On Sense and Sensibility

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.

Elinor, Marianne and that other sister

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

Kate Winslet as Marianne, Greg Wise as Mr Willoughby

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.

Remember grumpy Mr Palmer? Jane wrote him as impolite as Hugh Laurie played him

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.




50 thoughts on “On Sense and Sensibility

  1. If I’m not wrong, Thompson directed this adaptation and she does such an incredible job. I reread the novel last year or maybe the year before, after recently watching the film, and had a similar experience. Contrary to Austen’s other work, there are moments in Sense and Sensibility that seem to drag and I almost prefer the film. Perhaps its the cast – all of them simply wonderful. Now we must have been on an Austen kick together recently, as I watched (for the first time) the BBC adaptation of Northanger Abbey. Have you seen this one? I loved it. But NA is my second favorite Austen, so I suppose I wasn’t very hard to please.

    • Thompson wrote the screenplay, but Ang Le directed it. (His first English-language film, I think.) And it is a terrific adaptation, with a wonderful cast. I would have liked to have seen the sisters a little closer in age, as Elinor’s attitude looks like maturity rather than disposition when there’s less of a gap, but that’s really a minor quibble.

    • Michelle – what a lovely coincidence that we were enjoying Austen together! I haven’t seen that BBC adaptation, or at least I have no memory of it. I also love Northanger Abbey (with another brilliant false friend, Isabella) and would love to see it! I agree that the cast in Sense and Sensibility are just fantastic, and I think Emma Thompson really understood the dynamics of the story, and brought them out to perfection in the screenplay. I was expecting parts of the book to drag, given that I’ve heard that criticism before, but I didn’t find that so much – I was more surprised by the didactic tone that Austen takes. I don’t think she ever marshalls it quite so consistently again.

      Oh and Teresa, I know what you mean about the age gap between Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet. But they are so perfect for the parts in all other ways, I don’t mind either!

  2. Doesn’t it feel heretical to say “the film was better” – particularly when talking about Austen? I haven’t seen the adaptation but am hoping to as part of Advent with Austen (I must watch it if only to see Hugh Lawrie!). Thrilled that you are joining us for the event.

    Starting my read of it this morning (I last read it 2 years ago) I was shocked to find a THIRD sister, Margaret!! She certainly gets forgotten.

    Do pop over on Friday to join in the discussion on the first part of the book for the read-a-long?

    • Completely heretical! I’d love to know what you think of the adaptation – you will enjoy Hugh Laurie; he is quite splendid. And poor old (or rather young) Margaret. I’m not quite sure what she’s there for, but never mind. I would LOVE to join in the readalong discussion – expect me there!

  3. The film is much better at pacing and the dramatic, isn’t it? I do enjoy the slower pace of the novel in some respects though, it is more human and less Hollywood. I don’t think that Lucy and Willoughby escape without consequences. If I recall there seems to be vague hints that neither are going to end up very happy or maybe it is me imposing my own conclusions. I think what matters most is that both Elinor and Marianne get the marriages that are best for them and will live happily ever after 🙂

    • Stefanie, I quite agree that Marianne and Elinor are the ones who matter (and even there, Marianne sort of drops below the level of the narrative, with all the emphasis falling on how appropriate Colonel Brandon is for her). Austen implies that Lucy and Willoughby haven’t made great matches because their partners aren’t pleasant people. But then, neither are Willoughby and Lucy, and given that they are in it for the money and the status they get what they want. I was really surprised by how easy their fates are. Willoughby does the mea culpa bit to Elinor, but how deep the regret goes is hard to ascertain. But still, one can always imagine that they are going to be VERY unhappy if one wishes!

  4. I haven’t read S&S for ages–maybe it’s time again. I loved the movie version as well, but didn’t Ang Lee direct it? Or did he produce it (or maybe it’s another Austen film he did). Anyway as I remember it, the novel was about balance. Each sister had to lean a bit more to the other, Marianne to find more sense, and Elinor more sensibility. I agree that there is more head than heart about Austen’s perception of the way to live, but she does make Elinor admit to strong feelings before she gets the happy ending.

    • Lilian – yes, Ang Lee did direct it. The novel is about balance, but given it’s from Elinor’s perspective, there is no critical regard upon her behaviour, the way there is on Marianne. The balance with regard to Elinor is actually paid out by her mother, who must realise that Elinor suffered as deeply as Marianne although she did not show it, and in consequence the mother must alter her own behaviour accordingly (and feels rather guilty to have dismissed Elinor as just less sensitive). So it’s about Austin’s delight in ethics – how we treat other people is what really matters, and Marianne is more guilty than Elinor because she can be self-obsessed and rude to others (even though I found her quite refreshing at times!). It’s an odd book because one does tend to remember it as more balanced than it really is.

  5. I agree, Litlove, that Brandon and Elinor are real winners in Sense and Sensibility as their patience and good behavior are ultimately rewarded. Marianne is a little less “Marianne” at the end, which is a little sad. Anne in Persuasion and particularly Fanny in Mansfield Park are also very well behaved and virtuous heroines. This is why I prefer Emma and Pride and Prejudice to any other Austen book (well, I haven’t read Northanger Abby yet). Emma and Elizabeth Bennet are flawed, which makes me like them more. The age difference between Brandon and Marianne has always bothered me out a little, as well as the fact that Fanny and Edmund are first cousins in Mansfield Park. Speaking of film adaptations and the little modifications here and there that deviate from the book but enhance the story: Mr. Darcy (played by Colin Firth natch) diving into that pond! Lovely!

    • Ruthiella – yes, my sentiments are very much in line with yours here. I was sorry to see Marianne’s feisty edges repressed by the end, and there is something far more bewitching about the flawed heroines than the paragons of virtue. I had a slight pang, too, that Marianne never gets to take centre stage and fall in love with Brandon. Instead it’s sort of a done deal, which is a tad dodgy. But as for Colin Firth diving into the pond, oh be still my beating heart! He could have done it four or five times and I wouldn’t have exactly protested. 🙂

  6. If life could only be like a Jane Austen novel–the world would be almost perfect! Have you noticed that when a mama is involved in an Austen story they are almost always self-indulgent (of at least one daughter), and vicars are usually presented as slightly ludicrous. I’m very much in an Austen mood, too, and can’t wait to finally pick up Emma. And you make me want to read Sense and Sensibility, too (maybe me least favorite Austen, but as I love them all that doesn’t really say much). 🙂

    • Danielle – you are so right! Mamas are indulgent and clergy are ridiculous. That’s so true. I haven’t read Mansfield Park, or at least, years and years ago I began it and never got very far. I will read it next year, I think, and suppose it will end up my least favourite. But like you, I am a Jane fan and she can really do no wrong for me!

  7. I’m not sure I can continue to read the blog of an Austen Heretic… 😉

    Your question is really interesting. Maybe JA wanted to suggest that while being stoic is a Good Thing, one can carry it to extremes – Elinor too may have inflicted some of her own sufferings? But nobody in the novel seems to represent a happy medium between sense and sensibility though, do they? (I can’t remember!) Perhaps it’s not possible and one can only veer between them?

    Now of course I want to go and reread this instead of tidying up this messy room (not that I’m doing that either since I’m reading your blog instead).

    • I think Helen makes a really good point here: ‘…Elinor too may have inflicted some of her own sufferings? But nobody in the novel seems to represent a happy medium between sense and sensibility though, do they?’ I think that’s right. It’s so easy (because the film overdoes it, probably) to read the Elinor as the deserving, ‘sensible’ one, and Marianne as the flaky one who needs to reign it in. But there is an argument that each sister could use a bit of what the other one has: Elinor’s inflexible unwillingness to give into her senses almost loses her the man of her dreams. And she is at times judgmental, disapproving of those who don’t meet her high standards for her own behaviour. A bit of Marianne’s passion and daring would not go amiss.

      And I think the ending of the book is quite ambiguous. Don’t people feel a little sad to see Marianne tamed? ‘With such a confederacy against her,’ Austen writes, ‘what could she do?’

    • Helen – lol! I do faithfully love Austen, though, every which way she is presented, so I’m not a very convincing heretic. 🙂 Yes, this is an interesting question, as to whether Elinor makes life harder than it should be. And yes, she does, by ending up spending time with people she doesn’t care for, and refusing herself the comfort that her mother and sister could give (on the grounds that she would rather spare them pain). There’s nothing that Austen particularly says to justify that reading – it’s only implied by the events. Unlike the way she is explicitly severe on Marianne and their mother for the excessiveness of their behaviour.

      But yes, and to include Dinah’s perceptive comment here, I think it is a very good point to say that no one has the balance right between sense and sensibility, and there were definitely times when I felt Marianne’s robust refusal to deal with people she didn’t like, or to pretend to serenity she didn’t feel seemed healthier to me than Elinor’s determined compliance and repression. I certainly did find Marianne’s final capitulation to be a bit sad and, in its own way, excessive.

      And I would always rather read than do housework! 😉

  8. I forgot about Hugh Laurie’s presence in that adaptation! I love him.

    When reading Austen I often veer back and forth in my mind between thinking she is too optimistic (put on a happy face and everything will work out in the end) and thinking she’s really extremely dark under all the pretty love stories etc. The vast majority of her characters are truly obnoxious, and the fact that she makes them funny rather than grating sometimes seems more a survival strategy than anything. Occasionally, especially in her later work and when she’s writing about the inbred Bath scene, I sense this deep pessimism about human nature. Adopting an Eleanor-style stoicism (or a Lizzy Bennet-style “student of human nature” attitude) is the best of one’s bad choices given that one has no choice but to spend the majority of one’s time in the presence of self-involved idiots. She presents us with no way to escape the idiots, and little hope that they will ever reform.

    • Emily – another very interesting comment indeed. It’s so true that many of Austen’s secondary characters are ghastly, and that they will never change their ways. I think you can see the novels as about the hard-won strategies for survival that nice people have to concoct to deal with the way fate imposes one rule on the snobs and social climbers and another entirely on the kind-hearted. Hmm, thank you; much to think about there.

    • Adopting an Eleanor-style stoicism (or a Lizzy Bennet-style “student of human nature” attitude) is the best of one’s bad choices given that one has no choice but to spend the majority of one’s time in the presence of self-involved idiots. She presents us with no way to escape the idiots

      I feel like you’ve stated here so many of my unarticulated thoughts on Austen (and probably much of why I don’t care for her overmuch).

  9. Amen!

    And yes the adaptation is wonderful. As far as I know, Emma Thompson wrote the script. This makes me admire her even more (if that is possible at all). And the cast of that film is marvelous, Emma Thompson, Kate Winslet, Alan Rickman, my absolute favourites. But also the minor characters … Hugh Laurie and Imelda Staunton reunited (after Peter’s friends), aren’t they marvelous?!

    • Oh Chris, yes! They are all wonderful actors. I watched Peter’s Friends the evening before I gave birth, so that movie has tremendous resonance with me – and a superstitous fear that I had better not watch it again, just to be on the safe side!

  10. A very enjoyable and timely post. S&S was 200 years old on October 30th (I think.) I thought it passed a little quietly given that it was JA’s first novel. Really nice to see it discussed here. Thanks for reminding me of Hugh L’s performance. Oddly, a precursor to his House persona – grumpy, funny but rather touching in the end when he helps Marianne. At the time I remember thinking how Un-Laurie-like!

    • James – yes, that’s so true about Hugh Laurie. My most vivid memory of him at that point was as Bertie Wooster, so very far from Mr Palmer’s exasperated contempt. But I’ve never seen him in House (I can’t do medical drama). Reading Fuelled By Tea (see further up in the comments) is hosting Austen in Advent over the next few weeks and there will be more S&S celebrations there, no doubt!

  11. “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?”

    I don’t think that Austen can’t bear to be mean to any of her characters, but rather that ill fortune can sometimes appear good on the surface. It’s fairly clear that Willoughby’s wife will make his life miserable, and as for Robert and Lucy, how long is it before they will be fighting like cat and dog? Certainly, Austen privileges those who have put their head over their heart throughout the book, yet their rewards are decidedly of the romantic type, so that does suggest her placing value on love. I am not a fan of Marianne ending up with Colonel Brandon, but the implication is that she does somehow develop feelings for him, not merely intellectually realize that she should be with him.

    By the way, clever move with reviewing a book that many readers likely to have something to say about!

    • Miriam – ha well I’ve put a stop to that by writing on Jacques Derrida next. 😉 I do agree with what you say, but it is only there by implication in S& S and I suppose I would be ready to believe it more if Austen had articulated it outright. She is very forthright on Marianne’s excessive emotions, as well as the indulgence and general giddiness of their mother, but she only says of Willoughby that though he would often regret Marianne, his comfortable bed and his good shooting would take his mind off of it. But still, it is always encouraging to hope that the Lucys and Willoughbys of the world can never be quite as wholeheartedly happy in their selfish vices as the heroines in their virtuous joys.

  12. Sense and Sensibility is miles my least favorite Austen book. I want to reread it sometime soon and refresh my memory, and maybe I will love it better. I just find Marianne unbearable, and Eleanor not interesting enough to make up for it. There are things about the book that are nice, including Mr. Palmer!, but overall I do not care for it. However, I used to hate Emma, and now I love it, so I know things can change.

    • Jenny – it is SUCH a long time since I read S & S that I really cannot recall what my initial reaction to it was. I’m pretty sure I loved it, but being a mere teenager at the time, and grading up from Agatha Christie, I had very little in the way of critical judgement! 🙂 It’s always a nice thought, though, that turnarounds can happen, as you experienced with Emma. I loved it as a book, but have never found any of the adaptations as satisfying. I think that Emma when personified by an actress cannot help but show up all the dreadful flaws that Austen’s writing softens.

  13. This is such an absolutely favorite of mine – both the book and that particular film adaptation! Love it!
    As to the following: “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?” & “For a novel with quite a strident moral tone, it is quite surprising that very little of consequence occurs in the way of punishment” – Do we not still see examples of this in daily life around us?

    And I wholeheartedly agrees with your last sentence!

    Thinking of giving books as gifts? Listen to The Book Report on radio for interesting ideas. Check http://bookreportradio.com for station listing.

    • Anne – oh it is true that in real life people do get away with all sorts of things and there is no natural justice. When I read S & S, I was surprised how didactic Austen sounded, how moral. I don’t recall that same tone inhabiting her other novels (although it could just be that I’ve forgotten) and I suppose it encouraged me to look at the moral universe of her story, who won, who lost, what the ultimate outcome was, in relation to the big no-no which is letting emotions run amok. But Austen was always a faithful representer of social life, and she undoubtedly saw enough cases of undeserving triumphs to want to put them in her books.

  14. I’m going to read this for the Austen in Advent. I have never read it but I saw the movie years ago and liked it at the time. Lucky for me it’s too long ago to be affecting my reading. I have only read three of her novels so far and Pride and Prejudice is my favourite of those but I know people have different favourites.

    • Caroline – I’m not sure that I have a favourite Austen. I do like them all (well, I have only ever half read Mansfield Park, so I have to put that to one side). But yes, I love Pride and Prejudice, and the BBC adaptation will always reign supreme for me (or at least, Colin Firth rules supreme). I’ll be looking forward very much to knowing how you get on with this one!

  15. Enjoyed reading your thoughts on Austen. I’ve never seen a film adaption but I can imagine Kate Winslet as Marianne. Although Marianne is too much I think she redeems herself by her loyalty to Elinor. The part when she announces to the dinner table ‘But it is Elinor of whom we speak.’ is so moving. I want to re-read it again this anniversary year.

    • Nicola – oh yes, that IS a moving bit. I can’t help but have a sneaking regard for Marianne’s refusal to pretend a pleasure in the acquaintance of the Jennings and the Ferrars whilst Elinor is determined to fake it out of politeness. They are dreadful, on the whole, and not a lot of fun to be around. If you fancy seeing the film adaptation of this one, it really is very good. I’d love to know how you get on with your reread.

  16. You’re so right, Austen never fails. It’s comfort food in times of stress, it’s the hot chocolate, no, warm milk and chocolate chunk cookie before bed. It’s everything heart-warming, encouraging, uplifting and positive. And I think the woman after Jane’s own heart is a hybrid of principle and passion. And Elinor might well be the epitome of that union.

    I agree too that the film adaptation of S & S is one of the best Austen films I’ve seen. (And of course, my favorite has to be the BBC adaptation of P & P, the ‘wet shirt’ version) I feel that if our dear Jane had seen the movie, she too would have thanked Ms. Emma Thompson and Mr. Ang Lee for interpreting her words and translating them into the visual language so brilliantly. BTW, have you seen Emma Thompson’s famous Golden Globe Acceptance Speech (1996) for her screenwriting win? Here’s the link to the YouTube clip:

    It’s a must-see for all Austen and Thompson fans.

    • Arti – I hadn’t seen this before – it’s wonderful! I’m quite happy to leave it there in its entirety. Completely with you on the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, too. I loved that with all my heart. And I like what you say about the classic Austen heroine as being a mix of passion and principle. I think that about nails it!

  17. I didn’t know the whole clip would be posted here once I left you the link. Feel free to remove it if you like and just leave the link to YouTube. (actually, that’s what I did. 🙂 )

    • Oh dear, Vole! I think he is beyond my help – and anyone else’s. Just time to put the book down and walk away, I think (I fear he may have been enjoying the rage too much!).

  18. The thing I love about Austen when compared to people writing at the same time, is how much closer to the realistic she seems to be. In other novels, the “bad” characters would come to much worse ends, because that’s the way it’s supposed to be. But in Austen, things work out a little more like we would actually expect them to. There are limits to this, of course, but she’s just so much more complex about characterization than other writers of the time and more willing to imagine different fates for characters than were possible in other novels.

    • Rebecca – I do like the way you put this. Yes, Austen is very realistic in that way, and very clear sighted about her society and its failings. And brilliant at characterisation too!

  19. Pingback: Sense & Sensibility Readalong, Part I | Reading Fuelled By Tea

  20. This is not my favourite Austen. I prefer Pride and Prejudice and also Emma, probably because I prefer witty & daring female characters.

    I think Emma Thompson is far too old for the role but that she plays is marvelously. Unfortunately, she makes us forget that Elinor is so young.

    For me, Austen wants to show that extreme behaviours are harmful. Both girls in their stubborn attitudes (one respecting propriety at any cost and the other neglecting propriety) are responsible for their misery. In a Thomas Hardy novel, they would have remained spinsters.

    PS: I made my husband see this film. He’s been calling Hugh Grant “Indeed” and Alan Rickman “Va chercher!” since he watched it. 🙂

    • Emma – well, in all honesty, I do prefer P & P and Emma as novels, but I think that film of S & S makes the book better for me in a completely illogical way! You are so right that both Elinor and Marianne would have been tragic cases in Hardy’s fiction! And I loved your husband’s comments – they made me laugh out loud.

    • Yes, Thomas, she did. I never really thought about her age until now, but of course you and the other bloggers who mentioned it are right – she IS too old. But she does do it so beautifully it doesn’t really matter. Ha, love that quote! I must remember it now and get it into general conversation! 🙂

  21. Pingback: Sense & Sensibility Readalong I (Ch. 1-9) | Liburuak

  22. “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.”

    I am so excited to hear you say this! I have often thought that about this book. Thank you for confirming my suspicions. I think we may be kindred spirits.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s