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Austen 2014: Sense & Sensibility, Volume 1

Yes, this is very late. Life, etc. Anyway, Austen!

There's a lot to cover in this first volume, and it's tempting to start with the Dashwood sisters' respective romances, but I'm more immediately struck by the sheer vulgarity of many of the characters who surround them. Sir John is welcoming and magnanimous, but ultimately full of sound and fury signifying very little, indeed. Mrs. Jennings, while almost certainly a kind and good-hearted woman, has possibly the worst manners in all of Austen. Lady Middleton, her daughter, is better only for two reasons: she is quiet, and she's terrified of seeming coarse. Clearly, she rebelled against her mother's model, but become so obsessed with appearances and status that she has absolutely nothing else to contribute, aside from some very obnoxious children. Mrs. Jennings other daughter, Mrs. Palmer, takes after her mother in terms of temperament and volume, and her husband is so embittered and angry as to resemble a viper. And let's not forget Mr. and Mrs. John Dashwood, who, while smoother on the surface, are far more vicious than Mrs. Jennings and her clan could ever be, as they do not just emotional damage to the Dashwood women, but material, financial damage. The fact that the Mrs. Dashwood and the girls are able to cling to gentility at all is largely due to the fact that Sir John is so gracious.

And here is where we come to the Steele sisters. Anne and Lucy Steele are aptly named--not a trick Austen uses frequently, so it's worth noting. Not only are they hard, but they have been tempered--especially Lucy. They are decidedly the "poor relations," so the reader's sympathy is immediately given to them. However, Austen complicates that sympathy by having the behave quite badly. Anne quickly displays herself to be vacuous and desperate--a woman approaching thirty who must certainly know that she ill likely never get married and who chatters inanely about "beaux" to hide her terror. Lucy, however, is more subtle. She's clever, and she knows how to ingratiate. She knows her claim on a place at Barton Park is tenuous, so she makes sure that Lady Middleton is aware of how much she loves children--especially Lady Middleton's. More central to our story, she forces a confidence on Elinor about her and Edward Ferrars' secret engagement. Clearly, as Elinor is unaware, but Austen takes pains to show us, Lucy knows *exactly* who Elinor is to Edward, but also knows that Elinor, being Elinor, will behave entirely properly. If Lucy can't trust Edward to hold up his end of their engagement, she figures, she can certainly make sure that Elinor doesn't encourage his affections.

However, Lucy and Anne provide a dark mirror through which to look at Elinor and Marianne. Anne, like Marianne, tends to focus on the amorous side of life, though Marianne's youth and innocence (and greater degree of sense) makes her sighs rapturous instead of course. Anne, though, is a twisted image of what Marianne might become were she to be disappointed--perhaps repeatedly--in her attempt to find love. And clearly Lucy, who combines both a good mind and a pleasing manner, is a distorted Elinor, who is able to command her feelings to achieve her desired aims. Moreover, both Dashwood sisters must realize that, should they fail to marry well, and soon, little stands between them and the Misses Steele.

This is because the most important similarity between the two pairs lies in their similar lack of financial security. When Marianne complains about the "hard terms" the family has to endure living at Barton Cottage, she is speaking an unpleasant truth: they owe their relatively comfortable position almost entirely to the generosity and benevolence of others--namely Sir John--and in exchange they must socialize with people for whom they care very little. Their continued presence at Barton requires that Sir John remain happy to have them. Fortunately for them, Sir John seems fairly firm in his like and respect for the Dashwoods. But not all people who hold sway over the fortunes over young people are so sensible,as the brief mentions we've seen of Edward and Fanny's mother, Mrs. Ferrars, make quite plain. All the young people in this book--including Willoughby, about whom much much more later--owe whatever comfort they have to older relatives who can remove that comfort at a moment's notice. They are all susceptible to what Willoughby describes as "the privilege of riches upon a poor, dependent cousin;" and in this world, that means none of them are free to create their own lives and to build their happiness. And so, they wait. And hope. Elinor, Edward, Lucy, Anne, Willoughby, Marianne--all are in holding patterns, waiting to see what comes next, and hoping to either make it through unscathed, or, in some cases, profit by it. How these characters fare with what the rest of the novels holds in store for them goes a long way toward dictating their future happiness.

I know I'm already late with Volume 2, but the plan is to have to published by the end of April and the jump back on track. Fingers crossed!


  1. Indeed! I had no idea of your coming so soon. - Oh dear! Must you go after so short a visit?
    Hmmm ... that is MY hair in the ring on your finger, right?

  2. Such an insightful read of how the characters mirror each other.


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