After reading A.M. Blair’s newest novel, Nothing But Patience, a retelling of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, I was interested in reading Austen’s original. I do believe I was assigned Pride and Prejudice twice in college and could never get through it, and when I read Northanger Abbey aloud to Nick, I wasn’t terrible impressed with the obsession with going to the “pump room” — what is that??
But, with Sense and Sensibility I had a few things going for me: 1) Having a sense of the plot thanks to Blair’s book, 2) Doing a buddy read with Roshni, and 3) Checking out an edition that has side notes instead of footnotes or end notes. And I enjoyed myself!
Sense and Sensibility was published in 1811. My copy is annotated and edited by Patricia Meyer Spacks. The novel opens on the Dashwood family. The patriarch has died, and though his will leaves everything to his son, John, he asks that John be kind and take care of his step-mother and three half-sisters: Elinor, Marianne, and Margaret. Sure, dad, he says. But when John’s wife, Fanny, hears what John has promised, she convinces her husband to reduce the amount per year that he will give each woman until it’s almost nothing. John Dashwood, money focused, starts to side with his wife, even booting the his step-mother and half-sisters out of their family home: “. . . [John]so frequently talked of the increasing expenses of housekeeping, and of the perpetual demands upon his purse, which a man of any consequence in the world was beyond calculation exposed to, that he seemed rather to stand in need of more money himself than to have any design of giving money away [to his step-mother and half-sisters].” So, they are forced to rent a cottage from Sir John Middleton.
During their early days at the cottage, the Dashwood women get to know Sir and Lady Middleton and some of their friends, especially Colonel Brandon. Colonel Brandon is a do-the-right-thing stoic but has a crush on Marianne Dashwood, who is seventeen. But Colonel Brandon is THIRTY-FIVE! Ewww, what an old corpse (I object!). Or so Marianne thinks:
“. . . if he were ever animated enough to be in love, must have long outlived every sensation of the kind.” She says, “When is a man to be safe from such wit, if age and infirmity will not protect him?” And the response from is Elinor is, “I can easily suppose that his age may appear much greater to you than to my mother, but you can hardly deceive yourself as to his having the use of his limbs!”
Basically, Colonel Brandon, at thirty-five, is too old to have ever had loving feelings, and what’s the point of being old and disabled if those things don’t keep you from getting crushes when you’re practically deceased? I laughed so hard here, and had to read this passage to my spouse, who is creeping up on thirty-nine. He did not appreciate it when I asked about his limbs.
In case you couldn’t guess, Marianne is the “sensibility” character for the most part, the one who feels everything so deeply. She cries goodbye to a tree when the Dashwood women are kicked out of their home. She practically wastes away when her romantic feelings are denied. Elinor, however, slightly older, is the pragmatic “sense” of the novel (again, for the most part). She looks at everything logically, waiting for evidence and maintaining composure in public. She hates small talk; we would be friends. Oddly, she has romantic feelings about Edward Ferrars, brother to money-grabbing Fanny.
The Dashwoods also meet John Willoughby (everyone is named John in this book), a handsome rogue who lives nearby with his aunt. He woos Marianne with promises and his cute face, and she falls in love with him. They are all but promised to be married when Willoughby leaves the area without much ado. Marianne is destroyed. Throughout the rest of the novel we learn about the histories and romantic feelings of Colonel Brandon, John Willoughby, and Edward Ferrars and how that relates to Elinor and Marianne (Margaret, the youngest sister, is an unnecessary character). Readers are misled, wait for reveals, and learn the truth. It was just twisty enough to keep me interested, but I wasn’t overwhelmed with the cast list. Because so many folks are related, it was easy to think, “Oh, that’s so-and-so’s daughter.” Plus, the characterization of almost everyone is varied enough that each person stands out on their own.
Though the “hero” of Sense and Sensibility is likely Elinor, I was so focused on Marianne, who reads like a modern girl: funny, mean, emotional, passionate. She always has something to pick on in regards to Colonel Brandon, who will be her obvious match in the end:
“She was reasonable enough to allow that a man of five and thirty might well have outlived all acuteness of feeling and every exquisite power of enjoyment. She was perfectly disposed to make every allowance for the colonel’s advanced state of life which humanity required.”
If you’re new to Jane Austen, I recommend you start here, and get yourself a the same copy I had. The side notes gave contextual and comparative information. For instance, the amount of money John Dashwood receives after his father’s death is 80,000 pounds, equivalent to over sixteen million pounds today. This gives you a sense of what “wealth” means at the time. Also, when the Dashwood women are thrown out and “ruined,” we’re not talking homelessness, working as prostitutes, and living in tiny rooms with no fresh air. We’re saying they won’t be on the marriage market with other rich people in the same way. I always thought Austen’s characters lived in some weird version of poverty until I encountered this edition.
Not only does the editor include side notes (a revelation!) but images that show you what a character might have worn or what the building where they lived may have looked like. In my example below, you see a picture of what a toothpick case would look like at the time (an item a character purchases) and a painting of “the wild beasts at Exeter Exchange” that John Dashwood takes his family to (so you get a sense of what a place might look like).
A wonderful story made even better with the editors annotations. I also read that Patricia Meyer Spacks has a similar book for Pride and Prejudice, so I may have to give it a whack again.