I think I’ve decided Jane Austen liked to be contrary. She raises her reader’s expectations, then quite decidedly dashes all those hopes. In Sense and Sensibility, Austen drags you along, mocking all the romance you grew to love in Pride and Prejudice. Through both the book and movie, I’m positively put out.
Sense and Sensibility has been my least favorite Austen work for a while. Even after I worked backstage during a production, the story didn’t grow on me. As William Deresiewicz complains, Austen puts forward two ideas of love. And then insists we choose the one less appealing.
Two girls, two very different ideas of love. Elinor craves stability, exemplifies good sense, and keeps her emotions in check. She refuses to idealize, pontificate, or dwell on anything remotely bordering romantic. As a reader, you assume Elinor is content, if a little bored. And it didn’t take me long to jump to that conclusion. If there was one person I decided not to ever be, it’s Elinor.
Marianne, on the other hand, is exactly what any girl wants to be. The kind of person a guy might like to date. Passionate, excited, and eager for adventure. She can’t wait to fall in love, boasting ironically, “The more I know of the world, the more am I convinced that I shall never see a man who I can really love.”
Of course, Austen set up poor Marianne for failure. Dashed her childish dreams, extolled Elinor’s sensibility, and irritated the readers. I instantly sympathize with Marianne, her zest martyred by Austen’s cruelty.
It’s not like Austen only cared about practicality. Several of her heroines turned down reasonable, stable matches. Lizzy Bennet spurned two, Fanny Price turned down one. And in her own life, Jane Austen turned down a proposal from a man of a fairly large fortune.
So Austen did esteem love, just not all kinds of love. In Sense and Sensibility, Austen extolls love of character. Not the runaway ideals of romance and marital perfection.
Elinor loves Edward for his character. His steady, quiet resolve. Even when manipulated by a scheming fortune hunter, Edward acts on his word. He stands up for himself, and those around him. He is honest, though painfully shy. Not dashing, handsome, or eloquent. And in the end, he is without fortune.
But none of that matters. Marianne’s visions of grace, poetry, dancing, and nonsense are just that – nonsense. Austen seems to hammer this in, marrying both Marianne and Elinor to men of character, while sweeping away all ideas of Darcy-like romance we adored in Pride and Prejudice.
I’m a committed romantic. And my dad is not. He used to bemoan Shakespeare, complaining that the long-dead poet set up a society dominated by romance. The Romeo and Juliet syndrome. The Darcy/Lizzy craze. And BradJolina headlines
But as I told myself in an earlier post, take off the rose-colored glasses. Romeo and Juliet committed suicide. Austen pulled some serious strings to get Darcy and Lizzy to any sort of understanding. And Brad and Jolie can’t be a word anymore.
Sensibility And Lifelong Love
So is Austen inconsistent? Did she set us up for romantic fluff in P&P, only to cruelly critique it all in Sense and Sensibility? I don’t think so, and if you read it closely, it becomes obvious that Austen’s not doing that.
In fact, in every one of her books, Jane Austen critiques love. She offers a false premise, shatters illusions, and then gives us the truth. Austen builds real love. Her characters have to work at it, it’s not something that just happens. Not not character ‘falls in love’ and stays in love. Though my roommate argues Jane and Bingley fell in love. But even that love was tested, almost an ornery love.
Because love is a life-long process. It’s a fight, owning up to your wrongs, knowing yourself, and allowing your heart to open to another person. Love at first sight doesn’t exist in Austen’s mind. That kind of love is an illusion. To really love someone, you have to know their character. While you may think you’re in love with a person; lifelong love means working with another person’s character.
What’s humorous to me, is that Austen seems to believe love is transferable. There’s no perfect match for anyone in her mind. In the novel Persuasion, Austen casually throws out the idea of life-long attachment. In Sense and Sensibility, Marianne insists she’s going to die of a broken heart, but of course she lives to overcome such nonsense.
“The cure of unconquerable passions, and the transfer of unchanging attachments must vary much as to time in different people.” That’s a mouthful, but Austen was trying to get her readers to understand, love isn’t just emotion. It changes. And it doesn’t promise to be lifelong. If you want a lifelong relationship, that’s your job.
To be in love, is to be at work.