as my review shows!).

    Laura – It was her first published novel, but I think some of her others were at least started earlier in life. I can see traces of an Ur-P&P at times – Willoughby-Wickham…

    I agree with what you're saying about the tedium of female life at the time, but S&S just takes it to extremes. I think Austen's other books confined that to the characters and spared the reader 😉

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  6. Austen was a totally brilliant satirist, and that is what she does in her novels. She's hilarious and all kinds of clever in sending up social conventions and the other novels of her day. You should read her letters. She had a wicked sense of humour! Next time you read her, try reading between the lines, because that's where the real stories are.

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  7. I love Austen at her best – I just don't think S&S is her at her best. I'm not sure she knew exactly where she was going with this one at times.

    As for reading her letters, aren't there enough letters in her fiction already? 😉

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