Monday 15 September 2014

Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

Sense and Sensibility 

“I wish, as well as everybody else, to be perfectly happy; but, like everybody else, it must be in my own way.”

If there is one author out there that seems to grow in my esteem with time and whose novels I am able to appreciate even more on repeated readings, it is the much beloved Jane Austen. My relationship with Austen got off to a rocky start with Pride and Prejudice, one of those "classics" that I found deplorable and never actually finished. What a daft, illiterate fool I was back in the day! Years later, I decided to give P+P another try and was pleasantly surprised to discover that she wasn't the dull, sappy writer I initially perceived her to be, an egregious mistake on my part. This time around, I found Ms. Austen's clever wit, sardonic humor and social criticism to be delightfully engaging. Having matured in my reading habits, I was able to better recognize the inherent subtle nuances of her writing, which went over my head on the first reading. Her novels aren't simply about women seeking love and getting married, there is so much more going on beneath the surface worth exploring if one is to fully appreciate Austen's ingenuity. There seems to be a certain stigma attached to Austen in which she only caters towards a female readership but this myopic attitude is a completely unfounded. Her works deal with universal themes of love, human companionship; tackling a wide variety of important social issues such as class and gender. As a dude who doesn't place much importance on asserting my masculinity in the first place, I am not embarrassed to admit that Jane Austen has now become one of my favorite authors.

Thus, this brings us to Sense and Sensibility, my third Austen novel, and one that I read last year for the Classics Club challenge. I really should have had the foresight to scribble down some notes at the time when the novel more fresh in my mind but alas, it was during one of my intense reading frenzies. I do look forward to picking it up again because it was excellent and dare I say it, even better than Pride and Prejudice! The story revolves around the Dashwood sisters, Elinor and Marianne who are left with a tiny inheritance when there father dies, thus, their prospects at finding respective husbands becomes greatly diminished. This concept might sound silly and archaic by today's standards but during Austen's time, the  role of women was  in the household, taking care of the children. Living in a patriarchal society, women rarely held an occupation and relied on their husband's income. For me, reading Austen is often like entering a time capsule into the past, allowing the opportunity to contrast older social customs with the present. It is important to note that the Dashwoods are not living in poverty, they still remain a part of the upper-class but as far as their fortune is concerned, they are positioned at the bottom tier of the wealthy elite. Hence, match-making is often based on the financial benefits to both parties, taking precedence over unconditional love. As a hopeless romantic, Austen's conservatism used to irk me but it took some time to understand that within a historical context, marriage was more of a business arrangement. I like to believe that times have changed since the 19th century, that people actually do marry for love instead of money but even now in Western capitalist society where cash is king, survival will be tough without a steady income. Therefore, for many people, marrying into money is a sensible move, ensuring a prosperous future and I can't condemn those who decide to take this route. However, with this novel, Austen places a higher value on love rather than financial pragmatism but also seems to suggest that the combination of both is even more ideal. Inner vs. outer experience is also an important aspect here that should not go overlooked. Austen cleverly shows how society dictates behavior, manners and decorum often restraining one from speaking their mind or expressing true feelings because that type of conduct goes against the norm. Hence, in an Austen novel, this miscommunication leads to many misunderstandings and broken hearts;  she uses this break down in human interaction effectively to create drama. In any other novel, using this particular plot device would likely hinder the narrative but Austen somehow makes it work with the appropriate stylistic panache.

The concept of marriage is always a recurring motif in Austen but the characters themselves must endure many difficulties, facing many obstacles on the paths towards of self-discovery in order to find love. As indicated by the title, the juxtaposition between Sense and Sensibility is the main component of the novel. The two sisters are radically different from each other in their approach to life and relationships. Elinor represents aspects of sensibility--rational, upholding societal values and propriety whereas Marianne is the complete opposite: quixotic, a free-spirit, impulsive, driven by her emotions. The tension between these contrasting dialectics builds up expertly throughout the novel; however, I am unsure whether or not she is successful in finding a balance between traditional values and a more liberal approach towards love.

Austen succeeds in creating such compelling characters full of complex emotions. The sisterly affection shared between the Dashwood sisters is most heartfelt. I am a sucker for a good romance and Jane Austen delivers the goods in spades. Incidentally, the movie adaptation directed by Ang Lee with Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet resonates with me even more than the actual text. The casting is perfect, everyone gives fantastic performances, even Hugh Grant who plays Elinor's love interest. Not to mention, the impeccable Alan Rickman who steals every scene as Colonel Brandon. The beautiful, haunting score is also most memorable. I don't remember if Shakespeare's sonnet #116 is mentioned in the novel but it is Marianne's favorite ("Let me not the marriage of true minds admit impediments") and this left me positively swooning. If I am considered effeminate because of my affection for Austen novels, so be it. I can live with that and frankly, I don't care what others think about my reading habits. She's a literary rock star and I look forward to reading the rest of her novels. Persuasion is next.

This novel is part of my Classics Club Challenge.


  1. While I don't agree that S&S is better than P&P, I absolutely agree that Austen becomes better with rereading. Persuasion is one that grew on me with a second and third reading. She is one of the very few authors I choose to reread for that very reason.

  2. Well, so far Pride and Prejudice is my favourite but I'll admit that I only made it through half of Sense and Sensibility (I was enjoying it but got distracted) and I haven't read Persuasion yet, which I've heard is marvellous! I'm glad to finally see a four star review for you, Jason. You're on a roll!

  3. Satia: I think with another reading, P+P might end up being my favorite but S+S seems to have lingered in my mind a lot longer for some reason. I have no idea what to expect with Persuasion.

    Cleo: I do hope you do get around to finishing Sense and Sensibility. Thanks, I have been reading some decent books lately but none have been four stars or higher yet. >.<

  4. I adore this novel. It's my favorite by Austen. WI agree she gets better on reread. I couldn't stand Austen's work the first time I read Pride & Prejudice. Now she's one of my favorite authors. :)

  5. Pardon the typo. (Those bother me more than they probably should.) :)