There are those who are born to Austen, and those who come to her over time; I’m one of the latter. I managed to gain an Honours degree in English without reading a single Austen novel. I know – shocking! I had to be told that Clueless was a modern-day updating of Emma, more or less. I saw the movie Becoming Jane and enjoyed it (mostly because I adore James McAvoy) but was puzzled by The Jane Austen Book Club, which came out the same year. A book club devoted just to Austen? Really? Did this happen in real life?
The answer is yes, you idiot, of course. There are Jane Austen book clubs and Jane Austen wine clubs. There are Jane Austen societies all around the world. There are Jane Austen meetups where Janeites can trade Austen witticisms, drink tea from bone china and organize pilgrimages to Chawton, the Hampshire village where Austen spent the last 8 years of her life. Two hundred years after her death, Jane Austen is one of the best known and most widely read novelists in the English language.
Austen lived and wrote during the Regency period, a time of huge upheaval both in England and abroad. The Luddites were smashing machinery, the Glasgow weavers were rioting, and England was at war with France. Very little of this, if any, is reflected in her novels. Instead they are preoccupied with manners – the social hierarchy – and, most of all, marriage. In particular, the marriage of respectable but impoverished young women to equally respectable but wealthier men.
Marrying well was essential to ensuring economic security as well as providing a proper place in the social pecking order. One must not simply marry, but marry well. Yet the heroines of Austen’s novels tend to put their hearts above their purses. They are intelligent, sympathetic women who marry for love and are valued for those qualities by the husbands they choose. This may have happened more often than we think, or it may have been wishful thinking on the part of the writer. Austen herself never married, which probably tells us more about her actual thoughts on marriage than anything she wrote.
Sense and Sensibility, her first published novel, is the story of the Dashwood sisters – Elinor, Marianne and, to a lesser extent, Margaret, the youngest. The sisters are well-bred, well-read, and attractive. However, they have no fortune, which lowers their marital currency. They live in Norland Park, a large estate in the county of Sussex. Their great-uncle lived there with his sister; when she died, he invited her son, Henry, to bring his family to live there with him. While Henry has little money, the family lives in relative comfort thanks to his uncle’s largesse. When the old man dies, however, he leaves Norland Park to John, Henry’s son by a previous marriage. Henry, who now has no way of supporting his wife and daughters, dies a year later, after extracting a death-bed promise from John to look after his stepmother and three half-sisters.
Immediately after the funeral, John, his very unpleasant wife Fanny, and their four-year-old son establish themselves as the new owners of Norland Park. While John initially intends to keep his promise to his father, Fanny talks him out of giving them any money at all. She is, as Austen writes, “a strong caricature of [her husband]; more narrow-minded and selfish”. Demoted to the status of guests in what was their former home, Mrs. Dashwood and her daughters would like to move out. But as they have nowhere to go and can’t afford much, they stay put for the time being.
During that time, Elinor meets and falls in love with Fanny’s brother, Edward Farrars. Edward is shy and not particularly handsome, but he has a good heart and none of his sister’s snobbish aspirations. Although he doesn’t come directly out with it, it becomes apparent that he’s attracted to Elinor and she begins to nurture hopes of some kind of future proposal. Her sister Marianne upbraids her for not being more passionate but Elinor, always the more cautious of the two, hesitates to admit to more than “liking” and “esteeming” Edward, as she’s unsure if the affection is mutual.
Six months after their father’s death, a distant cousin, Sir John Middleton, invites the girls and their mother to come to Devonshire and stay with him and his wife at Barton Park until they find a home of their own. Elinor is sad to be leaving Edward but they all agree the move is essential, given their situation. They will miss Norland, but for Mrs. Dashwood there are simply too many memories there – they need a new start.
Sir John is a brash, jovial fellow, while his wife, Lady Middleton, is as cold and distant as Fanny Dashwood. (When the two eventually meet, it’s a case of like meets like: “There was a kind of cold-hearted selfishness on both sides, which mutually attracted them; and they sympathised with each other in an insipid propriety of demeanour, and a general want of understanding.”) Lady Middleton’s mother, Mrs. Jennings, is more like her son-in-law in temperament: she’s cheerful, friendly and kind, but inclined to be overly intrusive. Marianne finds her unspeakably coarse and vulgar, and makes little effort to be amenable; Elinor, on the other hand, while having no illusions about her hosts, manages to treat them with courtesy and, in the case of Sir John and Mrs. Jennings, even affection.
While at Barton Park the Dashwoods make several new acquaintances, one of whom, the retired Colonel Brandon, falls in love with Marianne. Brandon is a quiet bachelor in his late 30s; 17-year-old Marianne quite naturally dismisses him as old and uninteresting. When Elinor suggests that an older woman might find him attractive, Marianne agrees this could be a possibility. After all, she says, a woman of 27 “can never hope to feel or inspire affection again”.
Instead, Marianne falls desperately in love with John Willoughby, a handsome young man who is visiting his aunt on a nearby property. Willoughby is – or at least appears to be – everything Marianne has ever wished for in a beau. He’s handsome, gallant, and romantic; they share similar tastes in art, music and poetry; they go for long walks in the countryside and play duets on the pianoforte. Her mother entertains hope of an early marriage, but Elinor isn’t convinced. As far as she knows, Willoughby has not actually proposed. And, like Austen, she’s not dazzled by appearances.
After two weeks of an intense, whirlwind courtship, Willoughby suddenly and unexpectedly announces that he is leaving. He gives no reason for his departure and refuses to elaborate. Marianne is devastated. She falls into a state of mourning deeper, it seems, than was occasioned by the death of her father.
Meanwhile, two recently discovered relations turn up as guests of Mrs. Jennings. They are Nancy and Lucy Steele and it’s obvious from the outset that they’re what you might call opportunists. Lucy, the younger sister, confides a secret to Elinor: she has been secretly engaged to Edward Farrars for a year. Elinor is shocked and hurt, but manages to hide her feelings from Lucy. Sworn to secrecy, she tells no one, not even Marianne.
So there you have two sisters, both heartbroken and somewhat betrayed, dealing with their pain in very different ways. Elinor, the “sensible” one, keeps her feelings to herself, maintaining – as far as possible – a calm, composed demeanour. Marianne, on the other hand, is all passion. She shrieks her agony to the rooftops, cries piteously for days, and even, occasionally, succumbs to fits. It’s not that her pain is greater than her sister’s; it’s simply that Austen is illustrating two sides of a coin. And while it’s easy to conclude that Austen is making a case for sense over sensibility, her compassion for Marianne shows that she knew and understood the nature of grief all too well.
What you really need to know about Austen is that she’s simply great fun to read. She was a shrewd observer of character and a brilliant critic of conventional norms. Her satiric take on social situations seems as relevant today as it did 200 years ago:
“Conversation [was not lacking], for Sir John was very chatty, and Lady Middleton had taken the wise precaution of bringing with her their eldest child, a fine little boy about six years old; by which means there was one subject always to be recurred to by the ladies in case of extremity, for they had to enquire his name and age, admire his beauty, and ask him questions which his mother answered for him… On every formal visit a child ought to be of the party, by way of provision for discourse. In the present case it took up ten minutes to determine whether the boy were most like his father or mother, and in what particular he resembled either, for of course every body differed, and every body was astonished at the opinion of the others.”