Friday, 29 July 2011

'Sense and Sensibility' by Jane Austen (1811)

Synopsis: Elinor and Marianne Dashwood are the two eldest daughters of Mr Dashwood's marriage to his second wife. The sisters are very different from one another. Elinor is sensible and private while Marianne is openly emotional and impulsive. They live at a country estate called Norland Park in rural Sussex. When their father dies, Norland is entailed over to their older half-brother John. The girls, their mother, and their younger sister Margaret are then forced to live on John's charity. Elinor knows that they will soon have to move away from their home if they don't want to live with John's cold and manipulative wife. She manages to persuade her mother to seek assistance from a distant and wealthy relative who then offers them a small cottage in Devonshire with a reasonable rent. Elinor is more upset by this move than she's letting on because it will mean that she'll be leaving behind her budding relationship with her sister-in-law's brother Edward Ferrars. After their move, the Dashwoods find themselves spending a great deal of time with their cousin Sir John Middleton, his wife and children, his mother-in-law Mrs Jennings, and his long-time friend Colonel Brandon who soon falls in love with Marianne. However, Marianne finds their new company rather dull and longs for some excitement in her life. This is then provided when she meets her dashing and handsome neighbour John Willoughby. As Elinor quietly hopes for a reunion with Edward, Marianne and Willoughby become closer and closer. Two shocking secrets then emerge which threaten to separate the Dashwood sisters from the men they love. They then find happiness in unexpected ways and learn more about sense and sensibility.

It's December 2014. This review was originally written back in 2011 but after re-reading this book I've decided to re-work this review. Sense and Sensibility isn't one of my favourites by Jane Austen although I do love both the 1995 and 2008 adaptations. I much prefer Sense and Sensibility to Mansfield Park and Lady Susan but I don't love it anywhere near as much as Pride and Prejudice, Persuasion, Northanger Abbey and Emma. I guess it's very middle ground for me. The novel has a huge amount of merit though and I do like it. I enjoy the story, it's brilliantly-written, it's funny, it's dramatic, and there are some great characters. My favourite secondary character in the book by far is Mrs Jennings. She always seems to have the worst and least helpful things to say in a crisis but she's such a jolly, kind, well-intentioned and big-hearted woman. Her decision to stay behind at Cleveland to help nurse Marianne back to health is very touching. 

Sense and Sensibility is famous for being the only Jane Austen novel to feature two heroines. Re-reading this book has been something of a revelation because for quite a few years I've believed myself to be closer to Marianne in terms of personality. "She's passionate and sensitive! She fangirls over music and literature! She's a romantic!" But after re-reading this book I now think differently. I think my impressions of Marianne have been very heavily influenced by Kate Winslet's Marianne in the 1995 film. I love Kate Winslet's portrayal of Marianne. She brings all of Marianne's positive qualities to light beautifully. When I re-read this book it struck me just how immature Marianne is at times! I remembered a Marianne who was unable to control her emotions but actually Marianne can control her emotions perfectly well; her problem is that she just doesn't want to! After Willoughby tells Marianne that he has to go away on business and then leaves Devonshire, Marianne's behaviour becomes very silly. She isolates herself, goes without sleep, cries, and mopes away without any consideration for the feelings of her family. If Marianne had been genuinely unable to control her emotions she would have had my full sympathies, but Austen makes it clear that Marianne is only acting like this because she's gotten it into her head that this is how a young woman in love ought to behave. She's also very rude to Mrs Jennings and Brandon on several occasions. I didn't find Marianne anywhere near as relatable on this re-read and during the first half of the novel she annoyed me quite a lot. Having said that I did feel really sorry for her when Willoughby broke her heart in London and I liked that she had the humility to own up to her mistakes towards the end. I consider myself to be much more like Elinor now. Elinor is sensitive and emotional as well but unlike Marianne she cares about propriety and knows when it's best to conceal what she's feeling. Elinor will speak her mind when she's in the right company and judges it appropriate. And she's actually very funny too! She gets some great lines! 

Although Marianne annoys me at times, the main reason why I can't love Sense and Sensibility is because I don't find it as romantically satisfying as most of Austen's other novels. I'm not fond of the male characters. Willoughby is lively, charming and has a clear and definable personality but his treatment of Eliza Williams, Marianne and even Miss Grey is appalling. Edward Ferrars and Colonel Brandon are far nicer and are much more honourable but I find them both so bland and underdeveloped that I can't really warm to them. Elinor is much too good and interesting a heroine to end up with someone as boring as Edward. Brandon is a bit better but Marianne's change of heart at the end feels extremely abrupt. I have a very hard time believing that Marianne could fall in love with Brandon so easily considering how much she loved Willoughby. The book could have really benefited with an extra chapter or two to properly explain Marianne's change of heart and how she came to fall in love with Brandon. 

I think both the 1995 and 2008 adaptations improve upon Austen's book in several respects. Dan Stevens' Edward from the 2008 version is far more likeable and handsome than Edward is in the book but overall my favourite S&S adaptation is the 1995 film. That film isn't just my favourite S&S adaptation, it's my favourite Jane Austen adaptation in general and is one of my favourite films ever! The acting is terrific and Emma Thompson's script is wonderful. Her script beautifully captures the tone and spirit of Austen's novel but she makes several changes that actually improve the story. For example: Margaret Dashwood, who is a very minor and underdeveloped character in Austen's book, has a much more prominent role in the film. She gets an actual personality and is used as comic relief.

So, again, Sense and Sensibility isn't one of my favourites by Jane Austen but I do have a great deal of respect and liking for the book.  

Rating: 4/5 

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