Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Sense and Sensibility Reconsidered

Whenever I re-read any of Jane Austen's novels, I always feel compelled to write about the experience. There are only six completed works in her oeuvre, and each one is a gem in its own way. From the broader comic strokes of Northanger Abbey to the high wit and exuberance of Pride and Prejudice to the fastidious structure of Mansfield Park to the mystery and depth of Emma to the exquisite and mellow voice of Persuasion -- I have read each novel again and again until its spirit has been imprinted on my soul. And then there is Sense and Sensibility. I have only just completed my third read-through ever of Jane Austen's first-published work, and I think I have finally learned to love it.

I was helped along on this journey of new-found appreciation by the annotated edition recently released that was edited by David Shapard. He did an excellent annotation of Pride and Prejudice a few years back, and I enjoyed his editorial tone -- a fine balance between gentle, never intrusive, interpretation and historical context. While I did not agree with every conclusion he made about Jane Austen's masterful shadings of language in my favorite novel -- we Janeites are a prickly crew -- I did respect his views and was edified by his obvious admiration for my favorite novelist. When I saw his edition of Sense and Sensibility a few months ago at B&N, I picked it up without hesitation. I knew I would gain insights into this red-headed Austen stepchild that I was determined to love.

You know, if it weren't for Sense and Sensibility's early, steady, quiet success, I wonder if we would have the rest of Jane Austen's works. Sure, we would have Pride and Prejudice in some form; though, probably not in its current masterful one. We would have had Northanger Abbey, as well. Had her family been faithful in preserving her youthful efforts, as I reckon they probably would have been, those earlier efforts would come down to us in the manner of her Juvenilia and Lady Susan. At least, I hope they would have. They may have never been discovered after all -- the dusty relics of an obscure and anonymous novelist of the early 19th century. What a horrifying thought! But, because Sense and Sensibility met with enough acclaim to encourage A Lady, we have the rest of her too small, too truncated body of work to delight and sustain us today. For that reason alone, I ought not to denigrate Sense and Sensibility.

The heroines: So my main beef with S&S has always been Marianne Dashwood. I know, I know -- she's supposed to be annoying. Boy, is she ever! Her effusions about nature, her refusal to conform to proper societal standards of civility, her overblown emotionalism -- she is really just a selfish little brat. I know she's only seventeen during the main action of the novel. OK, most seventeen-year-olds are selfish little brats. I know I was. But, that doesn't mean you want to spend 350+ pages with them. I think that her main sin is that she is annoying without being amusing. That does not often happen in Jane Austen novels. Even worse: Marianne has no sense of humor -- and I have no patience with those who have no sense of humor! I would have loved to have seen Elinor slap her around a bit. Then, she should have slapped Lucy Steele around a bit, too, for good measure. But, of course, Elinor (sense incarnate) would never do that. In fact, Elinor's almost too-perfect self control and societal conformity rankles nearly as much as Marianne's lack thereof. Unlike many Austen heroines, Elinor never has that moment of self-revelation when she realizes a crucial error in her judgment or assumptions. This keeps her at a certain distance from the reader, even though it is through her eyes that we witness most of the scenes in the novel. But, Elinor does have some sense of humor, so she is redeemed.

The suitors: Willoughby's too weird -- feckless, debauched, hedonistic -- ought we ever to feel sorry for him? In re-reading the novel, I have decided that, no, we are not. Despite what kindnesses of reflection the Dashwood women are able to bestow in the end, Miss Austen wants the reader to be wiser and harsher in her estimation of that cur. And Colonel Brandon . . .OK, so it was another era; I know. It's just that in my world, we have a certain set of attributes we associate with 35-year-old men who obsess over 17-year-old girls. None of them is positive, believe me. So, though all the characters of S&S uniformly declare Col. Brandon's innate goodness, I can never help but think of him as that creepy guy with the van lined with shag carpeting that my parents warned me about. Edward is strong, quiet, and good. I think I would end up liking him very much, if I were ever able to get to know him. He is "off-camera" most of the novel, so that is nigh impossible. But, he seems a good match for Elinor, and I am happy for them both at the end.

The supporting cast: Like many British authors, Jane Austen excels in filling the world of her protagonists with real people -- characters that breathe and live and round out her imagined places with veritable humanness. This is why British writers are the best -- they get the fact that a novel must be filled with real people, not just walking mouthpieces of abstract ideas (yes, I am talking to you, Russians). It was in re-considering these auxiliary players in S&S that I came at last to love the novel. For the sake of Mrs. Jennings alone, I will forever declare S&S a worthy member of the Sensational Six. Lucy Steele is perfectly formed to be perfectly abhorrent. John and Fanny Dashwood are likewise superbly written to be as itchingly irritating as possible.

Sense and Sensibility seems to want to instruct the reader, bending her away from the excesses of emotionalism and toward expressions of rational self-control. No one is more in favor of rational self-control than I. However, I think that the didactic bent of the novel does occasionally interfere with clean story-telling. Mansfield Park is also gently, subtly about core values and the author's view of the behavior and morals most likely to lead to individual happiness and a healthy society. Its structure, though, is so absolutely perfectly balanced, that the reader never realizes she is being instructed until reflecting upon the novel after its completion. I do not know how Sense and Sensibility could have been structured differently; I just know that it does not seem to have the harmony of Miss Austen's later works.

If you are to read Sense and Sensibility for the first or twenty-first time, I highly recommend David Shapard's annotated edition. He does another excellent job of elucidating such tricky Regency-era things as money and fashions and manners that can keep the 21st century reader from fully appreciating Miss Austen's meaning. His interpretive notes are, again, not intrusive -- and any of his strayings from my own decided opinions are, of course, much more easily forgiven for this novel than for those in Pride and Prejudice. It looks like he has done annotated editions for Persuasion and Emma as well. I can hardly wait to read them!

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