My Frustrations Upon Rereading Sense and Sensibility

I was rereading Sense and Sensibility the other day, and suddenly realized it’s not my favourite Jane Austen novel. Any Jane Austen novel is a novel of the highest quality, so to say “not my favourite Austen novel” still means I love this book. But in the past I’ve found I keep forgetting to mention this one when listing off why I love Jane Austen’s works, and now I’ve realized why. The characters are hard to connect with, the relationships aren’t as fully fleshed out as in some of her other novels, and she glosses over some frustrating male behaviours.

What do you think? Let me make my case below. When I ranked Austen’s novels in the past I think I put Sense and Sensibility fourth–here’s what I found on my latest re-read.

The Main Characters Are Hard to Connect With

Sense and Sensibility illustration, Harma-Mae Smit blog

First, all the characters have something that makes them a bit irritating. Irritating characters aren’t always bad, because flaws need to be overcome in order to have characters that develop over the course of the story. But sometimes characters with certain types of flaws are harder to read about than others. The example brought up most often in Jane Austen’s works is Fanny Price, since her passivity and quietness can be frustrating, but I think there are examples in Sense and Sensibility as well. Just like Fanny, the characters in this novel spend a lot of time just enduring.

Elinor is calm and composed throughout the novel, which is admirable except when it sometimes prevents her from taking any action, reducing her from an active character to a passive character (it’s admirable she endures, but sometimes the reader wants her to just do something). It also prevents her from having some of the emotional reactions we, as readers, would relate to. Her love, Edward, is obviously flawed, being utterly passive for most of the novel despite loving Elinor back. Marianne is active in contrast, but in a way that is often unfeeling to the characters around her and to herself as well (a point which seems to be one of Austen’s messages in this novel). She is not active in a “likable” way. And lastly, everyone respects Marianne’s match, Colonel Brandon, aside from the slightly squicky implications of him being 35 and her being 17, and the fact Marianne reminds Brandon of the girl he was in love with before (making the reader wonder if she just a replacement of her for him?) Other than that, he is unfailing kind and thoughtful throughout the novel, so I feel if Austen gave us just a little more insight into the interactions between Marianne and Colonel Brandon (other than him staring at her from afar), we could be reassured that their relationship is somewhat healthy.

I used to think I was quite like Elinor, in being very composed and unruffled on the surfaceand not necessarily wanting other people to see when they hurt me. I still do share some similarities with her. But this time upon rereading it there were several things I realized I would never do–like pretend to be friends with Lucy. There’s a large amount of social decorum I would find pointless, which probably says more about me as a modern person than it really says about Austen. But I just don’t value holding up a social convention at the expense of being honest. I have no objections against being polite, but I believe it’s possible to be polite and honest and direct (well, this may be my modernity, or it may the Dutch in me). I wouldn’t necessarily feel bad about being honest that I didn’t find Lucy’s company interesting, at least.

I also wouldn’t hold back on asking Marianne if she was engaged to her initial love, Willoughby, just because Marianne would be offended. I wouldn’t refrain from admitting I was suspicious of Willoughby, or really feel bad about being suspicious about him as Elinor seems to feel bad–I just don’t feel the same compulsion as Elinor does that I “should” think well of everyone who hasn’t absolutely proven with evidence to be a bad person. Which is fine–I read books to experience life from a different perspective. But on this rereading, it really underscored why I don’t personally approach life this way.

The characters do develop over the novel, which is why this novel is a classic and why the story as a whole holds interest. Elinor demonstrates she does have emotions, Edward learns to take action to make his life more like what will make him happy, Marianne learns to be nicer to others and take care of herself, and Colonel Brandon–well, doesn’t change, but behaves honourably until he gets his reward.  But overall this time I was struck by how uninteresting I found the four core characters of this novel. The side characters are very well fleshed out, some in a very short number of sentences (such as Mr. Palmer), which shows Austen’s ability at characterization. Their quirks lightens up the mood of the novel and keep you reading. Sometimes I felt like spending more time with some of them, which led to my reflection on what I found less than enticing about the characters I was supposed to be most interested in.

The Main Couples Could Use More Chemistry

Jane Austen ends several of her novels hastily matching up her characters, without showing an in-depth scene of how exactly the conversation went. This includes Fanny and Edmund in Mansfield Park, and Reginald and Frederica in Lady Susan. And in this novel, it’s Marianne and Colonel Brandon who get this treatment, whereas Elinor, as the primary character, has her scene with Edward fleshed out. However, Elinor and Edward’s relationship overall isn’t that fleshed out, and they spend much of the novel in different parts of the country.

Many have pointed out that Elinor and Colonel Brandon interact far more than Colonel Brandon and Marianne. These interactions demonstrate how much Colonel Brandon and Elinor could likely be a good match if they weren’t both in love with other people, and because of this I feel the novel could be improved it there were more evidence for the pairing of Elinor and Edward, and Colonel Brandon and Marianne, to counteract this impression that Colonel Brandon and Elinor could work well. Overall, it made me wonder what Elinor saw in Edward that made her hang onto her feelings for him for so long–if this had been demonstrated somewhere at the beginning of the novel when she first meets him, I would have understood it better. (It’s implied to be the fact Elinor sees the potential in Edward despite his passivity and unhappiness, which is romantic, but we as readers really struggle to see this potential that she sees in him). Most of Elinor’s interactions with Edward are deeply awkward. He’s always interacting with her under the awareness he’s engaged to another girl, and she is always holding back her deep feelings for him and wondering why he’s so awkward.

Colonel Brandon is very popular with readers and it’s not hard to see why. He’s one of the only male characters who is honourable throughout. He is incredibly likable, but the age gap between him and Marianne makes me uncomfortable in a way I guess Jane Austen wasn’t. As mentioned above, if we were given some insight into his head in a way that reassured us he appreciates Marianne for Marianne rather than an incarnation of his dead lover, it would help a lot. Marianne’s flaw is idealism, and there’s not a lot of evidence in the novel that Brandon isn’t idealizing her as she once idealized Willoughby.  I feel it would also help a lot if it was fleshed out a bit more as to why Marianne eventually fell for him, because it does feel like he was a bit of a consolation prize for her in the last paragraphs of the novel. To see her start to appreciate what everyone else admires in him would flesh out this relationship a bit, and move his position a bit deeper from “talking to Elinor while staring at Marianne” the whole time.

Frustrating Male Behaviour

Sense and Sensibility illustration, Harma-Mae Smit blog

And lastly, it’s surprising how much Austen softens and apologizes for the actions of the male characters in this book. I don’t think this struck me in my previous readings, but this time I wondered why she went as far as she did. The obvious example is Edward, whom she describes as “very wrong” first for getting secretly engaged to Lucy and then for spending time with Elinor despite his engagement, but she adds a lot of circumstances to excuse his behaviour, and makes it clear Elinor forgives him. The overall implication is somewhat that though his behaviour made people around him so miserable and put Elinor in incredibly uncomfortable situations (like having to be nice to Lucy),  he should be forgiven because he starts to take more action and stops wallowing in his misery by the end. It’s fine that Elinor forgives him–we can all be clueless. It just doesn’t feel reassuring that he wouldn’t be clueless about hurting her again later in their marriage. Her ability to hide her feelings and her willingness to think well of him even when he’s careless with her emotions, doesn’t provide much reassurance here.

The other example is Willoughby, Marianne’s first love who ghosts her and marries another woman. When I was younger I was very excited to see Willoughby’s slight redemption arc, when he shows up when Marianne is almost dying and admits to Elinor that he regrets ghosting her and will always have feelings for her. To my younger self, this was romantic. It was also interesting to see in contrast to Wickham in Pride and Prejudice, who gets no redemption and is just implied to be a scoundrel (though he isn’t punished for being a scoundrel). But now I am older I feel more surprised Austen softened his bad character, and basically made it necessary for Marianne to start feeling better to know that he had truly loved her at one point–for her to know he had some good intentions in him towards her. The second thing that is awkward is that he seduced Colonel Brandon’s ward and his defence is basically that the ward wasn’t totally innocent either. Austen positions this as lighting the blackness of his behaviour somewhat, whereas taking advantage of a very young girl in that way in inexcusable no matter how you phrase it. It may be for this reason that the scene where he admits his regret to Elinor was left out of the 1995 movie version.

I guess his regret is Austen’s way of punishing him a bit, since otherwise he doesn’t really suffer for what he does to Marianne. (And it’s true that Austen’s awful characters frequently avoid any punishment). But this regret is paired so much with lighting all the characters’ impression of his behaviour, since I guess they feel sorry for him? Perhaps it is his charm that realistically prevents the characters from judging him as harshly as he deserves, but I found it interesting that Austen even made this narrative choice.

Anyway, on this rereading I was struck that Austen even bothered to soften these male characters’ behaviours. She must have felt charitable when revising this book–more than one character’s behaviour is first described as foolish and then softened later. Some minor characters that get this are Mr. Palmer, who at first appears stuck up and later is revealed to care at least a little about Elinor and Marianne’s wellbeing when Marianne is deathly ill, and Mrs. Jennings, who is introduced as someone very vulgar but whose kindnesses to Elinor and Marianne keep the plot going and helps them out at various points. Possibly after entering her characters’ heads for the length of time it took to write this novel, Austen found she had sympathy for their points of view–who knows!

Anyway, that was my recent impression after my latest reread. Another reading might bring more things to mind–or change my mind! Let me know your thoughts below.

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