Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

Sep 23, 2016

At the beginning of the year, I made a daunting reading goal: Read (don't listen) to something by Jane Austen or Charles Dickens. Some of you probably laughed when you read that goal, especially if you consume most of your classics by reading the hard copies.

But a few years ago, I discovered that I actually enjoyed most classics far more if I listened to, rather than read, them. I can be a little bit OCD when it comes to reading. I'm not a skimmer and hold myself to reading, and understanding, every word on the page. As you might imagine, this habit becomes a tedious problem when reading classical fiction because there are some tediously long sections with big words and complex sentences that actually don't become much clearer on a second or fifth or eleventh rereading. (I'm sure many of you speed readers are literally cringing right now.)

The solution for me was audiobooks. The sections that would have been a hangup for me if I'd been reading now just floated by effortlessly. In fact, sometimes hearing passages spoken out loud actually made it easier for me to understand the meaning and intent. And with the right narrator, the characters magically came to life. It was a win-win-win, and consequently, any classic I've read in probably the last five years has been listened to.

Except . . . it made me feel a little less than a reader--not because I think listening is a lesser way to enjoy a book but because I was purposely avoiding the paper and ink copies. Because I was afraid. And intimidated.

I could devote an entire post to the ridiculousness of my reading habits, but over the past year, I've made a lot of progress with letting go of some of my harsh reading rules. It's been very freeing, to say the least, and I finally felt like I was ready to tackle a classic in this format again.

So that's the long version on the origin of this particular reading goal, and I have to say that I'm quite proud of myself. It took me about a month to read it (I'm a slow reader no matter how you slice it), but I enjoyed it so much, and that's all I really wanted.

You know the story: Elinor and Marianne Dashwood are devoted, but very different, sisters. When their father dies at the beginning of the story, most of the inheritance goes to their older brother, John. You would think and hope that he would be generous with his step-mother and half-sisters, but he is much too easily persuaded by his greedy and stingy wife for that. Determined to get by on their meager living, they move into the small cottage of Sir John Middleton, a distant, but nonetheless generous, relative. The family is quite happy there until the love lives of Elinor and Marianne begin to take a dramatic turn in the wrong direction.

Elinor "had an excellent heart;--her disposition was affectionate, and her feelings were strong; but she knew how to govern them." Marianne, on the other hand, "was sensible and clever; but eager in everything: her sorrows, her joys, could have no moderation. She was generous, amiable, interesting: she was everything but prudent."

I love those two opening descriptions of Elinor and Marianne because they capture so succinctly what the rest of the book fleshes out. We get to know them more intimately as the story progresses, but it doesn't change a single thing about what we learned about them at the beginning.

This review could easily be five different posts if I explored all of the things that made me pause and highlight and think while I was reading.

But instead, I'll just share three short observations and then one slightly longer one.
  1. I haven't read all of Jane Austen's novels, but out of the ones I've read, this one was definitely the most passionately romantic. I've become accustomed to long tangents in Jane Austen where the romantic tension all but fades away, but this one stayed pretty firmly fixed on Elinor and Marianne's romantic hopes and dreams and triumphs and agonies, and I liked it.
  2. Mr. Palmer is probably one of my favorite secondary characters of all time. His dry wit, his sarcasm, his disgust at his wife's frivolity, and underneath it all, a sort of sensitivity that kind of catches you by surprise. Every time his wife exclaimed, "He is so droll!" I had to smile a little because it was just so ludicrous but kind of accurate at the same time. I wish there'd been more of him in the book.
  3. One of my favorite moments in the whole book is when Elinor bursts into spontaneous sobs after finding out that Edward Ferrars is not, in fact, married. Throughout the book, Elinor is the anchor, the voice of reason in the storm, the one who will always be in control. She is, after all, described thus: "Elinor was to be the comforter of others in her own distresses, no less than in theirs." It isn't until that moment that the reader realizes the full toll all those months of composure and grace in the face of adversity have taken on her as the tension all gets expelled in one great round of crying. It's one of the most starkly visceral moments I've ever read.
One of the things that caught my attention early on was Elinor and Marianne's inability to communicate with each other. They each have so many questions for the other ("Are you engaged?" "What communication have you had with Willloughby/Edward?" "How is your heart?" "How can I help you?"), but they evade asking them. When they talk to their mother, it's the same; they hash out the questions they have about the other, but won't touch their own relationships. As a reader, it was maddening and frustrating and even puzzling. They're sisters with a strong bond and love for each other--what was keeping them from being each other's confidante? Why wouldn't they talk to each other?

And then one day, while still in the middle of the book, it hit me. I was about to call a family member, but I couldn't do it. I knew we would spend the entire conversation in an awkward dance, avoiding the subject both of us couldn't stop thinking about. Why? Because the subject we were avoiding was so emotionally charged that even the barest mention of it could act like a spark and send the entire conversation up in flames. It was agony not to say anything, but it seemed better than the alternative.

It was the same for Elinor and Marianne. They longed to know what the other was thinking and feeling and what had transpired behind closed doors and in sealed envelopes, but they didn't dare talk about it for fear that the hurt involved would somehow damage their own relationship beyond repair. It made total sense, and I suddenly realized that it wasn't just a literary device to keep the story moving forward. It was a reflection on real relationships that, solid though they may seem, are fraught with hidden mines, any one liable to explode if given the right trigger.

After I identified it in that one instance, I saw evidence of it everywhere in both my past and present relationships. There were dozens of subjects that were off-limits in order to keep the peace and maintain a positive, albeit strained, relationship.

I'm not advocating this type of communication, but sometimes it does seem like the better alternative to having the whole relationship crumble. It's better to handle the whole thing with care and hope that at some point, something will happen to make it easier to talk about. This eventually happens in Elinor and Marianne's story, and when it does, things finally begin to work out, which makes a compelling argument for why open and honest communication is so vital.

And now, I'm going to go watch the movie again . . . happy sigh.

What is your favorite moment in Sense and Sensibility? And how do you handle difficult-to-talk-about subjects?


  1. I read Sense and Sensibility this year too! I also loved it. Someday, when I have time (which probably won't be until I graduate), can I watch the movie with you?

  2. I read one Austen novel per year, and next year's is Sense and Sensibility. I just love this book. And the movie is one of my all-time favorites. I love the character of Elinor; I think she might be my favorite of all of Austen's characters.

    I'm a difficult-conversation avoider, from a long line of difficult-conversation avoiders. I married a confronter. It makes for an interesting marriage and lots of personal growth. Ahem.

    1. Elinor is definitely in my top five, but it's giving me anxiety to try to commit to one favorite!

      Oooh, yes, I'm sure that makes for some interesting dynamics in a marriage...although it's probably better than having two avoiders because then the tension tends to build up.

  3. This is my favorite of the Jane Austen books I have read. I love pride and prejudice too, but maybe because this one wasn't done by Wishbone so I didn't know the story before reading it, I enjoyed it more.
    I don't think I avoid difficult conversations, I normally just have them, but maybe I do, and maybe I was the one you were going to call...

    1. From your review on Goodreads, I wouldn't have guessed that this was your favorite Jane Austen.

      Whether you were or you weren't, it would be awkward if I said it here, so I'll just avoid this conversation . . . :-)


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