Dec 28

Book Review: Sense and Sensibility

Sense and SensibilitySense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

I like Jane Austen, but I’m no superfan, so I’m sure readers of my reviews will lambaste me for merely liking this book. It was a pretty good book, and worth reading, but the 19th century language is hard to get past. Did people just use more words back then? Was using more words than you needed a sign of good breeding or something? Why else would one dig deep in to the recesses of their past to dredge up whatever inter-locution they had heard, from even the merest wisp of rememberances, that they might polish each phrase until it shone and display it for all with so much pomp and ceremony that the dear reader, having lost her way through the maze of verbiage, could scant recall the subject of the paragraph? I guess that’s just why I’m not a huge fan of the classics.

But these kind of books are interesting from a historical perspective. On the surface, they’re rather dispiriting. There’s no real work available for women, except for service (12-16 hour days, 7 days a week, with no real hope of retirement, and the very real chance you would be impregnated against your will by a man of the house and be cast out into the street with shame heaped upon you) so any woman of the middle class or better needed to either inherit or marry. Preferably both, because good husbands are expensive and a girl needs a dowry to snag the best of them. These books aren’t about romance, they’re about money. Money, money, money. Every single interaction is steeped with the prospect of money. Who will inherit, who has ten thousand pounds a year, who has a nice dowry, who has nothing.

Women must have been positively delightful back then, because that was their JOB. There’s a scene where Marianne doesn’t want to be part of a conversation anymore, so she says she’s going to go and play the piano, and she stands up and leaves. They all declare that quite rude, and Elinor has to smooth things over. I don’t consider myself a slouch when it comes to social graces, but I would be completely out of my depth in that setting. Then, at a party, Marianne sees her beau and he doesn’t come over to her, and his cut direct is so hurtful that she ends up crying herself sick. They are thin-skinned because social graces are a delicate and precise operation. Hanging out with a girl and going on dates with her, telling her you care for her, but not actually proposing is seen as unbelievably cruel. From a modern perspective, it seems kind of silly and shallow, but from 19th century eyes it makes sense. A girl’s hand in marriage is the only thing she has to sell, ever, the only decision she has any say in, and her choice will determine whether she and her future and that of her future children. We don’t really have a comparison. Even the struggle to get into a good college isn’t the end-all-be-all. If a teen’s future income was determined by their SAT score, we wouldn’t roll our eyes at students who crammed like it was their job; we’d admire their ambition.

But of course it’s a double-edged sword, because while everyone knows that marriage is basically a teenage girl’s way of selling her hand in marriage to the highest bidder, even though money is the number one concern on everyone’s mind, she can’t look like she’s only doing it for the money. The trick is to fall in love with someone with good earning potential, even if he’s twenty years (or more) elder. These books are not fluffy, they are high-stakes challenges. From the time a girl “comes out” (maybe as early as 15), the clock is ticking, and she has at the very most ten years to find and secure a marriage with a man who has enough income to support her. She has to make a decision that will affect the rest of her life, and effect the life of her family and possibly whether or not her children survive to adulthood, and she’s only a teenage girl who hasn’t really been educated or exposed to much. And she can’t really date, so she has to meet these men at the homes of friends and family. It kind of makes sense now why so many homes built in that time had a ludicrous number of bedrooms. If you were of a certain class of people, you constantly had houseguests.

So we have Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, the sensible and the overly emotional sisters who have just been kicked out of the home they were raised in because their father has died and left everything to their elder brother, whose wife didn’t really see the point in giving them money to live on when she herself was fond of money. (At least, that’s how I understood it. The family tree seemed overly complicated to me.) Their mother is more like Marianne than Elinor, and there’s the hinted danger that she will far outstrip her modest means in order to live closer to the style she lived in when she was married. Elinor likes her step-brother’s wife’s brother, and Marianne has been paired by everyone with a Colonel who is nearly two decades older than her. She thinks that 35 is so old it’s practically decrepit, which I believe Austen meant as proof that Marianne was low on sense. From a modern perspective, we understand that a teenage girl would not want to hook up with a 35 year old war veteran. In Austen’s time, her aversion is like turning up her nose at porridge when there’s a famine on. Elinor is seen as the sensible one because she’s settled on a solid man whom other girls aren’t clamoring over.

Aside from the horror that is 19th century relationship dynamics, Austen shies away from real tragedy here. Marianne gets sick at one point, and a young mother takes her family out of the house of fear of contracting it, but a modern reader could see that as a hypochondriac being overprotective rather than a prudent woman’s natural reaction to pre-antibiotic life. There’s a story about a girl the Colonel loved, who married poorly and–the horror!–divorced. One can only speculate at what nasty things happened behind closed doors to make the girl take a path that would eventually lead her to prostitution and dying of poverty-related illnesses. But if you don’t know the time, you can just imagine some girl who chose poorly and happened to have a genteel bout of tuberculosis, that most fashionable of diseases. (I think that’s how she died, I forgot. TB is a wretched way to die but that wasn’t the thought at the time.) But these books are not really edgy in that way. The consequences of choosing a spouse poorly are hinted at, but they’re mostly financial consequences, not one of physical danger. If you don’t have a lot of life experience, you can read these books and imagine the worst consequence possible is having your heart broken briefly before someone as handsome as a middle-aged Alan Rickman swooped in and changed your mind about the whole December-May thing.

Austen’s genius is not just in how she really understands the characters and can describe a scene so that one can understand it (thinking about that Lady’s squalling spoiled children ruining every social engagement while everyone feels obligated to fawn over the brats.) She also has a tinge of mystery (why did Mr. Ferrars have to leave so suddenly, and whose hair is braided into a ring around his finger?) There’s also sin and redemption, though it’s mostly the men who are sinning and the women who are redeeming. Women’s actions are to not notice a man is wicked in time, or to encourage a man to wickedness. Except for the few women who have control over the family finances, most of the female characters’ only agency is through their influence on men, so it’s more like curling or horse racing than rugby. It’s fascinating, and there was a line in there about Lucy, something about how she was a testament as to how much a person could accomplish if one were completely selfish and unburdened by scruples, which I found delightful and I wish I had written down. She’s a classic for a reason, and if you can tolerate the wordy 19th century prose, it’s worth reading for the story and characters.

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