Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Importance of Understanding for Love

Sense and SensibilitySense and Sensibility 
by Jane Austen

“She tried to explain the real state of the case to her sister.
"I do not attempt to deny," said she, "that I think very highly of him--that I greatly esteem, that I like him."
Marianne here burst with forth with indignation:
"Esteem him! Like him! Cold-hearted Elinor. Oh! worse than cold-hearted! Ashamed of being otherwise. Use those words again, and I will leave the room this moment."
Elinor could not help laughing. "Excuse me," said she, "and be assured that I meant no offence to you, by speaking, in so quiet a way, of my own feelings.” 

― Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility

On this day in 1811 Jane Austen's first novel, Sense and Sensibility, was published.  Austen wrote romantic novels and this is one of her best and the first with several to follow. But one may ask, what is the source of Austen's genius on the subject of love? It seems that she was able to develop a comprehensive view of the philosophies of her own time, including the rise of sensibility (Earl of Shaftesbury, Hume and Smith) and develop stories about real people who lived and loved, learned and grew through their experiences. Consider the two Dashwood sisters in Sense and Sensibility. One may contrast Marianne Dashwood, the young, beautiful, passionate, and unreserved romantic. with her older sister Elinor, prudent, pretty, and proper, with all the restraint of feelings of which Marianne had none. Their father dead, the sisters and their mother were about to be displaced from their childhood home of Norland by their half brother John, and his wife, Fanny. John "was not an ill-disposed young man, unless to be rather cold hearted, and rather selfish, is to be ill-disposed," and Fanny was even worse. He might have allowed the Dashwood sisters to remain at Norland, if only grudgingly, but she was determined to send them packing, especially once Elinor had begun a friendship with her brother Edward.

Edward had a bland personality and was practically paralyzed by shyness. While he was not particularly handsome Elinor struck up a somewhat dispassionate friendship with him. Again this was a contrast with her sister who, as the result of a chance meeting, had fallen for the dashing young, handsome and elegant Willoughby. The contrast of the sisters could not be better defined than in their choice of partners. Austen's genius extends to persuade the reader that Elinor's sense of love is truer than than the passionate sensibility of her younger sister. The romantic love of Marianne turns out to be as capable of tearing her heart apart as the Eros described in classical Greek dramas and philosophy. That this is the stuff of myth, one thinks of love at first sight, is felt by the reader, but for Austen it is not true love. It lacks a foundation and is thus unsuccessful. Grace and spirit and manners---the kinds of qualities that attracted Marianne to Willoughby---are wonderful to have, but they are no substitute for the Edward-like attributes of worth and heart and understanding.  The love that has these is more likely to hold sway in the long run.

View all my reviews


Brian Joseph said...

As you know I have just recently discovered Jane Austen. I have not gotten to this one yet.

The exploration of love and its variations sounds so well done.

James said...

This is the first of her novels, but it has truths that suggest she had thought long and hard about love.
Each of her subsequent novels would continue to explore different aspects of love and relationships with wonderful results for readers ever since.