Sense and Sensibility, by Jane Austen: feeling, screaming and screening, in a stifling society

Spoiler alert: I’ll assume that I’m among the last people on Earth to read Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, and that everyone is aware of the plot (if only thanks to the movie!). This review contains mild spoilers (but if you know Jane Austen, you know that most of the time, ‘all is well that ends well’).

It so happens, and I just learnt it thanks to @idleutopia_reads, that today 16th of December is Jane Austen’s birthday! Extraordinary coincidence!

I read Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility on the most basic level of reading, barely going past the second level of abstraction in which I only found characters functioning as crude personifications: Elinor as Sense, Marianne as Sensibility, Edward as Loyalty, John Dashwood as Miserliness, Willoughby as Selfishness, Lucy as Manipulation and so on… I found it a distracting novel, that helped me out of my reading slump. It made me smile, it made me cringe, it also made me wonder. Though the structure of the novel might seem, at first, schematic,  the prose is remarkably mastered. Jane Austen writes sentences that seem effortlessly sophisticated (I don’t know what her writing process was which is why I say ‘seem’). She had me re-reading some lines when the convoluted structure lost me in the complex series of pronouns occupying all the range of grammatical functions. If this can slow the reading at first, we quickly get used to the rhythm and refined style of the writing and this is one of the reasons why I like to turn to classics from time to time: I love to be reminded how beautifully and how skillfully language can be used and adorned.  As much as I love contemporary literature, rare are the moments when I have to re-read a sentence because I’m not sure as to the linguistic referent of a “from whom” . To me, this elaborate and intricate structure of the language sparkles like diamonds and it is one to be treasured and read regularly. Also, as often with classics, I like to dive in a world deprived of our modern technology: I find it very soothing.

Had I not read Tony Tanner’s essay at the end of the Penguin English Library edition of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, though, my review would have been much more satirical and certainly less intelligent. But Tanner’s essay opened my eyes on the topics and tensions that make this novel a classic: Sense and Sensibility not only relates the first heartbreaks of two young ladies and their different ways to deal with it, it also illustrates the devilish manœuvres at work when marriage is concerned, the paramount role of money, the contradictory rules of early nineteenth century British society and consequently, the difficulty, for the two young ladies, to fit in this society. As Tanner notes at the beginning of his essay, the schematic antithesis that seems to be the core of the novel’s structure is actually more complex when we admit that Elinor is not deprived of feelings, far from it, and  Marianne is no less deprived of sense. The story of these two sisters who live their first heartbreaks in as different a way as is possible to imagine, is not so simplistically painted. The novel does inherit from the devices of moralistic tales, but Jane Austen goes beyond and bring nuances to her characters that give them more credibility.

Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen, Penguin English Library

Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen, Penguin English Library

The title of the novel, as well as the geometric division of space (country/city, mansions/cottages…), imply schematic separations between what is acceptable and what is not; and indeed, Sense and Sensibility deals primarily with the tension that arises from individual passions that want free expression (Marianne’s love for Willoughby being its more expressive example) and what is socially acceptable in a polished society resting on the surface of polite smiles, comments on the weather or insincere compliments on one’s spoilt children. In a society where propriety is key, where self-command and quiet deportment are required from young ladies at all times, Marianne’s wild emotions and untamed sincerity put her in danger. She is not one too fulfill the demands of society and will not utter compliments that would be lies and prefers to keep silent, not betraying the sincerity of her feelings. It is no surprise that she’s the one who will spend weeks in a languid stupor after she’s been disillusioned, and contract a fever that brings her on the verge of madness and nearly kills her.

Elinor, though not less sensible but much attuned to what is expected of her, is charged with the burden of ‘telling lies when politeness required it’. The quiet Elinor is the one who cements the structure of the novel by being the recipient of most of its secrets (some of them being excruciatingly painful for her, as Lucy Steele’s confidence that she is engaged to Edward Ferrars, a man whom Elinor had every reason to believe loved her), respecting each’s whisperer’s request to remain silent on the subject (to the greatest and most wicked pleasure of Lucy), and playing the social game whenever it is required, often amending by her blameless attitude, the carelessness of her sister’s. But Elinor’s interior struggle marks her as an extreme sensible character too; except that when Marianne lets herself go to tears and screams muffled in her pillow, Elinor relies on self-control, screening and propriety not to betray her sentiments. As Tony Tanner remarks, she, who is always careful of protecting the reputation of her sister, even physically ‘screening her’ from the crowd after Willoughby’s rudeness at a ball, is, incidentally, the one who’s gifted with the talent of painting. Screening is Elinor’s art and force, which helps her navigate the dangers of a society where, as the daughter of a simple gentleman of no fortune, she is not welcome.

Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen, Penguin English Library

Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen, Penguin English Library

Money, indeed, is a character in itself. The novel opens on the death of the Dashwoods’ father and the promise of their elder brother, John Dashwood, to help his sisters. However, the selfishness and manipulative language of his wife soon get the better of Mr Dashwood’s promise to his father and he agrees to let his sisters leave their childhood mansion and vaguely determines to help them from time to time if need be. From the very first pages, the narrator is made aware of the importance of money: it is how people evaluate one another in  society and knowing one’s fortune is, for many characters, the best way to choose which attitude to adopt towards each other. John Dashwood plays this game to perfection and adapts his behaviour according to his interlocutor’s income. For young ladies, choosing a man of fortune is also the best way to secure a comfortable existence and in this, the scheming Lucy Steele, who confides her engagement to Edward Ferrars only to crush Elinor’s hopes, is cunningly talented. Lucy Steele’s falsely innocent remarks that sting Elinor’s feelings (who always makes sure to ‘screen’ them) were remarkable. One recognizes in Lucy the ancestors of characters like Edith Wharton’s Undine Spragg in The Custom of the Country: both young ladies, vulgar and uneducated, have but one ambition: to be safely married to a wealthy man who’ll yield to all their whims. Both lack sensibility and morale as they don’t hesitate to break engagements if a better opportunity arises.

In such a society where lies, masks, money and mostly insincerity are the best weapons to secure one’s place, Marianne and Elinor Dashwood, the innocent girls living in the country, who have been educated in a loving, caring and simple way by their beloved mother, and who value family, culture and sincerity more than wealth and appearances, can find their place at a great price: Marianne’s incoherent and muffled scream which is located in the middle of the novel (and in the centre of London), as Tanner points out,  symbolises this suffering. Unable to articulate her feelings according to the decorum, she can only lock herself up in her bedroom, cry and utter this chilling scream that is the most genuine protestation against the ways of the society she lives in. Language can be of no help, though Marianne is fond of literature and knows how to express herself. On the other hand, Elinor’s constant silence, constant loyalty, even to her ennemies, make us worry about all these things she carries within herself and doesn’t let out. How long can she be strong? Thankfully, Jane Austen, who likes her characters, provides a happy ending for Elinor, which perfectly, though unexpectedly fits the geometry of the couples as it is developed throughout the novel. Marianne, too, is provided with a husband but I must confess I was surprised at how rapidly she is disposed of, as if Austen knew she wasn’t really fair to Marianne’s purity of heart.

I would warmly recommend the brilliant essay of Tony Tanner to dive further into the analysis of the novel. This review and my understanding of the sublimes of the novel owe a lot to this essay. I haven’t tackled all the topics Tanner approaches so do yourself a favor and go read it!

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