Sense and Sensibility

It is of course awfully embarrassing that, up until two weeks ago, I had never read this classic by Jane Austen, at least not beyond perhaps the first three chapters, however I am consoling myself with the fact that there will always be too many books to possibly devour in a lifetime and I am aware that I am not the only booklover/blogger out there who has some surprising and blush-inducing titles in their TBR pile…
As I began to read I had a very strong sense of déjà-vu which I instantly attributed to my general familiarity with the story and the fact that, as mentioned in my last post, I have seen the film (the version starring Emma Thompson et al) at least half a dozen times. However, upon reflection and considering my instant familiarity with Jane Austen’s prose and certain aspects of the book that perhaps aren’t as prevalent in the screen adaptation, I suddenly remembered that I did start to read this book a number of times in my teens, but was unfortunately thwarted by the early nineteenth century narrative that can often seem convoluted to the 21st century mind, and was thus practically impenetrable to a sixteen year old without a great literary back catalogue to prepare her for tackling such a novel. Therefore, my intimate knowledge of the first three chapters was second to none, made for very easy reading and got me into my stride for the rest of the tale.
Many of you will no doubt be very familiar with story of Elinor and Marianne Dashwood and their respective trials and tribulations in love… After their father’s death and the subsequent power over their inheritance afforded their half-brother John, the sisters and their mother are left in reduced circumstances that lead them to take on a small cottage in the heart of Devonshire where they meet with acquaintances both new and old and are encouraged by all and sundry to establish a connection with a wealthy suitor and set themselves up for the future.
The one thing that struck me above everything else whilst reading this book is that, whatever the period in history and whatever the circumstance of the individual, there is very little to separate fundamental human interests and passions of the 21st century with those of our ancestors. The monologues given, more often than not by the male characters in the book (a reflection of the times perhaps?) in relation to wealth and status and its importance put me in mind of the countless individuals I encounter on a daily basis whose sole preoccupation in life is money money MONEY and stuff stuff and more STUFF! In my reality, this attitude bores me and often makes me feel increasingly isolated from the crowd (not such a bad thing?) as I place little importance on material assets other than having a home where I can be comfortable with the people I love. Musings on this aside, as I could easily rant for hours, I found my concentration waning during these mini-monologues, though I understand that the value placed on an individual’s personal wealth is merely a reflection of the society and times in which Jane Austen herself lived and indeed, is a key factor in this story.
Closely tied in with this preoccupation are the romantic attachments of Marianne and her older sister Elinor; the former with a new suitor (John Willoughby) who bounds onto the scene and rescues Marianne when she falls and twists her ankle whilst playing in the rain with her younger sister Margaret and the latter with family friend; Edward Ferrars. Marianne, who wears her heart on her sleeve and is wont to speak her mind at all times, even in the most inappropriate of circumstances, falls for Willoughby almost immediately and the two spend almost all of their time together. This honeymoon period comes to an abrupt end when Willoughby leaves with almost no explanation and does not reappear again until the two Miss Dashwoods visit their friend Mrs Jennings down in London. After countless letters sent to the object of her affections, Marianne and her sister stumble across Willoughby at a party where, much to the their horror, he snubs her completely.  This painful event, coupled with the return of her correspondence and the discovery that he is engaged to another, considerably wealthy, woman, results in a period of great distress, illness and despondence for Marianne.

Whilst this drama unfolds, Elinor, unbeknownst to even her sister, is subjected to her own dose of heartbreak and confusion as she is informed of Edward’s secret, four-year long engagement to Lucy Steele; a cousin of their neighbour Lady Middleton. We are also introduced to another acquaintance, and I feel, one of the most likeable and noble characters of the book; Colonel Christopher Brandon, whose affection for the two sisters; particularly for Marianne, deepens throughout the book as he becomes an important source of friendship and comfort, particularly for Elinor during a bout of illness that almost leaves her sister dead.

These central events/relationships are surrounded by dinner after dinner, meeting upon meeting and is generally reflective of what we understand society to have been like at that time. The dialogue is generally interesting, at times amusing (moody Thomas Palmer is particularly hilarious) the storyline touching and the characters diverse. We are treated to a wholly satisfying ending as our heroines find love; Elinor with Edward, whose engagement to Lucy is broken off and Marianne, rather unexpectedly, with Colonel Brandon, whose unflinching loyalty and love is finally rewarded, leaving Willoughby to wonder what could have been if he had married for love rather than following his shallow instincts.  The sisters love trysts and engagements, sorrows and joys again show that there is little difference between their lives and our own. These women fall in and out of love and are subjected to the same disappointments as the 21st century girl – only perhaps in prettier dresses and expressing themselves far more eloquently.  The effect is a true feeling of solidarity with the main protagonists and genuine satisfaction when all ends well for them.

My intention with this post was to complain about how the adaptation of books into well-known films can colour your reception of a book. After writing and reading this back I have realised that, in this case, I have little reason to complain. Yes, I found it impossible to take Kate Winslet, Alan Rickman and co out out of the equation when visualising the characters in my minds eye, however, in this case I feel that my familiarity with the screen adaptation (helped by the fact that it is a very good one) has merely enriched the experience, rather than marring my understanding. Whilst writing the screenplay, Emma Thompson apparently protested that she was too old to play Elinor, who is supposed to be nineteen years old in the book.  They therefore changed Elinor’s age in the film to 27. Now, whether I have been too affected by the film remains up for debate here but, I felt that the gulf between ‘sense’ and ‘sensibility’ in the novel was such, that, it made more sense for Elinor to be quite a bit older than Marianne, particularly considering her comparative maturity in handling the trials and tribulations of life…

All this debate aside, I am so glad I finally picked this up. A satisfying read and clear to see why this is such a classic…..

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