November 30, 2008

Jane Austen Book Club - Sense and Sensibility

Welcome to the first installment of the Jane Austen book club. The club was started by Amanda, who decided she wanted to read all of Austen's books and invited anyone who wanted to read along to join in.

Jane Austen

This month we're reading Sense and Sensibility. Sense and Sensibility was Jane Austen's first book to be published. It's considered by critics to be one of her simpler narratives and they suggest it is a good place to start for people who are new to her books. So, good choice for first book, Amanda - you're obviously a natural at this book club thing.

I've never been a member of a book club. I also don't really have a lot of practice talking about literature. I'm not sure how to proceed here... What to focus on, what to write about? Um... Going first is hard. But I'll give it my best shot. I guess I'll write a bit about the book and then we can all subscribe to the comments and have a nice discuss about it? Okay? Good... Here I go.

Jane Austen's book offers an amusing window into the lives of English gentry in the early 19th century. She often pokes fun at all aspects of the lives her characters lead, and at the silliness and frivolity of people in general. Her books are witty and amusing and they offer the excitement of eavesdropping on the romantic lives of her young, intelligent and attractive heroines. The women in Austen novels are often able to think for themselves, more than the secondary female characters who surround them. They can hold their own in conversation with anyone, including the men and the aristocracy. However, they're held back by their place in society. As women, to be someone in their society at the time, they must marry and it is always an important imperative to find the right husband.

Sense and Sensibility is about the Dashwood family who must leave their home, after it is inherited by their half brother, to settle in a much smaller cottage in a new part of England. Like most of Austen's books, this book is about young women meeting men and overcoming obstacles to each end up married to their respective "Mr. Right". The two main characters in the book are the eldest sisters of the Dashwood family, Elinor and Marianne. Elinor is the sensible sister. Being the eldest child of a fairly silly mother, she takes responsibility for the family's well being. She takes this role a bit too seriously and, in order to avoid causing additional problems for her loved ones, she hides her real feelings from them. Marianne, on the other hand, is of a very romantic and melodramatic character. She feels things deeply and takes great pleasure in sharing her feelings with those around her, often to the point where she lets them run away with her.

Elinor's love interest is Edward Ferrars. She meets him and spends time with him at the family's estate before they relocate to their new cottage. They become close enough for her family to assume that they will soon become engaged. However, she finds out from his betrothed, Miss Lucy Steele - a women who is staying with the couple Elinor's mother rents their cottage from, that he is engaged. Lucy confides her secret engagement with Edward to Elinor after learning of Elinor's interest in Edward. Elinor must hide her interest in him from Lucy and her disappointment from her family. She suffers this quietly until finally exploding in response to her sister, who accuses her of lacking in feeling. Edward's family disowns him when they learn of his engagement because they believe Lucy to be beneath them socially. Edward refuses to end the engagement, despite his secret preference for Elinor. In the end, though, Lucy and Edward's marriage doesn't go through when Lucy elopes with his brother, who has been given the family's fortune on Edward's being disowned. The drama ends happily when, after Lucy's elopement with his brother, Edward shows up to ask for Elinor's hand in marriage. Ignoring the strictures of the popular dating advice book "The Rules", which admittedly wasn't yet published at the time, Elinor jumps at the chance to be his wife.

Marianne's story is a bit more complicated. Marianne, in a typically romantic fashion, falls for the dashing Mr. Willoughby when he rescues her after she falls down a hill and twists her ankle. Marianne and Willoughby really hit it off and spend hours together talking about everything and anything. Marianne is so taken with Willoughby that she behaves fairly badly - going off on her own with him without a chaperon and visiting his Cousin's estate, which is near her home, with him without the cousin's invitation, or promise of future ownership through marriage to Willoughby (in Austen's time, very shocking behavior, indeed!) - causing her sister to lecture and inciting endless teasing by the other members of her acquaintance. Marianne and her family are surprised and upset when Willoughby leaves suddenly for London with no warning and little explanation. Despite Willoughby's sudden desertion of her, Marianne remains convinced that he'll soon return.

When a family friend, Mrs. Jennings offers to take the sisters to London, Marianne jumps at the chance of being with Willoughby. It is not until she runs into him at a party that she learns the truth that he has become engaged to another woman and that she must accept that Willoughby has truly moved on. She sinks into her heart ache, becoming so overwrought that she looses her appetite and, according to her brother, her beauty. Her upset is alleviated somewhat by Colonel Brandon, a friend of the Middletons's - the family who owns the cottage the Dashwoods rent, (and who has been in love with Marianne since first laying eyes on her, but who she's discounted because of his age (35 OMG!) and also because of his calm nature which is so different from her drama queen ways). Colonel Brandon informs the sisters of Willoughby's true character: It turns out that Willoughby seduced a young girl, who was under Colonel Brandon's care, leaving her pregnant and alone. Marianne, while devastated by this news, is forced to admit that she is better off without him.

Wanting to return home, Elinor and Marianne accept an invitation to visit with Charlotte Palmer - the daughter of Mrs. Jennings, the woman whose house they've been visiting in London - a move which places them within easy reach of home once their visit is complete. Marianne, happy to be away from the city, takes long solitary walks in the grounds and catches a bad cold. The cold, helped along by Marianne's continual wallowing in misery, quickly descends into serious illness, and Marianne almost dies. Marianne calls out for her mother and Elinor, fearing that her sister is not going to recover, decides to send for Mrs. Dashwood. Colonel Brandon, who has been visiting the Palmers as well, acts on his love and concern for Marianne and shows great kindness by offering to go and fetch Mrs. Dashwood. Elinor gratefully accepts his offer.

While colonel Brandon is gone, Marianne's condition improves and it become clear that she's going to get better after all. Eager to tell her mother the good news, Elinor rushes downstairs and is surprised by the arrival of Willoughby, instead of her mother, when she hears a carriage. Willoughby, having heard of Marianne's illness, rushed from London to explain his past behaviour. Willoughby explains to Elinor and we learn that he didn't behave as badly as it appeared. He left Marianne so suddenly after a breach with his cousin (who ownes the large estate near the Dashwoods' cottage which he and Marianne broke all the social rules by visiting during their courtship). The breach happened after Willoughby's cousin became disgusted with his behaviour when she heard about the girl that Willoughby impregnated. And so Willoughby chose money over happiness and became engaged to a girl with a large fortune. When Elinor tells her the truth, Marianne is relieved to learn that Willoughby wasn't faking his feelings for her.

In the end, Marianne sees the error of her overly emotional ways and admits to Elinor that she'd been selfish being all weepy when Elinor was suffering a difficult end of romance as well. The book ends happily with Elinor married to Edward and Marianne married to Colonel Brandon who, over time, she has come to love as much as she ever loved Willoughby.

Austen's wit and social commentary come out most in her secondary characters:

Elinor and Marianne's brother, Mr. Dashwood, and his wife Fanny, early in the book, have a very comic exchange in which Fanny convinces Mr. Dashwood that he doesn't really need to act on his promise to his dying father that he will help his sisters. He starts out determined to give them three thousand pounds (according to the intro in my book - equivalent to 15,000 - 30, 000 today). She talks him down to the point where he decides he'll help them by assisting them to move out and feels generous for doing it. The Dashwoods' behaviour to Elinor and Marianne continues to be selfish, dismissive and rude throughout the book, and they continue to be convinced that they are being most generous and kind to their sisters.

The family who owns the cottage the Dashwood ladies rent, distant cousins of Mrs. Dashwood, Sir John and Lady Middleton are entertaining characters. Sir John is good natured and loves to be surrounded by company, especially young people who he enjoys matching up and teasing about their romances. His wife is a dull woman who is really only interested in her children. Her mother, Mrs. Jennings, soon comes to stay with them and joins enthusiastically with Sir John in teasing the young people. Mrs. Jennings, who invites Elinor and Marianne to visit with her in London, turns out to be so good hearted, sticking by the sisters through Marianne's illness, that she even manages to gain the love of Marianne, who is impatient and stand-offish with almost everyone throughout, by the end of the story.

The Palmers are particularly funny. Charlotte Palmer, Mrs. Jennings other daughter, is a fairly pretty and enormously silly woman. She can't talk of anything without laughing. Because of her beauty she managed to marry a sensible man who soon became tired of her silly side. Mr. Palmer either ignores her, or is rude to her. Far from finding it distressing, she is endlessly amused by it and loves him all the more for his odd behaviour.

The following exchange, which takes place on p. 74 of my 1992 Wordsworth Classic paperback edition, illustrates the humour with which Austen treats her secondary characters:

The scene starts out with Sir Middleton teasing Marianne about Willoughby...
Marianne looked very grave, and said nothing.

"Oh! Don't be so sly before us," said Mrs. Palmer: "for we know all about it, I assure you; and I admire your taste very much, for I think he is extremely handsome. We do not live a great way from him in the country, you know, - not above ten miles, I dare say."

"Much nearer thirty," said her husband.

"Ah! Well! there is not much difference. I never was at his house; but they say it is a sweet, pretty place."

"As vile a spot as I ever saw in my life," said Mr. Palmer.
Marianne remained perfectly silent, though her countenance betrayed her interest in what was said.

"Is it very ugly?" continued Mrs. Palmer - "then it must be some other place that is so pretty, I suppose."

When they were seated in the dining-room, Sir John observed with regret that they were only eight all together.

"My dear," he said to his lady, "it is very provoking that we should be so few. Why did not you ask the Gilberts to come to us today?"

"Did not I tell you, Sir John, when you spoke to me about it before, that it could not be done? They dined with us last."

"You and I, Sir John," said Mrs. Jennings, "should not stand upon such ceremony."

"Then you would be very ill-bred," cried Mr. Palmer.

"My love, you contradict everybody," said his wife, with her usual laugh. "Do you know that you are quite rude?"

"I did not know I contradicted anybody in calling your mother ill-bred."

"Aye, you may abuse me as you please," said the good-natured old lady. "You have taken Charlotte off my hands, and cannot give her back again. So there I have the whip hand of you."

Charlotte laughed heartily to think that her husband could not get rid of her, and exultingly said, she did not care how cross he was to her, as they must live together... The studied indifference, insolence, and discontent of her husband gave her no pain; and when he scolded or abused her she was highly diverted.

"Mr. Palmer is so droll!" said she, in a whisper, to Elinor. "He is always out of humour."

A few questions to discuss:

1. Keeping in mind that 35 was quite a bit older at the time than it is now, do you think that Colonel Brandon is too old for Marianne, who is 17 (19 when they get married)?

2. Who do you think would be the better match for Marianne if Willoughby hadn't turned out to be such a loser - Willoughby or Colonel Brandon?

3. In Jane Austen's time, Edward's spending so much time one-on-one with Elinor at the beginning of the book was enough to cause her family to imagine that they "had an understanding" (AKA that they were engaged). What do you think of Edward spending so much time with Elinor and falling in love with her while he was engaged to another girl? Do you think his not acting on his feeling excuses his behaviour? Do you think his behaviour was as bad as Willoughby's?

4. Why do you think Jane Austen included a 3rd sister in the book? What role did Margaret play in the story?

5. Why do you think Jane Austen called the book Sense and Sensibility?

6. Who was your favourite character and why? What was your favourite scene?

7. What do you think it must have been like to live with so many strict social rules? Do you think it made social interactions easier or more difficult?

8. Whose behaviour did you find more frustrating - Elinor's stoic stiff upper lip and refusal to share her feelings or Marianne self-indulgent weep fest?

9. What do you think Jane Austen was trying to say about the character traits Sense and Sensibility?

10. I say, in my plot summary, that the book ends happily but Stephen Arkin, in the introduction to my edition, claims that there is something inherently disappointing in the conclusion of the novel: "Closing the book a reader who has enjoyed watching its two heroines come safely home might still wish that there was just a bit more sparkle and a bit less duty in the air." What do you think? Were you satisfied with the conclusion of the book?

11. Which Jane Austen Heroine are you?

I am Elizabeth Bennet!

Take the Quiz here!

Hope that was the kind of thing you had in mind, Amanda!

Okay, ladies, let the discussion begin!



scrappysue said...

you are totally in your element mel! i wish i was reading along with you!

Amanda said...

Wow!! That was great! You did a fabulous job. Love the summary. This was not one of your questions but let me just say how much would you hate to be Jane Austen's sister? In this book and Pride and Prejudice the sister seems to always be the duller, not as smart (all be it, prettier) gal.

1. I think that Marianne could have never understood how lucky she was that Col Brandon hung around through all of her drama. But I guess that was what he got for falling in love with a 17 year old.

2. I think Willoughby was just self absorbed. I think he only felt anything for Marianne because she was attractive and so obviously in love with him. I just think he was a brat. And unfortunately, I don't think she ever saw that he wouldn't have made her happy, I think she just complied because she felt like she had to. I don't feel like she ever loved Brandon because Austen never shared any of their love story at the end.

3. Edward is totally not the same. He didn't get anybody pregnant. And he stood up to the promise that he made to begin with even though his heart was with Elinor. Willoughby never did anything honorable.

4. Maybe she was there so you wouldn't feel so bad that the older ones left the mother?

5.-7. I'll have to come back to.

8. Marianne drove me crazy. I felt like she was totally self absorbed. It didn't really feel like she ever understood what Elinor was going through. She talked like she did but then continued on as the drama queen.

9. It seems like she was saying that it was better to be practical and not let your feelings show. Again, I thought that Marianne was cast in a very bad light for being so frivolous.

10. I think that guy that wrote the intro felt like Marianne 'settled' for Brandon. I don't feel that way at all. I don't think she deserved him. That was what made me mad at the end of the book. I felt like there should have been a story about how she came to love him and want him. Not just that over time she fell for him.

So, I took that quiz a while ago and I was Marianne. I never knew how I felt about that until I read the book. Now, I'm a little bitter. I love that she is so passionate but can't you be passionate and compassionate? I, obviously, had some issues with Marianne.

But, overall, I loved the book. I thought it was tough to get started. I didn't understand a lot of what she was saying so I had to go back and reread a few times but after I caught on it was great. It took me a while to catch onto the comedic side. That first part that you mentioned between Mr. Dashwood and his wife took me a while but after I got it, I thought it was brilliant.

I was glad that Willoughby came back that night, it helped me understand what a self absorbed child he was and that he wasn't a bad guy, he just didn't know better.

My favorite part is when Edward comes by and Lucy is sitting with Elinor. I just wonder what he must have been thinking...

Sass E-mum said...

I'll be quick because I'm at work - this is a great post. Fab start to book club.

I'll be giving you the full response (!) to your questions tomorrow. Just because I'm slow to respond, don't think for a moment I'm not interested.

crael said...

For me all the RULES of behavior seem overwhelming. Margaret's character is the one who seems least affected by the rules. While Marianne does not follow expectations wholly, she is fully versed in what is expected and does to a degree when not completely against her wishes follow suit. Margaret, however, while being instructed on such continues to have her own mind about what to say. She does not want to be censured or restricted for the sake of decorum.

It is interesting how my identifying with characters changes over time or circumstance. I am rarely if ever as well behaved as Elinor. Most often try to follow rules when I not too passionate about something like Marianne. But at times, desire a freedom to speak my mind as Margaret.