Read an Excerpt
From Laura Engel’s Introduction to Sense and Sensibility
Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen’s first published novel, tells the story of the lives, loves, and longings of two sisters, the sensitive, romantic Marianne and the practical, even-tempered Elinor. With its extended cast of supporting characters, including the garrulous Mrs. Jennings, the stern Mr. Palmer, and the censorious Mrs. Ferrars, Sense and Sensibility revolves around two narratives: the possible romances of Elinor and Marianne Dashwood and the day-to-day existence of everyone else. The constant anxiety that pervades the story stems from the possibility that the sisters may have to make do with the mundanity of country life, cluttered with gossip, clamor, and superficiality, instead of being swept away by the men of their dreams. In typical Austen fashion we are made aware from the outset that Marianne’s choice of suitor, the dashing and theatrical Willoughby, may be a disaster. Elinor’s more subdued love object, the shy and awkward Edward Ferrars, on the other hand, just might prove himself worthy if he could manage to articulate a full sentence.
Austen began working on Sense and Sensibility in 1795 with an epistolary fragment entitled “Elinor and Marianne” (now lost). The final version was not published until 1811, with a second edition issued in 1813 (Austen-Leigh, Jane Austen: Her Life and Letters). Once described as “bleak, dark, and nasty” compared with the “brightness” of Pride and Prejudice or the complexity of her more mature works Emma, Mansfield Park, and Persuasion, Sense and Sensibility has recently undergone a critical renaissance. New editions, renewed scholarship, and a critically acclaimed film version have put the novel center stage.
Sense and Sensibility is a coming-of-age novel, and also a work that chronicles Austen’s own “coming of age”—her development as a writer. When she began working on “Elinor and Marianne” she was only twenty, a young woman with the possibility of courtship, marriage, and family open to her. By the time the second edition of the novel was released, Austen had moved from Hampshire to Bath, lost her adoring father, been disappointed in love, rejected a marriage proposal, and relocated again with her mother and sister to Chawton, where she turned her attention to writing. Austen’s sense of herself in the world must have been influenced by her close relationship with her only sister, Cassandra, who similarly was disappointed in love and in the awkward position of elder spinster aunt to a large and noisy upper-middle-class country family.
The only surviving portrait of Austen, a watercolor sketch by her sister, depicts the author as a plain, pensive subject with large eyes and a slight hint of a smile. She appears proper and subdued, unlike the description of her by a family friend, who pronounced her “certainly pretty—bright & a good deal of colour in her face—like a doll” (Tomalin, Jane Austen: A Life). Austen’s niece Anna’s view of her aunt matches Cassandra’s portrayal of her: “Her complexion [is] of that rare sort which seems the particular property of light brunettes: a mottled skin, not fair, but perfectly clear and healthy; the fine naturally curling hair, neither light nor dark; the bright hazel eyes to match the rather small, but well shaped nose” (Austen-Leigh).
In keeping with Austen’s status as a respectable daughter of a clergyman, Sense and Sensibility was first published anonymously. The initial advertisement for the novel, which appeared in the Morning Chronicle on October 31, 1811, refers to the author as “A Lady.” A subsequent notice in the same paper on November 7, 1811, bills the work as “an extraordinary novel by A Lady.” A few weeks later the book was announced as “an Interesting Novel by Lady A” (Austen-Leigh, p. 254). Austen apparently made some money on the first edition. Her biographers Richard and William Austen-Leigh note that the £140 profit from the first edition of Sense and Sensibility was a considerable sum compared to the lesser proceeds her female contemporaries earned from their novels—the £30 Fanny Burney gained from sales of Evelina or the £100 Maria Edgeworth received for Castle Rackrent.
Austen was influenced by the writers of her youth. She adored Samuel Richardson, read Maria Edgeworth, Sir Walter Scott, Dr. Johnson, Alexander Pope, William Cowper, Henry Fielding, and Daniel Defoe, and recited passages from Fanny Burney aloud (Gay, Jane Austen and the Theatre). In Sense and Sensibility Austen echoes earlier novelists while at the same time anticipating the format of the nineteenth-century novel. Austen’s choice of translating “Elinor and Marianne” from an epistolary narrative (a novel in letters) into a story told by a central narrator allowed her to juxtapose the internal and external facets of her heroines. What we see Elinor do is often contrasted with what we know she is thinking. This gap between thought and action is highlighted repeatedly throughout the novel.