Sense & Sensibility

For a lot of readers, Sense & Sensibility pales by comparison to Pride & Prejudice. Its structure is so similar to the more famous work — two sisters, straitened circumstances, witty dialog, and finally, married happiness and financial comfort — that the public can be forgiven for considering it Pride & Prejudice Lite.

But as with anything by Austen, S&S has unexpected depths and sparkling characterization, as well as a keen understanding of human nature, and how the deck is stacked against women in how their fate is determined.

At this stage in my re-reading of Austen’s body of work, I focus less on the romance and more on her descriptions of family, character, society — all the background stuff. Austen’s characters in Sense & Sensibility leap off the page (with the exception of Edward Ferrars. He’s very dull, but he entirely suits Eleanor, so they are a great match). Marianne is such a goof. Their little sister Margaret acts exactly the way a twelve-year-old should. Colonel Brandon, Lucy Steele, John Dashwood, who lets his wife talk him down from bestowing a comfortable living on his step-mother and sisters to an occasional gift of a few pounds here and there — we know these people, because human nature does not change.

And with all of Austen’s keen insight into society and people, she also wrote a mighty fine romance. Yes — S&S is a romance. You have two people crossed in love, there’s sex although it happens offstage, there’re any number of romantic heroes and foils (Brandon and Willoughby, and dull Edward Ferrars), there’s bad behavior (Willoughby and Ferrars), and a romantic sensibility permeates the book.

There’s even a Final Obstacle (Marianne confronting Willoughby at the ball) and a Big Fat Misunderstanding (When Eleanor thinks that Edward has married and it turns out nope, he has not.)  Now, as modern readers we are primed to see the loss of Willoughby as a bad thing, but it’s really a bait and switch. Colonel Brandon is perfect for Marianne, and we all know it. Jane Austen is really working the marriage plot, and honestly, this feels like the book that invented it.

Emma Thompson’s screenplay does such great justice to Sense & Sensibility. It’s a lovely movie that matches a lovely book. It’s not my favorite Austen, but it’s the favorite of many fans for all the reasons that people love a fabulous story. Now I have the urge to re-read it.

Northanger Abbey

Northanger Abbey is a record-setting book. It might be the earliest mention of baseball in literature, and it may also be the first example of fanfic. Yes. Northanger Abbey is an affectionate homage to gothic novels.

This book is just fun. Catherine Morland is a YA heroine who is emphatically not a Gothic romance lead. She’s normal, not too pretty, has just gotten out of her gangly tomboy stage, and her parents say things about her like, “Catherine looked almost pretty today.” She’s a dreamer and a reader too. She’s kind, innocent but also practical, and you would definitely want her to babysit your twins, if she somehow got transported to the Babysitter Club books, or Sweet Valley High.

I love Catherine Morland.

So what happens is, this ordinary girl is transported into a Gothic novel in the most prosaic way, thinks she is in a murder mystery, insults the young man she has a crush on, they make up, and then, because the boy’s father is a control freak alpha male, gets sent home by herself, and has to borrow money to pay the stagecoach fare.

Imagine having to travel several hundred miles by yourself on a Greyhound when you’re a protected teenager, and there are no cellphones, and your parents aren’t expecting you and don’t know what happened to you. Catherine manages the Regency equivalent, and it’s a bit scary, but she’s fine. And that’s her adventure! That’s her Gothic mishap! She has to get on a stagecoach and come home to her entirely normal family. This is like a 1960s teen novel. Catherine Morland and Beezus would be best friends. I know it.

The visit to Northanger Abbey stands in stark contrast to Catherine’s stay in Bath. I’m pretty sure that Austen hated the place, and she calls out the Pump Room for what it is — overcrowded, uncomfortable, and a meat market. We have this image of the Regency era being oh so pretty and lovely, but we don’t have to read far between the lines to get at the realistic parts. And as always, Austen shines when she’s writing her villains. The manipulative brother and sister pair, John and Isabella Thorpe, are soooooo nasty. They know exactly how to maneuver Catherine, and they flat out lie to her when they trick her into standing up her real friends. They are absolute jerks. Isabella gets her comeuppance. John is a  self-involved fratboy type, and there again, some character types never change. Oh and by the way, bad driving is bad driving, whether it’s a car or a carriage. John Thorpe is a bad driver who thinks he’s a good one, and it’s pretty harrowing.

Anyway, what with one thing or another, Catherine ends up marrying Henry Tilney, and again, her mother has the best line.

“I give it six months. Four, if she cooks for him.”

No! Wait! That’s from Parenthood. What Mrs. Morland says is, “Catherine would make a sad, heedless, young housekeeper to be sure.” But it’s the exact same idea and it’s delivered with the exact same sense of parental resignation. This is why people who think of Jane Austen as old-fashioned have no freaking idea.

Of all Jane Austen’s leading men, Henry Tilney is the one to whom I give the most side-eye. I don’t like him. He thinks he’s very clever, and I think he likes the idea of having a guiless young wife. He better be good to Catherine, or I might have to have strong words for him.

Yes, have I mentioned how much I love Catherine Morland?

Anyway, for those keeping score. Northanger Abbey: Not A Romance.

Next up: Emma and Persuasion, or, Austen’s masterpiece and my favorite of hers, respectively.

Part I: Pride & Prejudice and Mansfield Park


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