My rating: 2 of 5 stars
Ugh, what a dreadfully boring novel. Now that I’ve written that bold statement, allow me to continue.
This is my third Austen novel, Pride and Prejudice and Emma being the first two novels many years ago, and I trudged through the last 50 pages of Sense and Sensibility. So, I’ll begin at that point of the exegesis with a spoiler: after the elder Dashwood sisters retreat to Cleveland estate before going home to Barton Cottage, Marianne becomes deathly ill, and Austen writes in five chapters what could have been written in two sentences. (I can hear the drum of Philistinism being beaten outside my door at this very moment!). I do realize the point of a novel is to do just that: explain in five chapters what could have been rendered the same in two sentences, but it is painfully obvious with this novel, and, perhaps, with Austen in general. But more on that later…
For the plot: this portion of the novel is always my least favorite of Austen’s and the “comedy of errors” genre—save for William Shakespeare. Specifically the portion of the plot where there is a lulling dramatic moment to induce fervent sympathy and regard for the romantic character, e.g. Marianne’s sickness. It is then that a character or characters is given the ability—through some turn of events, e.g. John Willoughby’s surprising nocturnal arrival—to explain their previous actions and thus redeem themselves. For sure this is a hackneyed, yet sincere, way to create well-rounded, believable characters; but it does not follow for my reading.
Austen is heavy, at least in Sense and Sensibility, with deus ex machina; which, when rendered absurd, is entertainable, but when used and treated as exegesis and a sincere moral motive for a character feels completely false due to its conspicuous nature. In other words, when used within the realm of realism, the deus ex machina appears out of place; discordant with my expectations as a reader. If other character absurdities and plot oddities are present, then the machina seems natural; but when used as a device to surprise the reader—again, e.g., Willoughby’s nocturnal arrival, or even Colonel Brandon’s announcing in London against Marianne’s expectations (Chapter XXVII), which is nearly entirely forgivable as a plot device—it seems unnatural.
As per a discussion that followed the reading of this novel, I made the all too obvious sexist remark that Austen’s writing is noticeably feminine. I even hated to make the remark due its cliché nature, but it had to be done. (I backtracked and stated that women rave about Austen the way men rave about Hemingway.) So, why is this remark true for me? Why is it even a cliché, i.e. an oft-repeated cultural observation? This interests me a great deal. I think it is rightly attributed to the very nature of the elongated exegesis, and the way Austen can pinpoint emotions. Austen’s use of emotions is sacrosanct. Her study of human character and human folly in general is immaculate; and here it seems as though I am contradicting myself, but I am not.
I will argue here that her precision of human emotion does not oft-align with the necessary absurd plot intervention of the comedy of errors. The gossiping Mrs. Jennings, the Palmer’s, the Steele’s, these characters are gorgeous; but the comedy of errors requires them, not the sincerity of Colonel Brandon, Edward Ferrars, or even Miss Elinor Dashwood. I was informed that Austen’s early novels revolve around this comedy of errors plot device, which is easy enough to notice in the three novels I have read, but that a later novel of hers, like Mansfield Park, is much richer; and lacks the deus ex machina of the “comedy of errors” genre.
Finally, we watched the 1995 film of Sense and Sensibility, and I must add that I thoroughly enjoyed each character. Perhaps it is my own sensibility that is lacking, but I prefer a comedy on stage or on film, and a tragedy, history, historo-tragedy, etc. in solitude. I even enjoyed the stuttering ineptitude of, ugh, the ineffectual Hugh Grant as Edward Ferrars. Alan Rickman, “Snape, Snape, Severus Snape…“, as Colonel Brandon is phenomenal in his solemn love of Marianne; and Emma Thompson is wonderful in her quiet expressions as Elinor Dashwood.
I do not quite think I am done with Jane Austen, or does my critique of Sense and Sensibility keep me from reading her other novels. But, I think I shall approach her under new auspices. One that seeks her writing instead of picking a novel up at random—for that was my position for this reading.
- How Austen caught zeitgeist of medical belief (thetimes.co.uk)
- Solved: Why Jane Austen’s characters get ill from the rain (telegraph.co.uk)