This summer I have read mainly books by men – which is an unusual choice for me. But I did reread Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility.
And I’m so glad I reread it. It has always seemed to me the weakest of her books, but on a third reading I appreciated it. The characters are livelier than I remembered, and this time I loved Elinor Dashwood. (In the past I’ve been a Marianne person.) Elinor is a bit of a martinet, with her perfect manners and conventional mores, but she is intelligent and kind. She holds the impoverished Dashwood household together after her father’s death.
Elinor doesn’t get much help: her younger sister, 17-year-old Marianne, is Elinor’s opposite. Marianne is fantastically romantic, despising anyone who doesn’t have strong emotions, and is passionate about music and art. Elinor is repressed and dutiful and isnow, more or less, the man od the family.
How, you may wonder, could Sense and Sensibility be sultry with this cast? There is one sultry scene – sultry by Austen’s standards. After Marianne falls on a hill and sprains her ankle, a handsome stranger comes to the rescue.
A gentleman carrying a gun, with two pointers playing round him, was passing up the hill and within a few yards of Marianne, when her accident happened. He put down his gun and ran to her assistance. She had raised herself from the ground, but her foot had been twisted in the fall, and she was scarcely able to stand. The gentleman offered his services, and perceiving that her modesty declined what her situation rendered necessary, took her up in his arms without further delay, and carried her down the hill.
It is the classic man-saves-the-injured-woman trope. (Another incident occurs in Persuasion.) I am amused when the gentleman scoops up Marianne: this was never my fantasy. But this memorable gentleman is Willoughby, the most charming man in the novel. (The only charming man in the novel!) Marianne and Willoughby spend every day together after this meeting, discover they share the same interests, and fall in love. But then he leaves without proposing.
Elinor’s suitor, Edward Ferrars – who, like Willoughby, does not propose – is a moping, listless, charmless man who seems anemic compared to the other chracters. But Elinor does love him. And yet… why do the Dashwoods have parallel love problems. Why aren’t the men proposing?
Jane Austen has strict ideas about love. She values friendship more than love, which is unfortunate for Marianne. You can almost hear the maxims: Handsome is as handsome does. The worthiest men are not always the wittiest.
In one of Margaret Drabble’s novels, the heroine shudders at Knightley in Emma – far better to be with Frank Churchill, or the libertine Wickham in Pride and Prejudice, she thinks.
I seldom like Austen’s heroes, but I love her writing. Sense and Sensibility, her first published novel, is rather awkward, but it has its moments.