The most interesting thing about re-reading Jane Austen’s novels is realising how many false memories I have gained about the characters and plots in between readings. This is largely due to TV and film dramatisations, I should imagine, but I think there is also an element of age and different viewpoints coming into play. I remembered Marianne, for example, as being a lively, overly talkative, melodramatic and endearing girl with lots of energy and a prominent presence in the novel. Elinor I barely remembered at all. This is probably due to the fact that I last read Sense and Sensibility when I was about Marianne’s age and would have identified with her as a character far more than I identified with Elinor, but also Kate Winslet’s portrayal of Marianne has considerably influenced my memories of the novel. On re-reading, I was struck by how little Marianne is actually in the foreground of events; for most of the novel, she is silent and either upstairs, out of sight, or mooning around in a chair somewhere, her eyes fixed on the middle distance. Her ill advised dalliance with Willoughby and the ensuing consequences are a major plot point, and everyone’s concerns for Marianne means that she is constantly mentioned, but she barely says anything for herself once the action has moved to London, and when she does speak, it is full of self pity and melodrama that makes her increasingly infuriating as time goes on. Marianne’s silence and self imposed exclusion from society allows Elinor to come to the fore, and when Lucy Steele appears on the scene, the novel becomes less about Marianne and Willoughby and more about Elinor’s struggle to keep her sanity while fending off the advances of the nasty Lucy, who really does seem to be as indestructible as her name.
Marianne’s quiet fading into the background is interesting, as she initially appears to be the most engaging character. However, her immaturity and overly romantic nature have led her to make the terrible mistake of falling in love with a bounder, and when she sees Willoughby’s true colours, she is unable to cope with the reality of a world that is not what she has been promised from reading her favourite romantic poets. She has been ill-prepared for real life; for pain, for disappointment, and for dishonesty. She judges people by sentiment and not by character, and this failing ultimately leads to her downfall. Mrs Dashwood has a similar temperament to her daughter, and unfortunately does not give Marianne the firm, wise guiding hand she needs. Instead, she too is blinded by Willoughby’s external appearances and encourages their romance. Therefore, when Marianne has the wool pulled from her eyes, she goes into a profound state of shock, which is probably the real reason for her inability to communicate after Willoughby’s betrayal. For the first time she has had her eyes opened to the true nature of the world; everything she believed and hoped for has been pulled from beneath her, and she has to find a way to move forward with a different set of beliefs and hopes for her future. When she finally does emerge from her long-drawn out melancholy, she has changed, for the better. She still remains loving, and romantic, and passionate, but this is tempered by more consideration for others, and more sense than sensibility; something Austen is anxious to promote.
Marianne’s silence also serves to allow Elinor’s story to be heard. Normally the voice of reason is the one nobody wants to listen to; compared to Marianne, Elinor initially appears rather dull and pedestrian, especially when you consider that she is only two or three years older than Marianne, and still a teenager herself when the story opens. Her sense compared to Marianne’s sensibility is interesting; she is clearly her father’s child, and takes on the responsibilities of the male patriarch after her father’s death, ensuring the smooth removal of the family to Devon, as well as acting as the counsellor and calmer of worries and grief to her mother and sisters. Her difference in temperament is made even more clear when she and Marianne remove to London. Despite having her own heart broken by Lucy’s revelation of her secret engagement, Elinor shows no outward sign of discomposure and carries on regardless, comforting Marianne and going about the usual round of afternoon teas, evening card parties and Sunday walks as required by women being entertained in someone else’s house. Elinor is not only sensible; she is selfless, and considerate of others. Marianne thinks only of herself and her own distress, and does exactly what she feels like doing, without considering her position as a dependent on someone else’s kindness. Elinor does have her moments of frustration and anger, and she certainly makes her distaste of those she has no time for clear, but she never stoops to being impolite or inconsiderate, and this is where her sense elevates her far higher in the readers’ esteem than the self obsessed Marianne. By putting Marianne in the background during the middle section of the novel, Austen allows Elinor to shine, and to make her argument for sense clear to the reader. Marianne’s near-death experience is also significant in making this point evident; Marianne survives, but her sensibility is killed off, along with her hopes for a life with Willoughby. When she awakes, she is forever changed; she has made the transition from childhood to adulthood, and can finally see the error of her ways.
Elinor and Marianne, or ‘Sense’ and ‘Sensibility’, are both fascinating characters and an interesting exploration of how very different two siblings brought up in exactly the same environment by the same parents can be. However, what struck me the most in the novel is just how prominent and menacing the character of Lucy Steele is. Austen’s novels are generally deemed to be cosy, escapist, and so on, but really, the more I re-read them, the more I realise they are nothing of the sort. Lucy is a villain of the worst kind; manipulative, calculating and totally self interested, she will do whatever it takes to get her own way, and doesn’t care what damage she causes to others in the process. She singles Elinor out as a threat to her engagement with Edward, which she knows full well is on shaky ground, and sets out to ensure that Elinor knows that Edward is ‘hers’, all under the sickly sweet cover of being in distress and needing someone to confide in. She also makes sure she ingratiates herself with those in a position to influence her future, and seems to feel no guilt over being thoroughly two faced. Her callous abandonment of Edward for his brother and her skillful pandering to Mrs Ferrars is expertly and coldly done; Lucy is a truly horrible and deceitful piece of work, and one who could quite easily have ruined Elinor’s happiness forever. She is not someone to laugh at during the novel, but rather someone to be genuinely afraid of; Lucy is dangerous, just like Willoughby, and her presence in the novel lends a highly unsettling tone to the proceedings. Throughout Sense and Sensibility, danger and uncertainty reign; Marianne could potentially never recover from her melancholy, Marianne nearly dies, and it does appear likely that both girls will not get their happy ever afters. It might be witty and well observed, but cosy Sense and Sensibility certainly is not. In fact, it is a stark reminder of the damage people can quite willingly do to one another, and how selfishness is most people’s prominent motivator. The opening paragraphs, detailing the hilariously selfish Mr and Mrs Dashwood and their justification of not giving the Dowager Mrs Dashwood and her daughters any money to live on, set this context right from the beginning. Sense and Sensibility is not just about two girls looking for love; as usual with Austen, it is a far more complex analysis of society than simply that.
Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed Sense and Sensibility. It’s not a perfect novel, and it will never be my favourite Austen, but regardless, it was highly entertaining, excellently characterised, and very thought provoking. I did quite badly want to kill Marianne by the time she was dying of a cold – for heaven’s sake! – I can’t say that I haven’t spent many a night crying my heart out over a boy or two, but to go on for weeks as if life is no longer worth living over a man you merely spent a few evenings comparing the genius of Cowper with is ridiculous. Get a grip, woman! Elinor got all of my sympathy and she has now emerged as one of my favourite Austen heroines; she is the strength of Sense and Sensibility, and I think shades of Elinor can be seen in Austen’s subsequent successful heroines. As an early Austen, this is a very good novel in which to see Austen honing the skills she will later perfect in her true masterpieces (in my opinion these are Emma, Persuasion and Pride and Prejudice) and it also features some of her best comic creations. However, after reading two slightly mediocre Austens in a row, I’m now wanting to get back to the true genius. Due to my need to brush up on school texts for my teaching interview, I may not get around to it next month, but sometime within the next month or two, I’m going to move on to rereading Pride and Prejudice, which I haven’t done in several years – in fact, since I was 18. I studied it for my A level English exam (exam you do to qualify for university) and had to read it about four times in the space of 6 months, so I had had quite enough of it after that. Now I feel ready to go back, and see whether Mr Darcy is genuinely as fanciable in print as he is on the small screen. What a shame he doesn’t really emerge dripping from a pond in skin tight britches!