Part I: Sense and Sensibility
I first read Sense and Sensibility in the mid-90s, when “Austenmania” started. I liked it, but not as much as P&P or Emma or Persuasion (which is possibly my favorite book of all time). I have re-read it several times over the years, and I find myself liking it better each time. I own several copies of each of the “Big 6,” and recently bought a set of paperbacks published in 2008 by Signet Classics, which is an imprint of Penguin. All of the books in this series have introductions by Margaret Drabble and afterwords by popular authors of contemporary women’s fiction. This edition of S&S has an afterword by Mary Balogh.
The introduction and the afterword seem to be about different books. Drabble quotes Austen biographer John Halperin as saying that S&S is “bleak and black and nasty.” She admits that this is, perhaps, an overstatement, but she does refer to the book as “unhappy” and “almost tragic.” Meanwhile, Balogh refers to S&S as “…an enjoyable double love story” and a book “to be enjoyed purely for its happily resolved love stories and its marvelous cast of secondary characters…” (all quotes, except the Halperin quote, come from the Signet Classics edition of S&S, New York, 2008; the Halperin quote is, in turn, taken from his The Life of Jane Austen, Harvester Press, London, 1984). Who’s right? I think that, as with beauty, happiness is in the eye of the beholder. Personally, I lean more towards Balogh’s opinion than either Drabble’s or Halperin’s. The story is interesting and the characters are very real. Yes, even the villains.
I’ve said many times over the years that each time I read an Austen novel, I see something I’d never noticed before. And this re-read of S&S was no exception. I cannot believe I never paid attention to this gem before (from chapter 36):
I come now to the relation of a misfortune, which about this time befell Mrs. John Dashwood. It so happened that while her two sisters with Mrs. Jennings were first calling on her in Harley Street, another of her acquaintance had dropt in — a circumstance in itself not apparently likely to produce evil to her. But while the imaginations of other people will carry them away to form wrong judgments of our conduct, and to decide on it by slight appearances, one’s happiness must in some measure be always at the mercy of chance. In the present instance, this last-arrived lady allowed her fancy so far to outrun truth and probability, that on merely hearing the name of the Miss Dashwoods, and understanding them to be Mr. Dashwood’s sisters, she immediately concluded them to be staying in Harley Street; and this misconstruction produced within a day or two afterwards, cards of invitation for them as well as for their brother and sister, to a small musical party at her house. The consequence of which was, that Mrs. John Dashwood was obliged to submit not only to the exceedingly great inconvenience of sending her carriage for the Miss Dashwoods, but, what was still worse, must be subject to all the unpleasantness of appearing to treat them with attention: and who could tell that they might not expect to go out with her a second time? The power of disappointing them, it was true, must always be hers. But that was not enough; for when people are determined on a mode of conduct which they know to be wrong, they feel injured by the expectation of anything better from them.
Another beauty is here, also in chapter 36:
As John Dashwood had no more pleasure in music than his eldest sister, his mind was equally at liberty to fix on anything else; and a thought struck him during the evening, which he communicated to his wife, for her approbation, when they got home. The consideration of Mrs. Dennison’s mistake, in supposing his sisters their guests, had suggested the propriety of their being really invited to become such, while Mrs. Jennings’s engagements kept her from home. The expense would be nothing, the inconvenience not more; and it was altogether an attention which the delicacy of his conscience pointed out to be requisite to its complete enfranchisement from his promise to his father. Fanny was startled at the proposal.
… “My love, I would ask them with all my heart, if it was in my power. But I had just settled within myself to ask the Miss Steeles to spend a few days with us. They are very well behaved, good kind of girls; and I think the attention is due to them, as their uncle did so very well by Edward. We can ask your sisters some other year, you know; but the Miss Steeles may not be in town any more. I am sure you will like them; indeed, you do like them, you know, very much already, and so does my mother; and they are such favourites with Harry!”
…Fanny, rejoicing in her escape, and proud of the ready wit that had secured it,…
Fanny Dashwood is one nasty piece of work. She is vindictive, petty and just plain mean. I sincerely hope that, if Harry Dashwood ever marries, he tosses his mother out on her ear. His poor wife shouldn’t have to deal with such a shrew of a mother-in-law. I am fully aware that these are not real people, but it is fun to speculate.
I liked Marianne more than I have in the past, and I still love and admire Elinor. A lot of people denigrate Edward because he insists upon marrying Lucy, but I find that he shows the same honor and “gentlemanliness” as Frederick Wentworth does in Persuasion. Edward is engaged to Lucy and, in early 19th-century England, an engagement was practically as binding as a marriage. A woman could break off the engagement more easily than a man, but a man who broke off an engagement risked being sued for breach of promise. According to a post in the Pemberley.com Life and Times archives, there was a British breach of promise case entitled Holt v. Ward in which a couple became engaged when both were under the age of majority (21). The man married someone else, but the woman sued and won. Edward’s family obviously doesn’t care about the scandal that a broken engagement would cause; they are, instead, blinded by Miss Morton’s £30,000. Given what Austen tells us about Edward’s mother, sister and brother (and his brother-in-law), it’s no wonder he’s happy to be rid of them. Granted, he does make an effort to get back in his mother’s good graces so she’ll help him financially, but he doesn’t do it for superficial reasons. He does it because it will help him marry Elinor as soon as possible and make their lives (and the lives of their future children) easier.
On the other hand, however, Marianne has no case against Willoughby because he never asked her to marry him. We know that everyone in the vicinity of Barton expected Marianne and Willoughby to marry. But expecting a marriage proposal and actually receiving one are, obviously, two different things. Marianne never received a proposal so she cannot sue Willoughby for breach of promise. This does not make Willoughby a more sympathetic character. Quite the contrary; I find him to be Austen’s worst villain because of the way he treated Eliza Williams, Marianne and even Miss Grey. All three are fatherless, powerless girls and he preys upon them because it’s easy and fun. Luckily for Marianne, she has friends who are willing to look out for her. The other girls are not quite so fortunate.
While I am admittedly more in line with Balogh’s way of thinking about S&S, I do understand some of what Drabble and Halperin are saying. There are ugly people in this book, and bad things happen to good people. But the good people manage to overcome the ugliness they are confronted with and we get our happy ending. I am not one who believes that greatness in literature is in direct proportion to how depressing the book is. I like happy endings when they make sense in relation to the story. And, in Sense and Sensibility, a happy ending makes perfect sense.
Next up, a report on Kandukondain Kandukondain (because it’s due back at the library on the 4th).