Saturday, December 9, 2017

Sense And Sensibility by Jane Austen

Elinor was to be the comforter of others in her own distresses, no less than in theirs.
Sense and Sensibility - Chapter 37.

When I read Jane Austen’s first published novel Sense And Sensibility - written with her ever carefully-crafted style - it brings many emotions, thoughts and remembrances to mind. It is a common occurrence when reading Jane Austen.  If you are listening closely and reading with careful attention, there are numerous moments that we almost all can identify with… that are familiar even in our day and time.

To name a few: 

  • Beloved sisters who are our friends and confidantes
  • Beloved sisters who distinctly differ from each other but learn through life how to value those differences
  • The loss of a dear parent and the subsequent walk through grief
  • The loss of a home that we knew and loved
  • First love and the joy that can follow
  • First love and the heartache that can follow
  • Learning to control our emotions
  • Learning to control our actions
  • Finding the true value of a strong and Godly character in someone we love
  • Finding the true value of accepting that lack of Godly character will never bring real joy in love

At various stages of my life I have identified more with Elinor and at other times - when lost in youthful dreams and emotions - I have felt myself more like Marianne.  And I have grown in my appreciation of Colonel Brandon over the years. He is criticized for not being “romantic” but his deeply loving heart and strength of integrity leave Willoughby (and in a slight degree Edward) in the dust. To be honest, however, my appreciation of Colonel Brandon became its most sincere after watching Alan Rickman’s sensitive & endearing representation of the role in the 1995 production of the screenplay written by Emma Thompson.  Colonel Brandon is not a character to take for granted as you are reading… he is a reminder of calm good men in the world.

“Colonel Brandon . . . was silent and grave. His appearance however was not unpleasing, in spite of his being in the opinion of Marianne and Margaret an absolute old bachelor, for he was on the wrong side of five and thirty; but though his face was not handsome, his countenance was sensible, and his address was particularly gentlemanlike.”
Sense And Sensibility - Chapter 7.

Jane Austen began writing what would later become Sense And Sensibility in 1795 when she was 19 years old - originally crafting her work in the style of a novel-in-letters with the title Elinor And Marianne.  She later changed the novel’s style to that of a narrative and by giving it the title - Sense And  Sensibility - highlighted what would grow into a story of the differences between two devoted sisters and how their different approaches to life and love affected the course of their lives.

Thomas Egerton of the Military Library publishing house in London published Sense And Sensibility in three volumes in 1811. Jane Austen actually paid to have the book published and also paid Military Library publishing house a commission on the sales.  It was a severe stretch for the Austen annual household income, but a profit was realized when the first edition had sold all of the original 750 copies by 1813 when the second edition was issued.

Jane Austen was born December 16, 1775 in Steventon, Hampshire in England to a rector father from an old and well-respected family of wool merchants who had fallen into poverty and a mother from the prominent and highly-connected Leigh family. George Austen received a modest income from the living to the Steventon parish and depended on assistance and support from relatives along with farming and the tutoring of young boys who boarded in the Austen household. 

Although money was ever an issue, the Austen household was filled with intellectual conversation, amused considerations of social and political interests and easy debate. Their home was frequented with visits from friends and family with news of travels, fashionable life in London and Bath - all of which Jane digested and which ultimately found their way into her works.

On every formal visit a child ought to be of the party, by way of provision for discourse.
Sense and Sensibility - Chapter 6.

In the midst of a very affectionate family, Jane and her sister Cassandra in particular had a deep and devoted relationship and hated to be apart. Other than a few relatively short stays at boarding schools, they were primarily educated by reading at home with some guidance from their father and older brothers.  Her father always gave her unrestricted access to the library and provided both Jane and her sister with drawing materials and paper for writing.

Jane loved to write and experimented with different “voices” and mediums.  She filled bound notebooks with parodies of current historical writing or the wildly romantic fiction of the day (which she disliked).  She wrote poems, short stories, comedic plays and began trying the drafting of novels - all of which is now referred to as her Juvenilia.

It wasn’t until her 30s that Austen began to anonymously publish her works.  She, her mother and her sisters had settled with her brother Edward in the village of Chawton within his Hampshire estate and Jane Austen began her most serious period of readying some existing manuscripts for publication.  She published four well-received novels during her time there.

She was stronger alone; and her own good sense so well supported her, that her firmness was as unshaken, her appearance of cheerfulness as invariable, as, with regrets so poignant and so fresh, it was possible for them to be.
Sense and Sensibility - Describing Elinor, Chapter 23.

Most published writers of her day were men but Jane Austen brought a new voice to her literature of the day.  She presented the everyday and the ordinary life of a woman of her station in Britain.  She didn’t delve into the political or fill her works with the crimes or wars that were a part of her day and time, but wrote about the simple plight of the single female in a world that left her materially dependent on others.

It is the lasting greatness of Jane Austen’s works that - regardless of the century, continent or person - we can each find ourselves in her carefully constructed characters.  We have all most likely had our Willoughbys - but if we are very blessed, we sometimes find our Edwards or our Colonel Brandons to be our companions.

He was not handsome, and his manners required intimacy to make them pleasing. He was too diffident to do justice to himself; but when his natural shyness was overcome, his behaviour gave every indication of an open, affectionate heart.
Sense and Sensibility - About Edward Ferrars, Chapter 3.

We don’t know as much as we would like about Jane Austen - her life, her thoughts, her loves.…  Her sister, Cassandra was a fierce protector of Jane, and is thought to have destroyed over two thirds of Austen’s letters before her own death, leaving only about 160 letters for our study - none of which were written before Jane turned 20.  Some of the redacted letters that remained even had sections cut out and ultimately revealed extremely little about what she thought about her family, her friends, politics and religion.  

It is possible, however to hear Jane Austen’s heart in her published works and not only that, but her satirical nudges at society, her burden of monetary dependence on others and her appreciation of honor and kindness.  She was a ground-breaking writer for her time - yet before she died, none of her works were published in her name.

Sense will always have attractions for me.
Sense and Sensibility - Elinor, Chapter 10.

Jane Austen died at 41 years old is buried in Winchester Cathedral with the inscription:

In Memory of JANE AUSTEN, youngest daughter of the late Revd GEORGE AUSTEN, formerly Rector of Steventon in this County. She departed this Life on the 18th of July 1817, aged 41, after a long illness supported with the patience and the hopes of a Christian. The benevolence of her heart, the sweetness of her temper, and the extraordinary endowments of her mind obtained the regard of all who knew her and the warmest love of her intimate connections. Their grief is in proportion to their affection, they know their loss to be irreparable, but in their deepest affliction they are consoled by a firm though humble hope that her charity, devotion, faith and purity have rendered her soul acceptable in the sight of her REDEEMER.

There is nothing in this original inscription that celebrates her lasting contribution as a profoundly important writer, but simply honors her wealth of value as a beloved daughter, sister and friend.

As we revisit our beloved Jane Austen in our Winter Book Lunch choice of Sense And Sensibility - you might ponder the many ways you see yourself in these finely-drawn characters. Are you Elinor?  Are you Marianne?  Are you Willoughby?  We will be discussing this book over a sweet & savory potluck brunch on Saturday, January 27th, 2018.

She felt the loss of Willoughby's character yet more heavily than she had felt the loss of his heart.
Sense and Sensibility - Marianne, Chapter 32.

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