Charlotte Reads Classics

Slowly, slowly, she sipped a sentence.

Tag: Sense and Sensibility

Lost the Will to Austen

Advent with Austen has had the very unfortunate (and unexpected) outcome of making me unable to read any more. Before I started this, I had grown up appreciating Austen – ever since my Mum and I watched the BBC Pride and Prejudice adaptation. I was eight and had found the pinnacle of romance. We visited the stately homes, talked about the merits of and empire line and I read the book.

So far, so good. At University I had to study Mansfield Park. Despite this being Jane’s favourite I couldn’t get into it, but put that down to (a) studying it, and (b) that Mansfield Park and the heroine differs to her other novels. So even though I was never taken with Mansfield Park I still considered myself an Austen fan. A few years later I read Northanger Abbey and fell in love. Not only that, but it introduced me to a whole genre of writing that I’m still enjoying discovering. Quite recently I added Persuasion to my list, and carried on appreciating Austen.

The first book I read for Advent with Austen was Jane’s Fame by Claire Harman. I really enjoyed this book and it whet my appetite for exploring more of Austen’s writing. The best part of Jane’s Fame is how Harman captures the reception of Austen’s work through each century after publication. I also found out which authors Austen enjoyed – Samuel Richardson for one, an author I can’t wait to try, and who I cannot mention without a reference to o’s review of Clarissa (probably my favourite ever book blog review).

My overall feeling reading Jane’s Fame was guilt for not having read the major novels, let alone any of the short/ unfinished stuff. So here was my opportunity, and Sense and Sensibility was dusted off. As you may have read – I didn’t like it! But other people do! It is some people’s favourite Austen novel! Alas, even with a weeks hindsight, I still don’t see it – and everyone else’s reviews just leave me confused.

Perhaps against my better judgement I decided that finishing the big six would make me feel better so I went straight onto Emma. It has been a week, I’m barely half way through, I have 29 chapters to go and I seem to have lost all enthusiasm for reading. I’m bored. I’m bored with Austen. How has it all gone so wrong? I really and truly love three of her books. Why is she ruining this for me? Maybe this is a lesson in not just liking classics for the sake of their canonical value. I suppose its very unlikely that I’m going to love every classic I read. But the status of books as ‘classics’ heightens their worth for me – they have stood the test of time and are part of history. They shape writing today and in the case of Austen, they shape popular culture.

I’ll finish Emma, but it won’t be the achievement I thought it would be before I started. I can’t be alone in this: Are there any classic authors or novels you felt sure you would love but didn’t?

Crossing Off Sense and Sensibility

Oh no! A Jane Austen I didn’t enjoy! How can this be?!

I wouldn’t go so far as to say I didn’t like it at all, but I am very aware that if this wasn’t an Austen I would probably be more scathing. Sense and Sensibility was first written around 1795 but wasn’t published until 1811, and from what I can remember, Austen worried that it was out of date by the time it appeared in print. Could this have something to do with my dislike? My love of classics makes this unlikely… But there must be something:

  • A lack of man: Who is supposed to be the love interest in this? Where is the Wentworth / Darcy / Tilney? One man is casually engaged to the wrong woman, one man is only secretly interesting and outwardly dull, and the other man can’t even get bastardry right.
  • Money: Nobody could appreciate anything or anyone in this book because they were too busy talking about how much it cost or how rich / poor they were.

There are a couple of saving graces:

  • I kept reminding myself that this was satire and Jane Austen wasn’t advocating sensibility as the proper way forward.
  • I liked Elinor Dashwood. Not as a full on leading lady, but enough.

I haven’t seen the Emma Thompson adaptation but I’m told it fills in a lot of gaps. I’d watch it to see if it changed my opinion at all.

My latest Austen rankings go:

Northanger Abbey
Persuasion
Pride and Prejudice
Sense and Sensibility
Mansfield Park

Sweeping Sense and Sensibility aside and putting it down to experience, I am moving onto Emma. The conquering of Austen is nigh.

Sorting Out Sensibility

I’ve started reading Sense and Sensibility for the first time and it wasn’t until chapter ten that I suddenly thought… Sensibility… What is it? Austen’s titles are so recognisable that I never thought about the words she chose for them. A little bit of afternoon research and I feel better! Sensibility isn’t a word we use now, but it was quite the concern of the eighteenth century.

Sensibility began as a scientific concept quickly adopted by philosophers. It is based on people’s perception of and response to events. It seems to be an emotional and intellectual concern – people with sensibility often showed signs of extreme distress, tenderness and ‘fine feeling’. This popular idea inspired writers who turned it into a literary movement: the sentimental novel. For example the narrator of The Sorrows of Young Werther demonstrated a very exaggerated response to unrequited love which led to young readers following his unwise example *spoiler removed, sorry Jillian!*.

The sentimental novel seems quite similar to gothic novels: I’m particularly thinking of Ann Radcliffe’s heroines! They faint at a moments notice, love passionately and unwaveringly, and weep at the beauty of mountains. There are a couple of other authors who wrote novels about sensibility that were admired by Jane Austen, for example Samuel Richardson and Frances Burney. Towards the end of the eighteenth century the sentimental novel was no longer popular; perhaps sensibiity had become cheapened; the activities involved in being ‘sensitive’ became more associated with illness. Sense and Sensibility was a latecomer to the genre, and satirises the sentimental novel by contrasting sensibility with actual sense and reason: Elinor Dashwood is sensible and considering, whilst Marianne Dashwood is passionate:

Elinor has not my feelings, and therefore she may overlook it, and be happy with him. But it would have broke my heart had I loved him, to hear him read with so little sensibility.

I’m quite good at avoiding ever finding out the plot of classic stories if I’m likely to ever read them, so I have never seen an adaptation of Sense and Sensibility or let anyone tell me anything about the plot, so I’m curious to discover – reason or emotion – which will prevail?

And so, Advent with Austen continues. I finished Claire Harman’s Jane’s Fame last night but I think I will wait until the end of my Austen adventures to review it.