The minute I read Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensability, I knew I had found another “kindred spirit” writer to add to my own pantheon of literary Goddesses–right alongside Lucy Maude Montgomery, the Bronte Sisters, Louisa May Alcott, and Margaret Mitchell.
While many people consider Pride and Prejudice to be Jane Austen’s crowning achievement, my favorite book has always been Sense and Sensability. The story centers around the Dashwood Sisters, who struggle with poverty, a strongly delineated social class system, and even their own opposing natures as they traverse through life.
Elinor is the eldest sister, and she is the picture of common sense and responsibility. I often look at Elinor and see a fellow Capricorn, even if the story doesn’t share when her birthday is. When her family loses their home at Norland, it is Elinor who reminds them of what they can afford, and encourages them to economize. It is Elinor that is cautious and who doesn’t immediately trust the dashing Willoughby, who instantly captures Marianne’s heart. It is Elinor who acts with propriety in all situations, who never says an unkind word about anyone, and who always acts with decorum. It is Elinor who is dismayed by the affectations of those who have more money and less character. She has little patience for those who judge others based on their pocketbooks or societal rank. Jane Austen described her reaction to Willoughby’s unkind words about Colonel Brandon: “In hastily forming and giving his opinion of other people, in sacrificing general politeness to the enjoyment of undivided attention where his heart is engaged, and in slighting too easily the forms of worldly propriety, he displayed a want of caution which Elinor could not approve.”
I love Elinor, and imagine that if she were a living, breathing woman, she would have been an advocate for social justice had her culture and the time in which she lived allowed her to be so. She would certainly be asked to one of my dinner parties, if I were allowed to invite anyone alive, dead or fictional.
True, Elinor could be almost too serious at times. Many would argue that while Elinor shows a great deal of common sense, she also seems to lack a more hopeful or optimistic approach to life. Elinor is a realist, and generally sees optimism, particularly when not based in reality, as a dangerous vehicle–this is no more clearly illustrated than in her sister’s misfortunes, which I won’t go into more detail for those who haven’t read the book. Emma Thompson, who took on the role of Elinor Dashwood in a film said, ““I seem finally to have stopped worrying about Elinor, and age. She seems now to be perfectly normal — about twenty-five, a witty control freak. I like her but I can see how she would drive you mad. She’s just the sort of person you’d want to get drunk, just to make her giggling and silly.”
Personally, I think that Elinor has just a little bit of “Marianne” in her. Likewise, by the end of the book, it seems Marianne has found her inner Elinor. This is another aspect of the story that I love–while it’s a tale of two sisters who are opposites, they also have qualities that are shared by the other under the surface. I like to think that while we each have one we identify with more, we all have just a little bit of both–we have our inner “Elinor” and we also have our “inner Marianne.” That is as it should be–a good dose of common sense balanced by romance and an earthy sensuousness is the best of both worlds….