Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Book 5 – Sense and Sensibility

By Jane Austen

Other than Pride & Prejudice, this is the only other Austen novel I’ve ever read. At the time she wrote P & P, Jane Austen wondered whether it was perhaps a little 'too light and bright and sparkling'. Though it also had its share of wit and satire, I found Sense & Sensibility to be sharper and more critical than P&P.

Of S & S, Wikipedia mentions that “the novel displays Austen's subtle irony at its best, with many outstanding comic passages about the Middletons, the Palmers, Mrs Jennings, and Lucy Steele.” But I found the best comical passages involved Marianne, the most passionate of the Dashwood sisters (the eldest sister Elinor is the rational one). Even though Austen supposedly modeled the character of Marianne after herself while basing the tactful and self-disciplined Elinor on her older sister Cassandra, she had no bones about making fun of Marianne’s self-indulgent and overblown romanticism:

When breakfast was over she walked out by herself, and wandered about the village of Allenham, indulging the recollection of past enjoyment and crying over the present reverse for the chief of the morning.

The evening passed off in the equal indulgence of feeling. She played over every favourite song that she had been used to play to Willoughby, every air in which their voices had been oftenest joined, and sat at the instrument gazing on every line of music that he had written out for her, till her heart was so heavy that no farther sadness could be gained; and this nourishment of grief was every day applied. She spend whole hours at the piano-forté alternately singing and crying; her voice often totally suspended by her tears. In books too, as well as in music, she courted the misery which a contrast between the past and present was certain of giving. She read nothing but what they had been used to read together.

Such violence of affliction indeed could not be supported for ever; it sunk within a few days into a calmer melancholy; but these employments, to which she daily recurred, her solitary walks and silent meditations, still produced occasional effusions of sorrow as lively as ever.

The novel is full of such wonderfully written passages, and neglectful family members who are too busy being obsessed with status cannot escape Austen’s satirical gaze either. John and Fanny Dashwood -- who break a promise to financially look after John’s stepmother Mrs Dashwood and her daughters -- are prime targets:

The dinner was a grand one, the servants were numerous, and everything bespoke the Mistress's inclination for shew, and the Master's ability to support it. In spite of the improvements and additions which were making to the Norland estate, and in spite of its owner having once been within some thousand pounds of being obliged to sell out at a loss, nothing gave any symptom of that indigence which he had tried to infer from it; no poverty of any kind, except a conversation, appeared-- but there, the deficiency was considerable. John Dashwood had not much to say for himself that was worth hearing and his wife had still less. But there was no peculiar disgrace in this, for it was very much the case with the chief of their visitors, who almost all laboured under one or other of these disqualifications for being agreeable--want of essence, either natural or improved want of elegance--want of spirit or want of temper.

Even though the most unlikable characters, such as John and Fanny Dashwood, Mrs Ferras and Lucy Steele never get their comeuppance, Marianne learns a valuable lesson and Elinor gains a valuable friend in Mrs Jennings, who at first comes across as intrusive and embarrassing, but turns out to be as generous and principled as the well-respected Colonel Brandon. Though S&S does not have the fairy-tale ending of P&P, Marianne and Elinor find some measure of happiness in the end. Not as satisfying perhaps, but in other ways, makes it more emotionally resonant. And I mean this in the most rational way ;-)

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