Sense and Sensibility - Read Aloud

Loving Austen's work as I do, it would take me months to write a real review of Sense and Sensibility that would encompass my emotional and intellectual reactions to the novel and its place in Austen's oeuvre, so the only thing I'll be "reviewing" here pertains to my latest reading of the book that spans April to September of 2009. My significant other and I read aloud to each other. (Yes, it's sickeningly adorable, we know.) It started as a project of reading the other our favorite novels. Since he had already read my actual favorite, Persuasion (at my encouragement the year before), I selected Pride and Prejudice and to continue the Austen education (as we're still muddling through his selection of Moby Dick), he requested Sense and Sensibility.

Reading a novel aloud, you might guess, makes for an interesting experience, particularly when it's a novel that you're quite familiar with... because somehow, you stumble upon things you never noticed. Words that you might have skipped over in a quick read or never knew how to pronounce are brought into the spotlight as definitions are requested or pronunciation corrections given. In addition, to read a novel aloud to someone means that reading is no longer this solitary communion between reader and novel. With an additional participant, there's an added dimension of dialogue and discussion. We try not to get "teacher-y" with leading questions, as obviously one of us knows how the story will turn out while the other is being exposed to everything for the first time. I also tried not to let my Austen research seep in too much as side commentary, but I couldn't always help myself. Some things, like how the novel was originally titled "Elinor and Marianne" or that it was originally published without Austen's name, but rather it was listed as "By a Lady"... well those things are harmless. Telling him that in the Ang Lee version, Emma Thompson plays Elinor and in real life, she married Willoughby... well, that got a little confusing for him.

So, my listener and I might summarize the basic plot of the novel as such: Elinor and Marianne Dashwood are two sisters with very different means of expression. Both are thoughtful and feeling young women, but Elinor tends to keep things to herself whereas Marianne sees no reason to hide emotions. Their father dies and their family (including mom and a little sister that we basically ignore) moves into a cottage owned by their mother's cousin, but not before Elinor develops an attachment to her half-brother's wife's brother Edward Ferras, who is considered out of her league in terms of fortune by his family. Once they move to Devonshire, Marianne falls head over heels for the dashing Mr. Willoughby, though she also inspires a quiet love in the older Colonel Brandon, who has a somewhat complicated past. Austen originally intended to show "sense" triumph over "sensibility," but as she wrote the novel, her feelings wavered on whether one should entirely discount "sensibility."

My own love for Sense and Sensibility aside, I was a little surprised at certain of his reactions to particular sections... and then quickly realized that, as an intelligent reader, he did have some points. Whenever he complained about Elinor being a bit of a wet blanket... well... he's kind of right. And yes, Marianne is incredibly selfish. And it's not terribly easy to remember all the names and family connections. (I made him a character list/family tree chart that he would occasionally consult as I read.) But it was comforting to know that a surprise at the end of the novel was just as much of a surprise for him as a first-time reader as it was for my pre-teen adolescent self when I first read it. And even more so, I was pleased that he found this to be a delightful and interesting plot-point rather than something ridiculous that reflected poor planning on the author's part.

I might adore the novel, but even I can admit that it certainly reflects Austen as a younger, less developed writer. Sense and Sensibility is a very different novel from Pride and Prejudice, but it's impossible to not make certain comparisons as both novels focus on two sisters who are not wealthy. And while S&S might have been written and published first, it's a much sadder novel than P&P, and actually a little more complex when it comes to how Austen feels about her characters. This is not to say that there are more complex characters here, it's just that this is a more interesting novel to study in terms of an author's complicated relationship with her characters. Austen might align herself with Elinor, but we must admit that there's the touch of the Marianne about her.

I've discussed Sense and Sensibility with people any times before, but never in a situation where our reading at the same pace allows us to address immediate scenes and actions. As a result, we often discussed particular phrases as it pertained to her writing style, making comparisons with P&P or Persuasion. We spent a lot of time talking about some of the supporting characters (and why their voices are so much more fun to do than the main characters'), why Austen considered certain scenes to be necessary in the general arch of the story, and where we saw clear foreshadowings of particular scenes or characters in P&P.

Overall, if you're looking to read an Austen novel to your significant other, I would recommend Pride and Prejudice over this one, unless you're prepared to handle a few outbursts. ("Yes! We get it! Elinor is bottling it all inside! But can't she just punch Lucy in the nose just once?" or "Wait a minute. That was a duel. There was a duel in an Austen novel and we don't even get to see it?! And they both miss?! That's utterly ridiculous!") We had a great time, though, and it was a quick read for us. It's a beautiful, fantastic novel that any real literature fan should experience -- preferably before the Ang Lee version, though I consider it to be one of the best Austen movie adaptations out there.

Next up for our reading? Wuthering Heights. But we're still disemboweling whales on his side, so I might try to make it through a bit more of that before we start to tackle Heathcliff and the moors.


Moeskido said...

This post reminds me of a time when I'd read my favorite short stories to my then-future wife. I had to choose carefully, being in the presence of an English major.

scatteredpaper said...

Regardless of English majors (though yes, this certainly carries weight in terms of her judging your general literary tastes), there's a great deal of pressure when you're selecting something to read to a significant other. It's not quite the same as selecting music for a mix tape to send the right message, but there's certainly a question of how this might reflect upon you. After all, if it *means* something to you, then it provides some insight.

And then there's the fact that love blinds us a bit... I mean, what else can it be but love when she'll happily listen to you read Lovecraft?

Moeskido said...

Or Silverberg. Or a small chunk of Tolkien's "Hobbit" (once we'd heard of Jackson's imminent adaptations).

I'd like to believe I didn't bore her too much.