Inspired by reading about others rereading Jane Austen in the order of publication, and the fact I began 2021 with a head full of Bridgerton (both the Shondaland show and the eight Julia Quinn novels that I binge-read in about two weeks) and Regency history books, I decided it was time to return to Austen’s six novels in their entirety. I’ve reread bits of them over the years, some I’ve read in full quite recently, but I felt like enough time had passed that I might see new things in them and enjoy them in different ways to before. So far, this has proved true – here are my ramblings about rereading Austen’s first published novel, Sense and Sensibility…
Last time I read Sense and Sensibility was about ten years ago – in fact, judging by the fact I have the tie-in edition to the 2008 Andrew Davies adaptation, it might be even longer. I’ve always quite liked the story of Sense and Sensibility but nowhere near as much as Jane Austen’s other novels, and I often said it was my joint least favourite with Emma, if I did have to pick a ‘least’ favourite. I guess you could say my relationship with it was mixed: ambivalent towards the novel, published in 1811, but I enjoyed adaptations of it. (Most memorably, Ang Lee’s 1995 film with the wonderful Alan Rickman and Emma Thompson and the aforementioned BBC version.)
But this is where I feel rereading has already been a success: I started it one evening and I was hooked. I was gripped by every page, waiting for the moment Marianne Dashwood finds out Willoughby has engaged himself to another, my heart breaking for her and she breaks all societal codes and makes a scene when she finally sets eyes upon again him at a London ball. (Interestingly, for Bridgerton fans, this is one of Austen’s few forays into the London season). I also haven’t felt so much satisfaction at a plot point as the moment Elinor Dashwood realises Lucy Steele is Mrs Robert Ferrars, not Mrs Edward Ferrars, and that Edward truly does love her back.
I felt a new appreciation for the contrast between the two elder Dashwood sisters: I used to think Elinor was too annoyingly suppressed and Marianne too annoyingly emotional, but actually, upon this read, I adored them and understood their characters in new ways. Elinor feels bound by propriety and the pressures of being a practical support to her family following the death of their father, whereas Marianne is so passionate she can’t help but wear her heart on her sleeve. Neither one is made happy by their temperaments, but the conversation between them, when Marianne realises how feeling Elinor truly is, and that she kept all her worries and upsets to herself because Marianne was feeling so much pain… I don’t know whether being a decade older (not necessarily wiser) has made me understand them much better, but what I found irritating about them when I was younger, I actually fully felt for them this time round. I think I saw elements of myself in both sisters, which probably made it easier to empathise with them.
“Mama, the more I know of the world, the more am I convinced that I shall never see a man whom I can really love. I require so much! He must have all Edward’s virtues, and his person and manners must ornament his goodness with every possible charm.”Marianne Dashwood
I saw so much more humour in the behaviour of Sir John Middleton and his mother-in-law, Mrs Jennings, who are brash but well-meaning, and of course in Elinor and Marianne’s sister-in-law, Fanny Dashwood, as well as the incredibly annoying Steele sisters. I enjoyed very much getting frustrated with Lucy Steele constantly sidling up to Elinor, drawing her into her secrets and grabbing her arm to enforce a very one-sided friendship upon her that took advantage of Elinor’s good nature.
Also, I used to think of Edward Ferrars as not that great in terms of the Austen heroes. (Surprisingly, I’ve always quite liked the gallant Colonel Brandon, even if the age gap between him and Marianne is quite big). Edward, to me, was a bit of a wet blanket, with a complete lack of conviction. But, upon going back to the book, although he probably isn’t my favourite Austen hero, I can recognise that actually, he is steadfast, unconcerned by wealth and much-maligned by his ruthlessly materialistic family. His commitment to marrying Lucy Steele is honoured not because he wants to pull the wool over Elinor’s eyes, whom he truly loves, but because he recognises that he made her a promise and, even though it might not make him happy, he is loyal. Of course, this makes the moment he arrives at Barton Cottage to tell Elinor how he really loves her so much better – I can’t read it without thinking of the surprised sound Emma Thompson as Elinor makes in the 1995 film (as immortalised by Dawn French in The Vicar of Dibley).
“I wish as well as every body else to be perfectly happy; but, like every body else it must be in my own way.”Edward Ferrars
On a more serious note about the historical context, Sense and Sensibility, like so many of Austen’s novels, gives an insight into the precarity of the female position in society, and also of wealth being such a huge factor in determining this, as with primogeniture: the Dashwood sisters are turned out of the only home they have ever known, Norland, because it is inherited by their brother, with very little financial provision made for them. And, in fact, they become reliant on another family member, with Barton Cottage made available to them through a distant cousin of Mrs Dashwood’s, Sir John Middleton. We delve into the world of female reputation, with Marianne’s in serious danger after she absconds with Willoughby to Allenham unchaperoned, the house owned by his elderly aunt. I think one of the reasons I like Austen so much, and appreciate her so much more as I’ve researched further, is the window we get into the lives of young women who are part of polite eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century society.
Overall, I feel like my opinion of Sense and Sensibility has completely changed: parts which I previously found less exciting than, for example, Pride and Prejudice, hooked me in different ways and made me appreciate the story and the characters a lot more. Perhaps, when I was younger, I just wanted another Pride and Prejudice, but instead, Austen’s first novel offers her characteristic wit, comment and romance in very different ways that are just as enjoyable.
Thank you for sticking with me throughout this rambling review, and I’ll be back at the end of next month with my thoughts on rereading Austen’s next published novel, 1813’s Pride and Prejudice…