My new favorite Jane Austen – Pride and Prejudice still has my favorite romance, but Sense and Sensibility wins in terms of character and plot. I loved the sassy dialogue and the petty drama, the typical yet atypical portrayal of marriage and gender roles, and the way Austen writes with both flare and concision.
On a more intellectual level, it’s intriguing to examine how Austen biases the narration of this novel to favor “sense,” and thus, Elinor. The dynamic between Elinor and Marianne (this book was originally an epistolary novel titled Elinor and Marianne) begs for analysis, and the interactions between all the characters contribute to themes such as the importance of empathy and caring, the misplacement of compassion, and the prevalence of social structure amidst the bonds between family and friends.
Sense and Sensibility tells the story of two young English sisters, Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, the former whose reserve contains her emotions circumspect to a given situation, while the latter’s more romantic extroversion scarcely can conceal her every feeling, at times with reckless abandon. The Dashwoods are the daughters of a landed gentry father who passes away unexpectedly, entrusting their care to his eldest son, John, from a previous marriage. John, unfortunately, is easily maneuvered by his premeditating wife, Fanny Farrars Dashwood, who convinces him to leave virtually nothing to his sisters and stepmother despite his promises.
While transitioning into a new life of uncertainty, Elinor develops inclinations of devotion for Edward Farrars, brother of Fanny Dashwood of all people. Meanwhile, Marianne is instantly smitten with the handsome and enigmatic John Willoughby who suddenly appears riding horseback in the rain to rescue her from a hillside accident. Willoughby is a gallant and charismatic playboy — undoubtedly Reality TV star material for his times — whose appeal garners the attentions and affections of swooning females wherever he may be. Colonel Brandon is a 30-something (gasp!) neighbor who is taken with 17-year-old Marianne Dashwood from the moment they meet. Sadly, Colonel Brandon, like the slower and more steady stalwarts in real life who less frequently grace either our imaginations or television screens, is sidelined from being the object of passion or desire in the dramas that ensue.
Subsequent chapters reveal the ins and outs of unexpected back stories about these folks that operate like chutes complicating our climb straight up the ladder to happily ever after. But this is precisely where much of the fun comes into play, both for the Dashwoods’ lively and jovial busybody benefactress, Mrs. Jennings, who invites the sisters to her London home promising to seal up their marriage prospects, and for us too.
The real appeal of Jane Austen for me is her astonishing understanding of human nature and motivations, recorded decades, even a century and more ahead of what was to be uncovered by great psychologists, and her extraordinary ability to translate the thoughts and intentions of her characters onto the written page. Austen’s talent for breathing life into people through her pen towers over nearly every other author I have read.