Elinor, this eldest daughter whose advice was so effectual, possessed a strength of understanding, and coolness of judgment, which qualified her, though only nineteen, to be the counsellor of her mother, and enabled her frequently to counteract, to the advantage of them all, that eagerness of mind in Mrs. Dashwood which must generally have led to imprudence. She had an excellent heart; her disposition was affectionate, and her feelings were strong: but she knew how to govern them: it was a knowledge which her mother had yet to learn, and which one of her sisters had resolved never to be taught.
-Sense and Sensibility
When Laura McDonald, the publisher of Girlebooks, asked me to annotate a new edition of Sense and Sensibility, I immediately said yes, because it sounded like a lot of fun. (I am all about fun when it comes to Jane Austen.) It turned out to be a much larger task than I had imagined, though even more fun than I thought.
The philosophy of this new edition was not to create a super-scholarly edition for jaded Janeites; we wanted to create a book that would be useful, fun, and attractive for 21st-century Austen fans, who were using and enjoying the book in new ways, including digitally. I thought that the approach I took to The Jane Austen Handbook–to try to explain the things about Jane Austen’s world that puzzled me as a first-time Austen reader–would work well for a general edition. I also planned “extras” such as the inclusion of related books and films, and the best extra of all would be provided by my friend, collaborator, and co-conspirator, Cassi Chouinard: charming illustrations with Cassi’s inimitable sense of humor that is so well-suited to illustrating Austen.
I was also pleased at the prospect of being able to offer an inexpensive ebook edition of the novel that still offered so many extras. My fellow ebook devotees know how frustrating it is to download a free public domain book with formatting issues and poor scanning and Optical Character Recognition (OCR) issues. I appreciate Girlebooks’ public domain offerings because they are so well-done. OCR issues are minimal, and the hand-formatted texts are attractive and very easy to use, with nicely designed covers–way more attractive than the many public domain editions from dodgy “publishers” on the various ebook platforms–as well as a proper table of contents and other formatting that makes navigating the ebook easy. I’ve made a few ebooks in my time, so I know how much work Laura puts into the site.
I thought it absolutely necessary to include a short biography of Jane Austen and suggestions for further reading about Austen’s life and work: books I have found useful and informative, and that I consulted while writing the annotations. I also thought that since we were making an edition for the 21st-century reader, a reflection of the more fun aspects of Austen fandom were also called for: lists of film adaptations of Sense and Sensibility, and some of the many paraliterature titles inspired by the novel. The general perception is that Austen paraliterature is nearly all Pride and Prejudice inspired (and certainly the vast majority is so inspired) but I was surprised how many books were inspired by Sense and Sensibility.
The best part about the project was the opportunity to immerse myself thoroughly in Sense and Sensibility. Having never before annotated a novel, I didn’t realize how submerged in the text one becomes; and such a delightful text it is! Sense and Sensibility is a truly remarkable novel–screamingly funny, shockingly truthful, with just enough romance and a happy ending. The characters are uniformly charming.
After spending the summer with Elinor Dashwood (resulting in a lot of What Would Elinor Do? comments on Twitter on my part), she is now my favorite heroine. Elinor is the embodiment of the poem “If” by Rudyard Kipling (himself a Janeite): “If you can keep your head when all about you/Are losing theirs and blaming it on you…” Why then, you’ll be an Austen heroine, my dear! And yet Elinor is not annoyingly perfect; no picture of perfection to make us sick & wicked; and she has a wicked sense of humor to keep her from seeming priggish. In one of the best lines in any of Austen’s novels, when Robert Ferrars rattles on ridiculously about cottages, she “agreed to it all, for she did not think he deserved the compliment of rational opposition.” Elinor sees people clearly and has little patience with their foibles–except for Marianne, of course–but she maintains her civil exterior and always treats people with polite kindness and scrupulous ethics, especially when it is deserved–and even, in the case of Lucy Steele, when it is not.
Hilarious minor characters abound: Miss Steele, Robert Ferrars, the Middletons, the Palmers, Mrs. Jennings; as well as purely nasty ones: Lucy Steele and Mrs. Ferrars; and one of the most romantic heroes ever, Colonel Brandon. I have long been a vocal member of Team Brandon–indeed, from the first time I read Sense and Sensibility; not being seventeen years old and overly romantic, I was not frightened off by the flannel waistcoat. I can even appreciate the much-maligned Edward Ferrars, who is not a stuttering fool as he is sometimes portrayed. He is a man who can appreciate the qualities of Elinor Dashwood, and that’s a high recommendation in my book.
Sense and Sensibility is a delight, and, I think, gets an undeserved bad rap in some quarters. If you haven’t read it in a while, why not give it another try? And when faced with a dilemma, you, too, can ask yourself: What Would Elinor Do? Because if you do, it’s hard to go wrong.
Along with annotating the Jane Austen Bicentenary Library Edition of Sense and Sensibility, Margaret C. Sullivan is the author of The Jane Austen Handbook and There Must Be Murder, a sequel novella to Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey. She also is the author of “Heard of You,” a short story inspired by Persuasion, in Jane Austen Made Me Do It, edited by Laurel Ann Nattress. Maggie is the Editrix of AustenBlog.com and the Jane Austen resource site Mollands.net. She is slightly in awe of Elinor Dashwood, and trying hard not to be such a Marianne.