Sense and Sensibility is a novel by the English novelist Jane Austen. Published in 1811, it was the first of Austen's novels to be published, under the pseudonym "A Lady". The novel has been adapted for film and television a number of times, the two most recent being the 1995 movie directed by Ang Lee and the 2008 BBC television version adapted by Andrew Davies.
The novel follows the Dashwood sisters to their new home, where they experience both romance and heartbreak. The contrast between the sisters' characters is eventually resolved as they each find love and lasting happiness. This leads some to believe that the book's title describes how Elinor and Marianne find a balance between sense and sensibility in life and love.
Mrs. Dashwood and her daughters move from Norland to Barton Cottage in Devonshire, owned by their distant cousin Sir John Middleton, who lives at Barton Park with his family. Also staying there are Mrs. Jennings (Lady Middleton's mother) and Colonel Brandon, an old friend of Sir John. The gossipy Mrs. Jennings decides that Colonel Brandon must be in love with Marianne, and teases them about it. Marianne is displeased: she considers Colonel Brandon, at age thirty-five, to be an old bachelor incapable of falling in love or inspiring love in anyone else.
Marianne, out for a stroll, gets caught in the rain, slips, and sprains her ankle. The dashing and handsome Mr. Willoughby rescues Marianne, carries her back home, and wins her admiration. He comes to visit her every day, and Elinor and Mrs. Dashwood begin to suspect that the couple has secretly become engaged. However, Mrs. Dashwood's sentimental nature prevents her from asking Marianne about her relationship with Willoughby. Marianne is devastated when Willoughby announces that he must go to London on business, not to return for many weeks.
Edward Ferrars visits the Dashwoods at Barton Cottage, but seems unhappy and is distant towards Elinor. She fears that he no longer has feelings for her. However, unlike Marianne, she does not wallow in her sadness, feeling it her duty to be outwardly calm for the sake of her mother and sisters, who all dote on Edward and have firm faith in his love for Elinor.
Shortly afterward, Anne and Lucy Steele, cousins of Lady Middleton, come to stay at Barton Park. Sir John tells Lucy that Elinor is attached to Edward, prompting Lucy to inform Elinor that she (Lucy) has been secretly engaged to Edward for four years. Although Elinor initially blames Edward for engaging her affections when he was not free to do so, she realizes that he became engaged to Lucy while he was young and naïve. She understands that Edward does not love Lucy, but that he will not hurt or dishonour her by breaking their engagement. Elinor hides her disappointment, and works to convince Lucy that she feels nothing for Edward. This is particularly hard as she sees that Lucy is not in love with Edward and that she will only make him unhappy.
Elinor and Marianne spend the winter at Mrs. Jennings' home in London. Marianne's letters to Willoughby go unanswered, and he treats her coldly when he sees her at a party. He later sends Marianne a letter, enclosing their former correspondence and love tokens, including a lock of her hair and informing her that he is engaged to a Miss Grey, a very wealthy and high-born woman. Marianne admits to Elinor that she and Willoughby were never engaged, but that she loved him and he led her to believe that he loved her.
Colonel Brandon tells Elinor that Willoughby had seduced Brandon's ward, Eliza Williams, and abandoned her when she became pregnant. Brandon was once in love with Miss Williams' mother, a woman who resembled Marianne and whose life was destroyed by an unhappy arranged marriage to the Colonel's brother.
Due to the indiscretions of Anne Steele, Mrs. Ferrars discovers Edward and Lucy's engagement; when he refuses to end it, she disinherits him, in immediate favour of his brother Robert. Elinor and Marianne feel sorry for Edward, and think him honourable for remaining engaged to a woman with whom he will probably not be happy. Edward plans to take holy orders to earn his living, and Colonel Brandon, knowing how lives can be ruined when love is denied, offers Edward the living of the parish of Delaford. Elinor meets Edward's boorish brother Robert and is shocked that he has no qualms about claiming his brother's inheritance.
The sisters end their winter stay in London and begin their return trip to Barton via Cleveland, the country estate of Mrs.Jennings' son-in-law, Mr Palmer. There, Marianne, miserable over Willoughby, allows her depression to take complete hold of her and soon becomes very ill. Mr Palmer and his family are advised to leave the house, in case the fever is infectious. As Marianne worsens, Colonel Brandon goes to get Mrs. Dashwood. Willoughby arrives and tells Elinor that he was disinherited when his benefactress discovered his seduction of Miss Williams, so he decided to marry the wealthy Miss Grey. He says that he still loves Marianne, and seeks forgiveness, but has poor excuses for his selfish actions. Meanwhile, Colonel Brandon tells Mrs.Dashwood that he loves Marianne.
Marianne recovers and the Dashwoods return to Barton Cottage. Elinor tells Marianne about Willoughby's visit. Marianne admits that, although she loved Willoughby, she could not have been happy with the libertine father of an illegitimate child even if he had stood by her. Marianne also realizes that her illness was brought on by her wallowing in her grief, by her excessive sensibility, and that, had she died, it would have been morally equivalent to suicide. She now resolves to model herself after Elinor's courage and good sense.
The family learns that Lucy has married Mr. Ferrars. When Mrs. Dashwood sees how upset Elinor is, she finally realizes how strong Elinor's feelings for Edward are and is sorry that she did not pay more attention to her unhappiness. However, the very next day Edward arrives and reveals that it was his brother, Robert Ferrars, who married Lucy. He says that he was trapped in his engagement with Lucy, "a woman he had long since ceased to love", and she broke the engagement to marry the now wealthy Robert. Edward asks Elinor to marry him, and she agrees. Edward eventually becomes reconciled with his mother, who gives him ten thousand pounds. Edward and Elinor marry and move into the parsonage at Delaford. Still, Mrs. Ferrars tends to favour Robert and Lucy over Edward and Elinor.
Mr. Willoughby's patroness eventually gives him his inheritance, seeing that his marriage to a woman of good character has redeemed him. Willoughby realizes that marrying Marianne would have produced the same effect; had he behaved honourably, he could have had both love and money and thus "his punishment was complete".
Over the next two years, Mrs. Dashwood, Marianne, and Margaret spend most of their time at Delaford. Marianne matures and decides to marry the Colonel even though she feels more respect than passion for him. However, after the marriage she grows to truly love him. The Colonel's house is near the parsonage where Elinor and Edward live, so the sisters and their husbands can visit each other often.
Austen clearly intended to vindicate Elinor's sense and self-restraint, and on the simplest level, the novel may be read as a parody of the full-blown romanticism and sensibility that was fashionable around the 1790s. Yet Austen's treatment of the two sisters is complex and multi-faceted. Austen biographer Claire Tomalin argues that Sense and Sensibility has a "wobble in its approach", which developed because Austen, in the course of writing the novel, gradually became less certain about whether sense or sensibility should triumph. She endows Marianne with every attractive quality: intelligence, musical talent, frankness, and the capacity to love deeply. She also acknowledges that Willoughby, with all his faults, continues to love and, in some measure, appreciate Marianne. For these reasons, some readers find Marianne's ultimate marriage to Colonel Brandon an unsatisfactory ending. The ending does, however, neatly join the themes of sense and sensibility by having the sensible sister marry her true love after long, romantic obstacles to their union, while the emotional sister finds happiness with a man whom she did not initially love, but who was an eminently sensible and satisfying choice of a husband.
The novel displays Austen's subtle irony at its best, with many outstanding comic passages about the Middletons, the Palmers, Mrs. Jennings, and Lucy Steele.
Sense & Sensibility, Oxford University Press 2004 ISBN 978-0192833426
Sense & Sensibility, Penguin Classics 2003, ISBN 978-0141439662
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