Sunday, October 16, 2011

Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

I wonder if there is a word that describes people that make the same confession over and over again? If there is, I am about to be guilty of it.

This is my confession:

I have never read Jane Austen.

I know that in the past I have shocked people before when I have confessed this, but somehow I made it through school without reading her, and then managed until now without picking up her books despite being an avid reader for most of my adult life.

This year it is the 200th anniversary of the publication of Sense and Sensibility so I signed up for the associated challenge with the vague intention of reading Austen at some point this year. It was really only when the call went out for this Classics Circuit event that I got the incentive to start. I had read a Dickens book a couple of years ago so now was the perfect time for me to finally, finally read Jane Austen.

I think there are a couple of reasons for not having read Jane Austen. The first is that I was a bit concerned that maybe I might be one of those people who doesn’t actually like her writing (and they do exist!). It’s not the quickest read as you do have to concentrate on the language but I am enjoying the characterizations, the dialogue and the sharp observations on the society of the time.

The major reason for not reading the books is that I already knew the story that was contained within the pages, particularly in relation to Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility and to a lesser extent Northanger Abbey. What I am finding though is that I only thought I knew the story. I have only partial memories of the story of Sense and Sensibility which I gained through watching bits and pieces of the mini-series. I found myself reading something early in the book and thinking how can there be more than 200 pages to go if this is happening now! I am finding that I can’t help but see Alan Rickman whenever Colonel Brandon enters the narrative, and similarly Hugh Grant every time that Edward Ferrars is mentioned, but that isn’t a totally terrible imposition really.

So far, I like the book. I am not quite finished, but I can definitely see myself reading more. It’s not all plain sailing though. Let’s start with the not so good aspect. Reading this book, particularly the section where we first meet Colonel Brandon makes me feel very old! I am rapidly approaching the end of the decade where my age begins with a 3, so when this is the first description that we read of Colonel Brandon, I wasn’t particularly thrilled:

He was silent and grave. His appearance was not unpleasing, in spite of his being in the opinion of Marianne and Margaret an absolute old bachelor, for he was on the wrong side of five and thirty; but though his face was not handsome, his countenance was sensible, and his address was particularly gentlemanlike.

Perhaps he is so gentlemanlike because he had so much practice! A bit further on there is reference to the rheumatism he occasionally suffers from. In context, I know that the expected life span was much shorter when the book was written, and that when you are 19 years old, then 35 does look like a long way away, but when you are past that point, you don’t necessarily feel old.

There were plenty of times that I really could appreciate Austen’s ability to comment on the human condition. This passage, for example, very much sums up how I think I am thought of by all but my very closest friends:

"Brandon is just the kind of man,” said Willoughby one day, when they were talking of him together, “whom every body speaks well of, and nobody cares about; whom all are delight to see, and nobody remembers to talk to.”

As I think about the characters, it is clear to me that Austen either likes her characters, or she doesn’t. There isn’t always a lot of nuance. I do expect that this is partially because this is her first published book and so will be interested to see if this changes in future books. To be fair, for several of the characters like Mrs John Middleton for example, there isn’t much to like, and for those sensible characters like Elinor, Edward Ferrars and Colonel Brandon there is obvious affection from the author, which this reader shares.

I have about 80 pages left to go, and I have every intention of finishing the book in the next couple of days. Not only do I want to get to the end so that I can say that I have finished it, but also because I will have yet another reason to watch the mini series again, and then this short clip from Vicar of Dibley, just because I can (not a blatantly gratuitous Richard Armitage posting - honest).

And then, it will not be another 20 to 30 years before I read another book from Jane Austen.

Updated to add...

As a result of Jane Austen Week here at Historical Tapestry I decided that it was time that I finished off those last pages of this book, and I did!

My favourite scenes included where Marianne confesses that she should have been modelling her behaviour on that of Elinor and also this passage from the latter part of the book:

Elinor made no answer. Her thoughts were silently fixed on the irreparable injury which too early an independence and its consequent habits of idleness, dissipation, and luxury, had made in the mind, the character, the happiness, of a man who, to every advantage of person and talents, united a disposition naturally open and honest, and a feeling, affectionate temper. The world had made him extravagant and vain - extravagance and vanity had made him cold-hearted and selfish. Vanity, while seeking its own guilty triumph at the expense of another, had involved him in a real attachment, which extravagance, or at least its offspring, necessity, had required to be sacrificed. Each faulty propensity in leading him to evil, had led him likewise to punishment. The attachment, from which against honour, against feeling, against every better interest he had outwardly torn himself, now, when no longer allowable, governed every thought; and the connection for the sake of which he had, with little scruple, left her sister to misery, was likely to prove a source of unhappiness to himself of a far more incurable nature.
One of the things that you hear about Jane Austen's writing is that she is excellent at writing the human condition, but that she has not lost relevance in these modern times. I have to say that when I read the first part of this passage it was very reminiscent of the constant comments that you hear about "kids today"!

I am so glad that I finished the book eventually. Now I need to decide which of her books to read next. I am leading towards Persuasion, but if you strongly recommend another read let me know in the comments.


  1. Excellent post! It does take a while to settle into the language of Austen, which is odd to me. You need to be in that frame of mind. I expected the same from my current read, because it was written in the 1790's, but it's much easier to read. Glad you enjoyed it and congrats on finally reading one of her books :)

  2. Congratulations on finishing your first Jane Austen book. I liked hearing your first impressions of the book. Your video clip- too funny.
    Honestly, it probably does not matter which one you pick up next in some ways, but reading them in order that they were written shows her growth as an author.
    Thanks for posting.

  3. There is another, I think, better, version of Sense and Sensibility, adapted by the same fellow who did the splendid Pride and Prejudice: A BBC video, 2 disk set, starring David Morrisey, Janet McTeer, etc. In includes a well done Biopic of Jane Austen. I liked this version much better than one one with Hugh Grant and etc., because the latter are just so famous, it spoiled the story.

  4. What a thoughtful and stimulating post, Marg!

    Don't feel bad about taking your time to read Austen! I suspect that she is one of those famous authors people sometimes fib about having read. In many conversations it has become clear to me that people are much better versed with the series and films than with the actual content of the novels.

    Secondly, I am one of those people who actually don't like Austen's writing that much... I remember that on reading Emma for the first time I wanted to fling all the windows open (it was a northern winter) because the prose and narrative style felt so dry and airless to me. Eventually, however, the turn came to Persuasion, the one and only Austen that until then had struck an emotional chord with me. I still like it very much. Its vulnerable tone feels, I think, very different from her other novels. The other Austen I came to appreciate is Sense And Sensibility, likewise for its emotional poignancy. As for the rest (and I have struggled through them all more than once, including Sanditon), Austen's celebrated wit just doesn't work in a positive fashion for me, her storytelling bores me, and her characters tend to leave me either cold, indifferent, or irritated. Perhaps, if I had seen any films or TV-series before I read the novels, I might have felt more kindly toward the latter. The Keira Knightley and Matthew McFadyen version of Pride And Prejudice, so heartily disliked by many, actually helped me like the story and sympathise with its characters for the first time ever!

  5. Marg, Persuasion is my favourite Austen so you know what my suggestion is but maybe the reader who suggested reading them in order is right. Anyway, I'll be looking forward to your opinion of her other books.