"The more I know of the world, the more I am convinced that I shall never see a man whom I can really love. I require so much!" -- Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen
The second book in The Jane Austen Book Club lecture series was Sense and Sensibility. Last week I went to the beautiful Hotel Bel-Air to hear UCLA Professor Charles (Lynn) Batten talk about the essential ideas and themes in this book. There were about 30 of us in attendance. We listened, we discussed and, most importantly, we laughed since no one can make Jane Austen more fun than Professor Lynn Batten.
Taking a course like this is a delight since we get to discuss an author whose themes are as relevant today as they were 200 years ago: love, friendship, money, marriage, reputation and personal happiness. Wars were being fought on the world stage at the time she was writing, but Jane Austen chose as her stage a small English village and the quotidian events that happen there. In Sense and Sensibility the action concerns the Dashwood family and their financial straits. The book begins with a death, that of Mr. Dashwood. Because of the entailment law his wife and three daughters cannot inherit his property. On his deathbed Mr. Dashwood implores his son (by his first wife) and heir to leave the Dashwood women an annuity. However, by the end of the first chapter his son is talked out of doing so by his wife. Mrs. Dashwood and her daughters are forced to leave their house and will now have to rely on the kindness of others. And their top priority will be to get the daughters married and married well.
There are so many thing to love about Jane Austen's books. One of them is the comedy and subtle irony she uses in depicting the absurd characters in her books (we all know them in our own lives). The Palmers, the Middletons and Mrs. Jennings provide many comic scenes. But more than anything, the element in her books that keeps Austen fans coming back for more is the romance. Jane Austen's heroines are determined to find true love. They hold out for the real thing. They typically stumble along the way, make mistakes and even choose the wrong man. But ultimately they find Mr. Right.
"Lose your heart and come to your senses" was the catchphrase on the movie poster for the gorgeous 1995 Ang Lee film of Sense and Sensibility that starred Kate Winslet and Emma Thompson (pictured above). And it was true. The film was so beautiful and romantic. I remember thinking that every scene looked like a painting. The movie did a great job of covering most of the highlights from the book. Here are the ones that stood out for me:
The Dashwood girls leaving their childhood home after their father dies; their brother John Dashwood being talked out of giving them anything by his awful wife Fanny; the Dashwoods moving into the modest cottage provided by the wonderful Mr. Middleton; Colonel Brandon entering their lives and falling in love with Marianne; the handsome Willoughby rescuing Marianne in the storm; Marianne's growing infatuation with Willoughby, portrayed so beautifully by the radiant Kate Winslet; Willoughby cutting her at the ball and the sisters' realization that he has only been toying with Marianne, always intending to marry money; Elinor's silent suffering at Edward Ferrars' (the man she loves) behavior towards her; Marianne's illness; Marianne coming to realize she loves Colonel Brandon; and Edward finally telling Elinor he has loved her all along, but first had to be released from his engagement to Lucy Steele. I adored the film and couldn't wait to revisit the book and hear what Professor Batten had to say.
He reminded us that this is a book about two sisters who are the polar opposites of each other. Marianne Dashwood is passionate, romantic and wears her heart on her sleeve. Elinor is reasonable, practical and reserved about her feelings. In other words, Marianne is the character of sensibility and Elinor is the character of sense. When Marianne is miserable, all the world must suffer along with her. When Elinor is miserable, she keeps it to herself in consideration of others. The novel explores the question of what should govern one's life: head or heart -- reason or passion. The answer is that to be truly happy you must combine both. Jane Austen's novels are always about the education of her heroines and by the end of Sense and Sensibility, the sisters learn that sense must mix with sensibility if they are to find true happiness. We watch as Marianne develops a degree of sense by making a very good marriage with Colonel Brandon who has inherited his family fortune and Elinor develops a degree of sensibility by marrying her true love Edward Ferrars who has been disinherited by his. As Professor Batten points out, Colonel Brandon will be helping Elinor and Edward financially.
In terms of some of the more technical aspects of the book, Professor Batten told us to look for a few things: opposites, pairings, triangles and patterns. I think I have figured out a few. Opposites -- the Dashwood sisters and many of the married couples. We learn that the marriage of opposites can work, though not always. Pairings - the heroines and the men they love, Mrs. Dashwood and Marianne who are very much alike, and Fanny and Lucy Steele, terrible characters who become friends. Love triangles -- Willoughby, Brandon, and Marianne is one. Elinor, Edward and Lucy Steele is another. It was fascinating to think about all this. But perhaps those mathematical qualities are the very ones that create the pleasing symmetry of the books. No matter the obstacles thrown in their way, the heroines always end up married to the right person. The ending of this book neatly ties things up by having the sensible sister marry her true love and the emotional sister marry the man she did not initially love, but who is the much more sensible and satisfying choice of a husband. Patterns.
He also told us to look at the marriages in the novel, some of which are bad. For example, the Palmers and the Middletons. And to look for the coping mechanisms that the characters use in these bad marriages. Mr. Middleton is always inviting people over to provide a buffer between him and his wife. And Mr. Palmer hides behind a newspaper and completely ignores the silliness of his wife. I thought about another bad marriage, the Bennets in Pride and Prejudice. Mr. Bennett retreats to his library to get away from his wife, as well as his screaming daughters.
So much to think about, so much to discuss and so much to love. I am very excited to be spending the next few months discussing one Jane Austen novel each month. Next up -- Pride and Prejudice!
What is your favorite book by Jane Austen?
My favorite is Emma, but that could change by the end of this lecture series.