While I think Persuasion still ranks as my favorite Jane Austen novel (out of the four I've now read), Sense and Sensibility turned out to be a far more engrossing and entertaining read than I thought when I first started it. She wrote it when she was just nineteen (a year before Pride and Prejudice) and called it Elinor and Marianne. At twenty-two she reworked it into Sense and Sensibility. It was finally published when she was thirty-six. In the introduction to my edition David Lodge writes:
"Like most first novels, it lays out what will be its author's lasting preoccupations: the 'three or four families in a country village' (which Austen told her niece in an oft-quoted letter, was 'the very thing to work on'). The interlocking anxieties over marriages, estates, and ecclesiastical 'livings'. The secrets, deceptions, and self-deceptions that take several hundred pages to straighten out--to the extent that they get straightened out. The radical skepticism about human knowledge, human communication, and human possibility that informs almost every scene right up to the sort-of-happy ending. And the distinctive characters--the negligent or overindulgent parents, the bifurcating siblings (smart sister, beautiful sister; serious brother, coxcomb brother), the charming , corrupted libertines. Unlike most first novels, though, Sense and Sensibility doesn't need our indulgence. It's good to go."
You're probably already familiar with the story? Upon the death of their father the three Dashwood sisters and their mother are thrown into a life of genteel poverty after a privileged life. One of my favorite scenes, if only because it shows Austen at her satirical best, is when John Dashwood, the elder half-brother by an earlier marriage, is talked out of providing any sort of financial assistance by his greedy and insipid wife, Fanny. At first he mentions what would be a very agreeable sum that he would give to the girls, as he did promise his father he would look after the rest of the family. By the time Fanny works him over he isn't even willing to give them the family china! Classic Jane Austen. The Dashwoods must move to a much more realistic situation. They go from a grand manor house to a small cottage.
Life isn't all bad though. Fanny's brother Edward turns out to be nothing like his sister. As a matter of fact he and Elinor are so much alike as to make a perfect couple, being both reasonable and sensible individuals. Fanny frowns upon this of course and wastes no time letting Mrs. Dashwood know he's destined for great things, which don't include Elinor, as she has neither the money nor the title to make such an advantageous match. Elinor still hopes.
While Elinor is levelheaded and thinks before she acts, her younger sister Marianne is guided by her emotions. She's a passionate girl and when she's rescued from a fall by a handsome young man, it's not surprising she falls for him. She falls for him hard when she discovers his love for music and literature she's done for--there is no other man for her. The road to happiness is never an easy one, and it won't be for either Elinor or Marianne. If you've not read the book, I don't want to give anymore of the plot away, and if you have you already know how things work out.
This is a wonderful novel--everything you'd expect from Jane Austen, characters with depth, good, bad or otherwise, witty dialogue, and a clear eye trained on human foibles and short comings. And yes, a happy ending included. I've watched the first of three parts of the recent BBC adaptation. To my untrained eye I thought it was well done (though I still have the other two parts to watch--hopefully this week). I may follow that up with the Emma Thompson version, too, which I think I have squirreled away somewhere.
I've not forgotten about my Jane Austen project. I wrote about Northanger Abbey earlier this year. And I plan on rereading Pride and Prejudice next. Hopefully I'll be able to squeeze in the rest of her novels in this year and maybe a biography as well.