Even though I’m a pretty fast reader, reading classics takes time, (especially when one decides to tackle a beast like Anna Karenina). So here begins an occasional series of classics I’ve not only read and enjoyed, but re-read. These works are comfort novels for me; stories I revisit as comfort food.
When I decided to begin this series, the first novel that sprang to mind was Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. Less famous than Pride and Prejudice, I think I prefer it. (Not that I don’t love P&P!). Oddly, I only have one copy of this, unless you count the kindle version. I guess I spent many years borrowing from one library or another.
Sense and Sensibility was Austen’s first published novel. It follows the Dashwood sisters, Elinor, Marianne, and Margaret. At the beginning of the story, their father dies, and their half brother John inherits everything. Thanks to his greedy, selfish, social-climbing wife Fanny, the Dashwood women, which include their mother Mrs. Dashwood, find themselves unwelcome in their own home. John is convinced by his wife, in a scene that is equal parts hilarious and depressing, that his deathbed promise to his father to provide for his sisters and stepmother really just amounts to giving them a Christmas present now and again. So the women now face a future of relative poverty.
They move to a cottage owned by Mrs. Dashwood’s distant relative Sir John, although not before Fanny’s brother, Edward Ferrars, comes to stay at their old home and makes an impression on steady, responsible Elinor. At their new home, Marianne makes an impression on Colonel Brandon, a steady, responsible, honorable man she sees as old and boring. She prefers Willoughby, the dashing nephew and heir of a nearby estate owner.
Despite being romantic (obviously, it’s Jane Austen), the novel focuses on the relationship between the sisters. Elinor is the POV character; our impressions and observations are filtered through her. Both she and Marianne experience heartache and – almost – tragedy, and grow up a lot over the year or so the novel follows, learning not only to understand themselves better, but also to understand each other. Despite challenges, they grow closer and gain a deeper and more relationship as sisters. Of course, they get a happy ending with the guys, too. It IS Austen, after all.
The Sense and Sensibility of the title are, of course, Elinor and Marianne, and Austen examines the advantages and disadvantages of both attitudes. Marianne, dramatic and romantic to the extreme, thinks that nothing could be better than dying tragically of a broken heart. Her actions are modeled on the (then) new Romanticism, valuing emotion and feeling about rationality, and she eventually must learn to temper her wild emotion. But Elinor doesn’t escape growth either. She is quiet, steady, rational and hides her emotions as much as her sister shares them. But this nearly causes her to miss out on love. Thus Elinor must learn to be more demonstrative, to let others in, to share her feelings.
This novel also holds a special place in my heart because it’s the first real introduction I had to Austen’s work, through the 1996 film starring Emma Thompson as Elinor. Although personally I like the early 2000s BBC adaptation for most of the characters (Alan Rickman will always be Colonel Brandon to me), it is still a beautifully and carefully made adaptation, and I’ll always be grateful for the introduction to Austen that it provided.
But ultimately, despite the great plot and the history, Sense and Sensibility is a comfort re-read for me because of all of Austen’s heroines, it is Elinor with whom I most identify. She has helped me understand myself better. As a heroine, she is not as witty as Lizzy or as vibrant as Emma, and the heroes of this book, too, are quiet, even shy. But it’s nice to read about people that aren’t extroverts, or smoldering, fabulously rich gentlemen (I’m looking at you, Darcy). I like that Elinor is strong without being pushy or aggressive; she shows introvert me a quiet strength I feel like I can aspire to.
Film poster from wikipedia page; other image is mine.
2 thoughts on “Classic Re-Reads: Sense and Sensibility”
Oh my. It’s as if I wrote this post. I love this book for all the same reasons and was just contemplating a reread. (Although according to my mother, I’m Marianne. I just WISH to be like Elinor.) 🙂
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I mean, even Marianne wanted to be like Elinor by the end, so you’re in good company! And Marianne has plenty of good qualities; she just has to learn to temper her excesses (as do we all).
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