SUGGESTIONS FOR CHRISTMAS
Review: Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen; A Memoir of Jane Austen by J. E. Austen-Leigh
“The more I know of the world, the more I am convinced that I shall never see a man whom I can really love. I require so much!” –Marianne Dashwood
“It is not everyone,’ said Elinor, ‘who has your passion for dead leaves.” – Elinor Dashwood
Jane Austen continues to resonate in our culture 200 years after her stories were first published, with more adaptations and variants seeming to release yearly… from novels like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, to Bollywood films like Bride and Prejudice, to modern perennial favorites such as Clueless (based on Austen’s Emma.) The Folio Society has released a collection of fine editions of Jane Austen’s work, two of which are recently released in time for Christmas.
The two fabulous quotes above from Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility illustrate so well the poles at which the two central characters — sisters — reside. It comes as no surprise, even and especially in today’s world, that two siblings, while close and intimate friends, can be complete opposites, and Austen takes delight in portraying this phenomenon. She explores the ramifications of each contrasting disposition in two women who otherwise have the same opportunities and acquaintances.
Elinor quietly conceals her opinions and emotions, filtering her behavior through proper and polite etiquette, Marianne refuses to veil her thoughts and insists in openly expressing her emotions. While the narrative is told from Elinor’s perspective, it is Marianne who exhibits the most character arch, growing and maturing through the consequences of her choices, to become more like her sister in the end. Marianne does not lose her open vivacity, but rather grows to a maturity and discretion that tempers and softens her bluntness. However, she does not adopt Elinor’s strong reserve but retains her animation, thus proving that good manners do not intrinsically inhibit the expression of feelings, but can be creatively coupled through discernment. Thankfully, in true Austen form, both ladies find their “happily ever afters,” despite their differences in disposition. They both retain their tight-knit bond and marry their own Prince Charmings.
The novel concludes, “And among the merits and the happiness of Elinor and Marianne, let it not be ranked as the least considerable, that though sisters, and living almost within sight of each other, they could live without disagreement between themselves, or producing coolness between their husbands.”
In the introduction to The Folio Society edition, novelist Elena Ferrante writes, “The relationship between the sisters is full of perils, and if we read the novel attentively we realize this, thanks to the skillful play between what is said and what is not said… The relationship that has been at the centre of her novel, the relationship that is the hardest to examine truthfully, [is] the relationship between sisters. But [Austen] does it lightly, and only to emphasize the fact that, thanks to the careful management of sense and sensibility, Elinor and Marianne, although they will live for the rest of their lives within sight of one another, have overcome that dangerous obstacle as well.”
Jane Austen’s own life is sadly much more obscured than any “Janeite” enthusiast would prefer. Her sister, Cassandra, dutifully burned nearly all of their letters at Jane’s request upon her death at age 41 following an illness, and the only picture of her that is completely confirmed to be her portrait is a watercolor by Cassandra, painted from behind and thus obscuring her face. Her work was not well known in her lifetime and only achieved the fame and popularity with which it is so well acquainted today after her death. One catalyst for the surge in popularity of her work was her nephew’s memoir of her life, published more than 50 years after her death in 1869 by James Edward Austen-Leigh.
He writes, “I have a distinct recollection of her person and character; and perhaps many may take an interest in a delineation, if any such can be drawn, of that prolific mind whence sprung the Dashwoods and Bennets… Aided by a few survivors who knew her… I am the more inclined to undertake the task from a conviction that, however little I may have to tell, no one else is left who could tell so much of her.”
Austen-Leigh then undertakes to share not only stories about his famous aunt and to sketch her personality and character, but also to reflect on the changing ways, customs and culture of the 19th century.
In this new edition published by The Folio Society, Fay Weldon writes, “The volume is, of course, more than a mere memoir of Austen, though that would be rewarding enough. It is a look back over an urbane mid-Victorian shoulder to the customs and manners of Georgian times, and we must thank the Gods of chance and literature that James Edward Austen-Leigh who, just happening to be Jane Austen’s nephew, also happened to take such an informed and lively interest in the changing face of England, and to write with the same kind of diligent clarity and descriptive grace as his more famous aunt.”
Both of these volumes, as well as the others published so far in this collection, Pride and Prejudice and Emma, would make wonderful Christmas gifts. The watercolors by Philip Bannister in Sense and Sensibility are simply breathtaking.
*Do take note that as these editions ship from London, the cutoff for receiving by Christmas is this Wednesday, Dec. 9th and this Monday, Dec. 14th for standard and expedited shipping, respectively.