Book Reviews

Book Review: Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen – The 1811 Version of the Harlequin Romance

With all of the adaptations of Jane Austen’s novels by Hollywood in the past decade or so, I finally made it a point to begin reading her novels. That’s right, through all of high school and college I was never introduced to her novels prior to this. My first exposure was Sense and Sensibility. Having already seen the film, I pretty much knew what to expect from the story.

The story is of three sisters, Elinor, Marianne, and Margaret Dashwood. Margaret being the youngest, and not yet of courting age, doesn’t factor into the story all that much. Instead, the focus is primarily on Elinor and Marianne. They adore each other to no end but are as opposite as night and day. Elinor is the eldest, and the more practical of the two. She lives life ruled by her head and not her heart. She is adept at hiding her feelings from all, including her mother and sister. Marianne wears her heart on her sleeve and loves passionately and overtly. She is looking for romance and true love; the connection to another person we all dream of having in life.

The girls are fairly well-to-do living in a nice house with servants when their father dies. In the day and age of the early 19th century, the estate went to the eldest male heir. In this case, it is their half-brother, John. This leaves the three girls and their mother with painfully little to live on, and they soon depart their luxurious life to live in the cottage of one of their mother’s distant relatives in the countryside surrounding Barton.

This is not before Elinor encounters Edward, the brother of John’s wife, Fannie. Where Fannie is selfish and phony, Edward seems considerate and genuine. He appreciates Elinor’s intelligence and pragmatism. The two draw closer, but not overtly so. Fannie and her mother conspire to force Edward back to London, hoping to break up the budding romance.

In their new location, it is Marianne who captures the fancy of not one but two men. Colonel Brandon owns a manor nearby and is quite wealthy, although Marianne is put off by his age. At 35, he seems ancient to the young girl who is in her teens. Willoughby is much more her fancy. He’s a dashing and romantic figure and the two are soon the talk of the neighborhood. Everyone is certain he’s about to ask for her hand when he too disappears with hardly a word to Marianne about why he’s leaving.

Meanwhile, Elinor has learned a secret about Edward. She holds the secret close, telling no one, all the while trying to encourage her sister in her own romance.

While I liked the story in general, I didn’t like Jane Austen’s style in Sense and Sensibility. Much of the story is told with long paragraphs describing everything, rather than actual dialogue between the two characters. I found the book to be long-winded and quite wordy in spots, causing me to put it down for periods and pick it up when I was sufficiently curious to see how the story would play out.

However, it’s easy to see why a novel like this would be so well-liked, especially during its time period. Like the romance novels in the modern-day, it tells the story of two heroines the reader can root for. Neither of the girls is someone the reader is supposed to dislike – that is reserved for Fannie and her ilk – but appreciate in each their own way. Austen also manages to convey the characteristics of the people we are supposed to like and dislike in a subtle way, using those long descriptions without dialogue for all they’re worth. Without coming outright and saying that Fannie’s a spoiled, selfish, snobby woman, she conveys that in her description of Fannie’s actions.

Sense and Sensibility is a romance novel for its time, and it works very well. It brings the life of the wealthy into the minds of its readers, then manages to rip all of that away from our heroines and make them sympathetic. Elinor never attempts to hide her intelligence from the men around her, which is nice to see in a novel of this day and age. She is good at hiding her emotions and acting in a manner she deems sensibly, but she also has a brain in her head. This is what attracts Edward to her over the wealthier girls his mother and sister would choose for him. Her ability to listen to others also endears her to Colonel Brandon, even when it looks as if Marianne will never look his way. Indeed, for a time I was certain the book would end quite differently than the movie did.

At the same time, Marianne is flighty to compliment her sister. Even when faced with the truth, she is in denial for quite some time. Her heart tells her something and she refuses to believe otherwise, no matter what is happening in reality. The time the sisters spend together in London shows the bond the two have despite their differences, and Austen goes deep into the relationship, showing what Elinor is thinking even as she holds her own pain close to tend to her sister.

The characters are excellent, and although I wasn’t a huge fan of Austen’s style here, I did enjoy Sense and Sensibility quite a bit. It’s got a good balance of satirical humor and fun combined with characters at a time of crisis whom I could root for. The reading will definitely be difficult for some, especially in this day and age where texts seem to be dumbed-down for youth, but I think all will really enjoy it in the end. I know I did, although I am finding other of Austen’s works more to my liking for their style.

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