- 'Sense and Sensibility' Summary
- 'Sense and Sensibility' Review
- Complete Text
- Questions for Study & Discussion
- Jane Austen Biography
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Sense and Sensibility is the first work by Jane Austen (published in 1811). It's not the work for which she is usually most well known, but it demonstrates many of the literary features for which Jane Austen would become so well known (like Pride and Prejudice. She initially published the novel anonymously, under the byline of "A Lady." (Virginia Woolf once said, "For most of history, Anonymous was a woman." This statement would seem to be particularly true for Jane Austen--her identity was never disclosed during her lifetime.)
Sense vs. Sensibility
Austen wrote the first version of the book, with the early title: Elinor and Marianne, as an epistolary novel--a series of letters--around 1795. Over the years, she rewrote/reworked the novel into a third-person narrative structure (1797-1799), and revised it (1809-1810). With the new title, Sense and Sensibility, Austen labels her the two central characters. The heroine (Elinor) is ruled by "sense"--she's the responsible one. Her sister (Marianne) is ruled by "sensibility" or emotion. It's the classic dichotomy between logic and passion.
Like so many literary greats, Austen reflects the spirit of her age. Her poetic contemporaries, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth, offered up Lyrical Ballads (1798), which is usually used to mark the beginning of the Romanticism in literature. Sir Walter Scott began publishing during this time as well (his first novel, The Lay of the Last Minstrel, appeared in 1805)--to great acclaim. Austen's work stands at a point of tradition between Classicism and Romanticism. It's a novel of manners, and a coming-of-age story--handled with humor and satire.
So, what was she saying about passion? Sensibility? Was it all about manners? How did her heroines function in a society built upon propriety and common sense?
What about passion?
Elinor says, "Sense will always have attractions for me." She'd become adept at taming her passions, following the path that society has laid out for her. After the death of her father, Henry Dashwood, she and her family are left in an impoverished state and she must ensure that they live within their means. As Austen tells us, in Chapter 37, "Elinor was to be the comforter of others in her own distresses, no less than in theirs..."
But, these women are also young: they make mistakes and they evolve/learn from their errors in judgement, trained by the realities of life and societal pressures. Marianne learns from her impassioned (but unfortunate) pursuit of Willoughby ("She felt the loss of Willoughby's character yet more heavily than she had felt the loss of his heart.") Her subsequent match with Colonel Brandon is more resolute. ("Marianne Dashwood was born to an extraordinary fate. She was born to discover the falsehood of her own opinions, and to counteract, by her conduct, her most favourite maxims.")
Throughout the novel, Elinor represses her emotions and is ever aware of societal conventions (and her personal responsibilities), but she also loves Edward (even when she doesn't believe he would ever pursue marriage with her). Ultimately, the sisters each experience a tempering of "sense and sensibility". The characters can't live with logic or passion alone...
In the end, Jane Austen tells us: "Between Barton and Delaford, there was that constant communication which strong family affection would naturally dictate;—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."