Book Review: Sense & Sensibility by Jane Austen

The Emma Thompson version of this story is one of my favourite Austen adaptations and a film I really love, even though I knew it had taken some liberties with the story. Having read the book there are a few big differences, but you’ve got to make changes when you switch the medium you’re telling a story in, and it gets the major things right.

The story follows the two eldest Dashwood sisters, Elinor and Marianne. Elinor is the oldest and the cool headed one, sensible, reasonable and restrained, while Marianne is flighty, prone to romantic fantasy and a kind of proto-emo. Their father passes away and along with their mother and younger sister they are forced to rely on the kindness of their father’s son from an earlier marriage, John. John has promised to take care of them and begins with a fairly generous idea, however his own selfishness, and the machinations of his tightfisted wife, Fanny, soon lead him to decrease this offer to the point of meaningless.

Elinor begins to develop feelings for her sister-in-law’s brother, Edward, a match which is frowned upon by Fanny due to Elinor’s lowly status. Edward is a shy, quiet guy who’s family attempt to push him towards great things while he merely wants a nice, quiet and happy life. Their mother finds a new home and they all move to a small cottage, where they are welcomed warmly by Sir John Middleton, Mrs Dashwood’s cousin and adapt to their new surroundings and circle. Sir John’s friend, Colonel Brandon, falls for Marianne, who is oblivious and becomes infatuated with a dashing young man Willoughby.

Not the edition I have, but dig this illustration, captures Marianne’s emo moping.

The book follows the problems that arise within both of their relationships, highlighting the differences in the sisters as they attempt to find happiness at a time when class, standing and wealth were vitally important. Over the course of the film there are massive revelations, and characters reveal their true natures.

Its a marvelous book. The twists and turns in the story keep it interesting, and Austen writes with great wit and intelligence. There’s a lovely sarcastic streak in some of it and a gentle, warm humour throughout. There’s a particular sequence where she writes about Edward being “dead” to his mother, where the metaphor is kept running for quite a bit, its a wonderfully clever and funny sequence.

Austen’s real skill is in her characters, the roguish Willoughby is rather charming and towards there end there is a small pang of sympathy for the character although its clear his troubles are largely of his own making. Other characters are extremely well done, including the endearing Mrs Jennings, a matchmaking, rather silly, yet kindhearted older woman who I really warmed to, partly because she reminded me of my Nan.

The protagonists are very good, Elinor’s reserve is admirable and she’s a likable character, having to govern the more flighty members of her family and cover for their failings. Its a wonderful insight into the world of manners, with her calm, polite exterior masking the inner turmoil she feels at various points in the novel.

Marianne is rather different, she quickly becomes caught up in her emotions and seems to revel in them, often showing immense lack of consideration for others. Yet, she is still a largely sweet character, if a tad irritating at points due to her love of having a good mope. I think in a way her character suffers because we mainly see her actions from the perspective of Elinor and it would’ve been nice to see a bit more of events from her point of view.

I think for modern readers the highly mannered nuances of the book’s time is a bit of a challenge, nobody comes out and says how they feel and there’s a repression of emotion in favour of good manners throughout. For example, one of the book’s antagonists, the insufferable Lucy Steele and Elinor are forced to spend a lot of time together and appear to the world to be friends while throughout there is a subtext of rivalry and dislike. Its entertaining to read and watch characters subtly feud in this way, but I doubt I’d have been able to cope. Biting your tongue that much must have been a hell of a chore at times and you couldn’t just tell someone to eff off.

In a way that’s what makes the character of Brandon so admirable, a character who has suffered much yet maintains this quiet dignity throughout. In the movie he’s played with great sensitivity by Alan Rickman, and I was pleased to see that in the book he’s just as likable and decent, a great character and a good role model, even though I doubt I’m capable of that kind of restraint.

The excellent Alan Rickman as Brandon.

Similarly Edward, while flawed and having made a massive mistake in his past shows real grit and decency when he finds himself in trouble and its easy to see why Elinor falls for and forgives him. (I found out recently that the Jane Austen Society of North America criticized the casting of Hugh Grant in the role saying that he was too good looking, which must be one of the nicest things to be criticized for).

I thoroughly enjoyed the book, although I must admit I preferred Emma (review of that here).

Verdict: Its a fantastic book, romantic, funny and charming, brilliantly written and engaging. 9/10

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.

2 thoughts on “Book Review: Sense & Sensibility by Jane Austen

  1. I liked this book but I especially like Sir John Middleton and his wife. Okay, so they embarrass the Dashwood sisters from time to time, but they are kind people who mean well. And the Dashwoods could use a little kindness, since they’ve lost their husband/father and are forced to move to a much smaller home.

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