Jane Austen is often accused by less-imaginative readers as a “domestic” writer of small, personal dramas involving the petty concerns of the upper classes of the landed gentry. This usually arises because the central narrative of Austen’s books revolves primarily around marriage, but that’s about as useful as saying that Shakespeare won’t interest some people because he wrote quite a bit about kings.
In Austen’s books, marriage as transaction is the microcosm by which she—quite ruthlessly, at times—explores the social relations between men and women of the upper classes. Mark Twain is known for a famous quote in which he talks about how “detestable” Austen’s characters are, and while this seems quite reasonable, it’s hardly a reason not to read Austen. Even someone who enjoys her books, as I do, find her characters detestable at times, especially her protagonists. It would be strange to love them unconditionally, as it were. Jane Austen wrote about upper class social relations in a newly capitalist society, and it’s no wonder that her characters are (often) detestable.
The new annotated edition of Sense and Sensibility, published by Harvard University Press, brings a sort of clear-eyed examination of the socioeconomic hierarchies and cultural values of Austen’s time without becoming overly fond of, or resistant to, the ideas of love and romance that run through the novel. Patricia Meyer Spacks, an English professor at the University of Virginia, seems neither enamoured of nor contemptuous of the central characters of the novel and is particularly astute at contextualising 19th century thought and ideas for a contemporary audience.
It might be difficult to say anything new about an author as canonical as Jane Austen, and Sense and Sensibility in particular. Its tale of two sisters, Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, who find themselves dispossessed of a home—and their subsequent challenges in moving into a new home and society, with all the attendant issues surrounding love and potential husbands—has resonated far and wide that even a Tamil film adaptation of the story exists as a popular hit in its own right.
In the first page of her introduction, however, Meyer Spacks dives right into the nuances of the title, pointing out that the concept of “sensibility” in the 19th century was often an object of ridicule because it “became often less of feeling than of show”. Austen wrote early drafts of the novel in the18th century and saw it come to print in the final version in the 19th, and Sense and Sensibility is often both interesting and hard to pin down precisely because it contains conflicting and perhaps contradictory ideas about sense and sensibility that mirrors turn of the century changes in dominant ideas of social conduct and personhood.
As Meyer Spacks points out, current conversations about the performance of feelings—as demonstrated in blogs and Tumblrs and tweets and Facebook status updates—is often pitted against some notion of “real” feeling and is similar to the novel’s narrative tug and pull between what constitutes good sense and what constitutes good sensibility. Marianne says “Elinor has not my feelings” because Elinor is not quite given to displaying them as Marianne does, and accuses others of “horrible insensibility” when they’re unable to appreciate her piano-playing as she appreciates Music and Art and All of the Other Glorious Things.
It would have been too easy to lampoon Marianne for being narcissistic and self-obsessed, a sort of 19th century Jonathan Franzen who just doesn’t understand why other people like the things they like, but Austen isn’t interested in punishing her for believing her feelings to be more authentic others because they’re more deeply-felt. Instead, Marianne is shaped by the discourse around feelings, particularly by her consumption of novels and romantic poetry. Perhaps it’s no surprise that Marianne, being a reader and lover of nature, and who regularly prefers solitude to the company of others, is regularly so misguided about the intentions and feelings of others.
This is not to say that Elinor, who is consistently attuned to the feelings and needs of others, is necessarily better; only more aware of the disjunction between appearance and reality, or form and content. Marianne, too often, judges by form and appearance, and is led astray by it.
This can raise the uncomfortable question of whether Marianne is thus punished for her sensibility, for the excess of it, for the very fact that she isolates herself from others and considers herself often superior to many people of her company in terms of both taste and feeling. Meyers Spacks is a valuable guide throughout, providing liberal and valuable notes on various iterations of the concept of sensibility, as when she writes, “The sexual vulnerability associated with sensibility is one of the novel’s understated themes”. Virtue is chastity, and the “dangers” of feeling too much correspond to how feelings are embodied, particularly through women’s bodies. God forbid that Marianne becomes a hysterical woman and a lustful one—or worse.
In a thoroughly fascinating reading, Eve Kosofsky-Sedgwick, in “Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl”, defines Marianne’s erotic identity in terms of “the one that today no longer exists as an identity: that of the masturbating girl”. She writes that “Marianne’s autoeroticism is not defined in opposition to her alloerotic bonds, whether with men or with women. Rather, it signifies an excess of sexuality altogether, an excess dangerous to others but chiefly to herself: the chastening illness that ultimately wastes her physical substance is both the image and the punishment of the ‘distracted’ sexuality that, continually ‘forgetting itself,’ threatens, in her person, to subvert the novel’s boundaries between the public and the private”. What is the modern reader to make of Marianne, so alive to her own thoughts and ideas at the start of the book, practically sleepwalking into marriage with Colonel Brandon by the end of it?
Elinor is often read as the opposite of Marianne, and in being more sense and sensibility, she gets her reward in the man she has always and only loved: Edward Ferrars. But here too, the novel doesn’t make it easy to see it that way—Meyer Spacks points out that “the revelation that Edward expects Elinor to accept him promptly, despite his mistreatment of her, reinforces the novel’s emphasis on marriage as an arrangement in which men exercise choice, while women wait to be chosen”. So Elinor, despite her modesty, decorum, and sense, is not quite the winner of these stakes, either. In some ways, we learn that Elinor is also quite like her depraved and materialistic foil, Lucy Steele, but only that Elinor is more proper about her own needs in relations to others; she has disciplined herself well so as not to want too much, whereas Lucy is pretty brazen about wanting money and having it.
The thing about Sense and Sensibility is that you never know if the reward is a good marriage to a reasonably decent man compared to the loutish, insufferable others (Elinor and Edward) or if the reward is financial security, even at the expense of being married to a loutish, insufferable man (Lucy and Robert Ferrars, Edward’s unpleasant younger brother). Maybe it’s Marianne who has it best, after, all—a decent man whom she could grow to like, if not love, and financial security.
If, as Susan C. Greenfield suggests in her essay “Moving In and Out: The Property of Self in Sense and Sensibility”, that “each sister copes with her lack of personal property by imagining she has a Lockean property in her person”, then Austen’s gender politics become a little more muddied, as lack of actual property or access to it makes middle and upper class women protective of themselves in a way that allows little room for sisterhood beyond shared principles and values between actual sisters.
Sense and Sensibility, like other Austen novels, is about central female characters in a capitalist society who are not like the other women, who are determined to avoid being copies of each other in an economic system that encourages and perhaps even requires, instant reproduction and thus, easy substitutions, and who ultimately have to distinguish themselves by being better than the other female characters. In every book, the Austenian heroine, though fallible and flawed, triumphs because she is superior to other women in terms of wit, intelligence, morals, and personal conduct. In short, she is the better product.
It makes sense, then, as Meyers Spacks points out in her introduction, that “characters’ attitudes towards money in Sense and Sensibility provide one index to the nature of their sense and sensibility”, that romance and marriage as transaction is linked to Austen’s focus on money and how capitalism began altering and reshaping relations between the landed gentry and the upper middle classes. Where Edward’s vile mother and sister are concerned, Meyers Spacks writes that “Fanny Dashwood and her mother embody one perverse kind of ‘sense’: constant attention to what will serve their self-interest.
Both also claim ‘sensibility.’ Their intense feelings focus on money”, which shows how affect, or sensibility, is to put to use by capitalist logic—a method that’s not at all unfamiliar to Sense and Sensibility’s twenty-first century audience. This isn’t to say that Austen wrote against the grain of capitalist logic; she was, instead, fully enmeshed in it, but her concerns are more to do with the moral and ethical boundaries of capitalism, as dictated by sense, propriety, and a sense of decency to oneself and others. (This is why a land-owning man like Darcy in Pride and Prejudice can go from being a toffee-nosed snob to a real catch in the space of the book—Darcy was a productive land-owner who put his land to good use by the labour of others, providing them with jobs and caring for their welfare in a distant but imposing way. A real patriarch, a true gentleman, Austen-approved.)
Meyers Spacks says that Austen “writes, and arguably, inaugurates” the kind of “polite or bourgeois novel” that Clara Tuite refers to in her book Romantic Austen, and the polite novel values the well-mannered and well-bred characters that are ultimately the recipient of the narrative’s goodwill. How would Austen have felt about being the new face of the Britist ten-pound note, then? Bemused, probably, mixed with some ironic delight—and perhaps still wary about how terms like “sense” and “sensibility” continue to be twisted and appropriated to mean anything at all by the likes of individuals in power like George Osborne.
There’s so much more to be said about Sense and Sensibility, and this new annotated edition might not be ideal for someone reading the novel for the first time because it might be better to just read it straight through without stopping to thumb through copious notes and illustrations. But for people returning to the novel, Meyers Spacks’ notes are quite illuminating, mostly serious, but occasionally fun—there are illustrations of “very knowing gigs” used by smart young gentlemen, or the kind of toothpick case that might have enticed Robert Ferrars, the type of wallpaper Elinor and Edward might have chosen for their new home, and even how the pocketbook into which Willoughby tucked a piece of Marianne’s hair might have looked like.
Some of the annotations strike a dud note, like paintings of young children whose facial expressions might suggest “the kind of personality manifested by the Middleton children”, as though bratty are not a historical constant and contemporary readers need help imagining how they might look or behave. But these are rare, and Meyers Spacks’ introduction and annotations indicate a person who has spent a considerable amount of time with the Dashwoods and their assorted friends and foes. This handsome edition is all the richer for it.