Thursday, February 15, 2007

"A woman of seven and twenty," said Marianne, after pausing a moment, "can never hope to feel or inspire affection again, and if her home be uncomfortable, or her fortune small, I can suppose that she might bring herself to submit to the offices of a nurse, for the sake of the provision and security of a wife." — Sense and Sensibility

The first time I read anything by Jane Austen, I liked it, but found it a bit insipid. (My excuse: I was twelve.) I read Mansfield Park a few years later, and nearly gave up on Austen. Then when I was nineteen I read Persuasion, and when I was twenty-seven practically everything else, and loved it — especially the poisoned wit, the bitterness, the loneliness of her heroines, and Austen's exploration of all that goes into making moral judgments about about people. And I loved spotting echoes of Samuel Johnson, both in syntax and in the conviction that however awful other people might sometimes be, one cannot be good or useful outside of society. (such an extreme combination of misanthropy and sociability.) When I took up Sense and Sensibility last week I thought I hadn't read it, but I was wrong, as I realized from my notations in the margins. It just hadn't made as deep an impression as Emma or Northanger Abbey.
At first I found that the narrator's misanthropy makes the descriptions verge on the grotesque. It was too much, it was monotonous in spite of its cleverness, and I couldn't sympathize unreservedly with the anti-Romantic polemic. But I was soon drawn in by the depiction of grief and disappointment, and this sustained my interest for the rest of the book. My only gripe is that Austen (predictably) is whole-heartedly on the side of "sense": Elinor is above reproach; the only one who has to learn a lesson, as far as Austen is concerned, is Marianne. But one can indulge in self-control as much as in its opposite; not confiding in one's nearest and dearest can be the consequence not so much of admirable self-discipline as of a paralysis of spirit; there can even be something selfish about it. In making her sister her confidante, Elinor might have drawn Marianne's attention away from her own grief for a minute; the claim on her sympathy would have given her an opportunity to make herself useful. Expecting infinite sacrifices from yourself, and none from others, is a kind of narcissism.

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