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This was the first of Jane Austen's works to be published, and, as was the custom of the day, appeared in print in a three-volume edition, authored by "A Lady". Jane actually negotiated with her publisher and agreed to cover any losses he might incur over this volume. She was not called upon to make good her deal, however, and received the princely sum of £140 in profit. Although many critics do not consider this one of her best novels, the story of two sisters, Elinor and Marianne (representing the Sense and the Sensibility of the title) is very popular with today's readers.
The Dashwood family finds itself in reduced circumstances, and this puts a definite blight on the marital hopes of the two Dashwood girls. Elinor, the eldest, is blessed with much common sense, too much at times, but this defect is more than made up for by the incredible amount of sensibility displayed by her emotional younger sister, Marianne. In fact, Marianne despairs for her sister and her beau, Edward Ferrars, deeming them unromantic in the extreme. The character of Marianne, with her flyaway attitude of everything-for-love, is easily identifiable today, when girls are free to make choices and decisions based solely on the promptings of their hearts. However, it is Elinor with whom Jane Austen found herself most in tune. Both girls must learn to balance rational consideration with passion in order to find that perfect happy ending.
Marianne meets, and topples head-over-heels in love with, Mr. Willoughby, a handsome and dashing hero who fulfils all of Marianne's romantic fantasies. Staid Edward, meanwhile, is quietly courting Elinor. When Marianne's behavior pushes the bounds of social acceptance, Elinor counsels moderation, but is ignored until the unthinkable happens, and Willoughby deserts Marianne. Edward also has a shock for Elinor when he tells her of a prior promise to wed a childhood sweetheart. Both girls must come to terms with their shattered notions of romance; it is good to know that on their way to a happy ending, Elinor learns about the benefits of adding a little sensibility to her nature, and Marianne accepts that sense must be an integral part of her life from now on.
This novel is occasionally described as "hard to read" by today's reviewers, and it may lack the even pacing of Jane's later works. However, it clearly indicates the emergence of a major literary talent, and foretells Jane Austen's skill at satirizing the denizens of her small world. Marianne is clearly a victim of Jane's pen - her overblown emotionalism probably reflects that possessed by acquaintances of Jane Austen herself. However, the character of Elinor may well reflect much of Jane's own personality and views on life. Elinor's calm rationality and sense glow quietly throughout this story, and one can easily imagine a young Jane writing this character as she dreamed of her own possible romance!
Once again, I find myself in the novel position of recommending a movie to accompany this book. In 1995, Emma Thompson's "Sense and Sensibility" was released, directed by Ang Lee (who would go on to further fame with 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon'). Ms. Thompson wrote the screenplay (and was awarded an Oscar® for it) and fortunately remained as dedicated to the spirit of Jane Austen's work as it was possible to be. Her portrayal of the gentle Elinor is more than a match for Kate Winslet's Marianne, and the inspired casting of Hugh Grant as modest Edward Ferrars guarantees a delightfully wry touch of humor. This movie will complement the book - providing settings and nuances to conversations that are difficult to see clearly while reading the text. Please read the book first, then rent this video or DVD - have a complete Austen experience, and then join me in mourning the loss of such elegant gowns!