Saturday, November 7, 2020

Review: Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

 Rating: 4/5 stars

I love Sense and Sensibility for being a story of female friendship between two rather different women. Despite disagreement and disappointment in each other, Elinor and Marianne remain loving and supportive. It seems rare, even in 2020, to have such a detailed character study of two women that remain friends throughout. Elinor and Marianne feel like 'real' people to me, despite being personifications of the themes of the novel, sense and sensibility, or being guided by rationality (sometimes to the detriment of emotional happiness) versus being guided by emotion. These two sisters as foils of each other made me think a little of the Zoey versus Zelda dichotomy proposed in Bojack Horseman (itself a parody of fictional personality clustering paradigms like Hogwarts Houses or Sex and the City characters; I'm an Elinor, a Zoey, a Ravenclaw, a Miranda).

I also enjoyed Jane Austen's critique of idleness in the gentry. It's a more gentle version of the censure of the idle rich that Austen penned fifteen or twenty years later in Persuasion. Although not wealthy, Elinor and Marianne surprise their acquaintances by being always preoccupied with art or music or reading. Edmund's character arc is about him recognizing that his misplaced love for Lucy Steele is actually a product of his idleness, and then him finally choosing a profession and becoming a productive, if less wealthy, gentleman. ("Instead of having anything to do, instead of having any profession chosen for me, or being allowed to choose any myself, I returned home to be completely idle; I had therefore nothing in the world to do, but to fancy myself in love.") The Middletons are respectable, apparently happy rich folk, with nothing to do except hunt when it is nice weather (Mr. Middleton), mother their children (Mrs. Middleton), and arrange dinner parties. 

I thought the framing of motherhood as Lady Middleton's sole occupation being a form of idleness was particularly interesting. In Race, Women & Class, Angela Davis discusses in detail how during this period of history, well-off women had many of their responsibilities removed from them by increasing industrialization, and that this reduction in their contribution to their households increased sexism towards women. Upper class women were restricted to the role of doting mother, with little to do to occupy their idle days. Mrs. Jennings similarly does little except care for her daughters and attempt to marry off her single female acquaintances. Mrs. John Dashwood breaks this mold a little, manipulating her husband into carrying out her wishes by expressing everything in terms of the potential benefit or harm (however tangential!) to her child.

Austen contrasts these limited social roles allowed to wealthy women with real social and economic power held by women. Mrs. Ferrars disowns Edmund when he refuses to break his engagement to Lucy Steele. Mr. Willoughby's aunt similarly cuts him off financially when she hears of his affair with Eliza. Inheritance and wealth is arbitrary, precarious, and its victims are not just women (like the impoverished Miss Dashwoods).

I thought Sense and Sensibility was notable for being one of the earliest examples of mansplaining in literature I can think of. Mr. Dashwood is so unable to imagine Colonel Brandon's generosity towards Edmund that he insists Elinor is mistaken and that she must be mistaken, Colonel Brandon clearly bequeathed the parsonage only temporarily. Elinor has to quite firmly insist that, as the person entrusted by Colonel Brandon to convey the offer to Edmund, she is quite aware of the terms of the agreement. Her begrudgingly accepts this explanation without really apologizing.

Sense and Sensibility was a little more overtly comedic than Persuasion or Mansfield Park. For example, there was a scene of Elinor and Mrs Jennings misunderstanding each other regarding what exactly Colonel Brandon discussed with Elinor. I enjoyed the fairly broad cast of somewhat ridiculous characters: Mr. John Dashwood and his conversations with his wife and with Elinor were a highlight of these. Lucy Steele's sly meanness coated in friendly civility was also amusing.

As much as I loved Elinor and Marianne's character arcs, I found those of their gentlemen rather lacking. I thought Edmund was rather flat and unremarkable (although I might be a little prejudiced against religious characters). Colonel Brandon seemed like a kind, thoughtful man, if you can get past his whole mooning-over-women-half-his-age-from-a-distance thing (a taller order in 2020 than 1820).

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