I realised, when I plucked my copy of Sense and Sensibility off the shelf, that I have only actually read it once, and that must have easily been about eight years ago, when I was still at school. I’ve never read the edition I now own; I bought it for a song from a charity shop in Bromley (which, incidentally, Austen mentions in her novels as it was once a popular spot for people travelling between London and Kent to stop en route and change their horses) and then dumped it on a shelf for several years – a nasty habit I seem to be unable to control! I had retained an impression from my first read that Sense and Sensibility is a less enjoyable novel than the later ones, and I think that’s why I never bothered to read it again. However, I am pleased to say that I haven’t found this to be the case at all on the second time round. Austen’s trademark wit, perception and brilliant characterisation are once again out in full force, and I can’t believe that I had forgotten what a nasty piece of work Lucy Steele is…now there is a little madam!
What has struck me quite powerfully so far is how interesting Elinor is; everyone seems to talk about Marianne and Wickham when Sense and Sensibility is mentioned, but Elinor is by far the most fascinating in my opinion. She is sensible, tactful, kind and gentle, with admirable self control. Normally these goody-two-shoes qualities would have me rolling my eyes to heaven, but the joy of Elinor is that she has a lot more depth to her than this; she is no doormat, and neither is she self righteous. She is highly intelligent, knows her own worth, is fiercely loyal, and doesn’t suffer fools gladly; certainly not a woman to trifle with. I particularly love how quickly she sees through the falseness of others, and how she manages to make it quite clear that she knows their true character, without veering remotely from the accepted drawing room codes of behaviour. Compared to the exuberant, impulsive and rather naïve nature of her mother and younger sisters, Elinor is a bastion of good sense and cool-headedness, with a spine of steel and a razor sharp tongue, when it suits her to use it. Only she suspects that Willoughby and Marianne are not really engaged, and predicts disaster; for a girl of just 19, who has seen and experienced little of the world, her wisdom and powers of judgement are really rather extraordinary. What a relief to read such a heroine after being subjected to Fanny Price for so long!
Something I can’t quite understand though, is why Elinor loves Edward Ferrars. He’s not a particularly well fleshed out hero, and I think this causes Sense and Sensibility to feel a little weak in comparison to the likes of Pride and Prejudice, Emma and Persuasion. Edward doesn’t work for his living, seems to have no particular talents, and is simply floating about, waiting for his spiteful mother to decide to settle his inheritance on him. As a younger man, before he met the Dashwoods, he managed to tie himself into a secret engagement with the shrewd and two faced Lucy Steele, even though he knew he wouldn’t be in a position to marry anyone for years, and that this marriage would not be acceptable to his mother anyway, on whom his future depends. The fact that he could fall in love, even temporarily, with such a false and silly girl doesn’t say much for his intelligence. Then, to make matters worse, even though he is engaged, he proceeds to behave in a manner befitting a single man to Elinor, seemingly without considering the fact that at some point this is going to cause quite substantial distress and difficulties when the truth of his situation is inevitably revealed. Austen tells us that he’s ‘gentlemanlike and pleasing’, and that everyone thinks very highly of him, but there’s not much evidence in the text to demonstrate this to the reader. We never really see or hear much of Edward, and it’s difficult to understand, from what we do hear of him, why on earth a woman like Elinor would find such a foolish and passive man attractive. Austen doesn’t give us any reasons to love him, feel sorry for him, or think him suited to Elinor. Willoughby might be a cad, but at least he has a personality; Edward is a two dimensional drip who moons about bemoaning his state without lifting a finger to do anything about it. He’s no hero I’d wait around to be rescued by, that’s for sure!
My final observation for now is how daring Austen is in raising the issue of illegitimacy and fallen women – I had totally forgotten about Colonel Brandon’s sister in law, and then his ward and her seduction by Willoughby. These rather shocking events might be dealt with in just a few pages, but they cast a shadow over the entire book. Willougby is not just a naughty cad, he is dangerous; he preys on young, impressionable, naive girls, who fall head over heels in love with him and are willing to give their hearts away without him actually concretely promising anything to them. He is a con man of great skill, and without the protection of her close knit family circle, Marianne could have been swept away by him as Miss Williams was. This sense of Marianne having had a lucky escape is really quite sobering. It’s very interesting that Elinor and Marianne are both lied to by the men they love in this novel; there is a real undercurrent of danger for women in the novel when it comes to dealings with the opposite sex. Wealth, status and good sense aren’t enough to make you immune from getting into trouble, as Colonel Brandon’s tale of woe shows, and while men can walk off scott free, the women must bear the brunt of the suffering and shame that result from imprudent affairs. This is quite an overtly feminist message, and certainly more than a little controversial for the period.
There is so much richness in this novel; outside of the main protagonists, I am also thoroughly enjoying the comedy of Mrs Jennings, and the calculating selfishness of the odious Dashwoods. I’m also surprised by Mrs Dashwood Snr, and her misguided parenting. As lovely and loving as she is, she is a terrible judge of character, and very unwise in allowing Marianne and Willougby’s relationship to progress so far without making certain of his intentions. Austen seems to touch on poor parenting in each of her novels, but I had always thought of Mrs Dashwood as being the best of a bad bunch. Now I’m not so sure. At the moment I’m just about two thirds of the way through, and I have lots more to talk about, so there will be two or three more posts to come. I look forward to hearing your thoughts!