Sense and Sensibility: Most severe, in every particular

      

This picture of a grumpy goose has nothing to do with Jane Austen’s first novel, Sense and Sensibility, and everything to do with how I felt reading the predictable plot.

All of the things I like about Jane Austen’s fiction (nuanced character development that complicates the idea of character by playing with the difference between how a character behaves, their focalized p.o.v, and the expectations/reactions of others; and lively satirical jabs at feminine manners/upper class ceremony) were either missing in this text, or buried under fatiguing descriptions of countenances.

The women in the novel, with the exception of our heroine Eleanor, too readily succumb to fainting illnesses, extremity of emotion and consumption. That said, I did like how catty they are to one another, because there’s something oddly reassuring about hearing Austen’s characters think thoughts I, too, share (why must this woman continue to talk about how much she wants babies? why do I have to go to X social event, even though I don’t want to go and my host doesn’t want me to go?). Is it reassuring? Maybe it should be disquieting to find that the comedy of manners continues, largely unchanged, centuries later; yet, I think this is the brilliance of Austen and why so many readers resound in her praise, that is, how precisely she identifies social anxieties. While the particular social concerns shift (I am not, for instance, terribly worried about why so-and-so did not leave me their card, or whether so-and-so will lend me their carriage) the affective response of being slighted, or feeling inadequate, or jealousy, persists. (So, too, do the concerns about finding an attractive and affluent mate…)

Even with her satirical brilliance and canny capture of social anxiety and affect, I didn’t like Sense and Sensibility. And not just because of the extended descriptions of fainting spells, but rather for the narrative style of reporting dialogue (and not simply allowing it to unfold), the too-heavily foreshadowed conclusion that led to a predictable and tedious plot, the conclusion itself, and (this one pains me a little), the perfection of Eleanor. I know I’m meant to just love Eleanor, but I don’t. Instead I felt how keenly I was meant to love Eleanor, how very much I’m to see her level-headedness, her acquiescence to all of life’s misfortunes with grace and humility, as markers of her exceptional character. Instead I felt put off: no character is so good, so giving, so thoughtful. Or rather, if there is someone so wholly selfless and charitable, I don’t want to know her. (Or read her thoughts for 600 pages.) So there.

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Filed under 100 Books of 2011, British literature, Fiction, Prize Winner

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