Friday, June 17, 2011

Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

One question after this only remained undecided between them; one difficulty only was to be overcome. They were brought together by mutual affection, with the warmest approbation of their real friends; their intimate knowledge of each other seemed to make their happiness certain, and they only wanted something to live upon... they were neither of them quite enough in love to think that three hundred and fifty pounds a year would supply them with the comforts of life.

(Spoiler alert!) Marianne Dashwood is all feeling, and quite hot-headed; her sister Elinor is reasonable, pragmatic and cool. Sense and Sensibility is about the difficulty of both of them to procure a husband with either approach, as Marianne allows herself to be suckered into a passionate relationship with a cad and Elinor must suffer silently from the knowledge that her intended is secretly engaged to someone else. The Dashwoods are, in fact, so much the obvious precursors of the Schlegel sisters from Howards End that it makes me retroactively enjoy the latter book a little less.

That is my first observation about Sense and Sensibility. The second is this: Sense and Sensibility is, of the four Austen novels I've read, the strongest condemnation of the connection between marriage and money among them. No one wants to see Elizabeth Bennet marry Mr. Collins just for the stability, but it's awfully convenient that Mr. Darcy just happens to be a bazillionaire. And it is hard to condemn her friend Charlotte, who has few of Elizabeth's charms, for marrying Mr. Collins in a fit of practicality.

In Sense and Sensibility, however, everyone who marries for love is a saint and everyone who marries for money is a scoundrel. Marianne's tempestuous dalliance with Willoughby finally ends when he marries an heiress. Edward Ferrars, whom Elinor loves, is disowned by his wealthy family for his proposed marriage to Lucy Steele, and his inheritance promised to his brother Robert, who first appears in the novel buying a toothpick-case:

At last the affair was decided. The ivory, the gold, and the pearls, all received their appointment; and the gentleman having named the last day on which his existence could be continued without the possession of the tooth-pick case, drew on his gloves with leisurely care, and bestowing another glance on the Miss Dashwoods, but such a one as seemed rather to demand than express admiration, walked off with a happy air of real conceit and affected indifference.

I dare you to find a better (and funnier) sentence that so perfectly captures the shallowness and the selfishness of the supremely wealthy.

There are no Charlottes in this book. Even Elinor's practicality can't prevent her from marrying Edward when his engagement falls apart, though she understands perfectly the difficult road ahead of her. That Edward is provided with a living as a priest is fortunate, but it needn't have happened, and it's significant that Elinor, unlike Elizabeth Bennet, Emma Woodhouse, or Anne Elliot, takes a real risk for love.

Yet Sense and Sensibility is not quite the equal of those books. The characters are weaker (you can say almost nothing about Edward Ferrars except that he's a better man than his brother and Elinor loves him) and the plot forced, as when Austen foists a sudden illness on Marianne to bring Willoughby back into the picture. I hope for better from Mansfield Park and Northanger Abbey.

1 comment:

Parrish Lantern said...

Did you know someone is using your posts, they've used at least 12 of mine & I've asked them to stop.