Thursday, November 10, 2011

Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

Unusual obstacles lie in the way of any woman trying to be a good novelist. No, I don't mean the repressions of a patriarchal society or any of that nonsense. I mean that women have some unique struggles with the way they are wired. Men tend to be mission-oriented, job-oriented. Women tend to be relationship-oriented, especially in a romantic sense. This leads to faults on both parts—once the mission of getting the girl is over, men tend to turn all their attention to the next mission. And women tend to focus on the relationship and forget that the relationship serves the mission.
Unfortunately for us ladies, the temptation to focus exclusively on relationships affects the quality of our writing. We forget to write characters that have something bigger in their lives than each other. We think up perfectly good plots and then drown them out by adding too much romance.
There is one lady novelist who rose above all these problems to write novels from a distinctively feminine point of view—that is, ultimately concerned with relationships—in a way that recognised the position of love in the order of things. Jane Austen was clever, insightful, witty, an excellent stylist, a lover of her fellow-man—and a devout Christian whose themes were directed to the right and wise ordering of the feminine life.
Sense and Sensibility tells the story of two sisters. When their father dies, Elinor and Marianne Dashwood move to a small cottage in a new community with their mother and younger sister. Both Elinor and Marianne are of marriageable age and face the obstacles of poverty and a lack of suitable likeminded men. Elinor, the elder sister, is reserved, discreet, and always keenly aware of her duty to her family—traits which cause the impulsive, romantic, and emotionally uninhibited Marianne to suppose her to have little feeling.
Marianne sprains her ankle and is rescued by a handsome, dashing gentleman named Willoughby. They form an attachment, but Elinor warns Marianne that her unguarded behaviour towards him will cause tongues to wag—in fact, Elinor and her mother suppose that Willoughby and Marianne must be secretly engaged. Meanwhile, Elinor is nursing an aching heart of her own—she has met a young clergyman of good sense and taste, who although he seems to appreciate her has ceased to pay her attentions. Through love and heartbreak, the Dashwood sisters must navigate their emotions, figure out what's really important, and learn to distinguish between honourable men and scoundrels.
One of my favourite Jane Austen books, Sense and Sensibility was the first book she was able to publish. This is Jane Austen we're talking about, so the book is a fantastic discussion of love, the benefits of societal rules, and the dangers of impulsiveness, impatience, or unguarded emotions. Crossed in love, Marianne reacts violently and falls dangerously ill. Later, having learned wisdom from her elder sister, she sums up what she has learned:

"Do not, my dearest Elinor, let your kindness defend what I know your judgment must censure. My illness has made me think— It has given me leisure and calmness for serious recollection. Long before I was enough recovered to talk, I was perfectly able to reflect. I considered the past: I saw in my own behaviour, since the beginning of our acquaintance with him last autumn, nothing but a series of imprudence towards myself, and want of kindness to others. I saw that my own feelings had prepared my sufferings, and that my want of fortitude under them had almost led me to the grave. My illness, I well knew, had been entirely brought on by myself by such negligence of my own health, as I had felt even at the time to be wrong. Had I died,—it would have been self-destruction. I did not know my danger till the danger was removed; but with such feelings as these reflections gave me, I wonder at my recovery,—wonder that the very eagerness of my desire to live, to have time for atonement to my God, and to you all, did not kill me at once. Had I died,—in what peculiar misery should I have left you, my nurse, my friend, my sister!—You, who had seen all the fretful selfishness of my latter days; who had known all the murmurings of my heart!—How should I have lived in your remembrance!—My mother too! How could you have consoled her!—I cannot express my own abhorrence of myself. Whenever I looked towards the past, I saw some duty neglected, or some failing indulged. Every body seemed injured by me. […] The future must be my proof. I have laid down my plan, and if I am capable of adhering to it—my feelings shall be governed and my temper improved.”
Humbled and determined to follow her sister's example of “gentleness and forbearance”, Marianne promises that her emotions shall be “regulated...checked by religion, by reason, by constant employment.” If only more girls took good notice of Marianne's resolve! A recognition of the sovereign dispositions of God, the retention of sense and reason, and the devotion of one's self to fruitful labour—these cures for emotional incontinence are still as important today as they were in Jane Austen's day.
Gutenberg etext
Librivox recording
Miniatures and Morals: The Christian Novels of Jane Austen, by Peter Leithart
The 1995 Ang Lee film, Sense and Sensibility, stars Emma Thompson as Elinor Dashwood, Kate Winslet as Marianne Dashwood, Hugh Grant as Edward Ferrars, and Alan Rickman as Colonel Brandon. It is an excellent film, faithful in spirit to the book and only making those changes which are necessary to condense the novel. Highly recommended, but as usual, no substitute for the book.

1 comment:

Tim Nelson said...

The line "my nurse, my friend, my sister!" somehow reminded me of the line "my brother, my captain, my king", which the dying Boromir speaks in the LoTR movies.


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