fredag den 20. januar 2023

Sense and Sensibility - Jane Austen (1811)


Sense and Sensibility

One of the major milestones on the book list is to get to Jane Austen. Her books are among the few classics that are still widely read and the sort of books most people are supposed to be familiar with. To my embarrassment I believe I have only read “Pride and Prejudice” prior to the book list, mostly I think because the world of Austen has never been my go-to literature. Now, though, I am getting the chance with four Jane Austen novels back to back. First up is “Sense and Sensibility”.

Right off the bat, let me say that I enjoyed reading “Sense and Sensibility” a lot more than I expected to. Austen does everything Fanny Burney did, but better. Austen is witty and clever, but treats her characters with respect. It is a comedy, not because of a comedic theme or outright silly characters, but because of that special angle Austen uses when she describes her characters. She nails their character traits for better and worse and I sit back with a chuckle reading about them.

Elinor and Marianne Dashwood belong to the gentility, somewhere between lower nobility and upper middleclass. When their father dies, the wealth of the family fall on their half-brother John and they are forced to leave the manor with their mother and little sister Margaret. A distant relative, Sir John Middleton, offers them a cheap rent at Barton cottage, close to his own manor. Soon the girls are involved with the Middletons and the people that come and go at Barton Park.

The overriding theme of the novel is that of marriage and the relationships that lead up to marriage. Elinor, who represents sense, formed a relationship with Edward Ferrars, the brother of John Dashwood’s wife, Fanny, while they still lived at Norland, but at Barton she learns he has been engaged for the past four years to a Lucy Steele, a girl with no money to speak of and poor education. Proper conduct is to respect such an engagement, but can Elinor control her emotions enough for that?

Marianne, who represents sensibility, has a chance encounter with the charming John Willoughby and falls head over heels in love with him. In a matter of days everybody is convinced they are engaged, but then Willoughby suddenly leaves, not to return. When next Marianne sees him, he is about to marry a wealth girl in London. Can Marianne learn to control her emotional roller coaster and learn to love men who are not deucebags?

Each of Austen’s characters have some very dominant character traits. John Dashwood is obsessing over people’s wealth, his wife is greedy beyond belief, Edward is dutiful but meek, John Barton is a sportsman, Colonel Brandon is consciousness incarnate, Mrs Jennings is the ultimate gossip aunt and Willoughby is a certified deucebag. These traits are painted sharply, maybe too sharply for realism, but most, if not all of them end up revealing softening character traits that spoils the image of one-dimensional characters. Mrs. Jennings actually care about the people under her wings, Colonel Brandon has sensibility as well as sense and Willoughby does feel remorse.

I cannot read this book and not feel sorry for the women of Austen’s world. Their entire being seems to be reduced to a question of who to marry and whether to marry for love of money. While the men do seem to have a larger agenda, the women’s is rather insipid beyond the marriage question. Austen seem to agree with me. Through the eyes of Elinor and Marianne the thoughtless chatter and idle pastimes are almost painfully thoughtless and pointless. Their only duty is to look pretty and be respectable and I sense a rebellion in both Marianne and Elinor and maybe even an urge to actually do things. So, while Austen delves into the forms and practices of the gentility of the period, she also exposes the narrowness of that world with pointed remarks and a sense of claustrophobia.

A reflection of this is also in how narrow a world she describes. The only mention of characters outside their class are a few remarks on their servants. The village children are sweet to look at and there are actually people working in the shops they visit. But that is about it. There is nothing about politics of the period, economy is only how many thousand pounds each have per year, not where they come from, and there is absolutely no mention of the societal evolution Britain was going through in the Regency period, something I find immensely interesting, but Austen’s women clearly are entirely ignorant about. Design or flaw, I do not know, but it emphasizes the isolation of these women.

“Sense and Sensibility” is a wonderful read nevertheless. I love Austen’s characters and I cannot wait moving on to the next three novels. Highly recommended.

2 kommentarer:

  1. Austin is a bit like Ozu all her books are about the same thing but that doesn’t stop each of them from being interesting. I love all her books but this one has less outright comedy than P&P or Emma. One of the things I like about the books is the heroines have a nice character arc where they develop during the course of the book. I always feel so sorry for Elinor who has to grin and bear it for far too long.

    Now on to P&P and the deliciously awful Mr. Collins and Lady Catherine De Bergh.

    1. Oh, I love Ozu's movies, there is nothing wrong in sticking to the same theme as long as it is not the same story.
      I found S&S plenty witty, so I am very much looking forward to those other books.
      I can tell that Elinor is Austen's own perspective on the story. Her views are likely Austen's own.