I spend a lot of time talking about how much I love Jane Austen’s Persuasion; it’s so beautiful and compact and Frederick Wentworth. I read all of Austen’s novels when I was in the sixth form, studying Northanger Abbey with my favourite teacher of all time, the legendary Dr Woodman. I don’t even want to go into how many times I’ve tried to find her on Google in the last 15 years. Since then, Persuasion has maintained an unassailable position as my number one and I’ve reread it a handful of times. I’ve also reread Pride and Prejudice more than a few times, and I’ve taught both of these at school too.
It occurs to me, however, that I’ve neglected Austen’s other novels since first reading them so long ago (although they still seem so familiar that it’s hard to believe I haven’t read them for nearly half my life). In my quest to have the full collection of the beautiful Penguin English Library editions of classic novels, I recently bought Sense and Sensibility and Northanger Abbey at the lovely Grove Bookshop in Ilkley, here in my beloved adopted motherland of West Yorkshire. I had no particular intentions of reading them immediately; I have, after all, an ever-increasing TBR shelf and really just wanted them to add to my collection. But I idly picked up Sense and Sensibility while hiding from a small child who was trying to make me pretend to be one of the Paw Patrol, and I was hooked. Although I did still have to play Paw Patrol.
I think Sense and Sensibility would be widely regarded as the poor relation of Pride and Prejudice; it’s certainly the less famous of the two, appears far less frequently on exam book lists and is less regularly adapted for the screen. The plotlines of the two novels are undoubtedly similar; both feature sisters forced to seek good marriages to make up for their family’s relative poverty, and there are a number of other similarities, most notably the resemblance between Willoughby in Sense and Sensibility and Wickham in Pride and Prejudice, and consequently the actions of Brandon and Darcy.
One reason for Sense and Sensibility‘s lower profile is, I think, the absence of a Darcy character. Although Austen gives us Edward Ferrars and Colonel Brandon, neither is as attractively compelling as Darcy, or as prevalent throughout the novel; Edward, indeed, disappears for about the middle 200 pages. And he’s a bit dull. Pride and Prejudice came two years after Sense and Sensibility, so I wonder about the extent to which the more famous work is a rewrite of its predecessor. It is known that Elizabeth Bennet was Austen’s favourite among her heroines, but, while rereading Sense and Sensibility, I developed a strong love of Elinor Dashwood; she is smart and sharp, but not as snarky and full-of-herself as Elizabeth, preferring to internally roll her eyes at the antics of those around her than to outwardly mock them.
Maybe Pride and Prejudice is so familiar to me that I take for granted how good it is, whereas I seem to have forgotten how enjoyable Sense and Sensibility is and liked it all the more as a result. It made me laugh out loud more than once, and I took particular pleasure from the awfulness of the Steele sisters, the Palmers and Lady Middleton. Austen seems to take a real delight in exposing the frivolous concerns of the upper classes, foregrounding the good sense of her heroines; even melodramatic Marianne is wonderful in her fundamental inability to behave appropriately in society. What Austen does particularly well in Sense and Sensibility is highlight the downright boredom and monotony of late 18th century life, especially if you lacked the financial wherewithal to have a say in your own activities. As a hardcore antisocial misanthrope, I would never have survived the marriage market of Regency England (I was, frankly, lucky to survive the modern version).
I got so much pleasure from rereading Sense and Sensibility and now fully intend to reread the rest of Austen’s novels, particularly Emma, which has always been my least favourite; maybe finally coming back to it will allow me to think of it more affectionately.