Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Book Review: Sense and Sensibility

2006 must be my year for Jane Austen…

Sense and Sensibility is the tale of two sisters and their quest for love.  Since this takes place in the early-1800’s, the quest also involves marriage.

Elinor Dashwood, the oldest sister, is full of sense.  She is the one that her mother and her sisters look to in a crisis.  And the crisis starts early, with the death of Mr. Dashwood, husband and father.  The Mrs. Dashwood and her daughters find themselves forced to move from their home of Norwood, which has been passed down to Mr. Dashwood’s son from his first marriage.  John moves in with his wife and their child.  Although John promised his father that he would take care of his stepmother and half-sisters, Mrs. John Dashwood soon persuades him that merely letting Mrs. Dashwood and her daughters stay at Norwood until they can find more suitable lodgings is enough.

Fortuitously, a distant relation, Sir John Middleton, offers to rent Mrs. Dashwood a small cottage near his estate in Barton.  At Elinor’s urging, Mrs. Dashwood accepts, although it is somewhat smaller than she had in mind.  The family settles in and becomes acquainted with Sir John, his Lady, and their friends and family.

Marianne Dashwood is the second sister.  She is full of sensibility, which in this case means she follows her heart rather than her head.  She falls while walking the hills near Barton and is returned home by a handsome young man, Mr. Willoughby.  She fancies herself in love with him— and him with her—and life is good.  At least, for the moment.

Elinor, meanwhile, has fallen in love with her sister-in-law’s brother, Edward Ferrars.  But they are quite circumspect and quiet about their love, which causes Marianne to wonder if they are attracted to each other.  

In the background is Colonel Brandon, a friend of Sir John Middleton, who has fallen in love with Marianne.  But his personality is more like Elinor’s:  quiet and proper.  Marianne thinks him too old and too dull.  Mrs. Jennings is Lady Middleton’s mother.  She becomes the social catalyst for the Elinor and Marianne, introducing them to London society.  The two Miss Steele’s are distant relatives of Mrs. Jennings who come to stay with the Middleton’s during the summer.  Elinor and Marianne also run into them while in London.  Lucy Steele befriends Elinor, who does not completely trust Lucy’s profession of friendship.


Sense and Sensibility was the first novel published by Miss Austen.  Some of the themes—such as the unreliability of first impressions—are explored more fully in Pride and Prejudice.  Mrs. Dashwood, although more inclined to think with her heart than her head, is not as silly as Mrs. Bennet.  Manners are quite important in this novel as well, since they are often a reflection of the quality of the interior of a person as well as just the exterior.  But not always.   Money—or lack of it—can be the motivation for a person’s behavior towards another.  

One of the reasons why I like Jane Austen is that her observations of human behavior are still relevant.  Yes, the social rules have changed:  unmarried men and women can exchange letters, women are not so financially dependent upon their male relatives, and marriage is more of a personal choice.  But there are still people who have sense, those who have sensibility, those who keep their intellects active, those who chase after social status, those who spoil their children, those who behave honorably, and those who are “diamonds in the rough.”  

We “modern” humans are not as different from our forebears as we pretend to be.  Our concerns, at least at the human-to-human level, remain much the same.  Jane Austen captures that level with wit, style, and grace that more modern authors would do well to emulate.

I didn’t like Sense and Sensibility quite as much as Pride and Prejudice.  Still, S&S was an enjoyable read.

On the March Hare scale:  4 out of 5 bookmarks.  

I’m not sure which Jane Austen novel I’ll read next.  Probably Persuasion or Mansfield Park.