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Friday, June 22, 2012

BPL Book Discussion: Sense and Sensibility

Well, I have to say, when the BPL book club met this past Monday, I was quite surprised by how dynamic and interesting our discussion of Sense and Sensiblity was. I was worried that this book club standby would lead to a boring discussion. Boy, was I wrong.

First, let's get the plot out of the way...

For a change of pace, Reading Group Guides did something different with the summary section of the guide.  This time, they offered a summary of S and S , fittingly from the novel The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Jay Fowler:

Sense and Sensibility was written in the late 1790s but much revised before publication in 1811. It is primarily the story of two sisters, Elinor and Marianne Dashwood. The death of their father has left them, with their mother and younger sister, financially pressed. Both women fall in love, each in her own characteristic way --- Marianne is extravagant and public with her emotions, Elinor restrained and decorous.
The object of Elinor's interest is Edward Ferrars, brother to Fanny Dashwood, her odious, stingy sister-in-law. Elinor learns that Edward has been for some time secretly, unhappily, and inextricably engaged to a young woman named Lucy Steele. She learns this from Lucy, who, aware of Elinor's interest though pretending not to be, chooses Elinor as her special confidante.
Marianne hopes to marry John Willoughby, the book's only sexy man. He deserts her for a financially advantageous match. The Surprise and disappointment of this sends Marianne into a dangerous decline.
When Lucy Steele jilts Edward for his brother Robert, Edward is finally free to marry Elinor. Edward seems quite dull but at least her own choice. Marianne marries Colonel Brandon, the dull man Elinor and her mother have picked out for her.
And that is really everything that happens in the novel, but most of you knew that already, I am sure.  But what happened is not why you are here reading this post.  What we discussed is the point here. Let's go.

  • Today I asked more than my standard opening question.  First, we had 6 likes, 3 so-so (me included), and 3 dislikes.  I also asked who had read it before--6 and who had seen a movie version--7.  Of those 7 only 1 prefers the book to the movie.  A lot of this has to do with Austen's writing style.  As one participant put it, reading S and S is like "running through quicksand."  Austen always uses more words than are necessary but here it is quite noticeable.  There are entire sections where many of us were asking Austen to just spit it out already.
  • We then moved into a discussion of Austen in general.  One participant said she likes to read Austen when she is feeling overwhelmed by modern life.  Another person agreed; she likes how it is a different world with different problems. Although, someone chimed in that while re-reading S and S, she stepped back and thought, "What are the Jane Austen moments in my life." She realized that the older teens in her life went through a lot of conversations very similar to those of Elinor and Marianne, but she even noticed it with the adults around her.  It put the book in perspective for her.  It seems like a different time and place, but it is not.  This is why it is so enduring; S and S deals with basic human relationships.
  • People love how Austen is politely mean in the novel as she comments on those she disagrees with by using her biting wit. We spent some time pointing out our favorite moments.
  • Of course, the entire novel hinges on the fact that Elinor has sense and Austen believes all women should be like her--cool, rational, collected.  While Marianne is the poster girl for sensibility--inappropriately emotional, hopelessly romantic, and easily excitable.  They conflict, yet they love each other so much.  Nothing will ever come between them.
  • This led to a comment by someone that the novel is really a pre-Freudian, intense psychological study of Marianne and her road to adulthood.  This led to a longer discussion about how the entire book is a psychological study on the people who populate Austen's world.  Each character is a stereotype of the types of people in her world.  Austen focuses on their personalities, faults, and good sides with an intense gaze.  I have to say that I found this line of discussion very enlightening.  As I have said before, I am not a huge Austen fan, but maybe, looking at the novel in this light, I could become a fan.
  • The role of letters is huge in the novel.  In fact, as I informed the group, originally, S and S was Austen's first novel and it was epistolary, written completely in letters.  After the popularity of P and P, she reworked the older novel into S and S.  But the role of letters remained since it was a huge part of a woman's life at this time.  Sending a receiving letters was often the only way women could communicate with each other.  They could not travel without a letter inviting them somewhere.  Men could come and go as they pleased, but women had a lot of free time.  Interestingly, someone pointed out how odd it was that a woman at the time could not even write to an unrelated man unless the two were engaged.
  • This leads us to the point of most of Austen's books. Women need to be married to ensure they get money and property.  They cannot get it alone.  And here Austen also makes a clear statement.  Elinor, the sense, marries Edward who shows signs of sensibility in his dealings with Lucy.  They balance each other.  But they cannot get married until Edward shows more sense and Elinor lets out a little emotion.  Conversely, Marianne, an emotional wreck, must grow up a bit and gather more sense.  She is still the sensibility part of the equation, but she is now able to marry the bastion of sense, Colonel Brandon (who learned to move from sensibility to sense years before).
  • Speaking of Marianne's change.  One participant noted how it comes after her illness.  It was as if she were reborn as a new person when she recovered.
  • That led us further into talking about the ending of the novel.  Some people argue that the resolution comes too quickly and neatly.  But our group disagreed.  We felt that since Marianne recovers and Elinor final admits to Marianne her intense love of Edward, the obstacles to their happiness are now gone and the story can move to its conclusion.
  • We spent some time talking about specific secondary characters.  Here is a summary:
    • Fanny: manipulative; in order to have power and money as a woman in this society though, she must be mean and selfish.
    • John: is weak in contrast to his sister Elinor who is strong.
    • Mrs Jennings: one of our favorites.  She is the busy-body.  She is the comic relief at times; she allows us to laugh off a little tension.  But she is also extremely good hearted and positive.
    • Lucy: low rent and a gold digger; she purposely strung Elinor along by sharing her secret engagement with Edward, but as soon as Edward's money was gone, Lucy ran to the next guy with money, Edward's brother.
    • Willoughby:  cassanova who redeems himself at the end; but he has done too much damage to have his own happy ending.
  • Mrs Jennings role as matchmaker in the story got us talking about how young people meet today.  Someone said she thought today's online dating is much more like the time of S and S than we may think.  Just like back then, when you meet online, you usually take more time to feel each other out, write back and forth over email, go to coffee or out with a group.  This gives you a chance to see what others think too.  Not too different than S and S.  I have to say, this was a very insightful comment.
  • One participant ended the discussion by saying she only had brothers and this book made her wish she had had a sister.  These sisters complete each other, understand each other, and will always be there for each other, even living together with their new husbands.
  • Finally, I got the group to throw out words or phrases to describe the novel:
    • character development
    • kindness
    • sense
    • sensibility
    • secrets
    • sickness
    • property
    • hypocrisy
    • selfishness
    • vanity
    • loyalty
    • letters
    • sisters
    • betrayal
    • money
    • relationships
    • love
    • attachments
    • reality
    • boundaries
    • happy ending
Readalikes: Well since there is an entire cottage industry of Jane Austen fan fiction and just plain fanatics, I will try to give you some different readalike options, but feel free to use that link to find all the Austen and Austen-esque books you want.

Don't forget when our group recently read I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith.  Here we have sisters who are without a proper income, one who has more sense and the other more sensibility, who look for love.  Click through to see moire similarities.

One of the reasons Jane Austen's works have hung around is because she was able to capture in words, what it is like to fall in love.  Her characters were well rounded and her stories compelling and universal.  The closest thing we have to that kind of storytelling today is Nora Roberts.  If you like Austen, try Roberts.  I am not a huge romance fan myself, but I do appreciate Ms. Roberts' skill at telling a story.

Above, you saw how a few people mentioned how they like to read Austen when life gets a little hectic.  It makes them slow down.  Another series that creates a similar experience is The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith.  Precious, will spend many pages relaxing, drinking tea, and looking out over the Botswana landscape, contemplating life.  Years ago, before this blog began, we discussed this book and this appeal factor came up repeatedly.

Finally, if you want a similar writing style and feel in a story all about honor and duty (which is one of Austens' biggest themes) but are willing to try a male protagonist, you should try Patrick O'Brian's Master and Commander novels.

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