Sydney M. Williams
Burrowing into Books
Reviews of Selected Readings
“Sense and Sensibility”
March 29, 2017
“…and because they were fond of reading,
she fancied them satirical: perhaps without exactly knowing what it was to be satirical.”
Jane Austen (1775-1817)
Sense and Sensibility, 1811
Jane Austen sits among a select pantheon of English writers when it comes to craftsmanship of the language and an understanding of human nature, especially matters of the heart. Her stories and precise choice of words make for pleasurable reading.
As in many of her books, Austen pits opposites against one another, ergo sense and sensibility. Elinor represents “sense.” She is clear and sound; she is reasonable and has good judgment. As the oldest daughter (age 19) of a recently widowed mother, she helps hold the family together when they are forced to move. The middle daughter, Marianne, age 17, is “sensibility.” She is more emotional; quick to form opinions; in love with love and given to outbursts. She wears her heart on her sleeve.
Both girls, along with their younger sister Margaret, are intelligent, well-bred and well-read. Their father died young, so they and their widowed (and impoverished) mother move to a cottage on the estate of a distant relative. The story, which takes place over about a year, twists and turns, in plot and venue, between the countryside and London. And, of course, we discover that Elinor is vulnerable beneath her exterior of reason. She falls in love with and then fears she has been jilted. Ultimately, this confusion is unraveled and she marries. Marianne, early in the novel, falls in love with John Willoughby, and then is summarily abandoned. Nevertheless, she has difficulty seeing him for the scoundrel he is. In the end, though, reason intercedes and she marries an older (35) friend of her father’s family – a man who had fallen in love with her at first sight, but who, at first, had to suffer his beloved’s infatuation with Willoughby. So, in the circuitous manner of human behavior, sense comes to Marianne and sensibility to Elinor.
Jane Austen died a spinster, at age 41, in 1817. This, her first book, was published anonymously by “A Lady” in 1811. Three more novels were published during her life and two posthumously Her father, a descendant of wealthy wool merchants, had fallen into poverty. He was the rector of a parish in Hampshire County. Her mother was the daughter of the rector of All Souls College at Oxford. Austen wrote about people she knew – the British landed gentry, both the wealthy and those who were not.
It is easy to get caught up in the web Jane Austen weaves and in the lives of her characters. She writes with insight and humor. Not only do we learn manners and customs of late 18th and early 19th Century English gentry, we come to understand them in a way that is as pertinent today as it was 200 years ago.