"Yes, novels; for I will not adopt that ungenerous and impolitic custom so common with novel–writers, of degrading by their contemptuous censure the very performances, to the number of which they are themselves adding.... There seems almost a general wish of decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labour of the novelist, and of slighting the performances which have only genius, wit, and taste to recommend them. “I am no novel–reader — I seldom look into novels — Do not imagine that I often read novels — It is really very well for a novel.” Such is the common cant. “And what are you reading, Miss — ?”

“Oh! It is only a novel!” replies the young lady, while she lays down her book with affected indifference, or momentary shame. “It is only Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda”; or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best–chosen language." --Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey, Chapter 5

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Upon Re-reading Sense and Sensibility

I have probably not read most of Jane Austen's novels as many times as a professed fan should. I wish to right that, and right now I am reading Sense and Sensibility, Austen's first novel. All of my favorite Jane Austen-based movies are based on S&S; it's a story that I love, and I think its lessons about reason versus romance and the best way to approach a relationship are valuable and needed in this day and age.

So far I have read up through chapter 19, which takes us to the middle of Edward's visit to Barton Cottage. So far we have moved back and forth between Edward and Willoughby, the two men who come in and win the Dashwood girls' hearts, and then mysteriously leave without declaring themselves. First there was Edward Ferrars, who, however, never speaks at all during the chapters which introduce him and discuss his growing attachment to Elinor. The ladies move to Devonshire, and duly meet the dashing Willoughby, who captivates all with his charming manners and undisguised preference for Marianne's company. No sooner does he exit stage right, leaving disappointment in his wake, then Edward suddenly comes back on the scene. Edward's behavior, however, seems as inexplicable as Willoughby's before his going. Everyone knows he's in love with Elinor, but he doesn't behave like he is, doesn't even behave like he's very happy to be there.

Austen creates symmetrical situations for the two couples, while describing a complete difference in behavior and personality. Edward is shy and rather socially awkward, and not particularly handsome. He and Elinor behave themselves with restraint and perfect propriety, and Elinor exerts herself not to hope too much or become too much attached to him when he has not given her certain knowledge of his affection. Willoughby is all things manly and beautiful, open, talkative, as impetuous and passionate as Marianne herself, and neither of them exercise any restraint whatsoever. Marriane loves him with devoted adoration, and doesn't care who knows it. All of this is setting the stage for future revelations which will reveal the motives of each gentleman in keeping silent, and prove the wisdom of their ladies' approach to love.

One of the things that strikes me in reading this is how both Elinor and Mrs. Dashwood think Marianne must be engaged, although she has not said anything to either of them about it. It is assumed by both of them that she (at 17) has every right to enter an engagement even without her mother's knowledge or consent, and in fact, Mrs. Dashwood refuses to even ask her about it. This is not a wise move on Mrs. Dashwood's part (the narrator tells you so frankly), and is proof of how Mrs. Dashwood allows her delicate sensibilities to interfere with her ability to be a good parent, but even Elinor seems unsurprised at the idea that an engagement could be formed without an application for consent. The fact that Mrs. Dashwood's consent is certain does not seem like adequate reason to forgo it.

Another thing I am struck by are the ages discussed. I am now 36, which puts me at poor, despised Brandon's advanced age. Of course, the part of the story where Marianne talks about how infirm he is and how he couldn't possibly be capable of passion (any more than a 27 year old woman), is wonderful comedy which shows just how young and foolish she is. But then there's Mrs. Dashwood, who is reckoned "barely forty," but who her step-son John is sure cannot possibly survive another fifteen years. John and Fanny are likewise ridiculous, but it serves as a reminder that the white-haired women who are so often pictured as mothers and aunts in the movies aren't accurate. The mothers in most of these stories are probably only in their early forties. It is a little disconcerting to think that I am nearer Mrs. Bennet's age than Elizabeth's--after all, 36 is reckoned still young in our time--and realizing how very young most of these heroines are gives me a new perspective on them too.

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