It is significant to note that the longest amount of time of any of the Austen novels has elapsed between when I first saw an adaptation of Sense and Sensibility and read the book –possibly as long as 14 years. It has therefore had a long time to solidify in a certain way in my consciousness. The disappointments in love suffered by the Dashwood sisters have certain parallels with my own, and although it started off at an extremely tedious pace, it eventually recovered momentum and made for a very enjoyable read.
In some ways, Sense and Sensibility feels like the most stilted of Austen’s novels. The virtues represented in the title find personification in Elinor and Marianne respectively, in a way that sometimes seems slightly artificial. Marianne’s flights of fancy and Romantic intensity, while a product of the late 18th century, seems very appropriate in a 17-year-old; yet I find myself wishing the author had not caused her to completely and logically grow out of them. Real life people are a combination of both qualities. Elinor’s prudence, conviction, repression, and sense of justice make her similar in some ways to Fanny Price. If anything, Elinor can sometimes be more self-righteously irritating than Fanny.
There is some merit in Marianne’s naturalness, in saying what she feels and not prevaricating otherwise—but this is said by someone who is much more like Elinor (me). The extended moralizing at the end of the book gives us many reasons not to regret Marianne’s loss of innocence—and yet, conversely, such a tone seems more calculated toward the notion of novel as moral instruction than in being true to her characteristics. Marianne’s desire to be married to someone whose taste in music and literature corresponds to her own is not at all unreasonable, yet even more unlikely in 1811 than now. Her amusing inability to empathize with the unmarried woman of 27 is charmingly characteristic of a teenager:
‘A woman of seven and twenty,’ said Marianne, ‘can never hope to feel or inspire affection again, and if her home be uncomfortable, or her fortune small, I can suppose she might bring herself to submit to the offices of a nurse, for the sake of the provision and security of a wife’ . . .
‘I must object to your dooming Colonel Brandon and his wife to the constant confinement of a sick chamber, merely because he chanced to complain yesterday (a very cold damp day) of a slight rheumatic feel in one of his shoulders.’
‘But he talked of flannel waistcoats,’ said Marianne.
It is ironic that in Emma Thompson’s Sense and Sensibility, the one fused in my mind, such a sex symbol of the melancholic older man as Alan Rickman should be cast as Colonel Brandon. Though, in general, the casting for that film was much older than the characters in the book, the character of Colonel Brandon benefits in the extreme by taking on the traits of Rickman. In the novel, I am sorry to say that one is left with the impression that Brandon is a mere plot expedient. He is there to give Edward Ferrars a living, which eventually allows Edward to marry Elinor. He is there to relate the one really sensational plot element, whose story is at times much more interesting than the one at hand; in flashback, Brandon was a soldier in the East Indies, his paramour Eliza an unlucky and unhappy woman sunk to the lowest levels of “A Rake’s Progress” and her unfortunate daughter, by nature or by nurture, suffering much the same fate. Aside from this, however, Brandon seems a bit of a schmuck. Like Elinor, one feels pity for all the other characters laughing at his expense, and the scene in which Marianne repulses him extremely rudely because she expected Willoughby is quite affecting.
Though one could make this claim of all of Austen’s novels, Sense and Sensibility is really filled with some nasty characters. The entire Ferrars clan—Edward excepted—are a rotten bunch. Icy, selfish Fanny; supercilious, tyrannical Mrs Ferrars; idiotic, self-obsessed Robert; and even John Dashwood is weak-willed and a moral weakling. They pale in comparison to the viper-like Lucy Steele, and in spite of the triumph of sense over sensibility, Lucy tortures most of the characters in the book and still wins. She is really a bitch with a capital B, and really she should be welcome to Willoughby, a rake with a capital R. I think Willoughby is worse even than Mr Wickham, who was more a sensual creature in his villainy; Willoughby is calculating, selfish, yet well-spoken and charming, and ultimately is forgiven, even when he, like Lucy, has basically gotten away with it.
One moment in the book did give me considerable shock; after Marianne’s life-threatening illness (one of the more perilous moments in the whole Austen canon) has passed its worst stage, the dazed Elinor practically stumbles into Willoughby, who has come to give rather a long account of himself. It’s a very odd moment and though it allows for more closure than Willoughby’s one regretful glance at the end of the Thompson film, it feels very odd and can only be countenanced in relation to the book’s final summing up. Other images and scenes I had taken for granted in the Thompson film—such as Mrs Dashwood’s level-headedness, Margaret’s cheekiness, and the double wedding—proved to be illusions. On balance, the absolute hilarity of Mrs Jennings, Sir John Middleton, and the Palmers probably cannot be equalled in any of the other books. I was grinning on the Tube as I read those scenes.
As I alluded earlier, most women could find themselves in Elinor’s and Marianne’s conduct and emotions. The way Marianne reacts with excessive emotional outbursts struck a chord with me in the context of break ups. Like Elinor, one feels sometimes one is “stronger alone, and her own good sense so well supported her, that her firmness was as unshaken, her appearance of cheerfulness as invariable, as with regrets so poignant and so fresh, it was possible for them to be.” Yet even Elinor’s self-control is not eternal (as Dawn French parodied in the Vicar of Dibley’s last TV story), “Elinor now found the difference between the expectation of an unpleasant event, however certain the mind may be told to consider it, and certainty itself.” Austen, in at least three of her books, is the champion of the prudent, self-effacing woman (Elinor taking on something she really hates because no one else will reminds me of Anne Elliot). In Pride and Prejudice, while Jane is applauded, Elizabeth is clearly the heroine; Emma, like Marianne and Catherine Morland, must learn to reign in her imaginative tendencies. The difference is that adversity and Elinor teach Marianne to accept this, while for Emma and Catherine it is primarily a man who helps them see sense.
There are many untold stories in Sense and Sensibility; the Brandon/Eliza one mentioned earlier; Margaret’s future,; and the unseen yet present servants. For all the talk of economy, no one in Sense and Sensibility is really impoverished (other than Eliza’s daughter); amidst all Marianne’s misery in London, the fact remains the girls have nothing better to do than obey social engagements while they wait to get married.