Sense and Sensibility (by Jane Austen)

It's a while since I've read any Jane Austen. Her classic character-based books are quite long-winded, not something to be read quickly. I have downloaded copies of them all onto my Kindle as well as having print editions. Since they're long out of print they are freely available at Project Gutenberg, and make a nice addition to my Kindle collection.

I last read 'Sense and Sensibility' in 2003, so decided it would be a good book to read while travelling, and staying with our family on a ship. I keep my Kindle in my bag, and it's ideal to pull out to read for odd moments when I'm not doing anything else. I knew the overview of the story. I remembered that there weren't too many characters, and it would be easy to pick up or put away at a moment's notice.

Sense and Sensibility features the Dashwood sisters Elinor and Marianne. The have a younger sister too, but her part in the book is so minimal that I'm not sure why she's there. Their widowed mother cares for them all deeply and is a likable, sensible woman, entirely unlike the better-known Mrs Bennett of Pride and Prejudice.

As the book opens, the family is staying with the girls' half-brother John. He likes them all well enough, but he has a selfish and manipulative wife called Fanny. There's some satirical - and rather sad - humour early in the book, typical of Jane Austen, as John debates what exactly his father meant when, on his deathbed, he asks his only son to look after his sisters. The conversation is almost reminiscent of that between God and Abraham towards the end of Genesis 18, in an entirely different context.

After some months, the Dashwood women are offered a cottage by a distant relative, and decide to move there. But before that happens, Elinor, the 'sensible' sister, has formed a deep friendship with Fanny's brother Edward, and has started to fall in love with him. Elinor is prudent and wise; she's artistically inclined, and also self-controlled in her outlook. Austen cleverly shows these traits in her actions and conversations, and I built up quite a nice image of a kind and responsible eldest daughter. While minor characters are caricatured, Elinor is, to me, very believable.

Marianne, by contrast, is full of what the author calls 'sensibility'. She's extremely emotional, and lets everyone know what she's feeling. She veers between wild delight and the depths of misery, and is inclined to take things personally. She, too, is a well-drawn character, if possibly a tad exaggerated. She is determined that a first love lasts forever, and that older people - by which she means anyone of about thirty and above - are incapable of any strong passions, or indeed of feeling anything much.

The characterisation is wonderful, in my view, and the conversations beautifully done. There's a lot of satire and irony, much that is obvious to the reader while not being spelled out, or understood by the characters. I love the way that Jane Austen managed to show how ridiculous some of her creations are, and what they're thinking, based on their behaviour and dialogue.

Inevitably, given the era, there's a lot of class consciousness, where breeding and elegance are considered (by some) to be more important than kindness and generosity. We also become aware of Elinor's inherent good manners which enable her to treat others with respect and friendliness even when they annoy her. Marianne's sensibility is mostly inward looking, or expressed to her family, but can make her take others in dislike and behave, if not deliberately rudely, with abruptness, or by avoiding them entirely.

As the book progresses, the two sisters' romantic lives follow remarkably similar patterns, so the contrast is clearly shown between their vastly different reactions. Towards the end, each learns a little of her sister's way of dealing with emotions and life in general, and becomes better-balanced as a result.

Definitely recommended to teenagers and adults who like this kind of slow-moving character-based women's fiction. Link above is to a print edition but as it's long out of copyright, it's easily available free in ebook form, or inexpensively from charity shops.

Review copyright 2018 Sue's Book Reviews

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