Saturday, April 29, 2017

Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility


Opening Passage:

The family of Dashwood had long been settled in Sussex. Their estate was large, and their residence was at Norland Park, in the centre of their property, where, for many generations, they had lived in so respectable a manner as to engage the general good opinion of their surrounding acquaintance. The late owner of this estate was a single man, who lived to a very advanced age, and who for many years of his life, had a constant companion and housekeeper in his sister. But her death, which happened ten years before his own, produced a great alteration in his home; for to supply her loss, he invited and received into his house the family of his nephew Mr. Henry Dashwood, the legal inheritor of the Norland estate, and the person to whom he intended to bequeath it. In the society of his nephew and niece, and their children, the old Gentleman's days were comfortably spent. His attachment to them all increased. The constant attention of Mr. and Mrs. Henry Dashwood to his wishes, which proceeded not merely from interest, but from goodness of heart, gave him every degree of solid comfort which his age could receive; and the cheerfulness of the children added a relish to his existence.

Summary: On the death of Henry Dashwood, the estate passes to the son by his first marriage, John Dashwood, who is always well situated; which leaves the second wife and her two daughters, Elinor and Marianne, dependent on his generosity. However, with the help of his wife, Fanny, he talks himself out of helping them, and Mrs. Dashwood and her daughters have to move to a cottage on the estate of her cousin, Sir John Middleton. While there, they meet Colonel Brandon, a bachelor in his mid-thirties who falls in love with Marianne -- but has secrets in his past. Marianne also meets the young, handsome, and personable John Willoughby, and they grow very attached. Elinor, in the meantime, has had what seemed to be the beginning of a relationship with Edward Ferrars, Fanny's brother, but he, too, has secrets in his past.

Sense and Sensibility is in many ways Austen's most relentlessly acidic novel. Most of the characters are hypocrites, or, if not hypocrites, foolish. The integrity of each of the main male characters is under a cloud at some point in the work, and most of the women are self-absorbed in one way or another. The petty malices of some of the characters are quite malicious, and the narrator does not in any way throw a veil over any of it. Both Chapter 34 and and the final chapter of the work are masterpieces of biting commentary:

Mrs. John Dashwood had so much confidence in her husband's judgment, that she waited the very next day both on Mrs. Jennings and her daughter; and her confidence was rewarded by finding even the former, even the woman with whom her sisters were staying, by no means unworthy her notice; and as for Lady Middleton, she found her one of the most charming women in the world!

Lady Middleton was equally pleased with Mrs. Dashwood. 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 demeanor, and a general want of understanding.

Yet the work is perhaps also the Austen novel that is most generous with its characters. The petty malices are often explained, and due to poor upbringing. The shadows over the characters of the men turn out to be not so dark as they seemed at first, although they do not always completely vanish away. The hypocrisy and selfishness turns mostly to be fairly harmless. And in many cases, we discover a deeper depth to a character than might at first be seen, even though the flaws remain in full view. Sir John Middleton is a bit silly and obsessed with hunting (all of the men are), not very bright or very educated, but he is a sociable man who loves to bring people together. Mrs. Jennings, the wife of Fanny Dashwood, is silly and vulgar and gossipy, without any elegance -- but she is also kind and generous. Mrs. Dashwood's imprudence is repeatedly highlighted, but she is shown as an amiable character, who truly loves her daughters, and all things told, has raised them fairly well. All of the significant characters, even the villains, get what they want in the end, or at least whatever happy ending they chose; good sense and sound judgment can see that some of these 'happy endings' are far better than others, but the author generously gives them all the triumph for which they strove.

It is perhaps not surprising that there is so much repentance in this novel, both genuine and false, and of the genuine, both of the sort that leads to true improvement and of the sort that is selfish. Marianne's brush with death brings her to a recognition of the need for "atonement to my God" and the importance of self-regulation by reason, religion, and work. The difference between prudence and the opposite is in part the ability not to be locked in the prison of one's own ideas, as Marianne's romanticism has narrowed her world, or of ceaseless self-regard. It has become common to suggest that perhaps the novel suggests that Elinor needs a bit of sensibility just as Marianne needs a bit of sense, and that the true message of the work is that we need both. But this is, I think, fairly obviously a case of reading with wishful thinking as one's guide. If by 'sensibility' we mean the power to feel, Elinor has it in spades; and Marianne's 'sensibility' is in fact acquired, not natural, passion, spurred on by ideas that demand excess rather than allowed to fall into their natural bounds. The modern world is Marianne-ish, or at least likes to flatter itself that it is so; naturally it would like to pretend that Marianne required only a little adjustment occasionally, and not a fundamental repentance of some of her leading ideas. But there is no remedy for a lack of prudence except repentance.

As a purely incidental matter, one of the things I was struck by on this reading was just how much the marriages of the men, as well as of the women, are front and center. Austen is sometimes treated as telling stories of women in a world in which women must marry well to do well; it is often overlooked, I think, that it's a world in which the same is true of men. It comes up in other novels, but with the central heroes often being quite wealthy it is not always obvious. But it is a central plot point in Sense and Sensibility.

In addition, I also watched the Tamil modernization, Kandukondain Kandukondain, which was quite good. India has quite a massive enthusiasm for Austen's work, so despite the fact that the movie modernizes it and sets it in India, it is in many ways very faithful to the original inspiration. (It likely helps that India, like Regency England, is still a culture in which marrying well is not uncommonly essential to doing well.) It tells the story of sensible Sowmya and romantic Meenakshi; Sowmya bears the burden of being considered unlucky in a culture that highly prizes luck, and Meenakshi insists she will only love a man who can sweep her away with Bharathiar, the great Tamil poet. (I'm not an expert on Bharathiar, by any means, but from what I have seen of his work, this is an inspired choice, since Bharathiar's work is often about freedom, fearlessness, and sincerity of feeling.) Sowmya meets Manohar, an aspiring director, and Meenu meets Srikanth, a Bharathiar-quoting finance executive; they also both meet Major Bala, who lost his leg in the war and now runs a business selling flowers. (Also an inspired choice, I think: the apparently prosaic former soldier makes a practical living doing something that has a poetic side.) And much of the structure of the tale works in the same way from there. Interestingly, they move the financial crisis from the beginning to somewhere closer to the middle; this gives more time to make the romantic interactions plausible on the screen. The big differences, I think, are (1) that Sowmya, though sensible, does not quite have the thorough self-command of Elinor, and one of the things she has to learn to do is not just bear the burden of being unlucky but let it go entirely; and (2) that we get less of a sense that Meenu's problem is her insistence on making everything fit with her ideas than we do with Marianne -- rather, she has to learn to focus on inner beauty rather than the superficial. All in all, though, it highlights some interesting facets of the story in a fascinating way -- exactly what a modernization should do.

Favorite Passage: From Chapter 34:

Mrs. Ferrars was a little, thin woman, upright, even to formality, in her figure, and serious, even to sourness, in her aspect. Her complexion was sallow; and her features small, without beauty, and naturally without expression; but a lucky contraction of the brow had rescued her countenance from the disgrace of insipidity, by giving it the strong characters of pride and ill nature. She was not a woman of many words; for, unlike people in general, she proportioned them to the number of her ideas; and of the few syllables that did escape her, not one fell to the share of Miss Dashwood, whom she eyed with the spirited determination of disliking her at all events.

The craftsmanship of this little description is utterly extraordinary; Austen takes everything that in an ordinary description would be used to mitigate the harshness of the description and turns it in the opposite direction, so that everything that would ordinarily have become a compliment, or at least a qualification, turns into a deeper razor-cut.

Recommendation: Highly Recommended, obviously. And Kandukondain Kandukondain is also Highly Recommended; Tabu and Mammootty in particular do an extraordinary job.

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