Yawning through Sense and Sensibility

I think I’ve passed the age at which I can enjoy Jane Austen.  I finished reading Sense and Sensibility (1811) and number 54 on the BBC book list, but I didn’t really care to.  I felt bored and yawned through it.  A lot.

The plot doesn’t have much action.  In fact, there’s hardly any action.  It is about the sisters of a family who are trying to find husbands.  Hmmmm.  That sounds an awful like the rest of Austen’s books.

(Today, I don’t have my own photo of the book cover, but I found several lovely covers online and I’ll paste them throughout.  I love seeing different renderings.)

sense-sensibility-jane-austen-paperback-cover-art

What the book did offer, for me, was an exploration of the difficulties in being a woman during that time.  The book begins with a discussion of the Dashwood sisters as children from their father’s second marriage, and that he had first had a son.  Of course, this son inherits everything of the father’s, leaving the daughters nothing.  The son must then decide, with his selfish wife, how much or how little to share with his sisters.  The sisters must also worry about how to live and whom to marry.  And the men who are courting the sisters must worry about the lack of dowry money.

This causes the bigger problem in the book, with loathsome Willoughby choosing another woman over Marianne even after an agreement of being engaged.  Marianne is heartbroken and whines a lot about it.  In fact, it seems she might die of disappointment.  And then to prove how stupid and despicable he is, Willoughby comes back and tells Elinor his mistake and how much he despises his wife.  He just married her for money, but he still loves Marianne.  What a jerk!

SenseSensibility

And then, when it looks as if Marianne and Elinor will finally find happiness (read marriage) they hear that Edward Ferrars has run off and married somebody else.  Then Marianne cries and whines some more, but, oh joy, they are mistaken.  It was Edward’s brother who had done it, not him.

sense cover

The books ends in typical comedy fashion, with everybody marrying everybody else.  The women are saved financially and have found “true love.”

Here’s what I took away from the book.  Austen explores the difficult theme of women’s rights, especially when it comes to owning property, inheriting, and earning power, but she falls short of demanding that the structures creating such problems be fixed, and instead yokes her characters to men with money and earning potential as a solution.  It highlights the difficult reality for women in her time, even women of status or class, that they still had limited freedom when it came to supporting themselves and making decisions regarding their futures.  I applaud Austen’s work for tackling complicated and timely subjects.

I just have a hard time reading those sappy endings and lackluster plot lines nowadays.

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83 thoughts on “Yawning through Sense and Sensibility

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  1. Ashamed to say (well not that ashamed actually) that I never even finished Sense and Sensibility. It’s good to know that you shared my sense of boredom while reading it! As you say, important as a cultural and social document in some ways, but as a story it fails to excite me…

  2. Austen was a woman of her time so to conclude with a traditional happy marriage and money ending is not unusual. Plus it would’ve been easier to sell to a publisher at the time and she was a business woman. She herself rejected the security of marriage to wealth for a more unstable life of a single, poor gentlewomen reliant on richer relatives. But that way she was free to write. I often view the happy marriage endings as the most convoluted parts of her novels.

    1. I absolutely agree that the ending isn’t unusual, and certainly Austen was a product of and constrained by her time. In my master’s thesis, I dealt with a similar issue in another female author’s work, and the truth is that these women did not have the benefit of knowing how to “solve” such problems nor did they have the vocabulary. From my modern perspective, I still get disappointed!

  3. Well captured from a modern point of view. Authors like her, Thomas Hardy and a host of others belonged to a different era. There is a brilliance in their narratives which unfold against the socio-economic milieu of those times. You have done a brilliant analysis. Given my own limited capabilities, my idea would be just to curl up with one such work and bask in its warmth on a rainy day!

      1. Although there seems to be a gap between the reality of women of that time and today, some things remain: the false belief in marriage as a synonym of love and happiness and a lack of effective freedom that come with it. So, although the narrative is a bit boring, and I agree with that, the theme still sounds current to me. Just watch some romantic comedies on tv or soap operas we have here in Brazil.

  4. I was having a very similar discussion about Jane Austen and Emily Bronte a few weeks ago with a friend. Not so much the yawning but about how there is a point when you are too (dare I say it!) old to read certain books. I read Austen as a teenager and really enjoy re-reading her books even now. I never read Emily Bronte and have yet to make it through Wuthering Heights. My friend was the exact opposite.

  5. There is more than a whiff of presentism in what you write. Austen described society as she found it, not what a 21st Century academic would wish it to be. She is now more widely read than Dickens, a development of the past three decades.

      1. They are all basically about women trying to get married. You are right to point out that this was an important issue for women of that class at that time. They couldn’t work (well, they could but weren’t expected to) so to marry well was the only option.
        People rave about Austen because she never wastes a sentence. Unlike Dickens who tends to ramble on a bit (mainly because he was writing in serial form and so had to hit his wordcount) in Austen, there isn’t an unnecessary sentence in sight.
        Despite this, like me, you might feel a series of books in which somebody falling off a wall at one point or several chapters devoted to a character trying to time a walk so that she bumps into a certain man during it, is the most action packed thing in town, is a bit lacking.
        Hence why many of the most memorable bits in adaptations of Austen were made up for the screen. Mr Darcy emerging from the water in Pride And Prejudice? Doesn’t happen.
        Kate Winslet’s rescue by Greg Wise in Sense and Sensibility? Doesn’t happen in the book.
        The assassination scene in Emma? Doesn’t happen.
        I may have made one of these up. But you get my point!

  6. “Passed the age” for Austen? I hope you simply mean you particularly have reached an age at which you can no longer enjoy her work. Because if you mean that anyone who appreciates Austen’s work has yet to reach some astute age of maturity, you’re making a pretty big statement. (I’m not actually sure how age has anything to do with enjoying Austen’s work? Maybe you mean you have been exposed to other styles in literature by this point in your life, and you prefer those in comparison to Austen’s style.)

    Austen is (I believe) banking on the fact that most people will translate the marriage in Sense & Sensibility as happily-ever-after. She is using the expectations of comedy style to write a tragedy for one of the sisters.

    SPOILERs follow:

    When you look beneath the surface, rather than simply dismissing the ending as the accustomed happily-ever-after of the genre, you begin to see how wrong it is for society to expect a woman as different from Elinor as Marianne to simply swallow herself and pattern her behavior exactly like her sister’s. And you see the way that Marianne was simply pushed toward Colonel Brandon by her whole family, with lines like:

    “They each felt [Colonel Brandon’s] sorrows, and their own obligations, and Marianne, by general consent, was to be the reward of all.”

    Part of Austen’s power as an author is this beneath the surface presentation, where she leads you to believe she agrees with the way Marianne is being transformed, and then the rug is snatched from beneath you — and suddenly you realize she meant something else entirely. She has the reader standing in two opposing perspectives at the same time. She structures this novel like a comedy because (I believe) the effect of having the reality suddenly slap a soul in the face is far stronger than boldly lecturing her generation about the way women were made to marry like commodities without consideration of their personality, preferences, or individuality. You see Marianne shaped into an altered person in this novel, and shipped off with a man she barely noticed at the novel’s start. That’s not actually a happily-ever-after ending. It’s a tragedy seated within a comedy structure.

    1. My age comment was just for me. You read much too deeply into it. I meant that I enjoyed Austen as a teenager and now I do not. Thanks for weighing in. I should’ve realized that by “dismissing” this book because I’m just not that into it would get people worked up.

      MY APOLOGIES to everyone who is going to argue with me today.

      1. I’m not at all worked up. I completely get liking a novel as a teenager and simply not liking it anymore as an adult. That has happened to me too. 🙂 And I couldn’t stand Austen’s work when I started it. But it is true that many, many people like Jane Austen’s work and see things in it that you apparently missed (or, fairly enough, saw and couldn’t care less about). And seeing the remark about having matured beyond Austen (without any context to understand you are referring to having enjoyed her work as a teenager and now, for whatever reason, do not) is bound to be a poke to folks who do enjoy her work.

        I sincerely didn’t mean to make you feel poked back. I can never tell if a blog is a discussion blog, a debate blog, or a quiet journal. (Mine is a quiet journal, so I’d take issue with people arguing with my unrefined opinions there, most definitely.)

        I’ve just followed you for a while, know you to be extremely educated in literature, and thought that your posts here were published in expectation of a readership of people in all stages of literature who were welcome to speak back in response to your posts. I’m not very far into literature right now and did take some offense at the Austen remark, because you are so educated in literature. I read it as an educated statement on literature from one who has “read beyond Austen.” Some blogs make bold statements about literature from an educated point of view and expect response and debate. But I’m aware that you have every right to speak here to whatever reaction you have to literature, and it sounds like your blog isn’t intended as a debate blog or an editorial blog on literature at all — just a personal journal. I support that 100% and didn’t mean to intrude.

        Sorry, Emily! Very best wishes to you. 🙂

        1. Thanks, and sorry for getting so defensive. I appreciate your thoughts and your feedback. I think we have different tastes in books, and that’s a good thing when we can compare notes. I learn so much from all of you!

  7. I have tried over and over to finish any Jane Austen novel (my best progress was made in Emma.) I agree- the action is lacking and the patheticness of the character’s situations and yokes erk me. I end up picking up Jane Eyre to lift my spirits….

  8. I was never a fan of Jane Austen’s books but felt like I couldn’t admit it. That is just my own opinion and I can appreciate that other people enjoy her work. In particular, I think it’s great that she has written enduring stories portraying the realities of women of her time (as you credited her).

    I love the book covers!

  9. I agree, Emily. I’ve loved Austen the first time I read her – I believe I read Emma first. Then, the next and the next follow the same theme so I quit reading her work. I totally get her point about women of that time, I appreciate it, …moving on. 🙂

    I also like all the different covers here. I have to admit that I sometimes buy books by their covers and frequently search my used book store for the most lovely cover possible on any book I’m picking. I have even re-purchased a used book because a new cover was WAY better than the one I’d picked up previously or because a very old lovely cover became available. Although this is rare because I feel it’s so wasteful of me. But Atwood’s Oryx & Crake and The Year of the Flood newer covers are so lovely compared to the old ratty ones I’d had. Anyway, I digress. Love this post. Thanks for your honesty as always.

    1. I’m glad you appreciate my honesty. Sometimes, it doesn’t go over so well! And I agree, I pick books by their covers all the time. 🙂 Also, I couldn’t get through Emma, yet I love the popular movie versions of it, including Clueless. But that was in high school, too.

  10. I agree with you about the marriage aspect of her novels. But well, she is almost like a genre writer, isn’t she? Like this generation’s Helen Fielding, perhaps.

    She didn’t switch genres, but I think she did provide enough variety within her framework in all her books.

    That said, I actively dislike Mansfield Park, and was quite meh towards S&S.

  11. Yes, I read Sense & Sensibility when I was in high school but now I can’t remember much of it. I just remember being frustrated that such a simple book took hundreds of pages to explain. Much preferred Pride & Prejudice. But I stopped reading Austen after I read “Jane Eyre.” Now that book I loved, even if it did end with marriage. It was a more complicated look at female independence, gender, and marriage, and I respected it for that. I remember being thinking, “She’s saying what I’ve always felt!” One of the few times I’ve felt that deep of a connection to a character.

  12. I always understood Sense and Sensibility to be about the new idea of marriage for love versus the old idea of it being more of a business transaction. One sister was lead by her head and the other by her heart. We see what happens to each as a result. Hence the title. I always identified with Elinor, though. Occasionally, I get too pragmatic, and people like Marianne make me uneasy. But I didn’t get the impression the issue was marriage so much as it was survival and behavior.

    I’ve always viewed Austen’s works as setting up a person with desires that contrast those of society and how to reconcile the two. After all, you could be like Marianne and have the attitude of “to heck with the world.” Most likely, the world will answer back, “to heck with you.” You still need the world. The world doesn’t need you. So one has to learn to navigate. And that’s how I’ve come to read and adore Austen. She’s a navigator.

  13. I find it disappointing the few times I’ve re-read something I previously enjoyed and find myself less enamored. Other times, I am amazed to see what I had missed in a younger age.
    As for Austen herself, whether her novels have the complexity one is seeking or not, the fact that she wrote six novels and is still well-regarded today is impressive by itself. I think you can respect an author while still not being the biggest fan of their book – and it seems to me that’s where you lie.

  14. In my opinion, Pride and Prejudice is her best work, and Sense and Sensibility just isn’t. One of my favorite things about Austen is that she wrote novels during a time when women were not respected as independent thinkers. I also believe Austen wanted a happy ending – even for herself, despite women’s roles and the class system. Great post!!!!

  15. Man you are really getting the wrath of the Austenites today! 😉

    I recently re-read Sense and Sensibility and found that I enjoyed it more now than I did before. I found it so much funnier this time around. The girl on girl hate! Lucy Steele is a delightful character – I loved hating her.

    I do think that while the Brontes were looking to challenge the status quo of women at the time, Austen is looking at society satirically and is content to wrap her comedies up with a happy ending.

  16. Of course, Austen did give us some characters you wanted to jerk bald-headed in this one. On the flip side, the character I liked the most in this one was the Colonel. He was the most genuine person.

      1. Emily, you will appreciate we discussed your post and the various opinions with several of my relatives yesterday. You spawned great conversation, not only here, but yesterday. We had three varying degrees of Austenites and we discussed the books and which movie versions were best. It was a good conversation starter (although we did not need much help). One of my favoirte nieces watches the first fifteen minutes of “Pride and Prejudice” to help her sleep as it is her favoirte book and movie. We all love Colonel Brandon in “Sense and Sensibility,” but they said it was not her best story to your point. I think everyone is a big fan of “Persuasion.” The best part was seeing and participating in the interaction between old and young. Thanks, BTG

        1. Ah, that’s awesome. It sounds like you had a good Thanksgiving. I have heard that same sentiment about Persuasion. Perhaps it is time to read that one. Thanks for updating me. 🙂

  17. Reading is my passion but I can never get myself to read classics. They just don’t seem interesting enough! Everyone makes it out to be so scandalous when you admit to not having read this or that ‘classic’ and in a way it’s probably this reaction that puts me off such books: the idea that to be ‘cultured’ or ‘well-read’ you need to have ploughed through all the great works in English literature. As far as I’m concerned, read what you find interesting instead of torturing yourself trying to get through a dense book simply so you can say that you have read it.

    1. Don’t torture yourself! Read what you like. My husband likes newspapers and tax updates, and that’s what he reads. I wouldn’t read the tax stuff, just like when I begged him to read East of Eden he had to deny me. We all have different tastes.

  18. I am an Austenite and probably (hopefully) always will be. I have read her books many times and completed an Austen course with the University of Oxford. I love her works, her dry sense of humour and her sharp wit and irony. I also think that her novel depends very much on context. I have a whole shelf of books about her life and times on the bookshelf in my room. There is a whole world in her novels which, in my opinion, is fascinating to explore.

    Yes, the confines of her world were very small and she acknowledged that herself: in a letter to one of her nephews, she described her writing metaphorically as “a little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush”. But I am interested in her portrayal of the role of women. True, she doesn’t talk about how society could change but she does acknowledge some of the inequalities. For instance, in Persuasion, she writes “Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands”. She was well aware of the downsides of marriage in the Georgian era too. When she heard her niece was pregnant yet again, she wrote “Poor animal. She will be worn out before she is thirty. I am very sorry for her“.

    And it is quite likely that she read Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (published in 1792).

    I won’t argue with you but I will say that I disagree with you, especially that her plots are lackluster. For me, her writing is full of gems. However, I accept that she isn’t to everyone’s taste.

    1. Thank you for the comment, Grace. This gives me some perspective, and I love that you have so much of it. This gives me an additional lens to work with if I approach Austen again. I’m curious what you thought of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies? 🙂

      1. I haven’t actually read P&P & Zombies! I couldn’t quite face it. 🙂 I’ve read a couple of other Austen spin-offs/sequels though and they tend to be fairly dire. However, I am interested in reading Longbourn which is a recently released reimagining of Pride and Prejudice from the perspective of the servants in the Bennet household. It sounds interesting and it got a good review in the Guardian.

        About a month ago I read a modernized version of Sense and Sensibility by Joanna Trollope. It was quite amusing (instead of playing the piano to alleviate her sorrows, Marianne strums Taylor Swift songs on a guitar instead) but overall, pretty terrible! Austen doesn’t translate well to the 21st century. If you yawned through the original S&S, I think the updated version would be an excellent sleeping aid. 😉

  19. They are boring, but the characters from these victorian era novels are very vivid, and I often get the feeling of watching a medieval soap-opera being played out in verse form. I read them for the characters. You end up really loving and really hating some of them. You can’t enjoy a Jane Austen book without taking sides. The characters are visceral emotional creatures.
    But I agree, there is very little action. And a fairy tale ending is guaranteed.

  20. I never was much of a fan of Jane Austen (or any of her contemporaries, really). I did read Sense and Sensibility back when I thought it was my duty to read all the classics, but since then I’ve come to realize that life is just too short.

  21. Oh dear, I was planning to read S&S soon. I engage with Austenites regularly and wanted to know her best works. I think Persuasion is better than P&P. Austen’s style is elegant and perceptive, with a lot of dry wit in drawing the inanity of human behavior/social custom.
    I like more passion, introspective prose, and weightier moral/social issues along with a good dose of romance.
    I’ve been busy trying various classic authors and can’t find a favorite to top Gaskell. Hardy is my second favorite, then Bronte.

  22. I may be a bit old-fashioned, and probably one of the few people who still enjoy her books. Perhaps it’s because I don’t expect them to be anything more than what they are. Somehow they are still able to transport me to that era. It is so far fetched when compared to our reality nowadays that in a way it still fascinates me. I didn’t really care for most of the movie adaptations of her books, though.

  23. One of the challenging things about teaching (and, I imagine, blogging about literature) is that you offer up something so personal for dissection. Sometimes, you must simultaneously offer up your darlings, in this case books you care about, to be devoured or dismissed, all the while biting your tongue and witnessing the carnage (or indifference: much worse!) upon your beloved. At other times, you raise objections or point out flaws in books which your students or readership have a stake: a strong sentiment, an attachment to a theme, or a general love of literature, for example. It’s such a worthy endeavor, although, at times, much in the vein of the root canal. And, at other times, such good fun.

    I appreciate this blog for many reasons, one being that I can honestly say to my students that adults have deep discussions about literature and that disagreement sometimes puts a fine edge on analysis, leading us to recognize things that we might not have considered about a piece of literature, even if we’ve read it before. Literature is timeless in that way. On the other hand that might simply solidify their concept of me as a tea-totaller who only knits and engages in book discussions in her off hours.

    I teach British Literature and one of the novel choices for the Victorian Unit is Sense and Sensibility. When my (mostly male) 11th graders complain about the book, maybe I’ll copy the body of your posting (keeping your name out of it!) onto a document and show them. It will vindicate their feelings and perhaps be the first time that they will get credit for being too mature to read a book that a teacher has chosen for them! Seriously, though, one of the things that my students have gleaned from this book (one that they might not have chosen) is how stifled women were. Austen also demonstrates the dry type of understatement which the British, in particular, seem to have mastered. And we have rousing discussions about how realistic (and under the surface so negating) the final marriage arrangements are. I’ve paired it with the poem, “Barbie Doll” by Marge Piercy, in the past.

    Thanks, Emily, for starting an engaging discussion.

    1. Just curious. Why is Austen included in the Victorian Unit? As a pre-Victorian touchstone for all the forthcoming flurry of novelists and voices that come from the Victorian Era?

      1. Great question, and I field it in class (usually from parents) from time to time, because Austen was born in 1775, which happened before the Victorian Era’s beginning. I use the term “Romantic” in a general chronological sense (covering the late 18th century and the first half of the 19th century, considered to be the era proper of romanticism, but it is often used to describe individual artists if they were influenced significantly by romanticism, which Jane Austen was not. So, yes, you’ve answered your own question, but it bears emphasizing!

    2. Thanks for weighing in. I hear you about having fraught classroom discussions. I face this with my composition students and their misconceptions of feminism, among other things. It is challenging, but it keeps me thinking about my own position and I sometimes adjust it when I realize what there is to learn from my students. Thanks for the great comment!

  24. It takes a brave solider to square off with a tyrant …… This was my first thought, given the plot of whimsical theatrics. Yet, to say the least, this body of literature helped pioneer the cultural juxtaposition of the women’s rights movement. Therefore, very important literature within its own right! …….Emily a brave review!

  25. I finished it about a 10 days ago, and I had similar feelings. I was annoyed by Marianne’s nervous collapse when her heart was broken, and Elinor was just a little too good and one dimensional in my opinion. I prefer George Eliot to Austen any day.

  26. You’ve gotten a lot further with Jane Austen than I ever did. I’ve cracked the book open (any Austen book, does it really matter?) and skimmed through two or three paragraphs, always believing that this time I’ll take an interest. Um, no…it’s not happening! I feel the same way you do. I just don’t have it in me. (The romantic in me still believes that one day, I’ll fall in love with an Austen book, but the realist is laughing heartily at the romantic as I type this, and we all know that it will never happen.) Yes, “all”…heheh…

  27. Sense & Sensibility was written during an age when people often read aloud as entertainment. In my opinion, the most readable Austen is Persuasion. The others translate better to film but are not as easy to read.

  28. I like Jane Austen in the same way that I like watching modern chick-flick movies — There’s not a lot to them, mostly, but I find them fun and light. Even though I don’t believe happy endings have to come with “getting the guy,” I enjoy the familiar plot pattern and characters in the same way another person might enjoy watching episodes of Law & Order (a show I consider boring, for no better reason than “it just isn’t my thing”). I do understand the complaint that “not enough happens” in Austen’s stories, but personally I like the slow pacing, and the focus on the characters’ thoughts and conversations. Her style of writing ‘clicks’ with me, for whatever reason, and her books in audio form have been my go-to material during house cleaning sessions for years!

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