– e-book (project Gutenberg)
(Re-)Read from November 18th to 25th 2015
I don’t know about you, but I’ve always found reading the classics sort of comforting. Could it be because it is always reassuring to enjoy an oeuvre whose value has already been confirmed by time? Or maybe the comfort lies in some subconscious pride for humanity who found a way to steal from gods a bit of eternity? Whatever the explanation, one thing is obvious: Jane Austen did not disappoint me this time neither, on the contrary, made me want to re-read more of her.
A friend of mine said, during a discussion about Sense and Sensibility, that her books are repetitive in pattern and feel sometimes like excessively romantic. I beg to differ – I appreciated every one of her novels for entirely different reasons and their only thing in common I could find was the witty depiction of the society at the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth’. Her novels might seem at first only charming love stories that end more or less with a happily ever after, although never in a syrupy way. But love is often only a pretext for the analysis of a more prosaic subject – the institution of matrimony and its importance in the society of those times.
Among Jane Austen’s novels (to re-read!) Pride and Prejudice is by far my favourite, not only because of its iconic, powerful couple (here I agree that love comfortably occupies the forefront of the story), but also because of the author’s ability to use irony and humour with such an elegance and subtlety that the modern reader can fully enjoy it even in the absence of extensive knowledge of the habits and customs of the society depicted. On the other hand, Emma reveals Austen as a forerunner of the modernist novel, either in the masterful creation of an unreliable narrator and in the psychological analysis.
In regards to Sense and Sensibility, though, well, this was Jane Austen’s first book, published anonymously (like all her other books – wasn’t Virginia Woolf who suspected that more than one book published under the Anonymous signature had been written by a woman?) and at her expenses, at the end of an era – the classicism and the beginning of another – the romanticism. Interpreting the two feminine characters as exponents of the two literary movements could provide one reading key, suggested by the title itself anyway.
Of course matrimony is given here, like in the other novels, the starring role. Characters seek marriage in order to obtain or consolidate fortunes or titles, hence a position in society and they are often disposed to sacrifice their “heart desires” for this. Therefore, the reader is presented with a colourful gallery of couples, in which the married ones are an amusing foreshadowing of the to-be-married ones, and which vary from comic to grotesque with a spice of dramatic for the two heroines but end in the same cheerful ordinary way, to let them blend too into a society that believes mostly in appearances. Altogether, the couples are delightful, cheerfully borderlining between caricature and protrait.
Take, for example the Palmers, presented more humorously than with malice, for their harmless union brought together two characters entirely different but who manage to live happily together, to the neverlasting wonder of their friends and acquaintances, even though Elinor finds a reasonable explanation for this:
His temper might perhaps be a little soured by finding, like many others of his sex, that through some unaccountable bias in favour of beauty, he was the husband of a very silly woman, but (…) that this kind of blunder was too common for any sensible man to be lastingly hurt by it.
Fanny and John Dashwood, on the other hand, are depicted with an acerbic satire, that reveals the grotesque harmony of their living, the way in which they complete each other in pettiness and auto sufficiency, a parody of Plato’s androgyne myth:.
Had he married a more amiable woman, he might have been made still more respectable than he was: he might even have been made amiable himself; for he was very young when he married, and very fond of his wife. But Mrs. John Dashwood was a strong caricature of himself; more narrow-minded and selfish.
It is not hard to guess that their marriage foreshadows Robert’s marriage with Lucy.
Concerning Elinor and Marianne, however, the author seems to abandon irony for a while, for she involves both of them in apparently more dramatic but symmetrical situations, generated by the love triangles: Marianne – Willoughby – Sophia and Elinor – Edward – Lucy. In each of these triangles the men are to chose – one between love and duty, the other between love and money. Neither choses love but, in a moralistic way, the one who chose duty is granted love. However, the geniality of the author keeps her from falling neither into melodrama nor into excessive didacticism, for if Edward’s noble sacrifice is rewarded only with a quiet, modest rural life, Willoughby’s choice is not sanctioned with a deep suffering, as to suggest that maybe his marriage was the norm, not Edward’s:
…that he was for ever inconsolable, that he fled from society, or contracted an habitual gloom of temper, or died of a broken heart, must not be depended on—for he did neither. He lived to exert, and frequently to enjoy himself. His wife was not always out of humour, nor his home always uncomfortable; and in his breed of horses and dogs, and in sporting of every kind, he found no inconsiderable degree of domestic felicity.
Sense and Sensibility is an extraordinary debut for Jane Austen not only in the reconstruction of an era with its values but also in the clever employment of various narrative techniques, like charming irony, sharp observation and unexpected alternation between an omniscient narrator and a reflector one. All this used with such a wittiness that you forget Ortega y Gasset aesthetical interdictions and laugh heartily at passages like this one:
“He is such a charming man, that it is quite a pity he should be so grave and so dull. Mama says HE was in love with your sister too. I assure you it was a great compliment if he was, for he hardly ever falls in love with any body." (Charlotte Palmer speaking, obviously!)
Or this one:
Elinor agreed to it all, for she did not think he deserved the compliment of rational opposition.
Moreover, the compositional balance is skilfully provided either by the alternation between reason and emotion and by the parallelism of the stories. Thus the significance of the title gains unexpected depths, since it has at least three interpretations: a social one (money versus sentiment), a psychological one (reason versus emotion) and an aesthetic one (classicism versus romanticism). And for all three, the author seems to imply, it’s not necessarily about a choice, but about a way in between. Therefore, the image of the path leading from Barton to Delaford, which ends our story, is the last reading key to follow:
Between Barton and Delaford, there was that constant communication which strong family affection would naturally dictate; and among the merits and the happiness of Elinor and Marianne, let it not be ranked as the least considerable, that though sisters, and living almost within sight of each other, they could live without disagreement between themselves, or producing coolness between their husbands.