12/12/12, 12:12, just for the heck of it.
Fellow readers, I have struck out on two of the last three books I've read—at least as far as finding them amenable to a thoughtful review. One I simply didn't understand, and the other contained morals too shocking for me to speak of with any objectivity. The third, I reviewed last week.
This week, then, I decided to re-read some Austen. After a short dither, I picked up Sense & Sensibility.
Which I enjoyed and admired more than ever. I can never get over Austen's genius; despite open moralizing and massive quantities of the 'telling' instead of 'showing' so derided nowadays, the beauty and conflict of the characters carries the story perfectly.
Character portrayal is one of Austen's greatest strengths. Edward and Colonel Brandon are both thoroughly good, but the former is painfully shy and prone to stupid mistakes, and the latter is morose. Elinor is heroic but can be annoyingly didactic, and Marianne may be the last character in Western fiction whose straightforward romantic tendencies are played as unsympathetic. And that's just the primary set. There's kind but vulgar Mrs. Jennings, affectionate but mercenary John Dashwood, friendly but thoughtless Sir John Middleton, sour but sincere Mr. Palmer, and Lucy Steele, who takes cold-hearted feminine manipulative tendencies to startling depths.
Oh, and then there's Willoughby—whose appalling confession to Elinor holds a weird honor: it's perhaps the most touching scene of believable human selfishness I've ever read.
For readers who have never read Austen and would like to try, I usually recommend beginning with the shorter, tighter, more emotionally rewarding Persuasion. Sense & Sensibility's storyline meanders a bit, and it champions propriety against indulgence of passions, which makes it generally harder on a modern audience. That's part of why I like it, of course; the critique of common vulgarity comes as a relief, and Marianne's character trajectory and Elinor's example convict me of my own weaknesses in the most encouraging way possible.
But the story has strengths enough. It's more physically detailed than some of Austen's work—the moment where a nervous Edward ruins a pair of scissors by using them to cut up their own sheath never fails to make me smile—and the contrast and interplay between sensible Elinor, whose narrative arc climaxes in a burst of emotion, and passionate Marianne, whose story resolves in the prioritizing of rational choice, is dramatic and beautiful. It's less subtle than Pride & Prejudice, but at moments it's almost more vivid.
Austen paid for the publication of Sense & Sensibility herself, her first published novel and the last one she ever had to pay to produce. That just about says it all.