The nuances of birth and worth…
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Much though I love Pride and Prejudice, and although Lizzie will always be my favourite Austen character, for me Sense and Sensibility is the better of the two books overall. That’s not to say it’s more enjoyable – P&P definitely wins out on both humour and romance. But in Sense and Sensibility, I feel Austen paints a more realistic picture of the lives of the ‘gentry’ of her period, and in this book we see much more clearly the constraints placed on young men, as well as on the women. The main thrust of the book is on the contrast of personality between the reserved and sensible Elinor and the frenetic romanticism of Marianne, but for me the more interesting element is what the book tells us about Austen’s late 18th/early 19th century society.
The book starts with a similar premise to P&P; the Dashwood family, all girls, find themselves forced to leave their home and reduced to genteel poverty when, on the death of their father, his house and estate pass down through the male line to the girls’ half-brother, John. There is, of course, no possibility that the girls could work, so they must survive on the little income they have, and look to kindly relatives (all male) to assist them. The only other alternative is to achieve a good match.
But in S&S, we also see the other side of the coin – Edward (Elinor Dashwood’s love interest) is an eldest son and as such has been brought up to be ornamental (which he’s not very good at) and useless (a skill he has pretty much mastered). And so his life is not his own – he must marry to please his mother or risk losing the wealth he has grown up to expect. But as a wealthy young man of a good family, he is considered a good match, despite this combination of uselessness and spinelessness. (Edward’s eventual ‘heroism’ was forced on him, so he deserves no praise for it.) Then we have Sir John Middleton: a kindly and generous man, distant relative of Mrs Dashwood, who offers the family not just a cottage on his estate, but also his friendship and concern for their future (i.e., marriage prospects). And how do the Dashwoods repay him? By looking down on his taste and manners, and the vulgarity of his relations by marriage. The nuances of a multi-tiered class-ridden society, where every tier is jealous of the one above while despising those below, are already becoming clear.
There are things I don’t like about S&S, but these too tend to shed light on the same class divides and gender roles. Lucy Steele is a much-maligned young lady, in my opinion. Why shouldn’t she have become betrothed to Edward? Should she really have said ‘No, no, I am too vulgar to marry such a sophisticated (and rich) young man’? What was it they all despised her for, except her birth and lack of education – two things she could not control? Why is Edward considered noble for sticking to an engagement he entered into willingly, while Lucy is reviled for not freeing him from it? Is Mrs Dashwood’s desire to marry her daughters to rich, or at least well-established, men any different to Lucy’s desire to escape her relative poverty through rich connections? And since everyone despises her anyway, why shouldn’t she act as she does at the end? I’m always rather glad that things work out for Lucy – she reminds me a little of a less entertaining, but more successful, Becky Sharp.
And then there’s Colonel Brandon – and of course I love him. But I can’t help feeling a little queasy that he fixes his passions on a seventeen-year-old girl barely out of the schoolroom and clearly immature. But he’s a rich landowner, and so again seen as a good match, and although Marianne makes it clear from the outset that she sees him as an old man, her entire family encourage her to think of him as a potential suitor. Would they have had he been poor, or even just comfortably off? Lastly Willoughby (the hottest boy in the county, according to the blurb for the Joanna Trollope remake) – a rake, yes, but does what he does because he can’t face disinheritance and, despite ruining one young woman and breaking another’s heart, gains back his place in respectable society within a very short space of time, by making a good though loveless match.
Not as sparkling as P&P, but with much more depth, Sense and Sensibility shows more clearly how this society operated through family alliances and marriage, with the young people of both sexes expected to conform to the wishes of their elders. While Lizzie and Jane are whisked off at the end, Mills & Boon style, to great houses and handsome men, the matches made by Elinor and Marianne are less glitzy but probably more realistic. Both books are great in their own right, but together they give a much fuller picture of the nuances of this complex society, where money and birth determined status and worth in an ever-fluctuating pattern.