First of all, I would like to acknowledge today is Pearl Harbor Day. I can’t imagine the horror of that attack, and I hope all of you reading this (even if not on the actual date) will take a moment to reflect on what happened, who experienced it, and what occurred as a result.
In 1811, when Sense and Sensibility was published, Great Britain was also at war, this time with France. Jane Austen penned her book first in the 1790s as an epistolary novel called Elinor and Marianne and later revised it into the narrative we know today. The 1790s date is important to me because, if we accept that the story should then take place at the time it was first written, Elinor and Marianne did not wear Regency dresses. They wore those equally beautiful but not so comfortable Georgian gowns with tight waists and full skirts, though fashion was well on its way to becoming simpler. I was surprised when I learned that -- Jane Austen’s heroines are very hard for me to separate from the Regency era!
Sense and Sensibility is probably my favorite Austen novel because of a special character named Elinor Dashwood. I firmly believe Elinor was Austen’s picture of an ideal woman. She’s very different from the fainting ladies of earlier novels - like those of Evelina and The Vicar of Wakefield and others that I haven’t read. She’s resolute, resourceful, and reserved, at nineteen the most capable of her mother and sisters. She believes in keeping things hidden that might wreak havoc if revealed. This calls, many times, for extreme strength of character. None of Elinor’s traits are presented to us as faults, though some today find fault with her reserve. But she’s also sensitive and caring, putting others’ needs above her own; she knows how to hold conversation and show genuine interest. An all-around character model if you ask me.
But I also love Marianne like a sister. She’s a lot of fun -- until she reacts so drastically to Willoughby’s betrayal. Then I start to think, Come on, girl, you’ve imbibed too much of those fainting heroine novels. However, I identify with her devotion to beauty and her sensibilities about poetry, music, art, and nature. Both sisters would make great friends for anyone.
Edward Ferrars usually gets a bad score on the hero scale. But I beg to disagree. Part of it may be my tastes -- he’s quiet and unassuming, but warm once the Dashwood ladies get to know him. He’s straightforward, intelligent, and sincere, not flighty, arrogant, or fake. He made a mistake with Lucy Steele, but in the end he’s willing to own up and stand by her like a man -- unlike Willoughby, who’s afraid to stand by Marianne when things get rocky. I’ve marked the passages best describing Edward’s character because he may perhaps be the Austen hero that intrigues me the most. (Well, there is Henry Tilney ….)
Those three are my favorite characters, and I’ve spent a lot of thought contemplating their personalities. They’re an intimate part of why I like Sense and Sensibility, which is ultimately a grand character sketch.
And I’d like to give one more reason for my fondness: Devonshire, the story’s setting. Usually we’re so caught up with the characters in Austen’s novels that we don’t immediately think of their surroundings; Austen tends to minimize physical description. But on my second and third reading of Sense and Sensibility I got a definite picture of the Dashwoods’ abode, and it sounds like the setting of my dreams: “The situation of the house was good. High hills rose immediately behind, and at no great distance on each side; some of which were open downs, the others cultivated and woody. The village of Barton was chiefly on one of these hills, and formed a pleasant view from the cottage windows. The prospect in front was more extensive; it commanded the whole of the valley, and reached into the country beyond. The hills which surrounded the cottage terminated the valley in that direction; under another name, and in another course, it branched out again between two of the steepest of them.” Not an extremely poetic description, but photos of Devonshire (Devon) speak for themselves.
What do you think of Sense and Sensibility?