Sense and Sensibility – Jane Austen

After rereading Pride and Prejudice this year, I decided to start my Jane Austen project: I would finally read all of her novels. I was riding the high of my yearly Austen fix, and I was armed with Charles Jennings’ “A Brief Guide to Jane Austen: The Life and Times of the World’s Favorite Author“. I was ready.

I planned on going chronologically in order of publication, so first on the list was Sense and Sensibility. And boy, it sure seemed like my project would be derailed at the first stop because I found Sense and Sensibility so hard to read.

I’d always wanted to try this novel after Pride and Prejudice, for the shallow reason of its title. It uses the same word pairing format, so I figured it would be written along the same lines. However, it was also the title that kept me from starting it. Don’t the words “sense” and “sensibility” mean the same thing? How can I understand the story if I can’t even understand the title? I’ve since learned the difference, but it was a classic case of judging a book by its cover, I guess.

But I dove in anyway, and it took me an incredibly long time to get through it. The book felt uneven, and nothing seemed to happen for about 2/3 of it. While I was reading it, I tried to keep in mind that this was one of Jane’s first completed works. Charles Jennings tells us that she started it around 1797 but that she reworked it over several years before it was finally published in 1811. But even with these concessions, it’s still a hard book to finish.

There’s too much exposition that tends to get long-winded, and not enough conversation. We get to know the characters and their personalities only through what the author tells us, and not through the characters’ dialogue. This was one of the best things about Pride and Prejudice – that we got to know the people through what they said and thought, rather than what we are simply handed down by the authorial voice.

Another strike against Sense and Sensibility? Reading it right after Pride and Prejudice, and for the first time at that, it is subject to unfavorable comparisons. It’s not fair, but it’s inevitable.

Between Elinor’s sense or rational approach to life, and Marianne’s sensibility or passion and sensitivity,  I found myself responding more to Marianne’s personality. As a character, she seemed more fleshed out and three-dimensional, as opposed to Elinor, who just felt flat to me. And don’t even get me started on Edward Ferrars. I want to find something good about him, but he comes across as a wimp, plain and simple. I realize that it was simply not honorable for the man to break off an engagement, but I can’t help thinking that there had to be another way if he really wanted to. Does this make me a Marianne?

I also could not understand how Elinor was so sure of his feelings towards her, when there were hardly any indications in the book, aside from Elinor herself saying it. There were no incidents that showed this. I finally got what the “show, don’t tell” technique is, because of the glaring lack of it in Sense and Sensibility.

Lucy Steele, Mrs. Jenkins, and Lady Middleton are not nice people in this fictional world, but they are great characters. Lucy Steele is, in fact, one of the most evil women ever. She is the epitome of that kind of treacherous, two-faced villain that only women can be, and I’m sure that we’ve all met at least one Lucy Steele in our life.

Of the two pairings that form the novel’s supposed happy endings, I think Marianne came off as the clear winner. Not because of Col. Brandon’s wealth, but because of his personality. He seems to be the only level-headed one out of the whole cast of characters. Of course, Marianne does not realize this, even after she’s married him, because she seems a bit lukewarm about the whole idea. There’s none of the passion that she felt with Willoughby. But we know that in a couple of years it’s going to hit her right smack in the head how lucky she got.

I had seen the Emma Thompson movie adaptation before reading the book, and I couldn’t get the actors’ faces out of my head while I was reading. Everyone was perfectly cast, and though Emma Thompson elevated Elinor’s character considerably, Hugh Grant could not do anything to make me like Ferrars more. In fact, his whole bumbling persona perfectly matched Ferrars’ general gutlessness. Which is to say, the character in both the book and movie adaptation just could not be saved.

It seems like such a blasphemy to find something to critique about our dear Jane’s work. But I don’t really hate Sense and Sensibility, so that doesn’t count, right? I just don’t like it a lot. Is that okay Jane? I hope it is. I love you!

I haven’t given up on my project, though, so don’t count me out yet. Up next: Mansfield Park. Once more unto the breach!