This year marks the 200th anniversary of the publication of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. Two hundred years is a long time, and much of the appeal of Jane Austen lies in how long ago she wrote. Every year the Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA) meets in a major city and stages a series of events that recreate that long lost world. There’s a bonnet-making workshop and a Regency-style ball, and everyone marches around in archaic fancy dress. All of this strikes an appealing note to those of us who find the modern world chaotic and unmannerly, who wish that we could take tea at the right hour (if only someone could brew a proper cup) and think we would all look much better in Empire gowns.
By the same token, much of the appeal of Jane Austen lies in another quarter altogether — in the fact, much propounded by her advocates, that she is timeless, which is to say that her novels are not just of a past time but also of our own. Evidence of this can be found in the tendency to update her. Among the noteworthy examples are Clueless, a movie version of Emma set in a Beverly Hills high school, and my own Jane Austen in Boca, which is Pride and Prejudice set in a Jewish retirement community in Florida. As for Sense and Sensibility, it too has undergone a time-lift in Cathleen Schine’s novel, The Three Weissmanns of Westport, not to mention the more outre Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters and, more recently, From Prada to Nada, a Latina-inflected movie adaptation set in East Los Angeles.
Such are the changes that can be wrought on Austen’s “three or four families in a country village,” but such window dressing is largely beside the point when it comes to understanding Austen’s timelessness. At the root of her enduring appeal, and the reason modernization is so easy, is her profound depiction of the simplest human relationships — of parent and child, husband and wife, brother and sister. These relationships, fundamental to her world, are also fundamental to our own. With cell phones and internet connections, we are perhaps more connected to each other than ever and thereby closer to Jane Austen’s family chatter and daily visits than we realize.
Of course, Austen goes to the root of these relationships with her focus on the courtship plot, that ritual that leads to marriage, the microcosm of the social order and crux of the social network. And this is where Sense and Sensibility reigns supreme. Thought it is rarely chosen as an Austen favorite (that honor generally falls to Pride and Prejudice, followed, according to my informal survey, by Emma, and closely trailed by the most poignant and last of the novels, Persuasion), Sense and Sensibility deserves special attention because it is the most emphatic with regard to marriage. With two more or less equally weighted protagonists — the sisters Elinor and Marianne Dashwood—it has a double courtship plot and, as such, has a thickness that makes it unique among the six masterworks of the Austen canon (Pride has a double courtship too, but the protagonists are less equal, and the plots are parallel, not complementary, as explained below).
Elinor, the practical, level-headed sister, suffers the seeming loss of her true love before discovering that he is not lost after all — the woman he engaged himself to when he was too young to know better (a vow he feels he must honor), throws him over, leaving him free to marry the woman he loves. Elinor’s sister Marianne, more flighty and unreservedly romantic, is not as fortunate. She falls madly in love with the charming but callow Willoughby, who leads her on but jilts her when a better financial prospect comes along. Marianne almost dies of a broken heart but eventually recovers and marries the patient Colonel Brandon, the widower next door.
Claude Levi-Strauss’s Elementary Structures of Kinship, a formal analysis of kinship ties in patriarchal society, explains that women are objects of exchange between men; they can be substituted for each other, any woman with the right brother or father in the system serving as well as any other. Austen, it seems to me, does a neat turn on Levi-Strauss’s patriarchal model, adapting it to female use in Sense and Sensibility. She elevates romantic love, making it the central, much desired focus of her double courtship plot, but she also provides a fall-back position. Elinor and Marianne give us point-counterpoint: marry the man you love, be faithful and true as far as possible, but if the person you choose proves unworthy and betrays your trust, get over it and marry someone else. This lesson is timeless. • 17 February 2011