For the most part Jane Austen novels follow a pattern. A pattern clear in both Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility. There are so many similarities it made me wonder what the first draft of Pride and Prejudice looked like, maybe much more like Sense and Sensibility (S+S). The two sisters both books fixate on are similar, but much more likable in Pride and Prejudice (P+P). The back and forth between potential matches is almost nonexistent in S+S, without so much of the beautiful back and forth you get in P+P.
Sense VS Pride
While Elizabeth and Jane have all the sense and propriety their social class requires, Elizabeth is willing to be a little more rebellious and think about things more within the real world – leaning a little more towards what things could be at times, while her sister looks to fill her role in the family, and maybe she’ll be lucky enough to be happy in that. Whether this is where these characters started in the initial draft, written before S+S, I’m not sure. But the two sisters in her first published novel seem to have divided up the shared characteristics of the Bennet sisters.
Marianne functions on a whim, whatever way the wind blows – not something prized in Regency England, especially when you find yourself suddenly at the bottom of your social class, if not poorer than the bottom, and single. She smacks of Lydia Bennet; with maybe a dab of Kitty’s head telling her something may be a step too far. On the flip side, Eleanor follows rules and social constraints of their social class more tightly than Jane Bennet, but with the ability to sniff out money hungry, social climbing, elitists of Elizabeth.
Beware the gentleman who is new to the country, and seems to good to be true. Because he is. In a tale as old as time, one of the Austen’s leading ladies commonly seems smitten with these guys. I’ve read of enough of her work now to sniff them out. He’s Wickham with a little more money and some family.
The other suitors are quite obvious, and yet actual interaction and encounters seem sparse. Additionally the wrapping up of the traditional Austeny ending is quick and left me wondering, wait – did that just end by glossing over two people ending up together?
Sense’s Status Obsession – and It’s Lesson
Marianne’s awakening to her errors in behavior and sense is so sudden its almost too easy. On the other hand – she makes a big and necessary realization. She figures out the difference between the old money, I don’t need to be quite that proper any more gentry, and the money grubbing, social climbing, elitists. It’s a lesson we all learn along the way in life. Some people are there for you, and some people are there for you in good times, or when it benefits them. Some people truly believe the more money you have, the more things you have, the bigger your home, the happier you are. Or it just makes you better than those without that. Marianne is able to see what her sister was showing her all along – some people may not worry as much about manners, or whether everyone around them has the newest fashions, or largest income – and whether they do or not, doesn’t make either party superior to the other.
The biggest issue for young women in Regency England, especially as part of the gentry or aristocrats was to marry well, or at least strategically. This is on display so well in P+P. The priority of the older sisters is to ensure the long term safely of the parents and other children – especially if money isn’t endless or there is no male heir. Austen herself was faced with this, so it is no surprise this was an underlying theme throughout the book.
In S+S, this is put in a very different light, through the way the Dashwoods interact with each other (sisters versus brother and sister-in-law), and how their mother looks at potential matches, and her life. There is a moment when Eleanor is having a conversation with her brother, John, and he is so excited about his mistaken intelligence of a rather wealthy gentleman’s interest in her. A gentleman he thought nothing of, until he asked around and learned of his income and estate. Eleanor tries to explain that her brother is mistaken, but he seems so focused on how wonderful this would be, and how it would save her.
Eleanor wouldn’t have needed saving in John’s sense, if he’d done what he was supposed to. But he is one of the money grubbing, social climbing elitists, and he married a woman who is so much worse, with a mother so much worse, there is no one with any sense to show him what he’s done is wrong. Quite the opposite actually; there is always someone to quell any question his conscience may bring up, by reinforcing his “good deed” at being so generous to his sisters and stepmother by giving them just enough to scrap by and then kicking them out of their home. They miss each other’s points, and can never understand it from the other’s perspective.
There are really very few likable characters in this one, including the two main characters at first. As the book went on I appreciated the busy body, matchmaking neighbors – maybe just a smidgen of Mrs. Bennet in them at first, but then you realize these people are wonderfully loyal friends. It’s Austen, so everything is wrapped up tight and pretty, if a little quickly at the end. Everyone worthy is redeemed, and become better versions of themselves. And after all that, Austen goes back to the P+P, rewrites it, and gives us an even better story, and much more real characters.
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