Sense and Sensibility as the problem novel, part one

I am not the most discerning of readers; I tend to read fast and sometimes paragraphs or whole pages whiz by. And so dull clod that I am I had never realized Sense and Sensibility’s reputation as Jane Austen’s “problem novel” until I attended the 2011 JASNA Annual General Meeting in Fort Worth.

The opening plenary session of the Fort Worth AGM featured Dr. Joan Klingel Ray’s talk Sense and Sensibility as Austen’s Problem Novel, where she observed that S&S had not been the focus of an AGM since 1981, presumably because of its problems. And yet I consider S&S my second or third favorite Austen novel, competing with Emma.

I can explain some of my lack of awareness to being a relatively new Janeite. I’m still in the first flush of my enjoyment, having only read S&S two times and having only seen the movie adaptations once or twice. I don’t have the longer view of someone who’s known Austen all her life and must find every morsel of enjoyment in every intricacy, contradiction and inconsistency of the plot and characters found in a scant six novels and some younger writings.

But perhaps I too should take a more critical look at this problem novel and following are some the problems I perceive. Many of these observations are hardly original and were stated far better by Dr. Ray and the other speakers at the AGM. But some of these problems are of my own invention (although perhaps shared by others) and some of these problems contradict and have come about because I confuse the various film adaptations with the book:

  • The opening of the book, though wonderful, could have been better (this is surely my own invention)
  • Edward Ferrars is an unlikeable hero (voiced several times at the AGM)
  • Marianne is annoying (I really dislike her)
  • Both Dashwood sisters, but especially Marianne, are unkind to Sir John Middleton and Mrs. Jennings (my perception)
  • Colonel Brandon’s interest in Marianne is a little creepy (also voiced by others at the AGM)
  • Brandon as Marianne’s consolation prize (I cannot remember the source of this)
  • Duel? What duel?
  • Lucy Steele is not evil (surely I am alone in this)

Before I begin, I apologize for not giving a synopsis of the story and also for revealing spoilers. If you have not read the book, perhaps you should refrain from reading further.

Fanny and John DashwoodHarriet Walter and James Fleet as Fanny and John Dashwood in the 1995 movie

The opening of the book could have been better

This is purely my opinion and I know it is not generally shared. I often hear the beginning of the book praised and I agree that the underhandedness of Fanny Dashwood in convincing John Dashwood to not provide for his step mother and step sisters is an incredible piece of writing. But that is Chapter Two.

Chapter One is a complicated bit of exposition to explain the bad legal situation the Dashwood women face. It has some wonderful lines, of course — [John Dashwood] was not an ill-disposed young man, unless to be rather cold hearted and rather selfish is to be ill-disposed — but overall it reminds me of the slow beginning of Henry V and the mind numbing legalities of the Salic Law.

Simply starting with Chapter Two would make the novel much more accessible. Austen said she did not write for “such dull elves,” but some of those dull elves might have made it further into S&S if they had immediately encountered the deliciously scheming Fanny Dashwood channeling Lady Macbeth.

Edward Ferrars is an unlikeable hero

Jane Austen does Edward Ferrars no favors. She describes him thus: He was not handsome, and his manners required intimacy to make them pleasing. In fact she goes out of her way to not let the reader form a good opinion of him. He has no dialog until this single sentence in Chapter Five: “Devonshire! Are you, indeed, going there? So far from hence! And to what part of it?” And then is silent until Chapter 16 when he finally pays his visit to the Dashwoods at Barton Cottage.

And once at Barton Cottage, he lies about the hair ring given to him by Lucy Steele: “Yes; it is my sister’s hair. The setting always casts a different shade on it, you know.” So we learn that he is both deceitful and stupid for not removing the ring before his visit.

Much of the plot, of course, hangs on his unwise engagement to Lucy Steele while he was living in her father’s home as a student (he was home schooled, just somebody else’s home). He later explains that as a gentleman he would not countenance breaking the engagement, even after he falls in love with Elinor. And, of course, it is also understood that he could be sued for breach of promise, although someone — I think it was Dr. Ray — observed in the AGM that it was not unknown for a man to break his promise and escape poorer but freed of his obligation. I think we can see Mrs. Ferrars agreeing to this amount to escape the horror that is Lucy Steele.

Further it was pointed out that Edward was underage at the time of his proposal and so would not legally be bound to his promise. And so we are left with a man who is perhaps so passive he is willing to endure marriage to Lucy rather than “screw his courage to the sticking place” and take the necessary steps to break his promise.

Elinor and Edward
Hattie Morahan and Dan Stevens (in the “Hugh Grant persona”) as Elinor and Edward in the 2008 serial

Edward is such an unsatisfying hero that film producers and directors have felt the need to improve him by liberal casting, giving him early dialog and inventing scenes to make him sympathetic. The director Ang Lee cast Hugh Grant as Edward in his 1995 film, who brought his good looks, tousled hair and affecting stammer — or as Dr. Ray observed “the Hugh Grant persona” — to the role. And the casting works; I loved Edward’s atlas scene with Margaret Dashwood in the Lee movie. And the 2008 BBC serial also showed Edward (Dan Stevens) interacting with Margaret, letting her ride his horse while Elinor watches approvingly. Of course the most egregious example of a filmmaker improving our good opinion of Edward is the scene in the 1995 film where he almost reveals to Elinor his engagement to Lucy, but is prevented at the last minute by his sister informing him he is to return to their mother at once.

Of course we are all such admirers of Austen that we often invent reasons to explain and excuse what simply might be rare instances of the writer making a mistake. Perhaps because there are only the six novels and two hundred years of analysis, we have thought too deeply on these matters. It is also possible that she never contemplated Edward simply breaking off the engagement because she realized that if he did, she wouldn’t have a plot. After all, how many romantic comedies would collapse if the hero were to honestly explain his situation.

Or perhaps she realized that though some aspects of Edward’s personality might make his seem unlikable, he would ultimately be more believable as a person. And if that was her intent, then casting Edward à la Hugh Grant destroys this nuance. But let’s face it, I am happier thinking of Edward as Hugh Grant or Dan Stevens because I identify with Elinor and want to see her with a handsome man.

Marianne is annoying

Several times at the AGM it was asked, Are You an Elinor or a Marianne? And as I said I strongly identify with Elinor. She exhibits traits I admire rather than possess, and dislike Marianne who exhibits traits I possess but do not admire. Of course we all excuse Marianne because we know she is a teenager, younger than Elinor and influenced by her mother. And I know there are many readers who find Elinor’s moral rectitude equally annoying, although again I point out were it not for Elinor’s faithfulness in keeping her promise to Lucy much of the plot would vanish.

But intellectually, I know that Austen had to make Marianne the god help us drama queen she is. And so while I find Marianne annoying, I cannot fault Austen’s portrayal and so I dismiss this as a problem. In fact it is a strength of the book that I can so empathize with a character I so fervently dislike. It is enough that I am convinced by Elinor’s love for her sister that I would see Marianne happy.

Click here to read part two.

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