Sense and Sensibility

December 2, 2020

I’m so close to finishing Jane Austen’s six main novels that I figured, why not finish.  So I rewatched Ang Lee’s 1995 movie of “Sense and Sensibility” and started the novel, while watching for the first time the Andrew Davies movie from 2008.  Nothing more needs to be said about Lee’s movie; it’s as good as I remember it, and might still be the best of all the feature-film adaptations of Austen.  And I’ve liked almost all of the literary adaptations that I’ve seen from Davies; I enjoyed this one from start to finish.  The final proposal scene is slightly different from most, and compulsively watchable.  Granted, a lot of the actors slightly resemble their ’95 predecessors, even in speech; and I mostly had the ’95 actors in my head, rather than the later ones, while I read the novel.  But not always.  The new movie does cover more ground and depicts more scenes.  And the meeting between Elinor and Edward concerning Brandon’s offer is just beautiful.

Laurie Viera Rigler, author of “Confessions of A Jane Austen Addict” and “Rude Awakenings of A Jane Austen Addict” has a review.

Vic at Jane Austen’s World has a more critical one.

The novel seems to appear somewhat low on some lists I’ve seen of peoples’ favorite Austen, so I didn’t start with very high expectations.  But the story started to become something personal for me, almost from the start.  I think it’s because I generally see myself as Elinor, and in my head I kept debating with various “Marianne”s in my life, male and female, related to me and not related, etc.  We all have these debates, in every corner of our lives, spitting various degrees of sense and/or sensibility at one another.

It seems that Austen herself sympathizes with Elinor’s views and temperament more than with Marianne’s.  But after reading four Austen novels in succession, the thing that immediately gripped me about this story was Marianne – because here she is rocking the boat, challenging the very idea of polite manners; asking, do we have to show respect toward those who do not deserve it, and about whom we don’t even care?  And when we feel love, do we still have to hide it in careful, even dull language?

For the most part, I took Elinor’s view of the manners necessary in the world in which she and her sister live; and you can hardly avoid doing so, because the novel is mostly told from her perspective.  Yet, though Elinor’s decisions and feelings might consistently make good Sense, it’s a constant debate.  The liveliest argument, the one that stirred personal thoughts and memories the most for me, was Elinor and her mother fighting after Willoughby’s sudden departure, arguing over how to interpret the departure, debating his character, wondering what really might be going on between him and Marianne, considering what might be best to do.  The debate is more acute because Marianne has been silent; this leaves Elinor and Mrs. Dashwood with less to work with, so that each woman basically takes recourse in her own instinctive way of interpreting the world, based on her own temperament.  Mrs. Dashwood fills in for the temporarily silent Marianne in the role of Sensibility, or whatever other words may be associated with it – Emotion, Openness, Trust, Passion, what have you.

Just by being herself in a world that is mostly unlike her, Marianne forces up questions throughout the first half of the novel, while she’s still in rebellion.  And other questions arise, not asked directly by her:  What are the consequences of words as opposed to actions?  What are the consequences of silence or openness, or of secrecy?  There are all sorts of secrets in the novel:  Lucy and Edward keep their engagement a secret; Lucy and Robert do the same, eventually eloping; Willoughby’s past actions are all hidden, and are forced out into the open; Marianne and Willoughby keep silent about whether or not they are engaged.  Those latter two would always say that feeling and action are more important than mere words, but Willoughby’s unwillingness to abide by the old convention of speaking clear words, declaring what are or are not his intentions, is what leads to their grief.

(Spoilers ahead.)

The second thing that struck me most in the novel was Marianne’s letters to Willoughby.  In the movies, we don’t see them; we don’t ever hear her written voice or find out what she’s written.  We do see her, often and compulsively, writing passionately to her beloved, which makes her seem merely desperate.  Of course she’s desperate at this point, but there’s more than that in the letters.  She’s angry; she’s astonished that Willoughby hasn’t answered her first letter (Marianne has her own conventions after all, as everyone does); she demands an answer.  She has self-respect; and you get the sense that she is not one to be insulted.  Marianne is the last person to take a slight from anyone without reply or reaction.  And this comes out in her letters – but with self-control, which you rarely see her exert anywhere else, and certainly not in the movies.  In these letters, she’s angry, and ready to make a separation, and says so – she’s not wholly ignorant of what’s going on – but all of this is communicated with self-control and polite address to one whom she is willing still to respect and trust, if, as she says, he can explain himself properly.

For me, knowing that Marianne is fully capable, as Austen would put it, of “warm” anger toward someone who hurts her – especially someone who has not earned her respect – then the fact that she subsumes all this, shows just how strong her love was.  It had to be, to overcome her natural tendencies to retaliate toward others with either open disrespect or quick disengagement.

Her devotion, then, was not that of a merely desperate romantic; or of a woman who could be a doormat; or of someone who could not see hints of rejection when they’re given.  Her devotion was simply and literally a part of who she was:  a strong-hearted love and passion that she could not shut down.

There is a lot more to say about “Sense and Sensibility,” as with any Austen novel.  But on this particular topic, concerning different temperaments, I have to give props to that supposedly poor orator, Edward Ferrars, for this lovely little speech:

“You must not enquire too far, Marianne—remember I have no knowledge in the picturesque, and I shall offend you by my ignorance and want of taste if we come to particulars. I shall call hills steep, which ought to be bold; surfaces strange and uncouth, which ought to be irregular and rugged; and distant objects out of sight, which ought only to be indistinct through the soft medium of a hazy atmosphere. You must be satisfied with such admiration as I can honestly give. I call it a very fine country—the hills are steep, the woods seem full of fine timber, and the valley looks comfortable and snug—with rich meadows and several neat farm houses scattered here and there. It exactly answers my idea of a fine country, because it unites beauty with utility—and I dare say it is a picturesque one too, because you admire it; I can easily believe it to be full of rocks and promontories, grey moss and brush wood, but these are all lost on me. I know nothing of the picturesque.”

Spoken just like the novelist herself, I think.

Edward’s speech could be a reply to the incident earlier in the novel, in which Marianne detested Edward’s dry reading of a work by William Cowper, who apparently was renowned for his romantic poetry about the English countryside.

Another standout scene in the novel is the 3-way collision of embarrassment that occurs when Lucy, Elinor and Edward all end up together in the same room.  That’s even funnier than in the movies.

Incidentally, everyone knows that Willoughby is the “bad boy” in the love triangle with Marianne and Brandon, but who would be Elinor and Edward’s third?  It would have to be Lucy.  She’s the “rake” – working her way through a family of respectable brothers – who abandons the mate attached to her, allowing the two adults in the room to get together.

Following the usual template, Elinor should be attached to the rake in some way: flirting with him (Lizzie-Wickham; Emma-Churchill), loving him (Marianne-Willoughby), or at least being courted by him (Fanny-Crawford; Catherine-Thorpe; Anne-Mr. Elliot).  But Austen does have Lucy court and even torment Elinor, after a fashion.

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