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Austen 2014: Introduction to Sense & Sensibility

So, before we begin our second leg of Austen 2014, a few words of introduction regarding Austen's first published novel, and the first of the three that are most widely known, Sense & Sensibility. Remember, this is *an* introduction--not *the* introduction. In fact, while it is *my* introduction, there are almost certainly much better ones out there, and I encourage you to seek them out.

When was it written?

Because it was published in Austen's lifetime, we can be much more certain about the dates for S&S than we were for Northanger Abbey. (Which, did I ever mention, wasn't necessarily even Austen's own choice of title for that book? She always referred to it by the main characters first name--first Susan, later Catherine. Her brother named it when he prepared it for publication after her death. The same is true of Persuasion. But back to the matter at hand.) Austen wrote S&S in the 1790's as an epistolary novel, then revised it and published it anonymously, credited only as "A Lady" (a nom de plume my one, very welcome, commenter has cheekily adopted for him or herself). She paid for it to be published, at quite a cost to herself and her family, but she ended up making a not unsubstantial profit from the book, and it was certainly popular enough that her later novels were advertised as being "by the Author of Sense & Sensibility." Overall, I think it's safe to say that the warm reception S&S received convinced both Austen and her family that her talents would be appreciated by the wider reading public and not just the intimate family circle. From this time on, she published, on average, a novel every 18 months or so until her death in 1817.

What's it about?

As I stated earlier, within the basic marriage plot that Austen uses for all of her novels, she finds great variance by changing the co-ordinates. In S&S, she takes the basic pattern and doubles it by presenting a pair of sisters as, essentially, co-equal protagonists. What this allows her to do is to problematize and enrich each sisters' narrative by having them constantly mirror each other in different ways. Originally named after the sisters, Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, Austen deliberately chose to rename her novel after two abstract ideas much in vogue at the time, and while it's tempting to identify Elinor as "Sense" and Marianne as "Sensibility," that oversimplifies the novel's moral balance and does a disservice to both sisters, and to their creator's judgment. To an extent, Austen is parodying and working within the confines of the "novel of sensibility," though it's nowhere near as explicit or focused as NA's dealings parody of the Gothic novel, and this novels requires much less explanation of references, for example.

This dual structure, of course, also allows Austen to tell two stories at once. Elinor, the older of the two sisters (and, arguably, the true viewpoint character, though more of that later), meets a man and falls in love, though they find themselves separated by external circumstances. Marianne, the younger sister, also meets a man, and she and he embark on a great, passionate, if still chaste, relationship, which is similarly suspended due to outside influence. The reactions each sister has to her disappointment, and the eventual resolution of their relationships, provide the structure for the novel. Oh, and there's a rather bizarre story about a mother and a daughter who share the same name and meet a similar, unpleasant end--plus, what might be the very earliest incarnation of that modern phenomenon: the drunk dial.

What should I be looking for when I read?

Well, obviously, the differences and balances between sense and sensibility--and indeed, what Austen even means by those terms--are certainly good places to start. However, there are other questions the novel raises.

For example, while money certainly plays a role in NA, it's largely in the Isabella subplot and in the General's mistaken opinions (in both directions) as to Catherine's fortune. In S&S, however, money--and more specifically, the lack thereof--is a recurring theme, from the very first pages to the final resolution of the novel. The Dashwood sisters are forced from their childhood home when their father dies and leaves them with very little money due to inheritance rules. Several other characters have decidedly mercenary motives, and money concerns are never far from the sisters' minds. Of course, the fact that they can be so easily disinherited because they are women once again immediately invites the reader to think of the sexual politics of the day and the way they permeate the novel.

This is also a novel of secrets and withheld information. Over the course of the novel, *all* of the main characters withhold vital pieces of information, even the sisters from each other, but they all do so for very different reasons. Rest assured, this is not one of those stories where, simply to draw out the story, important revelations are saved until the end. Rather, Austen looks at the various ways that information flows from person to person and how societal bonds and expectations can constrict that flow. Do you keep your promise to a person you don't like? Do you disclose damaging information about one member of a couple to the other, even if you believe the couple to be happy? And so on.

The last thing I would call your attention to before letting you loose is structural. We know that this novel was originally written entirely in letters--are there traces of that still? Aside from making it less archaic, what does the shift to third-person narration allow Austen to do?

So, we'll reconvene back here in a few weeks for Volume 1 of Jane Austen's Sense & Sensibility. N.B.: In most modern editions, which do away with volume divisions, Volume 1 ends with Chapter 23, Volume 2 covers Chapter 24-42, and Volume 3 covers Chapters 43-61, otherwise known as the end of the book. Any questions, ideas, suggestions, niggles, or broadsides? Leave a comment here or over on Twitter, @Austen2014 for the project, @sjcAustenite for your humble blogger.


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