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Sense and Sensibility (Barnes & Noble Classics) Hardcover – October 21, 2004
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About the Author
Laura Engel received her BA from Bryn Mawr College and her MA and PhD from Columbia University. She has taught in independent schools in New York city and is now a visiting assistant professor of English at Macalester College. Her previous publications include essays on the novelists A. S. Byatt and Edna OBrien. Her forthcoming book is a biography of three eighteenth-century British actresses.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen’s first published novel, tells the story of the lives, loves, and longings of two sisters, the sensitive, romantic Marianne and the practical, even-tempered Elinor. With its extended cast of supporting characters, including the garrulous Mrs. Jennings, the stern Mr. Palmer, and the censorious Mrs. Ferrars, Sense and Sensibility revolves around two narratives: the possible romances of Elinor and Marianne Dashwood and the day-to-day existence of everyone else. The constant anxiety that pervades the story stems from the possibility that the sisters may have to make do with the mundanity of country life, cluttered with gossip, clamor, and superficiality, instead of being swept away by the men of their dreams. In typical Austen fashion we are made aware from the outset that Marianne’s choice of suitor, the dashing and theatrical Willoughby, may be a disaster. Elinor’s more subdued love object, the shy and awkward Edward Ferrars, on the other hand, just might prove himself worthy if he could manage to articulate a full sentence.
Austen began working on Sense and Sensibility in 1795 with an epistolary fragment entitled Elinor and Marianne” (now lost). The final version was not published until 1811, with a second edition issued in 1813 (Austen-Leigh, Jane Austen: Her Life and Letters). Once described as bleak, dark, and nasty” compared with the brightness” of Pride and Prejudice or the complexity of her more mature works Emma, Mansfield Park, and Persuasion, Sense and Sensibility has recently undergone a critical renaissance. New editions, renewed scholarship, and a critically acclaimed film version have put the novel center stage.
Sense and Sensibility is a coming-of-age novel, and also a work that chronicles Austen’s own coming of age”her development as a writer. When she began working on Elinor and Marianne” she was only twenty, a young woman with the possibility of courtship, marriage, and family open to her. By the time the second edition of the novel was released, Austen had moved from Hampshire to Bath, lost her adoring father, been disappointed in love, rejected a marriage proposal, and relocated again with her mother and sister to Chawton, where she turned her attention to writing. Austen’s sense of herself in the world must have been influenced by her close relationship with her only sister, Cassandra, who similarly was disappointed in love and in the awkward position of elder spinster aunt to a large and noisy upper-middle-class country family.
The only surviving portrait of Austen, a watercolor sketch by her sister, depicts the author as a plain, pensive subject with large eyes and a slight hint of a smile. She appears proper and subdued, unlike the description of her by a family friend, who pronounced her certainly prettybright & a good deal of colour in her facelike a doll” (Tomalin, Jane Austen: A Life). Austen’s niece Anna’s view of her aunt matches Cassandra’s portrayal of her: Her complexion [is] of that rare sort which seems the particular property of light brunettes: a mottled skin, not fair, but perfectly clear and healthy; the fine naturally curling hair, neither light nor dark; the bright hazel eyes to match the rather small, but well shaped nose” (Austen-Leigh).
In keeping with Austen’s status as a respectable daughter of a clergyman, Sense and Sensibility was first published anonymously. The initial advertisement for the novel, which appeared in the Morning Chronicle on October 31, 1811, refers to the author as A Lady.” A subsequent notice in the same paper on November 7, 1811, bills the work as an extraordinary novel by A Lady.” A few weeks later the book was announced as an Interesting Novel by Lady A” (Austen-Leigh, p. 254). Austen apparently made some money on the first edition. Her biographers Richard and William Austen-Leigh note that the £140 profit from the first edition of Sense and Sensibility was a considerable sum compared to the lesser proceeds her female contemporaries earned from their novelsthe £30 Fanny Burney gained from sales of Evelina or the £100 Maria Edgeworth received for Castle Rackrent.
Austen was influenced by the writers of her youth. She adored Samuel Richardson, read Maria Edgeworth, Sir Walter Scott, Dr. Johnson, Alexander Pope, William Cowper, Henry Fielding, and Daniel Defoe, and recited passages from Fanny Burney aloud (Gay, Jane Austen and the Theatre). In Sense and Sensibility Austen echoes earlier novelists while at the same time anticipating the format of the nineteenth-century novel. Austen’s choice of translating Elinor and Marianne” from an epistolary narrative (a novel in letters) into a story told by a central narrator allowed her to juxtapose the internal and external facets of her heroines. What we see Elinor do is often contrasted with what we know she is thinking. This gap between thought and action is highlighted repeatedly throughout the novel.
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As noted in the blurb for the book, 19-year-old Anne has an early engagement to Frederick Wentworth, but he didn’t measure up the family’s standards nor to a trusted family friend’s standards – primarily he had no family estate nor fortune worthy of marrying someone of the Elliot class. Eight years later, both Anne and Frederick are still single, but Frederick’s fortunes changed immensely through his naval exploits. Frederick is back in the area and looking for a bride anywhere between the ages of 15 and 30! As Austen likes to do, she introduces multiple single ladies and gentlemen into the cast, and the fun is figuring out how the marriages will fall into place. Throughout this process are the familiar social scenes and insights of the main character, which add a bit of spice to the story as we watch the scenes unfold.
Mansfield Park is among my favorite Austen novels. I just found myself enjoying the book. I liked Fanny; she was one of Jane Austen’s more realistic characters and I felt pretty sorry for her most of the time. Edmund was all right; I feel like I didn’t really get to know him, like he wasn’t as big a part of the story as some of Jane Austen’s other heroes. But he seemed pretty nice and I like that he stood up for Fanny. There were of course a ton of villains trying to thwart love’s plans. Mrs. Norris was a very annoying character and fit her role of the evil relation perfectly. But alas, there was the happy ending and all was well at Mansfield Park (for the most part, anyway).
I give this book 4.5 out of 5 stars.
One of a growing brood of children in a lower middle class family in Portsmouth, Fanny is placed for raising with her much wealthier Aunt and Uncle Bertram at Mansfield Park in the English countryside. The ten year-old Fanny is painfully shy, physically sickly, and less educated than her Bertram cousins, who mostly ignore or make fun of her. Her Aunt Norris, responsible for the day-to-day raising of her cousins, thrives on tormenting Fanny. Only her cousin Edmund takes an interest in her.
Fanny's Uncle, Sir Thomas Bertram, leaves to tend to his estates in Antigua, just as the wealthy and charming siblings Mary and Henry Crawford arrive from London. Mary and Henry will tempt the Mansfield youth into inappropriate behavior, which only Fanny resists. Sir Thomas will restore order when he returns, but at what cost to the household? Fanny herself will be pressured into marriage, facing exile from Mansfield if she refuses. What choices can Fanny make, and how will she find her way to the one man she cares about?
In Mansfield Park, the reader will find an Austen heroine whose attraction is based on her perseverence in the face of very attractive temptations and seemingly reasonable pressures. It is Austen's genius to insert complex characters into the subtle relationships between four families in the story. The story provides a fascinating venue for social commentary and compelling domestic drama. The witty and enthusiastic but morally flawed Crawfords, for example, seem more attractive than the shy, vulnerable, and withdrawn Fanny or the understated Edmund. "Mansfield Park" is recommended to Jane Austen's fans.