Sense and Sensibility (1811)
Penguin Classics, 323pp
I first read Sense and Sensibility during my A-Levels, in 1996, when for those examinations we studied Pride and Prejudice. Enjoying Austen’s most famous novel, I decided to purchase another: my English teacher, I believe, recommended Sense and Sensibility, and soon I finished it. I had seen the Ang Lee film, starring Emma Thompson and Hugh Grant, a year before and had fun connecting the novel to the adaptation.
About three years ago I began to read another Austen novel, Northanger Abbey, but got only a few pages in before other duties took me away from it. So, it’s really been about fourteen years since I last engaged with Austen’s world: during this time her work seems to have blossomed in popularity, and people who would normally avoid the classics have been reading her: I even saw her novels for sale in Tesco, which speaks volumes about her current esteem.
About two weeks ago I purchased the complete Jane Austen, as part of a 3 for 2 deal in my local Waterstones, little realising that I would be within in the week buying the Sony E-Reader. I began Sense and Sensibility in this 1,300 page volume, but remembering I had my old Penguin Classics edition in my book cupboard, I read the next half in this edition, and finally finished the last hundred pages on the E-Reader. A peculiar manner in which to plough through one book, but it did highlight something interesting: it’s easy to read novels in a light device – the large complete volume gave me wrist ache, the small volume didn’t but the E-Reader edition was better still. I could change the print size to fit my mood. What I miss with the .epub edition, however, is the informative and brilliant introduction Ros Ballaster provides to my Penguin edition. (However, I can buy it online at Penguin’s website for £4.99 – which as the novel is available for free on Project Gutenberg means £4.99 for the introduction: you decide whether it’s worth paying.)
Sense and Sensibility was Jane Austen’s first published novel, but as Ros Ballaster explains in her introduction, it was not the first she had written, but indeed may be the second or third. Its publication date of 1811 hides the fact that this manuscript was probably written in the 1790s, as evidenced by its language and form, all of which were a little outdated by the 1810s. Much of what constitutes Sense and Sensibility can be detected in Austen’s juvenilia, and there is much to suggest that the novel began life as an epistolary novel, a common form in the late 1790s and receding as the novel evolved in the first part of the nineteenth century.
Elinor and Marianne Dashwood are single ladies in search of a husband. They believe they have met them in the forms of the dashing Willoughby, who saves Marianne when she is injured on the Downs, and Edward Ferrars, who forms an attachment to Elinor. Both men, however, are become engaged to other women, and the downfall of the Dashwood family seems certain. Recent adaptations of Austen have highlighted the frothy romantic quality of her work – and they are now sold as prototype romantic comedies. Now it is true that these qualities are present in Austen’s work, and in this novel, but they are not the centre of these works. Sense and Sensibility is a much bleaker work than that – though Austen’s razor sharp wit cuts through much of the dark heart. Love in this world does not run smoothly, and though it does end happily – as we know it must – the path to that happiness brings Marianne close to death.
Sense and Sensibility is a well written, deeply emotional novel. It has quiet power. It is, however, not as powerful as the novel that would follow it: Pride and Prejudice.