Sense and Sensibility is the first published novel by Jane Austen. A few months ago I read Austen’s juvenilia and I am endeavoring to read through Austen’s work in order of publication. I’ve read all of her published novels before so this is at least my second time reading this novel and, to be honest, I’d pretty much forgotten just about everything. I knew that there would be a happy ending which means, when one is reading a romance novel, marriage.
It’s typically this novel and Pride and Prejudice that make one feel “if you’ve read one Jane Austen novel you’ve read them all” for there are many of the same qualities. Two sisters who love one another dearly are left without a promising inheritance and, therefor, must make a good marriage or be (perish the thought) spinsters. Elinor exemplifies sense, rarely reacting to anything or anyone, maintaining an equilibrium throughout. When overcome with emotion, she withdraws for a while until she is once again able to compose herself. Her sister, Marianne, on the other hand, is highly responsive, driven by her emotions and her emotional ideals. Both sisters make ideal matches that complement their innate natures and presumably live happily ever after.
And that should be that, right? I mean, what more can one say about an Austen novel?
There is a curious sexual politics that I noticed this time upon reading the novel. Austen seems to be promoting the sort of absence of passion that has often been used to belittle and denigrate women as “the weaker sex.” Bearing in mind that women were often (mis)treated for hysteria simply because they expressed their sensibilities, that the idea of “sensibility” itself implies a compassion or empathy, an intuitive, albeit emotional, responsiveness, it is interesting to ponder whether Austen was necessarily decrying the natural emotions or not. After all, Marianne, of the two sisters, makes the more profitable match. However, Austen is quoted as saying that Marianne would come to realize the error of her ways and it is not her sensibility that leads her to happiness so much as her plain good sense. (I wish I could cite the quote. Unfortunately, it is something I read in passing ages ago and now I cannot recall where. If you can tell me the book and page, I’d be grateful.)
I suppose I’m just trying to find something interesting to say about this novel because, really, one doesn’t turn to Austen in search of feminist themes and, no matter how I twist and turn the text, it is merely a romance. But in light of my typical distaste for romance novels, I still find myself delighted whenever I read Jane Austen.