Anyone who takes it upon herself to write lady business book reviews must, sooner or later, file a piece on Jane Austen. (It is a truth universally acknowledged! Ha, NO.) Austen seems to be the ultimate Chick Writer: canonical, virtuosic, indisputably important in terms of both technique and influence, yet widely mocked or ignored outside her circle of avid fans, simply because she wrote about, well, girly stuff. When I tell people that the three writers I admire most, as Voices, are (a) Joan Didion, (b) David Foster Wallace, and (c) Jane Austen, people who know Didion and Wallace tend to agree, or at least to respect the sentiment, but Austen… she’s some sort of proto-chick-lit writer, isn’t she? And: I’m surprised to know you read her. I always thought that she wrote sappy romance stuff.
Mrs. Hall of Sherbourn was brought to bed yesterday of a dead child, some weeks before she expected, owing to a fright — I suppose she happened unawares to look at her husband.
So, where to start?Pride and Prejudice is Austen’s most charming book; Emma represents the perfect balance between her early, goofy work and her later, more serious endeavors. Still, my favorite Austen book has always been Sense & Sensibility. Since it is, among other things, a book about the liabilities of good taste, it seems like a good introduction for a skeptic.
The book opens with a scene that would not be out-of-place in a fairy tale: a father, on his deathbed, makes his son promise to provide for his stepmother and three half-sisters. The son, deeply moved by his father’s dying words, pauses only to consort with his wife (“To be sure… [an annuity] is better than parting with fifteen hundred pounds at once. But, then, if Mrs. Dashwood should live fifteen years we shall be completely taken in”) before obligingly taking all of their money and kicking them out of their house. Thus disinherited, the mother and daughters move to a dismal little cottage in the middle of nowhere. The four women have only one hope of escape or financial betterment: someone’s got to marry a rich dude, quick.
The plot centers, therefore, on the two daughters of marriageable age, Marianne and Elinor. Marianne is passionate, gorgeous, and deeply in thrall to the fashionable Romantic sensibility of her age. Elinor, on the other hand, is smart and funny, and a substantial amount of her time is spent mocking Marianne’s exquisite taste. Here are the sisters:
“How does dear, dear Norland look?” cried Marianne.
“Dear, dear Norland,” said Elinor, “probably looks much as it always does at this time of the year. The woods and walks thickly covered with dead leaves.”
“Oh,” cried Marianne, “with what transporting sensation have I formerly seen them fall! How have I delighted, as I walked, to see them driven in showers about me by the wind! What feelings have they, the season, the air altogether inspired! Now there is no one to regard them. They are seen only as a nuisance, swept hastily off, and driven as much as possible from the sight.”
“It is not every one,” said Elinor, “who has your passion for dead leaves.”
“No,” Marianne replies, “my feelings are not often shared, not often understood.” It is this statement, infuriating as it may be, which provides a key to the novel. Marianne, like every teenager, hipster, and/or LiveJournal user who ever walked the earth, believes that her feelings are unique and special, though they are anything but; because she’s not polite enough to conceal or control them, she assumes that those who do have no feelings at all.
On to the marrying. Elinor falls for the dependable, kind-hearted, deeply boring Edward Ferrars, whereas Marianne falls for the not-at-all-boring Willoughby, whom she meets when he arrives in the rain (!) on a stallion (!!) after she has taken a fall (!!!) and carries her in his arms (!!!!!!infinity!) back to her house. After a promising start with Elinor, Ferrars becomes unaccountably cold and distant, which is just oh so much fun for Elinor, especially considering the fact that Willoughby and Marianne are by that point so passionately, demonstratively in love they might as well be fucking in the town square. It gets even better when Elinor learns the reason for Edward’s coolness: he is, in fact, secretly engaged to someone else. But while Elinor is forging bravely ahead with her broken heart, like the good little soldier that she is, Marianne learns that Willoughby is – you guessed it – secretly engaged to someone else. At this point, Marianne loses her shit entirely, and the novel’s true theme comes to the forefront.
Sense & Sensibility is not a comedy about marriage, although marriage is involved. It is not even a comedy about money, although money, as always, has a lot to do with it. It is simply this: a comedy about sadness, and how to get through it intact.
By this point, I have written some words that may freak you out: marrying, in love, secretly engaged. This, you are thinking, is that sappy romance stuff! Fear not, good reader: Austen’s characters, much like actual humans, do in fact care for each other, struggle to find committed relationships, and fuck up as much or more than they succeed. However, Austen – that lifelong virgin – never takes a particularly sentimental view.
“You and I, Sir John,” said Mrs. Jennings, “should not stand upon such ceremony.”
“Then you would be very ill-bred,” cried Mr. Palmer.
“My love you contradict every body,” said his wife with her usual laugh. “Do you know that you are quite rude?”
“I did not know I contradicted any body in calling your mother ill-bred.”**
“Ay, you may abuse me as you please,” said the good-natured old lady, “you have taken Charlotte off my hands, and cannot give her back again. So there I have the whip hand of you.”
Charlotte laughed heartily to think that her husband could not get rid of her; and exultingly said, she did not care how cross he was to her, as they must live together.
Oh, dear God, let’s not even get into how she felt about puppies.
SPOILER: It wasn’t good.
This dialogue has been going on since the first pages of the book, actually, ever since that weirdly bracing passage in which Marianne and her mother respond to Mr. Dashwood’s death by “[giving] themselves up wholly to their sorrow, seeking increase of wretchedness in every reflection that could afford it, and resolv[ing] against ever admitting consolation in future.” You have a choice, Austen is saying. Master your grief, or else it will master you.
Elinor could no longer witness this torrent of unresisted grief in silence.“Exert yourself, dear Marianne,” she cried, “if you would not kill yourself and all who love you. Think of your mother; think of her misery while YOU suffer: for her sake you must exert yourself.”“I cannot, I cannot,” cried Marianne; “leave me, leave me, if I distress you; leave me, hate me, forget me! but do not torture me so. Oh! how easy for those, who have no sorrow of their own to talk of exertion! Happy, happy Elinor, YOU cannot have an idea of what I suffer.”
That he was for ever inconsolable, that he fled from society, or contracted an habitual gloom of temper, or died of a broken heart, must not be depended on—for he did neither. He lived to exert, and frequently to enjoy himself. His wife was not always out of humour, nor his home always uncomfortable; and in his breed of horses and dogs, and in sporting of every kind, he found no inconsiderable degree of domestic felicity.
For Marianne, however—in spite of his incivility in surviving her loss—he always retained that decided regard which interested him in every thing that befell her…
And among the merits and the happiness of Elinor and Marianne, let it not be ranked as the least considerable, that though sisters, and living almost within sight of each other, they could live without disagreement between themselves, or producing coolness between their husbands.
So, there you have it. Love fades, or you learn to live without it, and everyone – villains, heroines, stoics and Romantics – ends up sort of, kind of happy, or at least not that sad. There is the real beauty: Jane Austen, notorious writer of sappy, girly, sticky romance, ends her novel, not with a wedding, but by saying, basically, You can get over anything – and, hey, it could be worse.
* Oh, God, don’t click on that link. I have to include it, if only to address the fact that it exists, but I fear anyone who sees it will be forced, as I have been, to scream, cry, or vomit up his or her intestines.
**So, for the record, Austen can pull off not only a dead baby joke, but also a “yo momma” joke, when called upon to do so. And, okay, Jane Austen film adaptations invariably suck, because the actors overplay everything (it’s deadpan humor, people, DEADPAN!) and the writers sap and sex the books up beyond recognition, but there is one golden exception to that rule, which is that Mr. “Your Mother Can Suck My Ass, Dear” Palmer is played in Emma Thompson’s S&S by… Hugh Laurie. Fucking House. He’s unsurprisingly perfect in the role. Probably not so very perfect that you should actually watch the movie, which does tend to blow, but hey: want to see a picture of Hugh Laurie wearing a silly hat? I know you do! Here goes: