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Sense and Sensibility: An Overview

No, indeed, I am never too busy to think of S. and S. I can no more forget it than a mother can forget her sucking child; and I am much obliged to you for your inquiries. I have had two sheets to correct, but the last only brings us to Willoughby’s first appearance. Mrs. K. regrets in the most flattering manner that she must wait till May, but I have scarcely a hope of its being out in June. Henry does not neglect it; he has hurried the printer, and says he will see him again to-day. It will not stand still during his absence, it will be sent to Eliza. The Incomes remain as they were, but I will get them altered if I can. I am very much gratified by Mrs. K’s interest in it; and whatever may be the event of it as to my credit with her, sincerely wish her curiosity could be satisfied sooner than is now probable. I think she will like my Elinor, but cannot build on anything else.
Jane Austen to Cassandra
April 25, 1811

Sense and Sensibility is a novel by the English novelist Jane Austen. Published in 1811, it was the first of Austen’s novels to be published, under the pseudonym “A Lady”.

The story revolves around Elinor and Marianne, two daughters of Mr. Dashwood by his second wife. They have a younger sister, Margaret, and an older half-brother named John. When their father dies, the family estate passes to John, and the Dashwood women are left in reduced circumstances. The novel follows the Dashwood sisters to their new home, a cottage on a distant relative’s property, where they experience both romance and heartbreak. The contrast between the sisters’ characters is eventually resolved as they each find love and lasting happiness. This leads some to believe that the book’s title describes how Elinor and Marianne find a balance between sense and sensibility in life and love.

Austen wrote the first draft of Elinor and Marianne (later retitled Sense and Sensibility) c. 1795, when she was about 19 years old, in epistolary form. While she had written a great deal of short fiction in her teens, Elinor and Marianne was her first full-length novel. The plot revolves around a contrast between Elinor’s sense and Marianne’s emotionalism; the two sisters may have been loosely based on the author and her beloved elder sister, Cassandra, with Austen casting Cassandra as the restrained and well-judging sister and herself as the emotional one.

Austen clearly intended to vindicate Elinor’s sense and self-restraint, and on the simplest level, the novel may be read as a parody of the full-blown romanticism and sensibility that was fashionable around the 1790s. Yet Austen’s treatment of the two sisters is complex and multi-faceted. Austen biographer Claire Tomalin argues that Sense and Sensibility has a “wobble in its approach”, which developed because Austen, in the course of writing the novel, gradually became less certain about whether sense or sensibility should triumph. She endows Marianne with every attractive quality: intelligence, musical talent, frankness, and the capacity to love deeply. She also acknowledges that Willoughby, with all his faults, continues to love and, in some measure, appreciate Marianne. For these reasons, some readers find Marianne’s ultimate marriage to Colonel Brandon an unsatisfactory ending. The ending does, however, neatly join the themes of sense and sensibility by having the sensible sister marry her true love after long, romantic obstacles to their union, while the emotional sister finds happiness with a man whom she did not initially love, but who was an eminently sensible and satisfying choice of a husband.

The novel displays Austen’s subtle irony at its best, with many outstanding comic passages about the Middletons, the Palmers, Mrs. Jennings, and Lucy Steele.

In 1811, Thomas Egerton of the Military Library publishing house in London accepted the manuscript for publication, in three volumes. Austen paid for the book to be published and paid the publisher a commission on sales. The cost of publication was more than a third of Austen’s annual household income of £460 (about US$46,000 in today’s money). She made a profit of £140 (US$14,000) on the first edition, which sold all 750 printed copies by July 1813. A second edition was advertised in October 1813.

The book has been adapted for film and television a number of times, including a 1981 serial for TV directed by Rodney Bennett; a 1995 movie adapted by Emma Thompson and directed by Ang Lee; a version in Tamil called Kandukondain Kandukondain released in 2000; and a 2008 TV series on BBC adapted by Andrew Davies and directed by John Alexander.

Plot Overview:
When Mr. Dashwood dies, his estate – Norland Park – passes to John, his only son, and child of his first wife. Mrs. Dashwood, his second wife, and their daughters, Elinor, Marianne and Margaret, are left only a small income.

On his deathbed, Mr. Dashwood had asked John to promise to take care of his half-sisters but John’s selfish wife, Fanny, soon persuades her weak-willed husband that he has no real obligation in the matter, and he gives the girls nothing. John and Fanny move into Norland as its new owners and the Dashwood women, now treated as guests in what was their home, begin looking for another place to live.

Fanny’s brother, Edward Ferrars, a pleasant, unassuming, intelligent but reserved young man, comes to Norland for a visit. He and Elinor are clearly attracted to each other and Mrs. Dashwood hopes they will marry. Fanny makes it clear that their 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 behaviour makes it hard to guess his intentions. Elinor does not encourage her relatives to hope for the marriage, although she secretly does.

One of Mrs. Dashwood’s cousins, the wealthy Sir John Middleton, offers her a cottage on his estate, Barton Park, in Devonshire, and Mrs. Dashwood decides to accept. She and the girls 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 humour and who immediately assigns herself the project of finding husbands for the Dashwood girls.

While visiting Sir John, the Dashwoods meet his old friend Colonel Brandon. It soon becomes apparent that Brandon is attracted to Marianne, and Mrs. Jennings teases them about it. Marianne is not pleased as she considers Colonel Brandon, at age 35, to be an old bachelor incapable of falling in love or inspiring love in anyone else.

Marianne, out for a stroll, gets caught in the rain, slips, and sprains her ankle. The dashing, handsome John Willoughby, who is visiting his wealthy aunt, Mrs. Smith, in the area, happens to be out with his gun and dogs nearby and sees the accident. He carries her home and soon wins her admiration with his good looks and outgoing personality, the opposite of the quiet and solemn Brandon. He visits her every day, and Elinor and Mrs. Dashwood begin to suspect that the couple are secretly engaged. After a picnic outing, during which Willoughby and Marianne are alone together for some time, Willoughby tells Mrs. Dashwood that he will have something important to say on his next visit. Mrs. Dashwood assumes he means to propose to Marianne and seek her blessing for the match. But when the day comes, 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. Elinor 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) that Edward does not love Lucy, but he will not hurt or dishonour her 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 writes to Marianne, 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 (equivalent to about five million pounds today). Marianne admits to Elinor that she and Willoughby were never engaged, but she loved him and he led her to believe he loved her.

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 favours her. Indeed Fanny and Mrs. Ferrars were fond of Lucy so Lucy’s sister, Anne, decides it would not be improper to tell them of Lucy’s engagement to Edward. When Mrs. Ferrars discovers Edward’s and Lucy’s engagement, she is infuriated, and demands he end the engagement instantly. However, he refuses so she disinherits him, in immediate favour of his brother, Robert. Elinor and Marianne feel sorry for Edward, and think him honourable for remaining engaged to a woman with whom he isn’t in love.

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 estate, with 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 it to provide Edward some sustenance. Elinor meets Edward’s boorish 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 neglects her health and becomes dangerously ill. Hearing of her serious illness, Willoughby arrives suddenly and reveals to Elinor that he truly loved Marianne, but since he was disinherited when his benefactress discovered his seduction of Miss Williams, he decided to marry the wealthy Miss Grey.

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 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 favour 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 honourably, he could have had love and money.

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. We are told that it is not in her nature to do anything by halves, and the gratitude and respect she has come to feel for him develop into a very deep love. The Colonel’s house is near the parsonage where Elinor and Edward live, so the sisters and their husbands can visit each other often.

1. Claire Tomalin, Jane Austen: A Life (New York: Vintage, 1997)

2. According to a combined analysis of changing currency values over time and contemporary exchange rates, one 1811 pound is worth roughly one hundred 2007 dollars today. (For example, see http://www.measuringworth.com.)

Reprinted from Wikipedia.com

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