Book Review: “Sense and Sensibility” by Jane Austin

Like a lot of classics and classical authors I didn’t get around to Jane Austin until I moved to South Korea. I had many friends who sang her praises and who loved many of the books she’d written. I read Pride and Prejudice in 2015, shortly after arriving in Korea. I found it slow and difficult at first, but there was a switch at one point through the story where suddenly I was very deeply invested and devoured the rest of the book which made me excited to read another Jane Austin book.

For awhile while standing in an underground bookstore in Taipei I looked over the books they had for sale and at their selection of Jane Austin’s works trying to figure out what to give a try. There were a couple different ones for sale and I realized I had no idea of what I should’ve read next. Pride and Prejudice always came to mind for me when I thought of THE Jane Austin novel. I knew people liked the rest of her body of work, but I didn’t know which ones were more popular. I tried to look it up online but eventually just picked Sense and Sensibility.

First some fun historical facts. Sense and Sensibility was published in 1811 and wasn’t published under Jane Austin’s name. It was published anonymously under the phrase “by a lady” and was broken up into three volumes. The page count totals in at about 409 pages, so I assume it was to be more bite size that way. Jane Austin started writing it in 1975 which means it took her 16 years to finish it and publish it. It was her first published novel which she originally gave a different name. The original being that of the two of the main characters: Elinor and Marianne.

There are some similarities of course between Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Predjudice. It follows a family of mostly girls whose life is uprooted by the death of their father, their mother has marriage on the brain, where what people say and gossip skews perception, and that sometimes the handsome gentleman who is charming right from the start is actually a snake. In Sense and Sensibility there are three girls and their father dying is what spurs the start of the book. They have an older half brother who is married and quite well to do. It was their father’s assumption that if he left everything to John Dashwood that he would do everything in his power to care for his younger sisters and step-mother.

The reason that tipped everything into John Dashwood’s favor for inheritance was his son, Harry Dashwood. Mr. Dashwood wanted his grandson to enjoy the delight that was the Norland estate. However he didn’t seem to take into the fact that John Dashwood has a spine  made out of jello and the virtue of play-doh that his wife Fanny Dashwood (yup it’s a British book and that’s her name) molds as she sees fit.

Fanny Dashwood comes into the Norland estate with her nose held high with child and husband in tow while the widow and her daughters are still there and makes them feel like they’re unwelcome guests in their own home. Fanny Dashwood is from a well to do family and has plenty of money of her own and John Dashwood is also doing quite well. Yet, Fanny constantly complains about how little money they have and how much it costs to let the rest of their family stay with them.

“It was my father’s last request to me,” replied her husband, “that I should assist his widow and daughters.”

“He did not know what he was talking of, I dare say; ten to one but he was light-headed at the time. Had he been in his right senses, he could not have thought of such a thing as begging you to give away half your fortune from your own child.”

She works down any charity John wishes to give his family. What starts of as money gets whittled down to a stipend, which gets whittled down to a gift, to buying them something and helping them find a house to at least helping them buy furniture to… well this.

“Yes; and the set of breakfast china is twice as handsome as what belongs to this house. A great deal too handsome, in my opinion, for any place THEY can ever afford to live in. But, however, so it is. Your father thought only of THEM. And I must say this: that you owe no particular gratitude to him, nor attention to his wishes; for we very well know that if he could, he would have left almost everything in the world to THEM.”

This argument was irresistible. It gave to his intentions whatever of decision was wanting before; and he finally resolved, that it would be absolutely unnecessary, if not highly indecorous, to do more for the widow and children of his father, than such kind of neighbourly acts as his own wife pointed out.

I do not know that I have so readily disliked a character and awaited their ruin so quickly then I did with Fanny Dashwood. I gave John Dashwood a pass as just so easily persuaded that he could have changed his opinion on what color the sky was by someone standing next to him looking at the same thing.

Mrs. Dashwood’s three daughters (John’s younger half sisters) included Elinor, Marianne, and Margaret.

Elinor, this eldest daughter, whose advice was so effectual, possessed a strength of understanding, and coolness of judgment, which qualified her, though only nineteen, to be the counsellor of her mother, and enabled her frequently to counteract, to the advantage of them all, that eagerness of mind in Mrs. Dashwood which must generally have led to imprudence. She had an excellent heart;—her disposition was affectionate, and her feelings were strong; but she knew how to govern them: it was a knowledge which her mother had yet to learn; and which one of her sisters had resolved never to be taught.

Elinor is the non-romantic sister of the family. She thinks of things with a clear head and seems to lack emotion. While her family tends to get all twisted up in things they think and assumptions they make, she watches keenly and acts proper constantly. She’s very observant and tends to hold her cards close to her chest, hiding pain she may feel or her desires. She does however dearly love her family and is very close to Marianne.

Marianne’s abilities were, in many respects, quite equal to Elinor’s. She was sensible and clever; but eager in everything: her sorrows, her joys, could have no moderation. She was generous, amiable, interesting: she was everything but prudent. The resemblance between her and her mother was strikingly great.

Marianne is essentially Elinor’s opposite. She wants adventure and she wants love and she hates anything dull or boring. A pop culture comparison between the two sisters would be Elinor is like Elsa while Marianne is similar to Anna from Disney’s Frozen franchise.

Like Pride and Prejudice the youngest sibling, in this case Margaret, has very little to do within the series and seems to just be tacked on.

Margaret, the other sister, was a good-humored, well-disposed girl; but as she had already imbibed a good deal of Marianne’s romance, without having much of her sense, she did not, at thirteen, bid fair to equal her sisters at a more advanced period of life.

Mrs. Dashwood, the widow, had great hope in John and slowly realizes that her hopes the same honor that her husband assumed was in his son does not exist and she wishes to leave as quickly as possible and find a new residence. At first they think to stay in Norland (the family estate) but then realize that Fanny and John have ruined Norland for them and there is no wish to stay anywhere near them but that they must quickly find someplace else to stay outside of the judgmental gaze of the young Dashwood couple. Not all things though were terrible while living as guests within what had once been their home.

This circumstance was a growing attachment between her eldest girl and the brother of Mrs. John Dashwood, a gentleman-like and pleasing young man, who was introduced to their acquaintance soon after his sister’s establishment at Norland, and who had since spent the greatest part of his time there.

On the one hand it’s great that their time at Norland wasn’t completely soured but let’s break down this gentleman caller.

Edward Ferrars was the eldest son of a man who had died very rich; and some might have repressed it from motives of prudence, for, except a trifling sum, the whole of his fortune depended on the will of his mother.

Edward Ferrars was not recommended to their good opinion by any peculiar graces of person or address. He was not handsome, and his manners required intimacy to make them pleasing. He was too diffident to do justice to himself; but when his natural shyness was overcome, his behaviour gave every indication of an open, affectionate heart. His understanding was good, and his education had given it solid improvement. But he was neither fitted by abilities nor disposition to answer the wishes of his mother and sister, who longed to see him distinguished—as—they hardly knew what. They wanted him to make a fine figure in the world in some manner or other. His mother wished to interest him in political concerns, to get him into parliament, or to see him connected with some of the great men of the day. Mrs. John Dashwood wished it likewise; but in the mean while, till one of these superior blessings could be attained, it would have quieted her ambition to see him driving a barouche. But Edward had no turn for great men or barouches. All his wishes centered in domestic comfort and the quiet of private life. Fortunately he had a younger brother who was more promising.

Edward is related through marriage to Elinor. He’s dull, boring, and has no ambition in life. He doesn’t know what he wants to do and has the luxury of time to choose what he wants due to his families money and standing. Yet almost immediately Mrs. Dashwood determines, without discussing it with her daughter or Edward that Edward must be in love with Elinor and that very soon she will be married and off to live with him. And this sort of quick to fancy and determine something without fact is a huge part of the story, especially with Mrs. Dashwood. Assumptions and expectations is a huge part of this book.

While Mrs. Dashwood expects Edward to ask Elinor to marry him before they leave, it doesn’t happen. Instead for reasons unknown Edward begins to act cold towards Elinor and the Dashwood women resolves to leave with haste. She ends up reaching out to her family and settling on moving to a cottage in Devonshire.

After winding along it for more than a mile, they reached their own house. A small green court was the whole of its demesne in front; and a neat wicket gate admitted them into it.

As a house, Barton Cottage, though small, was comfortable and compact; but as a cottage it was defective, for the building was regular, the roof was tiled, the window shutters were not painted green, nor were the walls covered with honeysuckles. A narrow passage led directly through the house into the garden behind. On each side of the entrance was a sitting room, about sixteen feet square; and beyond them were the offices and the stairs. Four bed-rooms and two garrets formed the rest of the house. It had not been built many years and was in good repair. In comparison of Norland, it was poor and small indeed!—but the tears which recollection called forth as they entered the house were soon dried away. They were cheered by the joy of the servants on their arrival, and each for the sake of the others resolved to appear happy.

Now here is the weird bit. The cottage is a guest cottage owned by Mrs. Dashwood’s older cousin, Sir John Middleton and his wife Lady Middleton. The idea seems great, you get to live near family but you have a small quaint place by yourself far away from your family who views you low class and a hassle as well as leeches to their money and social standing. The prospect is exciting to have a place all your own. And Sir John Middleton seems more than happy to welcome his family into the cottage at the edge of his property.

 Sir John Middleton was a good looking man about forty. He had formerly visited at Stanhill, but it was too long for his young cousins to remember him. His countenance was thoroughly good-humoured; and his manners were as friendly as the style of his letter. Their arrival seemed to afford him real satisfaction, and their comfort to be an object of real solicitude to him. He said much of his earnest desire of their living in the most sociable terms with his family, and pressed them so cordially to dine at Barton Park every day till they were better settled at home, that, though his entreaties were carried to a point of perseverance beyond civility, they could not give offence. His kindness was not confined to words; for within an hour after he left them, a large basket full of garden stuff and fruit arrived from the park, which was followed before the end of the day by a present of game. He insisted, moreover, on conveying all their letters to and from the post for them, and would not be denied the satisfaction of sending them his newspaper every day.

Sir John Middleton is what I call a classic case extrovert. He cannot stand to spend a single moment alone at home with his family. As the story progresses he is constantly showing up at the cottage trying to get them to join him and his family for dinner, or breakfast, or lunch, or a walk around, or even on trips and if they could not come to him then he had resolved he could at the very least always come to them and their little cottage. Family or not, I feel like no one wants their landlord barging in on them whenever to try and hang out. His wife however is the opposite of him.

Lady Middleton was not more than six or seven and twenty; her face was handsome, her figure tall and striking, and her address graceful. Her manners had all the elegance which her husband’s wanted. But they would have been improved by some share of his frankness and warmth; and her visit was long enough to detract something from their first admiration, by shewing that, though perfectly well-bred, she was reserved, cold, and had nothing to say for herself beyond the most common-place inquiry or remark.

The big true difference in their personality was that Sir John Middleton wanted nothing more than to talk anyone and everyone’s ears off and Lady Middleton was a Mom™. All she wanted to do was take care of her kids, she wanted to show off her kids like prized dogs at a dog show, she wanted everyone’s conversation to revolve around how absolutely darling her children were and what a divine Mom she was for them. She has four children, the eldest being a six year old boy. And they encompass her whole personality.

Sir John was a sportsman, Lady Middleton a mother. He hunted and shot, and she humoured her children; and these were their only resources. Lady Middleton had the advantage of being able to spoil her children all the year round, while Sir John’s independent employments were in existence only half the time. Continual engagements at home and abroad, however, supplied all the deficiencies of nature and education; supported the good spirits of Sir John, and gave exercise to the good breeding of his wife.

As the story continues, through Sir John Middleton and Lady Middleton other people in town are invited to meet the Dashwoods, in some cases almost as if they are animals at the zoo to be watched as they live their quaint life in the cottage. Sir John Middleton takes great interest in getting the girls married off, even though it’s none of his business. He views it as his sport, to keep the ladies of the house entertained whether they want it or not with balls and events and to hopefully get them married. It’s a bit creepy. It is made worse by his mother-in-law, Mrs. Jennings who:

 …was a widow with an ample jointure. She had only two daughters, both of whom she had lived to see respectably married, and she had now therefore nothing to do but to marry all the rest of the world. In the promotion of this object she was zealously active, as far as her ability reached; and missed no opportunity of projecting weddings among all the young people of her acquaintance. She was remarkably quick in the discovery of attachments, and had enjoyed the advantage of raising the blushes and the vanity of many a young lady by insinuations of her power over such a young man…

And through all these nosy higher class people we meet two more eligible bachelors: Colonel Brandon who was a friend of Sir John Middleton and often an attendee of the parties.

 He was silent and grave. His appearance however was not unpleasing, in spite of his being in the opinion of Marianne and Margaret an absolute old bachelor, for he was on the wrong side of five and thirty; but though his face was not handsome, his countenance was sensible, and his address was particularly gentlemanlike.

Yup you read that right. Elinor is the eldest and is 19 and Marianne is 17. The “love interest” is a gentleman is over thirty-five. Not good. Our second possible love interest is John Willoughby. Before we describe him let me just say how absolutely confusing it was to have so many John’s. There is John Dashwood their older half brother, Sir John Middleton who is related but also their landlord, and now a love interest named John Willoughby. The amount of times I got twisted up and confused on which John was talking was super frustrating. It was almost as if Jane Austin had promised someone she’d write a character with their name, John, into her book, then kept forgetting she’d already named someone in the book John, so she’d name the next one John. Until finally she had three Johns. Seriously an overabundance of Johns.

The Dashwood’s meet the twenty-five year old Willoughby in a meet-cute while Marianne and her sisters are out walking the hills near the cottage.

Marianne had at first the advantage, but a false step brought her suddenly to the ground; and Margaret, unable to stop herself to assist her, was involuntarily hurried along, and reached the bottom in safety.

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 her 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 farther delay, and carried her down the hill. Then passing through the garden, the gate of which had been left open by Margaret, he bore her directly into the house, whither Margaret was just arrived, and quitted not his hold till he had seated her in a chair in the parlour.

Marianne is instantly charmed by him and he is the polar opposite of Colonel Brandon whom she finds dull and uninteresting.

His manly beauty and more than common gracefulness were instantly the theme of general admiration, and the laugh which his gallantry raised against Marianne received particular spirit from his exterior attractions.— Marianne herself had seen less of his person than the rest, for the confusion which crimsoned over her face, on his lifting her up, had robbed her of the power of regarding him after their entering the house. But she had seen enough of him to join in all the admiration of the others, and with an energy which always adorned her praise. His person and air were equal to what her fancy had ever drawn for the hero of a favourite story; and in his carrying her into the house with so little previous formality, there was a rapidity of thought which particularly recommended the action to her. Every circumstance belonging to him was interesting. His name was good, his residence was in their favourite village, and she soon found out that of all manly dresses a shooting-jacket was the most becoming. Her imagination was busy, her reflections were pleasant, and the pain of a sprained ankle was disregarded.

So at this point in the story there are three men of interest for the Dashwood ladies. Everyone seems to think that Elinor was in love with the twenty-three year old Edward Ferrars, that Colonel Brandon who is thirty-five is in love with Marianne who is seventeen, and Marianne is head over heels in love with Willoughby who is twenty-five.

As the story progresses they have more interesting guests. They meet Mrs. Jenning’s other daughter, a pregnant joyful woman, (the opposite of Lady Middleton) named Mrs. Charlotte Palmer who takes a liking to the girls and invites them to come visit her in her home. Her husband Mr. Thomas Palmer is a very sour gentleman who hates everything and everyone. They also meet Mrs. Jenning’s younger cousins, the Steele sisters; Anne and Lucy who are friendly but seem to be scheming and lacking any sense whatsoever.

Through many conversations at dinner parties and balls and through some travel each sister learns more about the men in their lives. Elinor becomes good friends with Colonel Brandon, the relationship between Marianne and Willoughby becomes intense and then Edward Ferras finds his way back into their lives. There’s secret engagements, gold digging, disinheriting, unwed pregnancy, heartbreaks, fights, gossip and so much drama within the book.

While I think I enjoyed Pride and Prejudice more, I still found the levels of society and the drama within Sense and Sensibility entertaining.  Although I am forever not a fan of the large age differences between the under-age/ barely of age women and the men. (And the couple I liked best despite the age difference, did not end up together which I’m bitter about, but I feel like that’s a spoiler so I won’t share it. If you want to know you can send me a message on Instagram or Twitter and I’ll let you know.)

Have you read Sense and Sensibility? What did you think? How does it rate between other Jane Austin novels you’ve read?

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