Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

The nuances of birth and worth…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

jane austen completeMuch 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.

Emma Thompson and Kate Winslett as Elinor and Marianne
Emma Thompson and Kate Winslett as Elinor and Marianne

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.

brandonAnd 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.

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48 thoughts on “Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

  1. Great review. They’re always so interesting… Makes the professor wish you’d write a book. I’m sure you could do much better than Austen. And with your vicious instincts, I’m sure there would be plenty of great scenes.

    From reading your review, I would say this professor’s favorite character would probably be the half-brother John. What happens to his poor soul?


    • Thank you, dear C-W-W! But…vicious? Me?? Whatever could you mean? 😈

      You really wouldn’t like John – a hen-pecked husband with the most horrible wife…and very mean. But none of them are as horrible as their counterparts in S&S 2 – The Remake!

      Have I not persuaded you to add the book to your TBR pile? 😉


      • I meant Tuppence, sorry. The professor’s thinks her behavior has a bad influence on you.

        Yucketh! You’re probably right then–like you always are. When does the professor get to enjoy the review for the new one?

        Well, no, because the professor is aware of certain things. Austen is wicked for the professor, I fear. Though I should probably read it just for you.


        • That’s so true…I was so sweet till she came into my life…

          Monday, perhaps…or Wednesday. I have to offend Lady Fancifull by being mean about one of her recommendations next week too…it’ll be a good week for ripios over here – only somehow mine come out sounding bitter rather than amusing! I need to become more professorish, I think…

          I would never be mean enough to want you to read more Austen (though Tuppence thinks you should read them all…)


          • That’s why the professor is working on bringing back your sweetness with tales from the PL.

            Sounds like a great week indeed. I’m sure you’ll do just fine with your rips. 😀

            Hmm… Well Bob told me that men need heroes–and there’s no heroes in Austen, you know.


  2. An excellent review as ever. I’ve always thought that Austen was skilled at holding up a mirror to her society and we certainly see that in Sense and Sensibility. This one may not have the ‘dash’ that Pride and Prejudice does, but it does have solid social commentary as well as subtlety and nuance.


    • Thank you, Margot! Yes, P&P is the more fun and Darcy is definitely the best hero, but S&S is more realistic, I think, even if I don’t find the charcaters as attractive, on the whole.


  3. Brilliant and interesting review FF. But YOU DO REALISE you only have until publication day of your Ozeki thumbs down for friendship and compliments to come your way. After that, just watch out for the murrain of frogs, flies and hoppity locusts to pass, like a cloud in front of the faint autumnal sun visible from your bedroom window and THEN……(to be continued)

    I particularly like the hoppity locusts touch. It may not be entomologically accurate, it may not be pretty, but it sure is fun


    • Thank you, m’dear! I know, I know…and I will deserve it all. To call you a winner and then do this…I assure you I agree that hoppity locusts seem an appropriate punishment. Plus, I suspect T&T will have great fun chasing them…


  4. Great review. As you know, I am not nearly such an Austen fan as you, but I never said the books weren’t good social history.


  5. There is an article in the New York Times today about a study showing literary fiction increases emotional intelligence while genre fiction does not. If any of Ms. Austen’s emotional intelligence rubs off on her readers, they should consider themselves lucky!


    • Interesting. I would imagine there’s a lot of truth in that. The best literary fiction (and Austen’s one of the best) always leaves me mulling over it, whereas much though I love crime fiction, generally once the book is finished it’s forgotten. Except for the occasional crime writer who manages to transcend the genre into lit-fic – Reginald Hill, for instance, or very recently, Hannah Kent.


  6. Great review! Having read all of Jane Austen as a teenager and only having re-read Pride and Prejudice more recently, I didn’t pick up any of nuances you did. Really made me think.


  7. Another excellent review! Great insight to the nuances hidden throughout Austen’s work (which make her so brilliant, despite what some professors say). S&S and P&P are my two favorites, I think, though Northanger Abbey has a special place in my heart too.


    • Thank you again! Those are my three favourites too – and I’d add in Mansfield Park. Never got along so well with Emma and for some reason I’ve only read Persuasion a couple of times – time for a re-read, perhaps…

      The poor Professor…still, he may have rotten taste in books, but he’s the one I’d want by my side if I’m ever attacked by a Giant Worm…


      • You’re welcome again! Ah, I’m just the opposite. Mansfield Park and I never got on. I enjoy Emma, because she is so obnoxious for a main character. She has so much to learn! And I love that Mr. Knightley stands by her the whole time (for better or worse!) I’ve only read Persuasion a couple times too. Perhaps because that’s the one I relate to the least.

        So true. I fear the Professor may always be misguided in his opinions of Miss Austen, but I second that – I wouldn’t want anyone else by my side if I’m faced with a Giant Worm!


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