Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

A while ago I had a shocking realisation: although I had seen many different adaptations of Sense and Sensibility, I had never actually read the novel itself. I knew the story so well that I had somehow convinced myself that I must have read it at some point; but in reality I had just picked up a plethora of facts and details about the novel’s narrative from what I had seen and the people that I had talked to about it. I decided to remedy this failure as soon as possible, and, after a friend kindly gave me her old copy of the novel, I launched myself into the world of Austen once more.

The two protagonists of Sense and Sensibility are Elinor and Marianne Dashwood: two sisters who represent the eponymous traits of ‘sense’ (Elinor) and ‘sensibility’ (Marianne). After losing their father, and finding that their house has been left to their half-brother, Elinor and Marianne leave their Norland home with their mother and younger sister and start a new life for themselves in Barton. Over the course of the narrative, which takes them from Norland, to Barton, to London, Elinor and Marianne navigate the difficulties of loss, romance, and ‘proper’ conduct in society in their own unique ways; eventually both discovering that their approaches to the situations they have found themselves in are flawed, and that they have a lot to learn from each other.

Sense and Sensibility, along with Persuasion, seems to me to be an Austen novel in which people love to see themselves in the heroines. Most of my friends have a strong affection for Elinor, seeing a reflection of themselves in her, and some predicted that I would feel the same. However, I have always felt that I can lay no claim to relating to Elinor: I am far from being as logical or as in control of my emotions as she is for the majority of the novel. In fact, I have a feeling that many people write Marianne off too easily as an attention seeker, too absorbed in her own pain to care about others; I would argue that Austen is doing something much more subtle and subversive with presenting these sisters in the way that she does. Society at the time (and perhaps still today) had dual, incompatible views on women: on the one hand, esteeming the sensible woman who is governed not by her emotions but by what is acceptable in society; on the other hand glorifying the romantic, tragic woman led completely by her passion. By portraying Elinor and Marianne as she does, Austen draws attention to the faults of these views: in the one, society sees absence of the other.

I was surprised by how differently paced the narrative of the novel is compared to the adaptations I have seen: less pages are devoted to Norland; less to Marianne and Willoughby’s initial romance; more to the time Elinor and Marianne spent in London.   In fact, I felt the pacing reminded me very much of Persuasion, more so than any of Austen’s other novels: the narrative moves quickly through key beats of the action and takes it’s time over the moments that some readers would deem less important. The relationship of the sisters and their opinions on each other, for example, are drawn out in much more depth than their interactions with any of the men in their lives.

I always find Austen’s novels to be full of life, with engaging characters and an absorbing world; Sense and Sensibility was no exception to this. In the midst of a grey week, I very much enjoyed escaping to the world of the Dashwoods for a time. If anyone out there hasn’t managed to read this novel yet, it is definitely one I would recommend. Whislt Sense and Sensibility will not dethrone Northanger Abbey and Emma as my favourite Austen novels, I have already placed it in very much the same category as Persuasion: a novel that, although not as dearly loved as Northanger Abbey or Emma, I still enjoyed very much and will probably read and re-read many times over the course of my life.

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