Sense and Sensibility: Different Audiences and Eras

To Janeites, June 14, 1999

Re: S&S: Different Audiences and Eras

The printing and publishing history of Austen's novels reveals that P&P and S&S have been the two most frequently reprinted of all Austen's novels. Quite why S&S took a place next to P&P in the public mind it's hard to say. Maybe it's the similarity in title; it may also be that the double heroine is an appealing device. Perhaps because they were published first? Authors with a armlength list of novels to their name are often known only for the early ones unless a later one is startlingly memorable for something.

Nonetheless, until a couple of decades ago people who wrote about S&S talked about it as crude, a piece of juvenilia; until recently the 'great' books were either MP or Emma. The way Duckworth places S&S in an introductory chapter to his book with NA is characteristic. This has changed, and in the last 10 years there have been 3 books just on S&S-- and two of them discuss just this tradition of deprecation on the part of writers and popularity with readers. I own more editions of S&S than any of the other books though that's probably because it is a particularly meaningful book to me (it was the first one by Austen that I read and I read it at age 12-13).

There have also been changes in attitudes towards Austen's other books. The juvenilia are suddenly rated very highly and very complicated ideas attached to them. I find some of what is said about the Juvenilia overdone; it does show those who write about Austen like the harsh comedy of these books; are not looking for realism. There has also been change in the attitude towards Emma: one actually gets people who criticise it as harshly as MP has sometimes been criticised. Another change has been a real growth in interest in Lady Susan and The Watsons. The latter may be a result of people wanting something new to say or to publish about, but I think also Lady Susan can be appealing today to many readers who would have denied its appeal in the 19th century. The heroine can be lived with vicariously today.

On the resurgence of S&S -- what Perkins and Armstrong call its relevance to us today -- it is interesting to know that Les Liasions Dangereuses has had a similar resurgence in the 1990s (a film, a play, two new translations). In a way I find persuasive Margaret Anne Doody's argument in her essay in The London Review of Books a couple of years ago that the content and pattern of S&S belongs to a tradition of French erotic novels. This would link it directly to Lady Susan and Madame de Stael's Delphine (also newly translated).

The study of an author's reputation is a way of studying the tastes of the public. If Austen had more of a biography you could do the same thing by studying the history of the biography. Shakespeare's 'life' has changed several times over the centuries.

I am teaching S&S just now andthis time round: it is going over very well. We are using the Drabble edition and my students have been alive to dominance of money in the book, to its depiction of sexual passion in Marianne; those who talk have been interested in Elinor as a strong character. They have assailed Fanny; loathed John Dashwood and been amused by and very much liked Mrs Jennings, Nancy Steele and Sir John. They are made uncomfortable by the Palmers. I should not omit that we saw the movie too and many of them are responding to the text through the enrichening and reshaping frame of the movie. The movie is romantic and makes Marianne a heroine of feeling and Brandon her hero from the opening scenes on. Students complain about Margaret not being in the book enough. They like Hugh Grant's interpretation of Edward -- well a few of the girls do.

I have taught but three of Austen's novels thus far: NA embarrassed the average boy (it seemed trivial, unimportant -- who wants to read about being a wallflower); I have also found that those girls who do read romances or have read them are not willing to talk about it. The acceptable (or apparently admired) stance for girls for a long while has been to say how one was a tomboy. By contrast the highly romantic and intensely emotional Persuasion went over very well; there was Wentworth and the sea; I think all the students who were able to respond to the style thought the content of the book significant. Again I did screen the 1995 BBC Persuasion with Ciarhan Hinds and Amanda Root. My favorite moment in a classroom with Sense and Sensibility occurred when one girl said spontaneously: "Sense and Sensibility is my favorite of the Austen novels." I asked why. She was startled and surprised at such a question. Apparently the answer was obvious: "I like Elinor best of all the heroines."

Ellen Moody

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