Skip to content

Sense and Sensibility: It Is Not Everyone Who Has Your Passion For Dead Leaves

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.

Yikes.

***

Austen’s fans, it must be said, have not helped her case: the sheer amount of sentimental crap “based on” or “inspired by” Jane would be enough to scare away any serious reader. Even worse, Austen has been accused of inventing chick lit itself. Better clear this up now: like Shakespeare, Jane Austen wrote plots that people felt comfortable “adapting” to suit their own tastes, with mixed results. Shakespeare has Ten Things I Hate About You and She’s the Man, amongst others; Austen has Bridget Jones’ Diary and Clueless. BJ did, in fact, spawn the current mass of chick lit, but Austen is no more responsible for that than Shakespeare is for Amanda Bynes. In my experience, people don’t tend to denigrate or avoid Shakespeare because of She’s the Man. They do, however, feel perfectly justified in avoiding Jane Austen because of Bridget Jones.

The saddest thing about this is that the people who are most appalled by contemporary representations of Austen – people who shudder at the cozy, syrupy, suburban, anti-intellectual horseshit on display here,* let’s say – are the people who might most enjoy her work. The woman was anything but cozy. Here, for example, is a passage from one of her personal letters:
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.

This sentence demonstrates everything that made Jane Austen great. Note, for example, how carefully it’s plotted: there is a lengthy, twenty-eight word set-up, during which Austen lulls us into a false sense of security with her proper, subdued, nearly journalistic language (“Mrs. Hall of Sherbourn was brought to bed yesterday,” who what where when), followed by a shockingly brutal four word punch line, the full impact of which is not felt until the final word. See how effortlessly she shifts between the three voices in the sentence: restrained and declarative (“Mrs. Hall of Sherbourn,” etc.), breezily conversational (“I suppose she happened”), and stone-cold cruel (“husband”). Note, too, the role of punctuation: the quiet, steady rhythm of the commas, followed by the dash — like a comedian pausing for a beat before the laugh line — and then the quick, unresisted rhythm of the payoff. Even at her most casual, Austen was never less than totally in control of her technique.

Also, careful readers will note that this is a dead baby joke. About an actual dead baby. At its father’s expense. So, there’s that.

***

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.

Austen was a comic genius precisely because she combined a freakishly keen understanding of human nature with an icy detachment. Unrestrained passion, in Austen’s work, is always either a moral failing or a lapse in judgment. Like Shakespeare, she wrote happy engagements, but no happy marriages; her novels end, tellingly, with her protagonists’ weddings, and one always gets the sense that, if her protagonists stay happy together, it will be an exceptional accomplishment. Witness this charming little scene from Sense & Sensibility, between husband, wife, and mother-in-law:

“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.

So that’s marriage. What about babies – dear, sweet little babies? Well, as we’ve established, if they’re dead, they’re fair game. On the living-baby front, the Dashwoods are initially disinherited, through a baroque, typically Austenian system of entailments and endowments, due to their great-uncle’s fondness for just such a creature, who possessed “such attractions as are by no means unusual in children of two or three years old; an imperfect articulation, an earnest desire of having his own way, many cunning tricks, and a great deal of noise.” The affection of mothers for small children is also a frequent object of derision. One gets the sense that Austen had no patience for anyone who couldn’t keep up a steady stream of sparkling banter, and that children were therefore beneath her notice.
So, marriage, out; babies, out likewise. How did she feel about puppies?

Oh, dear God, let’s not even get into how she felt about puppies.

SPOILER: It wasn’t good.

***

So, as the men fade out of the picture, to be regained or replaced as necessary, we are left with the two sisters – Elinor and Marianne, Sense and Sensibility – and their ongoing argument about the nature of sorrow.

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, who believes there is honor in fighting through the pain, conceals not only her sadness, but its cause: she tells no-one about Edward’s engagement, and befriends his loathsome fiance. Marianne, faced with the same problems, stops eating, sleeping, and even speaking. Here, Elinor finally confronts her:
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.”
But, of course, she does. Everyone, in fact, has some idea of suffering: Elinor, obviously, but also Mrs. Palmer, whose husband cannot get rid of her, and Mr. Palmer, who cannot get rid of his wife, and Mrs. Dashwood, who is allowed about three pages to grieve for her husband, and even Edward and Willoughby, engaged to women they don’t love, out of duty (in Edward’s case) or for money (in Willoughby’s). For most of the book, in fact, Marianne scorns the advances of one Colonel Brandon, who turns out to have survived not only the forced severance of his first engagement, but his first love’s pregnancy by another man, her early death, and her daughter’s subsequent seduction and impregnation by Willoughby, who of course also happens to be dating the girl he has a crush on, all of which he is too much of a gentleman to mention. In this context, what stands out is not Marianne’s pain, but her selfishness. This, however, is something you can never communicate to Marianne, or to anyone like her. This is also the reason that, as the book winds to a close, Elinor is in a sickroom, tending to Marianne, whereas Marianne is in a coma, nearing death.
***

At this point, there are the obvious questions: whether Marianne lives, whether Edward is ever loosed from the clutches of his dread fiance, whether Willoughby is punished for his actions (which are really the same as Edward’s, but we the readers historically do not care – Willoughby is a dick!), and whether the surprisingly attractive Brandon ever gets his rocks off with a lady half his age. To these, I say: THIS IS JANE AUSTEN, DUH. Comedies are tragedies that don’t happen. Jane Austen wrote comedies. This, I trust, you know. But here, in one of the most delicate and quietly devastating conclusions of any novel I’ve read, she revisits Willoughby – and all the blind youthful love he represents – shortly after Marianne marries someone else:
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:

3 Comments

  1. Rachel wrote:

    Thanks for the newest installment! After reading the title and the exchange that it comes from, I was seized by a sudden desire to see Austen and Lord “Nobody Understands Me” Byron together in the same room. I suspect Austen would be hardly able to restrain herself from rolling her eyes at him.

    Friday, December 12, 2008 at 2:49 pm | Permalink
  2. Sady wrote:

    Exactly! Especially since so much of her work centered around deflating Byronic ideas and themes, and since she wrote so many brooding, passionate Byronic characters (Willoughby, obvs, but also Crawford and Wickham to a certain extent) who were invariably revealed to be total douchebag poseurs in the second or third acts of their respective novels.

    Now I know they tell you not to believe everything on Wikipedia. However, the irony here is too beautiful: Byron’s wife was apparently an Austen fan. Check it:

    “Anne Milbanke, future wife of the Romantic poet Lord Byron, wrote that “I have finished the Novel called Pride and Prejudice, which I think a very superior work.” She commented that the novel “is the most probable fiction I have ever read”"

    Oh, the poor thing.

    Friday, December 12, 2008 at 4:08 pm | Permalink
  3. Zahra wrote:

    Very nice piece. I have personally given up on the people who avoid Austen for fear of catching some type of misogynistic cooties–but it's fun to watch you argue them into the fold! S&S is my least favorite Austen, the only one I've read once; I may have to go back and reread it now.

    Regarding Austen and the dead baby joke, do you remember the point in Mansfield Park when she makes a joke about male-on-male sex? (It involves a Rear-Admiral and a Vice-Admiral.) I still remember how shocked I was when I figured it out–though of course she does put it in the mouth of Mary Crawford, and we are supposed to be scandalized.

    Still. None of the Brontes could have gotten away with it.

    Tuesday, June 2, 2009 at 12:01 pm | Permalink