Tuesday, May 19, 2009

#76 - "Sense and Sensibility" by Jane Austen

I have seen Ang Lee's Sense and Sensibility (1995) so many times that when it came to reading Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility (1811), I couldn't get away from the images from the film. Emma Thompson took the best of Austen's dialogue and story and created a brilliant screenplay that works perfectly as a film. It's difficult for me to say this because the movie owes its entire story and its best lines to Jane Austen's book, but the movie also managed to be a little tighter than the book without losing anything. I enjoyed the book, but felt that Austen was sometimes a little wordy, and she even got a little preachy near the end. Don't get me wrong, I am a huge fan of Jane Austen, so it's not that I didn't enjoy it; it's just that I prefer Pride and Prejudice.

Like all of Jane Austen's books, Sense and Sensibility is set at the beginning of the 19th Century in England. Her heroines, Elinor and Marianne Dashwood are two sisters who (along with their mother and younger sister Margaret) are kicked out of their home and left with little money to live on after the death of their father. Their father's son from an earlier marriage inherits their old home, and his avarice prevents him from burdening his rather wealthy coffers by helping out his step-family. The women find a small cottage on the other side of England to let, and they remove themselves to begin a new life. And, of course, the focus of their lives is the men in them and whether and whom they might marry. After powerlessly losing their home, marriage is the only possibility of any change of their situations in life.

The two sisters have drastically different personalities. Elinor, the elder, is rational and practical and often checks her more passionate and spontaneous mother and younger sister Marianne when they get out of hand. Marianne is a passionate romantic who lets her feelings rule her actions. Both sisters are quickly caught up with loves of their own. Marianne falls for the dashing Willoughby while Elinor more quietly falls in love with Edward Ferrars, whose family strongly disapproves of the match.

Sense and Sensibility is something of a mystery with unexpected twists and turns and characters constantly misunderstanding eachother. I wish it were possible to somehow go back in time and read Sense and Sensibility with a virgin's eye because I know the story so well I couldn't even begin to guess what I would have predicted and what would have surprised me in the book if I didn't already know the plot.

And this leads to a new pet peeve of mine regarding classical literature. Just because it's a classic doesn't mean that everyone knows the plot, so if it's necessary to have an introduction, does it have to be filled with spoilers and other specific information about the upcoming novel? I look for context and history in the introduction; anything else can always go at the end. Obviously, this did not affect me for Sense and Sensibility because I already knew the story, but I'm currently reading Anna Karenina. Starting the book I only had a vague notion that Anna Karenina was about adultery and that it might not end well. Now even though I'm only about halfway through, I'm pretty sure of the exact ending. Sure, it's nice to be told of some of the author's use of foreshadowing, etc., but it changes what I focus on while I'm reading. Even if the discussion doesn't "ruin" the book, I'd really prefer not to be burdened by other people's interpretations until I've had a chance to form my own.

As far as Sense and Sensibility, I am always amazed that Jane Austen, writing almost two hundred years ago can write such entertaining and accessible characters and stories. Her description of the personalities and situations in her books are witty and scathing, and her understanding and display of the predicaments of the gentlemanly women of her time were prescient.

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