Last week I was gripped by the need for Jane Austen. The nice thing about having a reading urge is that it’s pretty easy to satisfy, and the nice thing about a Jane Austen urge is that you are sure of what you are getting. Some books surprise when you return to them, but Austen only seems to become more and more herself. The essence of Austen, for me, is her ability to regard utterly dreadful characters with a delicious, amusing warmth. Her humour never comes at anyone’s expense, even if the reader might privately think the vainglorious neighbours and the intrusive relations might deserve it. Instead she aims straight for the funny side of their behaviour, leaving you with the impression that all is right in the world, really. It is most endearing.
I wanted to reread Sense and Sensibility, which I read first so long ago that I can’t even remember the event. But in the meantime, I had seen the film adaptation starring Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet on a number of occasions. I love that film and it has become so much the basis of my memory of Sense and Sensibility that I read the first half of the book quite unable to shake the storyline free from the images in my mind. It’s a faithful adaptation, too, right up until the part in the film that always makes me cry, when Alan Rickman as Colonel Brandon carries a sodden Marianne home through a storm and collapses to his knees when he finally makes it over the threshold. And no one pays him any attention because they are fussing over Marianne. In the book it’s so much less dramatic; Marianne happens to get damp feet from walking after rain and catches a little cold that gradually gets worse. Here’s the part where I ought to say that I actually prefer the way the film unfolds the events, only that would be so heretical I can’t bring myself to do it.
What I felt in the end was that the film works better dramatically, but that the novel is more intriguing in the slightly
cock-eyed message it wants to deliver. Austen contrasts sister Elinor, determinedly stoic, emotionally repressed and proud of it, with her sister Marianne, whose full-blown emotions hover perilously close to hysteria. Marianne is encouraged in this by their mother, who is also self-indulgent when it comes to her feelings, which is a sore trial for Eleanor who has become the only grown-up by proxy and is left with all the tough decisions and the unpleasant responsibilities because of it. Now, these three women have been cheated out of their rightful inheritance by the actions of their half-brother and his greedy wife, and been obliged to leave their comfortable home to live in much-reduced circumstances in Devon. For Elinor the remove is made more taxing by the fact that she has had to leave behind her budding romance with Edward, buttoned-up brother to her evil sister-in-law. But being Elinor she grits her teeth and pastes on her happy face, in the approved Austen-esque manner. No sooner have they settled in Devon, than Marianne gains two suitors; the middle-aged and not terribly dashing Colonel Brandon, who desires her in a Vertigo sort of way because she reminds him of a lost love in his youth, and the handsome, charming, delightful rogue, Willoughby, who is just too good to be true.
Ostensibly, the novel is about the two sisters, but when I looked at it from the conclusion backwards, it struck me that the two heroes of the story, for Austen at least, are Elinor and Colonel Brandon. Their patience and loyalty are ultimately rewarded, and the book makes a fair fuss over Marianne being ‘given’ to Brandon because he deserves her so. Marianne and her mother must be chastened for their earlier, recklessly emotional behaviour, and must learn better ways (which they say they will). And so the novel appears to be all about the enormous value of being able to suppress one’s feelings, suffer one’s troubles and generally master emotion with dignity. Across the course of the story, Elinor has to spend vast tracts of time being pleasant and polite to people she can barely tolerate, but Austen neatly sidesteps the possible charge of hypocrisy here by having her ‘learn’ to love them over time. You see, Austen seems to be saying, a little time and effort and you too can adopt my delightfully witty and generous attitude. Well, yeah right, it’s a nice thought.
But by the end I really wondered what we were to make of the moral of the story, when its two villains, Willoughby, and that prototype of the Austen favourite, the false friend Lucy Ferrars, extricate themselves so well from the chaos they cause. Willoughby provides the obstacle to Colonel Brandon’s courtship of Marianne, and Lucy Ferrers is the fly in the ointment for Elinor, and both behave pretty despicably. Yet in the end, they are married well and not so very unhappy in their situations. Both Willoughby and Lucy Ferrars are able to suppress their feelings in favour of their long-term goals, and both can manipulate not only their own emotions, but also those of others. I couldn’t help but wonder whether the Austen rule of head over heart, when followed through consistently, couldn’t help but benefit the bad characters in the novel as well as the good ones? Or is it because Jane Austen cannot bear to be mean to any of her characters that she lets them off the hook so? For a novel with quite a strident moral tone, it is quite surprising that very little of consequence occurs in the way of punishment – unless of course it is self-inflicted à la Marianne. Maybe the ultimate message of the novel is pragmatic, rather than moral. Whatever enemies you encounter in life, Austen is perhaps suggesting, nothing will affect you so badly as being your own worst enemy, and we can probably all say amen to that.