Last week I finished Sense and Sensibility. I had read and re-read all of Austen’s major works, but this was the one book that (gasp) I wasn’t sure if I’d actually properly read before.
As always, with Austen, the experience was such fun. Who could resist, for example, this description of Mrs Ferrars’ disinheriting first one son, and then another, and then reinstating one again?
Her family life had of late been exceedingly fluctuating. For many years of her life she had had two sons; but the crime and annihilation of Edward, a few weeks ago, had robbed her of one; the similar annihilation of Robert had left her for a fortnight without any; and now, by the resuscitation of Edward, she had one again.
In spite of his being allowed once more to live, however, he did not feel the continuance of his existence secure, till he had revealed his present engagement; for the publication of that circumstance, he feared might give a sudden turn to his constitution, and carry him off as rapidly as before.
Austen scatters her satiric humour liberally throughout Sense and Sensibility, which is one of the reasons why it’s such a delight to read. But while, to borrow from Elizabeth Bennet, Austen relishes laughing at folly and weakness, she never laughs at what is good.
Sense, in the novel, is exemplified by the oldest Dashwood sister, Elinor, who is the only member of her immediate family to have “coolness of judgment”. The epitome of sensibility is her sister Marianne, who is “eager in everything; her sorrows, her joys, could have no moderation”.
It is not accurate, however, to see the novel as contrast is not between a sister who doesn’t feel and a sister who does. Austen comments of Elinor in the opening of the novel, “her feelings were strong: but she knew how to govern them”. The contrast, then, is between sisters who both possess strong feelings but who do not possess like ability to control them.
And this lack of self-control is a serious failing in Austen’s eyes. It leads Marianne to disregard convention and duty, cause her family months of worry, and in the end nearly kill herself through self-neglect. Elinor, by contrast, keeps her feelings in check for the sake of others, even though, as she admits later, this was very hard to do. Selfishness and Selflessness would be an apt (albeit a less appealing) title.
Despite painting such sharp differences between the sisters, however, Austen is successful in making both Elinor and Marianne likeable characters. Elinor’s wry sense of humour is one of the traits that saves her from appearing “goody-goody”, while Marianne is “generous, amiable, interesting”. We’re complex creatures, and Austen recognises this.
With such a combination of wit and insight, Austen is irresistible, and I was missing out by not reading Sense and Sensibility much sooner than I did.