Friday, January 26, 2018

Book Review 2017 #2 - Jane Austen's Sense & Sensibility

Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen
Published by: Max Press
Publication Date: 1811
Format: Hardcover, 368 Pages
Rating: ★★★★★
To Buy (different edition than one reviewed)

Elinor is pragmatic about the death of their father. They have lost their home and they will find a new one and carry on. Her younger sister Marianne has opted for another approach, misery exponentially increased by any dear memory of her father and the beloved house they all shared. Their mother is perfectly happy wallowing with Marianne while watching her step-son and his odious wife Fanny destroy Norland Park, that is until that odious Fanny insinuates that Elinor isn't good enough for her brother Edward and Mrs. Dashwood can not remove them fast enough from Norland Park. Thanks to kind relations they are able to leave the odious behind and settle at Barton Cottage, part of Barton Park were Mrs. Dashwood's cousin Sir John Middleton resides. There they have a new social circle of relatives and friends and Marianne is drawn to one in particular, Willoughby. Willoughy is the same in all her sensibilities and they are soon as thick as thieves and their engagement is expected to be announced daily, much to Colonel Brandon's dismay. Yet the announcement never comes and Willoughby takes off to London and they hear no more from him. So when Sir John's mother-in-law, Mrs. Jennings, invites the two girls to accompany her to London Marianne jumps at the chance. But London will be a proving ground for the young girls hearts. Will either of them find a happily ever after or are their hearts destined to be forever broken by their first loves?

It seems odd to me that in a high school that actually had a good English department where I read many classics I never read any Jane Austen. By the friends I made through various bizarre and arcane clubs I was introduced to her via the Colin Firth miniseries in February of my senior year. This was on my level, being more into films than books at the tender age of seventeen, it was the perfect bridge from one art form to another. At that time I was adamant that I wasn't going to college in the fall, and I in fact didn't, but that doesn't mean I was averse to learning and reading and I took it upon myself that summer to acquaint myself with the classics, many of which had been made into films starring Emma Thompson. She was a powerful bridge to Austen and also to Forster, though the most powerful of all was anything to do with Monty Python. The summer of 1996 was spent on my side porch reading classics I never thought I would ever pick up. Though it was to Austen I felt the most visceral a connection. Sense and Sensibility was the first book of hers that I read and I remember towards the end reading it in my bedroom because of the copious sobbing that accompanied my reading. When Edward arrived at Barton cottage to declare his freedom and his desire to marry Elinor, I just sat in my window sobbing. I never knew a book could do this to me. I was forever converted to Austen and through her I found the love of classics that my family always wished for me.

Do to what is happening in my life at the moment I've been feeling old. Which might account for why I noticed the characters ages so much on this reading of Sense and Sensibility. When I first read this book I was the same age as Marianne is for most of the story so I could feel a kinship with her and totally identify to being that age, even if I like to think of myself more as Elinor. As I've grown older I've still felt that kinship, that connection, but never internalized the ages of the characters as a did on that first reading. Marianne and Elinor are young, Colonel Brandon and Mrs. Dashwood are old. Or so I've always thought. For the first time ever I noticed their ages. The flannel waistcoat wearing Colonel is 35 and Mrs. Dashwood is about 40. Which gave me an "oh dear" moment. I am OLDER than Colonel Brandon who was thought too old for love and closing in fast on Mrs. Dashwood. Yes, I could say that obviously people married younger in Regency times because the life expectancy was shorter, but I literally have friends I went to high school with with kids in college. If my life had taken an entirely different and unexpected route I am old enough to have an Elinor and Marianne and Margaret of my own! So needless to say I felt myself on this realization seeing things more from the "elderly" point of view. Oh, Colonel Brandon, you are a youngin...

Comparing Sense and Sensibility to Austen's other work is interesting in that despite having a plethora of female characters to root for she usually has one heroine, an Emma or a Lizzy, yet here she has two. Given that one is so reserved and the other so melodramatic it's as if she's split her heroine in half. Yes, we could analyze that her book originally necessitated two leads because it was written in epistolary fashion before being dramatically changed in the edits, but I think it's more fascinating to look at this in the classical sense, as in Plato's Symposium. Mary Shelley was strongly influenced by Aristophanes' myth of primal man being cut in two necessitating two beings that need each other because they originally were one when writing Frankenstein. Who's to say that Austen wasn't as well. Some reviewers note that as the book progresses Austen isn't sure which personality aspect she wants to win the day. Should Elinor and her logic or Marianne and her emotion get the HEA? I don't see this. I think that while yes, Elinor's ending might be more satisfying, they both get the endings that Austen intended all along. But what's more important is that each learns valuable lessons from the other, who they need. Marianne needs some of Elinor's grounding, while Elinor needs to not bury her emotions so deep. If they were one we'd have the perfect heroine. But perfect heroines are overrated, I need mine with some flaws so I can root for them.

But just having people to root for isn't nearly as fun as having someone to root against. Lucy Steele is that person. What's interesting is that each time I read this book I get a different take on Lucy. Obviously you can't NOT hate her, she's keeping Elinor and Edward from their HEA. But there's so many different faces to Lucy, the fake friend, the gold digger, the manipulator. She's ambitious and jealous and won't take no for an answer. I mean just the way she controls Elinor with her confession of her secret attachment to Edward! Gaw, she should die for that. Oh, let me destroy all your faith in the man you love AND make you suffer in silence because you're such a good person you'd never tell another soul! And then as a parting blow, let her think I married Edward and not his brother, ta! Yet for all that one thing that Edward and Elinor always remarked on didn't seem that much of an issue to me, and that is Lucy's lack of an education. Yes, it meant she was limited, but it wasn't until this reading that I really caught how stupid she is. Her speech is grammatically incorrect and her overuse of the word "was" is just annoying and wrong. I think the reason this had never struck me before is that if you haven't read Austen, well, it's kind of like Shakespeare in that you have to get into the groove of the writing style. So obviously when I first read it I wouldn't have picked up on it. All the other readings, well, I wasn't the grammar Nazi I am now. So this time? Oh Lucy, I hate you for a whole slew of new reasons.

Yet the character that I hate the most is Willoughby. And this is a hate that has grown over time. I remember when I first saw Emma Thompson's adaptation of Sense and Sensibility I felt cheated that she didn't keep the scene where he "redeems" himself. He really wasn't that bad in my mind. Now I can see why she didn't, he doesn't deserve ANY redemption. The reason is all in his seduction of Eliza. Reading this book for the first time at 17 an unwanted pregnancy didn't seem that horrific. In fact, they were kind of popularized by movies like For Keeps? Interesting fact, it was filmed here in Madison, Wisconsin. OK, Molly Ringwald and her ironically Darcy named heroine aside, I just didn't think it was a big deal having a baby. Because I didn't understand Regency England. Colonel Brandon's ward having a baby out of wedlock is the worst thing that could happen to any woman. To be seduced and left with a parting gift that would arrive nine months later is the most vile thing I man can do, especially to a well bred woman, and even more especially when he could have just paid a prostitute. It was the game of destroying her that made if more fun, no matter what he said after the fact about her TOTALLY having his address, because he could have made it right! Once discovered by his benefactress he could have married Eliza and made everything right in the world. Instead he marries an heiress and regrets not marrying Marianne and never gives another thought to Eliza. He deserves NO FORGIVENESS! NONE AT ALL! If this book has one flaw it's that Austen feels a little bad for him. She wrote him that way, she can't now apologize for it!


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