Sense and Sensibility: First Impressions

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!

40 comments

  1. Rachel – you really are very provoking….now I shall have to get me a copy of Sense and Sensibility so I can come up to speed with the allusions in Palladian – and of course enjoy some Austen. I haven’t read any since schooldays and that was so long ago it is lost in the mists of time!! I am now struggling to remember what we did read – Emma and Pride and Prejudice me thinks…sigh that tower beside the bed got just that bit bigger….

  2. I ADORE this novel. I can’t wait to reread it eventually.😀

    I think Edward Ferrars is an excellent hero. He’s so quiet and honorable (even in the fact that he would marry Lucy rather than break that ill-placed vow from his youth). I think the quietness of him is exactly the right match for Elinor. There is so much we don’t “see” in him, because he doesn’t get much coverage, because Elinor is herself so quiet in her feelings of him, so passive in her own depiction of him. A lot of who he is lies under the surface of her perspective, I think.

    My feeling on Edward is that he didn’t intend to fall for Elinor, and then he didn’t know what to do about it. It sort of happened before he’d thought it over. I do think he’s passive, but I think that’s exactly right for Elinor.

    I agree with you that Elinor is a fascinating character. I liked her story equally to Marianne’s — perhaps even more.

    1. Jillian, I’m intrigued by your comments! I can’t say I adore S&S – it’s entertaining and has some wonderful characters, by I do feel let down by the lack of a strong hero. I hadn’t thought about Edward in terms of being portrayed as passive because we only really see him through Elinor’s eyes, and she’s not one to sensationalise. I’ll bear that in mind as I finish reading!

      I can’t agree with you on Edward’s behaviour towards Elinor being excusable though – knowing he was tied to someone else, he should have controlled himself more. Especially considering the social context, such particular attentions could only mean one thing, and he led her on disgracefully.

      I like Elinor much more than Marianne. Marianne needs a good sharp slap and a dose of reality!!

  3. Oh, Rachel, you make me want to pull Sense and Sensibility off of the shelf and give it a whirl.

    That looks like a beautiful edition – how lucky to have found it so well priced in a shop and then found it again on your shelf. Enjoy.

    1. Well I hope you’ve done just that, Penny! I’d love to hear your thoughts!!

      Oh that’s not my edition, sadly…I wish it were! I have a nice old edition but it’s not as aesthetically pleasing!

  4. I am very glad to find I don’t have to fall out with you over this one. In fact I totally agree with all you say here. S&S is my second least favourite JA novel (after Northanger Abbey) but as you say it has many redeeming features. Did you know it has been suggested that Willoughby actually did seduce Marianne? Not impossible I think. Look forward to more of your thoughts.

    1. Phew, I’m glad we agree this time, Harriet!! S&S is interesting – I like it a lot and the characters are largely wonderful, but the lack of a central hero and the rather melodramatic nature of Marianne’s disappointment is grating and does make it a weaker novel on the whole than the later, richer ones. I didn’t know that, no…I’m not sure what I think about that – he would certainly have had the opportunity to, but would Marianne have been so silly?!

  5. : ) I loved your review of Sense and Sensibility – funnily enough it has made me want to re-read all the Austens to see what I think of them now. My favourite – years ago – and which I read a few times – is Pride and Prejudice and my least favourite was probably Mansfield Park. Although Emma irritated me as a character almost as much as Fanny Price.

    1. Thanks Ali, glad you enjoyed it! I hope you’ll get rereading – I’m having a brilliant time rereading them all and I’m already looking forward to reading the next one on the pile – haven’t decided exactly which yet. I think I really should reread them all every year! (Though maybe not Mansfield Park, as that just makes me cross!!) Emma, irritating?! Never!! I LOVE her. She reminds me of me!😉

  6. I completely agree with you on finding Edward kind of a letdown! I have watched the Emma Thompson film version of this book so many times that in my mind Edward = Hugh Grant, who I find really charming in that role. I assumed that that was exactly how Austen had written Edward as well, but when I re-read S&S last year, I was surprised to find him so cold and austere. I actually wound up finding Austen’s portrayal of Willoughby to be far more sympathetic than I had remembered (especially in comparison to the film), and I think he winds up being more fleshed-out than Edward!

    1. Yes, I only really remember the film version rather than the actual story, as I read it so long ago, and I had the impression from Hugh Grant’s portrayal that Edward was a lot more dashing and worthy than Austen has written him on the page. He is so flat; everyone says very nice things about him, but when he is given the opportunity to talk, he never says anything particularly interesting, and his behaviour is everything opposite of the praise he generally receives. It’s most odd. As you say, Austen does spend a lot more time on fleshing out Willoughby, and I can’t quite make up my mind yet as to what she was trying to do with her male characters. Colonel Brandon is very well done, and so is Willougby, but the character we should surely want to love is Edward, as Elinor is presented as the heroine, and we expect someone deserving of her. And yet she ends up with an idiot who everyone tells us we should like but no concrete evidence is given as to why. Very strange indeed!

  7. Willoughby is a brilliantly multi-faceted character of Austen’s. You’re absolutely spot on with the observation that he poses a true threat to the women he seduces. He ruins their lives both socially and economically. Often times I find myself internally chastising fictional women who will eventually fall. I want to scream at them to stay away from the cad who will prove to be their downfall. But with Willoughby I absolutely see how women become so easily enamoured with him. I think the reader generally gets swept up along with Marianne (or maybe that’s just me?). Even at his last appearance in the novel Elinor, whose quick mind easily ascertains another’s character, can’t help but feel sorry for him despite all his wrong doing. Every time I read the novel or watch the adaptation, there’s this small part of my heart that aches, that wishes Willoughby would have got his act together!

    1. He really is, isn’t he Diana? I’m almost finished and I’ve just read the bit where Willoughby comes to see Elinor at the end – he’s not as bad as all that and you can see that really, underneath it all, he has a good heart and a desire to do well, but he has been led astray by too much money and too little guidance from a too young age. He is a womaniser and a cad but that doesn’t make him a truly bad person, and I do like how Austen gives him that depth and allows the reader to feel sympathy for him by the end. After all, he’ll be stuck in a loveless marriage for the rest of his life – I think he got his punishment! I wish he could have got his act together too…though Colonel Brandon is a pretty fine second and I certainly wouldn’t say no!!

      1. Exactly. I always feel a bit torn when I finish Sense and Sensibility. One part of me is thrilled that Marianne has found a calming influence in the kind Colonel Brandon. I wouldn’t say no to him either! But then there’s a part of me that yearns for Willoughby’s energetic charisma. Funnily enough, I don’t feel this way when I reach the end of any other Austen novel.

  8. I struggle with Austen as you may have heard Rachel but I loved how you have said “Lucy Steele is…now there is a little madam!” and also “how daring Austen is in raising the issue of illegitimacy and fallen women” I wouldnt have expected either of these things in an Austen novel. I wonder if I under estimate (no hatemail please) her as an author and that I will just be bored. I have tried and failed so much with P&P maybe I should give another a go? Maybe!

    1. Oh Simon! I can understand that Austen isn’t for everyone – her characters are often as frustrating as they are loveable, and for those who want a lot of plot, the endless conversations and small worlds she creates aren’t exactly thrilling. Austen does have a lot more to her than meets the eye (and the stereotype of just being books about women and men dancing and falling in love over tea tables) and I would like you to give her another go. If P&P isn’t proving to work for you – stop going back to it! – and try another. I love Emma, and often recommend that to Austen-phobes – there’s a lot of meat in it and the characters are wonderful, plus it’s Austen at her best when it comes to the wittiness of her observations. Try it, please! I’ll be re-reading it at some point this year so I will fully expect (demand, actually!) your participation!!

  9. Enjoyed your review Rachel. After re-reading the novel several times I finally think Edward deserves Elinor. Something to do with the way he chats to Marianne and Elinor about music and art at the beginning of the novel greatly appeals to me.

    Agree that Lucy is a little madame and as for her sister ….

    1. Thanks Nicola! Actually, now I’ve finished, my feelings towards Edward have softened and I can see why Elinor loves him. His explanation of how his engagement came about also made me understand his actions much better and feel able to excuse him for what was really his mother’s fault in keeping him from experiencing the world. I’m going to have a quick re-read of the parts involving Edward and see whether, now I’m less biased against him, I can see what Elinor sees in him!

  10. I love reading these posts on these books. This is a book I will get to, it was you who got me reading Persuasion and I thoroughly enjoyed it so I know what I am getting reading your thoughtful pots. Most enjoyable and informative.

    1. Thank you Jo, I’m so pleased to hear that!! I’m delighted that I got you reading Persuasion – such a beautiful book! I hope that you’ll continue to enjoy my S&S observations – there is a lot more to discuss!!

  11. This is one of my comfort reads, I love delving into this novel and feeling completely entrenched in the story. When I was younger, I think I was more interested in Marianne – I loved her enthusiasm and passionate nature. Later, I started appreciating Elinor more and more. There’s been a lot written about the silencing of Marianne in the second part of the novel. I wonder if you will bring that up in your discussion🙂

    1. Hi Lucy! I think Marianne is definitely someone teenagers identify with – when I first read S&S I thought she was wonderful and so passionate and earnest – on rereading, I find her histrionics irritating and self indulgent compared to the calm selflessness and practical nature of Elinor. I had noticed how little Marianne has to do with anything after Wiloughby’s desertion – I think this is a reflection of her learning to become more introspective but it also gives Elinor a chance to come to the fore. I’m going to think a bit more about it and hopefully have more to say over the next few days!

  12. As Lucy says, the silencing of Marianne is interesting: she doesn’t get to tell her story, especially in the second half of the book. I wonder what she could say? Elinor’s intelligent viewpoint is the most compelling part of this sometimes uneven book; not only is she great company but she is fair minded and well judging.
    Not one man in this book is attractive: Willoughby is spoilt and selfish; Colonel Brandon is worthy but dull; John Dashwood is cold-hearted and unkind; Sir John Middleton is an amiable but vacuous social butterfly: Edward Ferrars is diffident and hesitant and most unlike a “hero”.
    I love the vitality and earthiness of Mrs Jennings, such a wonderful contrast to the coldness of Mrs John Dashwood, Lady Middleton and Mrs Ferrars.
    I am enjoying your thoughts and those of the readers.

    Thank you Rachel.

    1. Yes, I do find it interesting that Marianne suddenly becomes speechless – she goes from being in the foreground and having a lot of the dialogue to being a passive, tragic figure floating around upstairs. However, I’m not sure she’d have a lot of worth TO say – Austen seems to be giving her time to grow up – her immaturity is all but gone by the time she is able to re-engage with the world and get over her disappointment. No one wants to read pages and pages of Marianne’s histrionics, which would have been the dialogue we thankfully miss out on while she is too traumatised to speak.

      Yes, none of the men have you jumping for joy do they? It is a bit of an odd book in that respect. I have warmed to Edward I must say and Colonel Brandon is lovely but yes…so earnest!

      I LOVE Mrs Jennings – she is hilarious!! And a fantastic example of a good hearted, totally unsnobby woman.

      Glad you’re enjoying the discussion – me too!

  13. Rachel, as you might expect, I claim that there is every bit as much mystery beneath the surface of Sense and Sensibility as there is beneath each of Jane Austen’s novels.

    For starters, given that you correctly identified Lucy Steele as a VERY interesting character, you might want to read about the following discovery I made 7 years ago about the hidden meaning of Lucy Steele’s MARRIED name:

    http://sharpelvessociety.blogspot.com/2009/07/another-clue-about-lucy-steeles-married.html

    [be sure to read the Comments, where I give the answer]

    http://sharpelvessociety.blogspot.com/2010/07/lucy-ferrarss-hell-born-cousins.html

    Cheers, ARNIE
    @JaneAustenCode on Twitter

      1. Rachel, I never said Lucy was evil—for Jane Austen, the key characteristic of Lucifer (as in LUCY FERRARS ==> LUCYFER ROARS!) was not an evil character who does evil things on her own, so much as a character who is expert at adeptly and subtly using her knowledge of human nature to manipulate other characters into doing what she wants them to do, without her having to get her own hands dirty, so to speak.

        Think about what happens in the novel, and I bet you will see the subtle game that Lucy plays, much more subtle than orthodox Janeite scholarship has detected before me.

        And i personally have no problem with Lucy Steele taking advantage of the Ferrars family, as they so richly deserve to be taken advantage of! She got the shaft in life, and she decided to level the playing field, taking advantage of rich selfish hypocrites who deserve to get a taste of their own medicine—what’s immoral about that?

        Cheers, ARNIE
        @JaneAustenCode on Twitter

  14. Eh, Sense and Sensibility is not the Austen book I love best, and indeed may be the one I love least. I am not crazy about any of the Austen heroes (I know! I know! everyone loves them but I love Mr. Rochester and nobody else measures up!) apart from Henry Tilney, but man, Edward Ferrars is the worst. He’s insipid, which is actually worse than being self-righteous.

    1. No, I can see now why I didn’t reread it before now – it’s a very uneven novel and the characters are a bit shakily portrayed. Edward Ferrars is nice enough but he’s just so bland and frankly other people thinking well of him isn’t enough to convince me that he’s worthy of Elinor. We don’t see enough of him and I think that shows a lack of skill on Austen’s part – this was an early novel, after all – she corrects this in P&P which is why Darcy is such a loveable hero. Though yes – Mr Rochester is very uncomparable. No Austen hero could ever compare to him!

  15. Rachel, with regard to your comments to Jillian – if Edward hadn’t behaved so to Elinor, they wouldn’t have ended up together at the end, would they? 🙂 You are right to criticize his behavior, but he’s human, and his feelings probably surprised him too suddenly.

    I’m not going to read along with you, because I read it not too too long ago, so am hoping I’ll remember it well enough. This thought occurred to me in your frustration at Edward’s insipidity – we know that Edward is good. We know that Fanny Price is good. Can it be that Jane Austen made them both seem rather bland, because she’s trying to say/show that the really good ones aren’t showy people, but to those near them, who can see their good qualities, they will be duly appreciated? It’s a thought, you must admit! 😀

    I remember reading some criticisms of Hugh Grant’s portrayal of Edward – they were saying that Emma Thompson’s screenplay was obviously the product of a feminist. He was weak. But in the book, as you say, he isn’t very fleshed out. In the newer film version, he’s not quite so wimpy-seeming – not quite. But, I think these portrayals aren’t so far from the book, so I think the complaints were an over reaction.

    As for Edward’s engaging himself to Lucy – well, we all do foolish things, and hopefully we keep growing and learning as we go along. He was probably taken in by Lucy’s seemingly sweet temperament.

    I also love Mrs. Jennings – a lively, kind-hearted person.

    Oh, and Elinor – I LOVE HER!! Such an example.

    1. Hi Lisa! Thanks so much for your thoughts! I’ve actually re-read the beginning of the book since I wrote this post and I must say, I have warmed to Edward. I realised that a lot of what we assume about Edward is due to what Mrs Dashwood and Marianne say, and they are not particularly reliable! I think he is less of a drip and more just shy – and also, to be fair, Austen really doesn’t give us much to go on. I do think that’s more a fault in her writing than an intention – S&S is a very uneven novel and I think that shows Austen’s lack of experience as a writer, personally.

      Elinor is fantastic though – a brilliant heroine and one I didn’t expect to enjoy so much. She’s the strength of the novel – as well as the hilarious background cast!

      I haven’t seen the film of S&S for so long – I must watch it again. I remember Hugh Grant largely playing himself though!!

  16. I think Sense and Sensibility is a book that suffers for being filmed – especially because it happens so often. We get into a habit of thinking we know it well when what we’re actually getting is one specific reading of it which distracts from the book which is far better than any version of it I’ve seen.

    1. Yes – this is very true. I expected much more of the heroes and villains than I got. I must say I haven’t watched the Emma Thompson film in years though – must add it to my Lovefilm list!

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