Love, Loss and Hope | Daily News

Love, Loss and Hope

“The family of Dashwood had long been settled in Sussex.”

Those of us who can recite the first line of ‘Pride and Prejudice’ by memory are apt to forget the above line, even though it is just as alluring as, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

And yet, the first line in ‘Sense and Sensibility’ is the shortest and seemingly most straightforward Austen-first-line, packed with profound meanings. The line tells us the book will centrally concern the Dashwood family: and as we read on we realize this is true, Elinor and Marianne Dashwood are the novel’s central figures. But the line also suggests this book is centrally about history, the history of families who have “long been settled.” The opening line leads us towards family history, such as the back story of Edward Ferrars. Edward, who is a part of the Dashwood family through his sister’s marriage has his own secrets. Critics have detected the novel is also based on the history of Elizabeth Austen, Jane’s great-great grandmother, whose harrowing experiences of inheritance runs like a hidden scar through the hideous treatment of the Dashwoods. The Dashwood women begin the novel as anything but “settled,” for patriarchy has all but destroyed their very existence.

Also in the first chapter is the sentence that introduces Elinor and Marianne’s elder half-brother, John Dashwood. “He was not an ill-disposed young man, unless to be rather cold hearted, and rather selfish, is to be ill-disposed.” Reading just the first phrase, you would expect that what follows the comma would be a compliment. To be “ill-disposed” is to be someone disposed to do ill—to be a bad person. But what follows the clause telling us that John is not a bad young man is another double negative. He is not bad, unless we think being cold hearted and selfish makes a person bad, which is surely the most subtle way to say, he is bad!

The way Austen implants this assessment of John in our mind is not just clever. It is funny. It is designed to make us think about how community determines a man’s respectability. By all outward appearances, he is a “good man.” At the same time, his impulses and feelings are atrocious. To make matters worse, he is married to a woman who brings out his worst cold hearted, selfish qualities. Together, John and Fanny’s actions produce real evils.

This sly, double-negative, ironic approach to storytelling comes as a warning that the novel’s lessons are often obscure. Austen seems to ask the reader to consider truths and half-truths, omissions and lies, and generosity and greed as they read the book.

Thus, she presents us with the subtle portraits of two contrasting but equally compelling heroines. For sensible Elinor Dashwood and her impetuous younger sister Marianne the prospect of marrying the men they love appears remote. In a world ruled by money and self-interest, the Dashwood sisters have neither fortune nor connections. Concerned for others and for social proprieties, Elinor is ill-equipped to compete with self-centered fortune-hunters like Lucy Steele, while Marianne’s unswerving belief in the truth of her own feelings makes her more dangerously susceptible to the designs of unscrupulous men. Through her heroines’ parallel experiences of love, loss, and hope, Jane Austen offers a powerful analysis of the ways in which women’s lives were shaped by the claustrophobic society in which they had to survive.

It is clear then, that, at its core, ‘Sense and Sensibility’ deals with how individuals make meaningful lives in a world that is often deeply unfair. Its questions are set out by differences in its two sisters’ opinions and styles.

The story also shows how the sisters have an impact on each other’s evolving judgments. Marianne’s lines that she “requires so much” in a man might be seen through Elinor’s eyes. Elinor would surely substitute the word “too” for Marianne’s “so.” Which one of them gets it closer to right, in the world of the novel or beyond it remains a question the reader must answer. Perhaps, in love, so much is too much. But perhaps setting one’s sights on so much leads to opportunities for so much more.

There are some critics who think readers ought to channel their inner Elinors, as well as their inner Mariannes, to read ‘Sense and Sensibility’ with greater sense and sensibility. These critics feel we ought to pause to define these terms, because the words have changed in meaning over the past two centuries. It appears the title’s two nouns are neither synonyms nor antonyms. The meaning of “sense” then was close to what it means in our day—rationality, wisdom, reasonableness. It suggested having well-regulated powers of mind. But “sensibility” in the Romantic era (the late 18th and early 19th centuries) had nothing to do with being sensible or wise. Sensibility signaled emotional sensitivity, sympathy, and susceptibility. It was a power of the senses, of perception or taste, and of the heart. To claim to feel more deeply, or to express strong feelings, was a very fashionable form of sensibility.

Yet, according to the notes left by Austen’s sister, the first draft was not called Sense and Sensibility. Austen had titled the novel as “Elinor and Marianne,” when she wrote it as early as 1795 at 19, probably in epistolary form. In November 1797, she returned to the manuscript and converted it to the narrative format we know today. But it wasn’t until 1809-1810 that she made a final round of revisions and, with her brother Henry as her agent, eventually submitted it, now renamed as ‘Sense and Sensibility’ to publisher Thomas Egerton.

Believing in her work and determined to be a published author, Austen took a financial risk and published the novel on a commission basis. In this arrangement, she paid for the production and advertising of ‘Sense and Sensibility’, gave Egerton a commission for distributing and selling the book, and kept the remaining profit from the sales.Austen chose to remain anonymous because at that time it was not entirely acceptable for a woman of her status to publish for profit. The title page of the novel says simply, “By a Lady.”

We know from her letters that Austen was in the process of correcting proofs in April 1811, hoping the book would be published soon. However, the wait was longer than anticipated; ‘Sense and Sensibility’ was first advertised for sale in The Star on October 30. Ads ran in newspapers throughout November and also appeared at various times throughout 2012. The book was described variously as an “Extraordinary Novel!” an “Interesting Novel,” and, by December 1812, a “Popular New Novel.”

Now in her mid-30s, Jane Austen was finally a published author. The first edition of ‘Sense and Sensibility’ sold out in less than two years, and the novel’s success inspired her to continue, as is evident in this passage from a July 3, 1813, letter to her brother Frank: “You will be glad to hear that every Copy of S.&S. is sold & that it has brought me £140— besides the Copyright, if that should ever be of any value.— I have now therefore written myself into £250— which only makes me long for more.”

With Egerton’s encouragement, a second edition was published in October 1813, again funded by Austen. She is said to have continued to receive profits from the sale of the second edition of S’Sense and Sensibility’ through March 1817.

A few months after its publication, ‘Sense and Sensibility’ was reviewed favorably in The Critical Review, which praised the novel for its “naturally drawn” characters and its realistic plot:“The incidents are probable, and highly pleasing and interesting.” In keeping with the critical attitude of the era, the reviewer also highlighted the novel’s value as an instructional tool that offers an “excellent” and useful moral.

‘Sense and Sensibility’ was well-received by the public when it was released and is still popular as part of Austen’s canon. Many critics are in agreement that the book showcases Austen’s keen understanding of human nature and psychology and her satiric wit. Readers also appreciate its ironic depiction of the economic motivations at work in the Regency marriage market.

Suffice it to say, it is a line in ‘Sense and Sensibility’ that has been ranked as the most romantic quote from romantic literature, film and TV drama. While in tenth place was Mr Darcy’s immortal lines: “In vain I have struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you,” the first place went to the heart-melting affirmation of love from Edward Ferrars (played by Hugh Grant in the movie) to Elinor Dashwood (Emma Thompson). A line that’s the stuff of dreams.

“My heart is, and always will be, yours.”

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