12.12.2012

Currently Re-reading: Sense and Sensibility

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.

Sense And SensibilityWhich 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.

15 comments:

  1. So, will the other two books remain nameless in order to protect the guilty? :)

    I liked Sense and Sensibility. I've only read it the once but I've been meaning to remedy that. As with most of Austen's novels, it dragged a bit for me in the beginning but once I got halfway, I was hooked & everything moved quickly.

    And I'm fervently in agreement that we could do with a little more propriety nowadays as opposed to indulgence of passions.

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    1. Haha. Well,

      Didn't understand: Kat Heckenbach's Finding Angel. I'd have loved to give this a glowing review, as she's a hardworking writer with a hardworking independent publisher, and Angel's a decent YA character. It's a fair book overall and I liked it in many ways, but it didn't catch me emotionally enough to convince me to dive in and thoughtfully interpret the sudden flurry of symbolism at the end.

      Couldn't be objective about: Eva Ibbotson's A Company of Swans. Ibbotson is such a fantastic and optimistic writer that I have every intent of reading more of her work, but really--apparently sophistication means being perfectly all right with sleeping with other people's husbands and wives and having other people sleep with yours. And getting an asinine thrill out of "getting ruined." Not cool. I did love all the ballet talk, though. And I've been informed that some of her other works are gentler on moral sensibilities.

      Yes, Austen's novels do tend to start off slowly. I've read them so many times that it doesn't bother me anymore. ;)

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    2. Ibbotson's The Reluctant Heiress is on Nancy Pearl's list of recommended reads for 2012, so that might be a good place to start. I haven't read it yet.

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  2. I've always had the hardest time seeing Mrs. Jennings as that crass--probably because the delightful Elizabeth Spriggs plays her part so endearingly in the Ang Lee adaptation.

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    1. Oh, I love her in the Ang Lee adaptation. And it's Elizabeth Spriggs whom I see in my mind when I read the book. She nailed the character--an absolutely fantastic acting job. There's not much I don't love about that adaptation.

      By vulgar, I don't necessarily mean crass, not as we think of it nowadays; it's more about her gossipy teasing over potential romantic attachments, which causes both Elinor and Marianne significant embarrassment, and little things like her relaying all the details of her daughter's recovery from childbirth. I find that last sort of thing so unbearable in modern conversation that I have to wholly sympathize with Elinor there. ;)

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    2. of course--everyone reacts to her as if she were a bit unrefined, and I just have a hard time seeing her that way. Even when she's being nosy and intrusive, she is always caring.

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    3. You're right, she is always caring--exceptionally so, and I think there's a counter-critique in that part of Marianne's character arc involves learning to treat Mrs. Jennings with the sincere, affectionate gratitude she deserves.

      And thanks for the Ibbotson recommendation! I'll paste that into my reading list file. I'm gathering a whole section of Ibbotson suggestions. :)

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  3. Oh my goodness, Jenna, what a lovely review! I watched the movie for the 4,227th time this week (I NEVER tire of watching it) and was thinking, "I can't believe I've never READ it!" So reading your articulate, incisive, beautiful review was the final push I needed to order a copy :).

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    1. The movie is superb. It streamlines things a little bit, but if you've read other Austen, you'll not likely have any trouble getting through the book. So glad you're going to read it! And glad you liked the review. :)

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  4. It's always so nice to reread a favorite after a couple of less than thrilling books, isn't it! By the way, thanks for reviewing Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. I LOVED that book..have I mentioned that to you already?? LOVED..so much.. but have you discovered the Hounds of the Morrigan (have I recommended that to you) it's delightful and not full of sorrow and misery.

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    1. Yes, it is. :D

      I am SO glad you liked Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell!! And no, I've never read Hounds of the Morrigan, but will add it to my reading list. Thanks!

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  5. It's been too long since the last time I read it for me to disagree with any of your mild criticisms, but I remember enough to agree completely about Willoughby cutting such a tragic figure - I remember pitying him intensely for his weakness in the book. Ang Lee's adaptation is incredibly faithful to the spirit of the book, but that was something he did not manage to capture, perhaps because it would have interfered with the momentum in a way it does not in the book. I have long thought that our of the most beautiful excerpts of all of Austen's writings (not that I have read them all). Also, your insight about Marianne learning to be kind to the well-meaning but at times unbearable Mrs. Jenkins is spot-on. It made me think of myself and my own journey regarding those same kinds of people. The baby is on another sleeping strike, so I am trying to catch up on my lurking :)

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    1. It's been awhile since I saw the movie, but I think I'd agree with you on the translation of Willoughby's confession from book to screen. Willoughby in the book is more interesting overall than Willoughby in the movie, as I recall--more interesting and more shocking, too. Or maybe I just notice it all more because it's been several years since I read/saw either.

      And yeah, I have a similar response to Marianne's learning to relate kindly to Mrs. Jennings. :)

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  6. *should be "one of the most beautiful excerpts". Bleeping Autocorrect.

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    1. Autocorrect. It'll get you every time. :P

      Sorry your little guy isn't sleeping! Hopefully he lets you rest soon.

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