Sense and Sensibility
by Jane Austen
published in 1811
First read in the summer of 2009
(without understanding its context, nuance or richness in characterization)
Real perusal on February 19th – 23rd 2015
I daresay I have met my favourite book of all world in Sense and Sensibility.
I had failed to perceive a lot when I was 15, which had as much to do with the deficiency in the language as with the immaturity of the mind. I dare not say I see and understand each valley and every hill of this novel now that I am nearing 21.
Sense and Sensibility is not, as I had assumed all these years, just a portrayal of oppositions. Elinor as a voice of the reason, calm and civil and unaffected and dull. Marianne as the bursting sea of emotions, uncontrolled and uncontrollable, hysterical and dramatic.
In my opinion, Marianne and Elinor are not to be seen as two opposing poles. We all are affected by both traits to varying degrees, just as Elinor’s objective mind can be influenced by a flood of emotions or Marianne’s feelings governed by tact. I do not condemn Marianne for wanting to be honest and thus choosing to remain silent rather than lying. She is an intense person, and intensity doesn’t necessarily equal bad. The defects of her temperament and philosophies come only to light when they influence her behaviour towards other people. The novel, in my mind, is not about vilifying sensibility, but how it might – and usually does – effect the owner’s empathy and civility. Because she feels in extremes, Marianne is quick in judging people and failing to allow them to change or move up in her esteem. She sees the vulgarity and gossip-loving nature of Mrs Jennings and Sir John and makes up her mind that because of their vulgar manners, they are unable of possessing any positive trait. On the other side, her temperament mirrored almost exactly in Willoughby blinds her to everything else and she does not care about hurting other people’s feelings by careless and cutting remarks.
We see the contrast between Elinor and Marianne because while they both have similar reactions to and judgments of the same people, they act differently on their opinions: Marianne huffs and turns away from the society because her compulsion to honesty dictates her to act on her feelings; Elinor acknowledges the ridicules and selfishness of some people, feels a thorough dislike for some of them, but forces herself to act within the rules of the society and civility because her compulsion to adapting to the society dictates her to compromise and mask her true sentiments in a cloak of polite impartiality. And even though she perceives, she does not judge idiocy; she does not condemn people because they are thoughtless and can see events only through their own eyes. I especially like Marianne’s description of civilities as “the lesser duties of life” (Chapter 46) – and there she and her sister are finally in accord.
Elinor’s virtues of keeping her distress in check, accepting what is and moving on, seeing things in an objective manner without romanticizing them are acknowledged by her family only later in the book. They find it commendable that she kept her unhappiness hidden as to not make them unhappy as well. A funny thing; a friend of mine said exactly the same thing to me. She masked her unhappiness behind her smiles and refused to talk about it – the why and what and how – and said she didn’t see why she should involve me in her unhappiness. Sadness itself does not make me feel sad. It makes me feel helpless and empathetic. It was rather her refusal to share it with me that made me sad. I am willing to acknowledge, however, that forcing openness when the other person is not ready to be open can do more harm than good. Maybe I require too much honesty. I do not judge or condemn my friend; I was a little hurt, perhaps, at first. I hope someday she will have enough trust in our friendship to allow me and herself to share her burdens with me.
I personally see more of myself in Marianne. I used to feel with a great intensity during my teenage years and once I’d vowed in my diary that I’d rather feel too much than to be calm and tranquil and insipid. While I have learned to value and cherish the calmness of mind, I have yet to master the calmness of manner as I am still quite impatient with people whose company adds such little value to me. Am I being condescending? Yes. I also acknowledge that I myself am seldom a good company for most people. I am absent-minded and self-centered. I am my own best company, and I struggle to censure myself or to change my behaviour. While it is true that living in total isolation is neither possible (for most of us) nor the best way of living (for most of us? Surely there are some exceptions to everything.), I can fake politeness even though – admittedly – I cannot master it as well as Elinor does.
As John Dashwood says, “there is a vast deal of inconsistency in almost every human character” (Chapter 41), and himself of all people! Anxious for his half-sisters and his stepmother to be well and comfortable yet reluctant to bring these comforts about himself, nay, even finding all sorts of self-justifications as to why he himself just simply cannot spare anything while willing, judging and urging other people to do his duties.
How about Lady Middleton, who is not terribly fond of Elinor and Marianne because they don’t fawn over herself and her children like Lucy and Anne (or is it Nancy?) do, and yet worrying about her image of gentlewoman of good manners?Of Lucy Steele’s small mind and selfish phoniness I have nothing to beautify. Elinor might pity her but I cannot be as generous. I dislike people who lie, deceive and flatter, and I’ll be as open and frank as Marianne to judge them as harshly as I like.
These thoughts and many more have passed my mind while I was reading Sense and Sensibility. I must and will revisit it many times to come. If there is one part I am thoroughly dissatisfied with, it is that everyone who pities and loves Colonel Brandon thinks he deserves a reward for all his past afflictions, and that that reward is supposed to be Marianne. Of course, they do not force her to marry him; but I genuinely dislike that line of thinking, of using someone else entirely for their own reason of “rightness”. They did not act upon their wishes (much) and yet I must censure them for thinking such thoughts, and encouraging such thoughts to flourish.