Jane Austen #1: Sense and Sensibility

February 10, 2009

I’m a huge fan of Jane Austen’s work. Though really out of my time (the first novel was published in 1811), and sometimes it took me long to make sense of what she is actually writing about, AND there are times I fell asleep while reading one of her books; even though all that, I still thinks she’s one of the greatest writers that ever lived.

Please note that I’m not really a book critic or someone with a lot of literature knowledge; I’m just a person who’ve read one too many books.

Sense and Sensibility is not the first book written by Austen; it’s the first one published. It revolves around two sisters, Elinor and Marianne Dashwood. Although they are of the same breeding and are very close, they look at love with different angles, and approaches love with two different sets of attitude as well.

Elinor is sensible, reserved; she is not hot-headed as opposed to her sister. Marianne is expressive, eager, and she is romantically inclined that some people of the time deemed it inappropriate.

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The story begins with the death of Mr. Dashwood, the father of the Elinor and Marianne. Upon his death, his estate (Norland Park) was passed to John, his only son, the child of his first wife. The current Mrs. Dashwood (his second wife) now finds herself with 3 daughters (Elinor, 19, Marianne, 16, and Margaret, 13) and only a small income and no right whatsoever to the estate.

On his deathbed, however, Mr. Dashwood had asked John to promise to take care of his 3 half-sisters, to which he complied. But John’s selfish wife, Fanny, reasons with her weak-willed husband that he has no real obligation in the matter. Initially John intended to give the girls a sum of money, that will be substracted from their son’s inheritance, but Fanny quickly intervened, made John reduced the sum, marking, “What brother would be so kind to his real sisters. Let alone half-blood”. So John and Fanny move into Norland as its new owners and the Dashwood women, now treated as guests in what had been their own home, begin looking for another place to live.

Elinor forms a sort of attachment to Edward Ferrars, Fanny’s brother, when he comes to Norland for a visit. Mrs. Dashwood hopes they will marry, but Fanny makes it known that Edward’s mother, a wealthy widow, wants her son to marry a woman of high rank or great estate, if not both. Although Edward is attentive to Elinor, his reserved behavior makes it hard to guess his real intentions. Elinor does not encourage her relatives to hope for the marriage although she secretly does.

When one of Mrs. Dashwood’s cousins, the wealthy Sir John Middleton, offers her a cottage on his estate, Barton Park, in Devonshire, Mrs. Dashwood decides to accept. She and the girls arrive there to find it tiny and dark compared to Norland, but try to make the best of it. They are warmly received by Sir John, who insists that they dine with him frequently at the great house of Barton Park and join the social life of his family. Also staying with Sir John is his mother-in-law Mrs. Jennings, a rich widow who is full of kindness and good humor and who immediately assigns to herself the project of finding husbands for the Dashwood girls.

While visiting with Sir John, the Dashwoods meet his old friend Colonel Brandon, who owns a neighboring estate. It soon becomes apparent that Brandon is attracted to Marianne, and Mrs. Jennings teases them about it. Marianne is displeased; she considers Colonel Brandon, at age 35, to be an old bachelor incapable of falling in love or inspiring love in anyone else. She argues that the colonel complained of rheumatism the night before.

Marianne first met Willoughby when she is out for a stroll, gets caught in the rain, slips, and sprains her ankle. The dashing, handsome Mr. Willoughby, who is visiting his wealthy aunt, Lady Allen, in the area, happens to be riding nearby and sees the accident. He carries her back home and soon wins her admiration with his good looks and outgoing personality, very much the opposite of the quiet and solemn Brandon. He comes to visit her every day, and Elinor and Mrs. Dashwood begin to suspect that the couple have secretly become engaged. After a picnic outing during which Willoughby and Marianne are alone together for some time, Willoughby informs Mrs. Dashwood that he will have something important to say on his next visit to their cottage. Mrs. Dashwood assumes he means to propose to Marianne and seek her blessing for the match. But when the day comes, both she and Marianne are devastated to hear Willoughby announce that his aunt is sending him to London on business and that he may not return to their area for as long as a year.

Edward Ferrars visits the Dashwoods at Barton Cottage but seems unhappy and is distant towards Elinor. She fears that he no longer has feelings for her. However, unlike Marianne, she does not allow anyone to see her wallow in her sadness, feeling it her duty to be outwardly calm for the sake of her mother and sisters, who dote on Edward and have firm faith in his love for Elinor.

Anne and Lucy Steele, cousins of Lady Middleton, come to stay at Barton Park. Sir John tells Lucy that Elinor is attached to Edward, prompting Lucy to inform Elinor that she (Lucy) has been secretly engaged to Edward for 4 years. Although Elinor initially blames Edward for engaging her affections when he was not free to do so, she realizes he became engaged to Lucy while he was young and naïve and perhaps has made a mistake. She thinks (hopes) she understands Edward does not love Lucy, but he will not hurt or dishonor Lucy by breaking their engagement. Elinor hides her disappointment and works to convince Lucy she feels nothing for Edward. This is particularly hard as she sees Lucy may not be sincerely in love with Edward and may only make him unhappy.

Elinor and Marianne spend the winter at Mrs. Jennings’ home in London. Marianne’s letters to Willoughby go unanswered, and he treats her coldly when he sees her at a party. He later sends Marianne a letter, enclosing their former correspondence and love tokens, including a lock of her hair and informing her he is engaged to a Miss Grey, a high-born, wealthy woman with fifty thousand pounds (as her dowry). Marianne admits to Elinor that she and Willoughby were never engaged, but she loved him and he led her to believe he loved her. His rejection sends her into a depression.

Colonel Brandon tells Elinor that Willoughby had seduced Brandon’s ward, fifteen-year-old Eliza Williams, and abandoned her when she became pregnant. Brandon was once in love with Miss Williams’ mother, a woman who resembled Marianne and whose life was destroyed by an unhappy arranged marriage to the Colonel’s brother.

Because Fanny Dashwood does not like her sisters-in-law, she declines her husband’s offer to let them stay with her. Instead, she invites the Miss Steeles. Lucy Steele becomes very arrogant and brags to Elinor that the old dowager Mrs. Ferrars favors her. Indeed both Fanny and Mrs. Ferrars were fond of Lucy. Thus, Lucy’s sister Anne decides it would not be improper to tell them of Lucy’s concealed engagement to Edward. When Mrs. Ferrars discovers Edward’s and Lucy’s engagement, she is infuriated, and demands he end the engagement instantaneously. However, he refuses to end it, so she disinherits him, in immediate favor of his brother Robert. Elinor and Marianne feel sorry for Edward, and think him honorable for remaining engaged to a woman with whom he will probably not be happy.

Edward plans to take holy orders to earn his living, and Colonel Brandon, knowing how lives can be ruined when love is denied, expresses his commiseration to Edward for the deplorable circumstance and offers Edward a parsonage on Delaford, the Colonel’s large estate, with about two hundred pounds a year. Colonel Brandon did not intend the parsonage to be assistance for Edward to marry Lucy as it would be insufficient to house a wife but intends the parsonage will be able to provide Edward some sustenance. Elinor meets Edward’s brother Robert and is shocked he has no qualms about claiming his brother’s inheritance.

The sisters end their winter stay in London and begin their return trip to Barton via Cleveland, the country estate of Mrs. Jennings’ son-in-law, Mr Palmer. There, miserable over Willoughby, Marianne allows her depression to take complete hold of her and she soon becomes very ill. Mr Palmer and his family are advised to leave the house for the sake of their infant son, in case the fever is infectious. As Marianne worsens, Colonel Brandon goes to get Mrs. Dashwood. Willoughby arrives and tells Elinor he was disinherited when his benefactress discovered his seduction of Miss Williams, so he decided to marry the wealthy Miss Grey. He says he still loves Marianne and seeks forgiveness, but has poor excuses for his selfish actions, although Elinor can’t bring herself to totally hate him. Meanwhile, Colonel Brandon tells Mrs. Dashwood he loves Marianne.

Marianne recovers and the Dashwoods return to Barton Cottage. Elinor tells Marianne about Willoughby’s visit. Marianne admits that, although she loved Willoughby, she could not have been happy with the libertine father of an illegitimate child even if he had stood by her. Marianne also realizes her illness was brought on by her wallowing in her grief, by her excessive sensibility, and had she died, it would have been morally equivalent to suicide. She now resolves to model herself after Elinor’s courage and good sense.

The family learns Lucy has married Mr. Ferrars. When Mrs. Dashwood sees how upset Elinor is, she finally realizes how strong Elinor’s feelings are for Edward and is sorry she did not pay more attention to her daughter’s unhappiness. However, the very next day Edward arrives and reveals it was his brother, Robert Ferrars, who married Lucy. He says he was trapped in his engagement to Lucy, “a woman he had long since ceased to love”, and she broke the engagement to marry the now-wealthy Robert. Edward asks Elinor to marry him, and she agrees. Edward eventually becomes reconciled with his mother, who gives him ten thousand pounds. He also reconciles with his sister Fanny. Edward and Elinor marry and move into the parsonage at Delaford. Still, Mrs. Ferrars tends to favor Robert and Lucy over Edward and Elinor.

Mr. Willoughby’s patroness eventually gives him his inheritance, seeing his marriage to a woman of good character has redeemed him. Willoughby realizes marrying Marianne would have produced the same effect; had he behaved honorably, he could have had both love and money and thus “his punishment was complete.”

Over the next two years, Mrs. Dashwood, Marianne, and Margaret spend most of their time at Delaford. Marianne matures and, at the age of nineteen, decides to marry the 37-year-old Colonel, even though she feels more respect than passion for him. However, after the marriage, she grows to truly love him. The Colonel’s house is near the parsonage where Elinor and Edward live, so the sisters and their husbands can visit each other often.

***

Interested, but didn’t want to spend weeks reading this book? Watch the movie. There are many versions of Jane Austen’s movies, and my favorite Sense and Sensibility is the 1995 version, starring Emma Thompson as Elinor Dashwood, Kate Winslet as Marianne Dashwood, Hugh Grant (♥) as Edward Ferrars, and Alan Rickman (better known as Professor Snape in Harry Potter) as Colonel Christopher Brandon.

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