Yes, I know…as some of you are well aware, it is my least favourite of The Six, but this year sees the 200th anniversary of its first publication and so I am going to endeavour to put aside my prejudice and be proud to celebrate all its good points.
Every week I plan to write a few posts devoted entirely to Sense and Sensibility…on its history, explaining points in the text, providing recipes of some of the food mentioned, visiting places mentioned in the text, and hopefully visiting places used as some of the locations in the many adaptations-my favourite being the 1995 version directed by Ang Lee and written by Emma Thompson. And also I intend to review a few of the hundreds of editions of Sense and Sensibility that are available to buy and that I have in my collection.
I’m going to begin with the Heritage Club edition published in 1957. My copy is a favourite because it was given to me by a dear American friend, and ( hurrah!) is typeset in Baskerville. It is illustrated by Helen Sewell( more on whom later, below) and rather wonderfully, has an introduction written by Stella Gibbons.
Stella Gibbons is of course most famous for her book Cold Comfort Farm, which was published in 1932. This was a books she felt compelled to write after feeling such disgust for the writings of Mary Webb, and in particular her novel, Precious Bane. In Cold Comfort Farm she skewered rather magnificently and with extreme precision, all the clichés of the melodramatic country based genre that this book contained, rather reminiscent of the manner in which Jane Austen attacked Mrs Radcliffe and her ilk and the rage for Gothic novels in Nothanger Abbey.
An admirer of Jane Austen her thoughts on this novel in her Introduction are very illuminating ( if a little factually incorrect, but should not detract from the validity of her main points). To be perfectly truthful she articulates some of the reservations I feel about Sense and Sensibility and some of Jane Austen’s more, shall we say , priggishly upright creations( you know who they are….yes, that’s right, Edmund Bertrum, I’m looking at you). Let’s take a look at some of her ideas…
Jane Austen is an almost excessively detached novelist,and she is, above all, a writer of prose and supreme in the creation of comic situations and figures;ill at ease-though still completely the artist -in high tragic mood and anxious to leave it as quickly as possible and get out into the narrative sunlight again…
I do have a feeling this may be true of her early works…too light and sparking.... let other pens dwell on misery...etc.etc.
Surprisingly,given her penchant for disliking melodramatic clichés, Stella Gibbons felt more sympathy for, in her opinion, the much better delineated character of Marianne than she could for the sensible, steady, restrained character of Elinor:
The story derives its fascination largely from the contrasted characters of the sisters… Marianne believes that love can be experienced only once in a lifetime and that grief should not only be indulged to the full but that consolation is for the coarse-grained,even the dishonourable. The follower of the cult of Sensibility owes a debt to what she believes in….while her creator is severe with Marianne’s follies,she has yet so filled her with life that we feel keenly with her in all she suffers and does and when she meets Willoughby a young man apparently as delightfully filled with Sensibility as herself, and falls headlong into love with him we share her raptures.
She reviews the text as a fellow author and perhaps detects that the young Jane Austen had difficulty in portraying upright characters as opposed to comical ones may be the stumbling block that some of us have in feeling affection for such scrupulously correct characters such as Elinor:
Elinor at nineteen is described as having”strength of understanding and coolness of judgement”. Her creator admitted she prefered her to Marianne but the preference must have been based upon approval rather than liking? Elinor not to mince matters, is what some have forthrightly called a stick and she bears those faint traces of having been worked at and over which not only make a character unsympathetic to the general reader but betray to another novelist (however obscure a sister) that this person has been a bother to do…. We do not know whether Jane Austen ever had bother with her people. When her ease and mastery are considered it seems unlikely that she did but those years of perfectionist revision may have contained such difficulties. Perhaps bother only betrays itself in the stickishness of Elinor and the even stickisherness of her admirer(warmer word I cannot employ) Edward Ferrars, for Jane Austen is not noted for creating sticks.Perhaps she was less successful with those characters whom she designed to display some virtue than she was with those who she felt exhibited some folly or foible(the novelist who writes comedies commonly is; prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance are serious affairs). All this means Elinor is not easy to like….
I do think this is true-until Jane Austen developed as a writer, and produced Persuasion. For in Anne Elliot she created a character who was morally upright, good -all characteristics shared with Elinor, but by the end of her life Austen had perfected the skill to make the good Anne someone who was also human, loveable and likeable.
Controversially, Stella Gibbons is one of those readers of Sense and Sensibility for whom the ending is not satisfactory:
The shapely story is guided to an ending which satisfies those readers(if such there be) who care whether Elinor is happy or not but which I dare to say,is very unsatisfactory to those who love Marianne….If I have not spoken of Colonel Brandon it is because I do not care to.
“Marianne could never love by halves;and her whole heart became in time as much devoted to her husband as it once had ben to Willoughby”
Oh , we believe it; her character compels us to.But we also believe that Jo March married Professor Baer and was happy with him and it does not prevent us from wanting her also to have married Laurie: the situations are parallel and both are impossible for readers to accept until the day when that problem about eating and having cake shall find some fourth dimensional solution.
A lot of food for thought in this introduction,and I have only given you what I hope are tempting glimpses of it here. If you can get hold of a copy I do urge you to read it. Amusing, affectionate but critical from a fellow professional writer’s point of view. I do wish she had written more on the other novels.
To the illustrations…This edition is illustrated in a very interesting, slightly Cubist manner by Helen Sewell. This was, as I understand it, her last commission before her death in 1957. Helen Sewell was an interesting illustrator and author of children’s books, one of her most important commissions was to be the first to illustrate Laura Ingalls Wilder’s series of the Little House on the Prairie books. For Sense and Sensibility her style was, to my eyes slightly reminiscent of Picasso’s work for Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe in particular, the backcloth for Le train blue.
Here is a thunderously fugitive Mr Palmer hiding from his stupid wife…..
The last illustration in the book is this, above, of Edward and Elinor at the Delaford rectory…a place with ample glebe land if this picture is anything by which to judge. This woodcut has a charmingly naive but distinctly North American character, don’t you think?I can almost hear Simple Gifts playing in the background.
This is one of my favourite editions of Sense and Sensibility. I cherish it. And I hope this review has inspired you to seek out a second-hand copy of it.