Sense and Sensibility (Penguin Classics)

Sense and Sensibility (Penguin Classics) - Jane Austen;Ros Ballaster "Sense and Sensibility" was the first Jane Austen novel I was exposed to. I saw the Ang Lee film in 1995 and enjoyed it more than I thought possible. It was my first step toward becoming a Jane Austen fan. It was, however, the last of her books that I read. There was a major impediment that I had to overcome: Marianne Dashwood.You see, I never liked Marianne. She is the most unattractive of Austen's heroines, being far and away the most selfish, thoughtless, careless, and self-indulgent of them all. Does this mean I dislike the novel? Not at all, for it also includes perhaps the most attractive of Austen's heroines, Elinor Dashwood. Practical, disciplined, intelligent, utterly selfless, Elinor is at the opposite end of the continuum from Marianne, in spite of the fact that they are sisters. The contrast between the two is, of course, the engine that propels the story of "Sense and Sensibility".Elinor and Marianne are the eldest of three Dashwood sisters who live with their widowed mother. Their father was wealthy and titled, but Mrs. Dashwood was his second wife. All his wealth and property was entailed in such a way that it must pass to his son by his first wife. Sadly, this is what happens as the book opens. Mrs. Dashwood, with no son, no rank, no income of her own, and therefore no protection, is forced to rely on her stepson to support herself and her daughters. Though not malicious in any premeditated sort of way, the younger Mr. Dashwood, John, is easily swayed by his stingy wife Fanny to limit the allowance he grants to his stepmother and half sisters to a pittance. When Fanny and John move to the estate, Norland Park, Fanny's behavior is so subtly cruel that Mrs. Dashwood and her daughters are forced to leave. Mrs. Dashwood, Elinor, Marianne, and Margaret, the youngest daughter, leave Norland Park and move into a small cottage on the estate of Barland Park, which is owned by Sir John Middleton, a cousin of Mrs. Dashwood. Sir John is kind to his cousins and introduces them into the society of Barland Park, and it is here that the majority of the drama will be played out, for it is in these straitened circumstances that the characters of Elinor and Marianne come into sharp focus. Separated from the protection of their father and the comforts of Norland Park, with a grieving mother who is incapable of providing any guidance, there is nothing to restrain the natural inclinations of the two young women. Marianne's romantic nature consumes her, and she submits to it with no thought to the potential impact on her family. She quickly, almost literally, falls in love with the dashing John Willoughby. It is here that the absence of their father is most keenly felt, for there is no one to investigate his character to see if he is worthy of marriage. Marianne is too much in love with being in love to even ask the question. Willoughby, for his part, is as romantically inclined and impractical as Marianne. It is not long before they share an intimacy that, at that time, was unmannerly and inappropriate.Elinor, the only one left with a practical mind and strength of character is forced to become the de facto head of her family. Though she is not emotionally cold by any means, she is constrained by the circumstances of her family to forego her desires in order to keep the family from falling into poverty and derision. She succeeds, but at the cost of being viewed as cold and distant. When she questions the character and motives of Willoughby, Marianne responds with anger and resentment, wounding her sister. When Elinor's suspicions about Willoughby's character are born out, Marianne falls into a deep depression, becoming ill almost to the point of death.What Marianne does not realize is that Elinor has also been wounded, having come to love her sister-in-law's brother, Edward Ferrars. Though she has reason to believe he returns her affection, he is not at liberty to marry her. When she discovers the reason that he is not free, she is nearly crushed. But while Marianne feeds her suffering until it nearly kills her, Elinor buries her feelings for the sake of her family, and uses reason to control her emotions. This is a death of another sort, for even though Elinor is not yet cold, the seeds of coldness have taken root. Again, the absence of their father is sorely felt, for there is no one to lead the family and give Elinor the freedom to grieve appropriately and openly. How this is all resolved and a happy ending is reached is almost beside the point. As with any Jane Austen book, there are numerous other characters and sub-plots, but the focus of "Sense and Sensibility" is the study of the characters of the Dashwood sisters. All through the book, the contrast between Elinor and Marianne is underscored and heightened by numerous circumstances, and never so much as in their reactions to being disappointed by their lovers. The presence of each in the life of the other exaggerates their natural inclinations until they are almost caricatures. Ms. Austen, however, is too good a writer to let that happen. Elinor and Marianne genuinely love each other, and somehow this affection softens their character traits enough to keep them from becoming ridiculous. Though I have never come around to liking the Marianne Dashwood, her move in the direction of sense is real and welcome. She is the one who develops and grows the most over the course of the novel, becoming a real woman. Elinor has only to be freed from the terrible burden of being responsible for her family to flourish into the woman she was meant to be. Though it will be a challenge to endure Marianne's immaturity, I will read "Sense and Sensibility" again.