Sunday, February 08, 2015

Sense and Sensibility (1811)

This was the first Jane Austen novel I read (some time ago!) and I guess I'd have to call it a decent start, as I enjoyed it very much and went on to read more. But circling back to her self-published literary debut now shortly after reading a few of the others, it's notably weak—not even close to her best, Pride and Prejudice, which was written in a similar time frame. The two main characters are hampered a little by the allegorical positioning (older sister Elinor as "sense," Marianne as "sensibility," whatever these things mean). Even worse are mechanically staged scenes, based on improbable encounters and coincidence, whose purposes are more didactic than anything—always annoying for me in fiction, any kind of single-purpose "lesson." The last few chapters of Sense and Sensibility are remarkably crowded with this. But it's not bad aside from that, especially given it was essentially written by a 19-year-old. In many ways all Jane Austen's novels are the same, which is true of most great novelists, and here one sees the basic terms most plainly: the thicket of family and friendship ecologies, the mature young woman, the less mature others, the graspers, knaves, and schemers, the foolish and the wise, all of them concerned primarily with marrying one another off in the terms that suit them, whether it's for love and/or respect and/or character or for various types of gain, usually monetary. There are few of the complexities and subtleties of character that make many of Austen's others more interesting. Here pretty much what you see is what you get, except for the calculated surprises at the service of the plot. It may be obvious but it's well constructed. She already knew how to write a novel. So even the plot developments that would have to be called trite—various confessions and deathbed scenes and whatnot—still keep things moving right along. I do find that my patience for her language varies by mood. At times she seems like one of the most lucid writers I know. Other times it seems painfully clotted with heaps of clauses and abstruse references to Mrs. or Miss First / Last Name jumbles or by maddeningly vague relation, "her sister," "his aunt," and such. But that seems to be a random matter of mood mostly. Her language is also really consistent, which contributes to the clarity.

In case it's not at the library.

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