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NA309312 - AUSTEN, J.: Sense and Sensibility (Abridged)
English 

Jane Austen (1775-1817)
Sense and Sensibility

 

Jane Austen was born in Hampshire in 1775, the seventh of eight children. Her father was a clergyman who ensured that his children were well educated. After a brief spell at boarding school when they were very young, Jane and her sister Cassandra were educated at home. In 1801, Mr. Austen retired and the family moved to Bath. Although Jane Austen never married, she is reputed to have had a romance in 1802, but she parted from her lover, who died the following year. In 1803, she was proposed to by a wealthy Hampshire landowner and after initially accepting his proposal; she refused him the following morning. In 1805, her father died, and she moved with her mother to Southampton and in 1809 to the village of Chawton.

In 1816, Jane Austen became seriously ill, and was taken to Winchester in search of a cure. She died there in 1817. She is remembered by six great novels: Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814), Emma (1816), Northanger Abbey (1818) and Persuasion (1818).

The first draft of Sense and Sensibility was a sketch in letter form, written in 1795 and entitled, Elinor and Marianne. The final version was published at the author's expense by Thomas Egerton, Whitehall, in November 1811. The first edition sold quite quickly: 'It is exhausted,' wrote Jane Austen on 3 July 1813, 'and has brought me £140, besides the copyright, if that should ever be of any value.'

Clearly Elinor and Marianne Dashwood represent the Sense and Sensibility of the title, but it would be quite wrong to conclude that these concepts are fixed and absolute. Jane Austen was far too subtle a novelist for that. The fact is that the two sisters both have tendencies towards sense and sensibility, but Marianne is more susceptible to sensibility and Elinor, to the path dictated by sense. It is not insignificant that it is Elinor who succumbs to romantic love which sweeps aside the constraints of financial prudence, and, at the end of the book, the impetuous Marianne makes a 'sensible' match and marries the man whom she had previously rejected as being too old and infirm, but in whom she discovers the qualities of loyalty, fortitude and good sense.

The book is therefore an exploration of two aspects of the human temperament, but Jane Austen never tries to elevate one above the other. Indeed, the harmony between the sisters at the end of the novel suggests that a happy fusion of sense and sensibility is the ideal. For Jane Austen the marriage of her heroines signals the achievement of personal and social 'adjustment', and in this case the 'adjustment' has been achieved by Elinor's opportunity to abandon her habitual constraint and to indulge her sensibility in her love for Edward, and by Marianne shedding her tendency to excessive, melodramatic romanticism by marrying Colonel Brandon. But of course the equilibrium could not be achieved without elements of both sense and sensibility.

One of the enduring charms of Jane Austen is her use of irony and humor, and although Sense and Sensibility was her first novel, she had already honed her powers of perception and wry wit and combined them with her faultless eye for hypocrisy and avarice. When we overhear the conversation between John and Fanny Dashwood about the financial provision he will make for his mother and sisters, and his eager espousal of his wife's mendacious suggestions, which come in the guise of 'wanting to do the right thing', we know that they will be of little help to the hapless family. They condemn themselves out of their own mouths. Their quite appalling but amusing self-deception is echoed by other characters such as Mrs Ferrars, and the loathsome Miss Steeles, with their ill-concealed vulgarity and grammatical slips. The gossipy and interfering Mrs Jennings and Mrs Palmer, who insists that her abusive husband is a paragon of love and virtue, are equally absurd.

And yet these characters never degenerate into grotesques. Jane Austen's style, as delicate as fine lace, ensures that we are delighted and appalled by turns, and although at times the situations in her novels are unfamiliar, the human emotions and predicaments which she explores with such mastery are as relevant now as they were nearly two hundred years ago, when she wrote about them.

Notes by Heather Godwin


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