May Book Club: Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

I confess I had some input into this months choice! There was a request for romance and strong women, with no religion, so I though a little Jane Austen would not go amiss. As the multiple copies suggest I have read it before but I think reading in a group can bring different ideas and perspectives and, after all, you never really read the same book twice.

Being the youngest sister in my family I always rather identified with Margaret, who is always in the background watching the romances of her sisters as they fall apart. I always wonder which sister Margaret modelled herself on, the emotional Marianne or the sensible Elinor. However, reading now as the mother of a teenager daughter I confess I was often infuriated with Mrs. Dashwood and her imprudent advice, her lack of sense! 

It is the relationship between Marianne and Elinor that, for me, has always been at the heart of this novel. For all their love for each other they are unable to communicate and really support each other as one then the other experiences a broken heart. Marianne’s passion for Willoughby seems inevitable, a handsome man carrying her home with a twisted ankle.  But her passion is essentially all about pleasure. Willoughby fascinates  her because they seem to share every interest in common, he sings, he dances, he hunts and he has one country estate with the promise of inheriting another. When he appears to be none of these things their relationship is revealed to be founded on nothing. Her behaviour then goes through all the distraught behaviour required, sincerely or for effect? Elinor’s frustration with her sister is palpable. This is only increased because the man she loves, Edward has apparently been engaged to Lucy Steele, a social climber, since his youth. Austen ensures Lucy is a grasping, unsavoury character who forces Edward to remain engaged to her even though she knows his affection is long spent. This portrayal has always felt a little unfair, did Lucy have any other options than marriage, with no fortune or education? Is she really to blame or is it Edward’s character that lacks decision? Elinor cannot speak to anyone about her love for Edward because it is her nature to conceal and control her emotions as much as it is Marianne’s to reveal everything. Sense versus sensibility when what is needed is a balance of both.

Ultimately, Marianne’s need to be a distraught lover leads to her catching a terrible cold and almost dying. She emerges from her near death bed a more reflective character.  Her eventual marriage to Colnel Brandon is at least based on a degree of friendship on her side and a devotion apparently based on her resemblance to a childhood sweetheart on his part. Brandon’s character lacks any real charisma in the novel to make him a heroic figure, though he is probably the most virtuous man in the story.  Elinor’s character does not really shift until Edward reappears and she is no longer able to control her emotions.

Everyone in the novel seems to get a contented ending, if not a happy one. (Except the poor girl who has Willoughby’s illegitimate child, who never gets an ending at all!) I was left wondering if this is really a novel with strong female characters as I remembered or more a well written sisterly relationship. I will see what the book club thinks!


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