Finished Sense and Sensibility yesterday, and watched the 1995 Emma-Thompson movie to top it off. Still have the 2007 one to go; they’re two-and-a-half and three hours long, respectively, so not something that can be consumed in one evening.
It struck me that this book really is all about “sense” and “sensibility”, or rather, feelings and the lack of them. And in this case I’m not talking about the Marianne/Elinor divide. Really, both the sisters are in the same camp when it comes to this; they’re both very sensitive people with deep feelings, as is their mother, their sister (presumably), Edward, Willoughby (of course), and Colonel Brandon. They’re people for whom feelings matter. The rest of the cast ranges from completely unfeeling (the John Dashwoods, Mrs and Robert Ferrars, the Steele sisters, and Lady Middleton) to the warm-hearted but not terribly deep (Mrs Jennings and Sir John).
The latter get the importance of feelings, they experience them, but they’re not very subtle and sensitive. Mrs Jennings exemplifies this when she tells Elinor that her daughters were terribly in love, too – when the reader knows full well that Mrs Palmer and Lady Middleton don’t really love their husbands much, although they’re really happy in their marriages (for a given value of “happy”). For them, marriage is a business arrangement; love goes with it, but they do not experience anything like the feelings that the Dashwood sisters deal in. As for the language of love, it is just a veneer that is expected when one speaks of relationships.
This is even more drastic in the case of Lucy Steele, who completely talks through her hat when it comes to love. She uses the language, but it’s clear she has no inkling what those words mean, and would have no interest in getting that inkling if anyone would bother explaining it to her. Lucy’s talk is very much like Isabella Thorpe’s in Northanger – using strong words that are completely hollow.
The John Dashwoods and Mrs Ferrars are probably farthest down that path – they don’t even admit that love might have anything to do with a marriage at all. They want to marry Edward off to Miss Morton (with 30,000 £), and when, imcomprehensively, he commits the folly of engaging himself to a poor girl, without missing a beat they switch to thinking “of Robert’s marrying Miss Morton” (307). When Elinor points out that Miss Morton might perhaps have a preference of one over the other, her brother is astonished – why, if a young man has money, he’s obviously the best business prospect! Edward used to have the money (or at least the expectation of it), so he was a good choice; now Robert has the cash, so he’s the one to pick. Elinor might as well speak a foreign language in trying to make John understand that personal liking, let alone love, could have anything to do with marriage. Lucy Steele, of course, is fully in agreement with her brother-in-law-to-be, and acts on his principles as soon as she possibly can.
Sense and Sensibility is about marriage for love, as opposed to marriage for business. Again, that theme is repeated in Pride and Prejudice. Come to think of it, it runs through much, if not all, of Austen. Many of her heroines have to make the choice between marrying for love or for material comfort, and more than one has to defend herself against an unwanted suitor who would be a good business prospect, but strikes no spark in her heart. The only Austen heroine who is not struggling with that issue is Emma – marrying for money simply does not come into her story. Lucky her.
Okay, onwards to Pride, Prejudice and Truths Universally Acknowledged. That book has its 200th anniversary this year.