Jane Austen: Comparing Sense & Sensibility

Everyone warned me when I decided to read Sense & Sensibility first out of all Jane Austen’s novels that it was possibly the least satisfying. I was warned that I might not like it, that the prose would frustrate me and the characters were not all that well defined, at least in comparison to Jane Austen’s other heroes. Her heroines undeniably have spark no matter who they are! I entered the novel with some trepidation but finished it over several evenings and then set out to watch the two most recent and popular film adaptations, and compile my thoughts. More of my thoughts on Colonel Brandon and Marianne in particular will be found in an upcoming issue of the Costume Chronicles, but in the meantime here are my overall impressions.

The Book:
– Is at times tedious to read since it is written in a very narrative form of prose with particularly long sentences.However, the dialogue is brilliant — intelligent and saucy on most occasions with frequent sparks of genius.
– Has almost no men in it. Edward seems an afterthought or an enigma, since we never really come to know him. Colonel Brandon is much more expounded on than I anticipated from what others told me, but even he remains something of a mystery. I do not know whether to blame this on Jane Austen’s lack of experience in that department or if she was so focused on Marianne and Elinor that the men were secondary. The only man who is even in much of the book is the cad, Willoughby.
– I was surprised to find that Margaret is unimportant and hardly there; indeed, she has a half dozen mentions in the book.
– Surprisingly, this novel is much more about telling than showing — a fault that on occasion others have pointed out to me in certain of my prose. Much of it is left to the imagination rather than explored fully — having been raised on the 1995 film, I was astonished that scenes and conversations that I took rather for granted never appeared in the book.
– The characters are terrific. I learned much about them that was left out of the films, particularly Lucy Steele. I never really discerned how much of a manipulator she was in the adaptations, but in the book there are frequent but subtle references to her cruelty. I disliked her prior to reading the novel and hold an uncommon contempt for her now. The same goes for Willoughby — at long last I understand him. It does not make me like any more, but I do grasp his initial intentions as well as his later behavior.

Overall, in spite of various disappointments (and I assure you, there were several) I did enjoy the book and believe it will improve upon subsequent readings. I enjoyed seeing more of Elinor but have come to the conclusion that the book really isn’t about Elinor (which is contrary to all my initial presumptions) but Marianne — Elinor is there to tell the story and contrast proper, restrained behavior with Marianne’s poetic romanticism, but it is essentially all about Marianne’s failures, heartaches, disappointments and in one sense, narrow escape from a fate much like Eliza’s. And while Brandon remains somewhat enigmatic, he has solidified in my mind as Austen’s most heroic hero, for various reasons. He is compassionate and understanding almost to a fault and his kindness comes not from any potential gain on his part, but a genuine and earnest generosity. Move aside, Darcy… you’ve been replaced in my mind.

The Film:

Where do I even begin? I love this movie. It was one of my first introductions to Jane Austen’s stories (along with Emma, which I still adore) at the age of fourteen or so. Having read the book, I can see where Emma Thompson’s subtle changes are masterful and support further the concepts of the characters. She has streamlined the story and taken out the non-essentials (indeed, Lucy Steele’s sister is amusing and annoying, but not really needed to further the plot) to focus on Marianne and Elinor — and in some sense, Margaret. Edward is still a tad dull, but Brandon is beautifully written (and played very well by Alan Rickman — yes, he is too old but frankly, I do not care!) and what I love most about it is that it gets that Jane Austen was writing satire. The film is hilarious! Between Mrs. Jennings teasing Elinor about which key she will sing in to the complaints Margaret is always muttering in the background, and even the well-timed hysterical outbursts from Marianne, it is fairly certain most of it will leave a smile on your face.

One of my favorite humorous scenes is when Elinor is the only one in the house not crying. She sits calmly on the stairs and drinks tea, while her mother and sisters loudly proclaim their misery to the world in a torrent of tears behind three different doors. But I think what Emma Thompson’s screenplay does really well is introduce an immediate romantic side to Brandon. Him entering the house and being transfixed at the sight of Marianne on the pianoforte … oh, it still takes my breath away. And then later, the marvelous artistic composition and full circle come-around with Brandon carrying Marianne in from the cold — just brilliant. As an adaptation, it works very well, aided on by a cast that is for the most part superb, even if most of them are too old.

The Good:
– The screenplay, which focuses on the humor as well as the sadness of the storyline.
– Costume design and hair, which is absolutely gorgeous and often references the Greek Regency Style.
– Most of the cast — chosen for their comedic timing as well as charm. The stand-out performances in my mind belong to Brandon, Marianne, and Willoughby — it is difficult to imagine anyone else in those roles.
– The musical score, which is simply gorgeous.

The Bad:
– Hugh Grant. I am sorry, but he was a terrible Edward — having seen him in several costume dramas, I can safely say he doesn’t belong in them; his mannerisms are too modern and he is frankly uncomfortable in breeches and a waistcoat. I find his Edward completely bland, without much merit until the end. He has absolutely no chemistry with Emma Thompson.
– Everyone is too old, sometimes twenty years too old. I know why they did it, so Emma could play Elinor, so they adjusted almost everyone around her, but still…

In spite of its faults, the film remains my favorite version of the story. I think part of it is because it’s so gorgeous to watch and really invokes my emotions toward the end, but also because it was my “first” foray into the story and as such, holds a place in my heart.

The Miniseries:

One thing the BBC knows how to do well is costume dramas, and whenever you put Andrew Davies in charge of the adaptation, the result is bound to be remarkably good — even if you don’t like the story! (Honestly, I hate some of the miniseries he has authored, but I do not blame him so much as the atrocious novels he was adapting!) While I do find his frequent attempts to “sex up” the stories as much as he can a tad absurd, I think for the most part everything in this miniseries works tremendously well. The biggest boon is not only having another hour and something in which to tell the complete story, but also a much younger cast. It does not compare with the shorter one in terms of artistry but it doesn’t feel like a small production — it feels like a grand, sweeping romance. Elinor is also more of the focus and Hattie Moran makes her much more approachable and understandable than Emma did.

One could argue that Davies borrowed heavily from Thompson’s screenplay, and yes in most terms this is evident — particularly having Marianne run out into the rain and get soaked, then Brandon have to carry her back to the house. (Which is my favorite part of the story that isn’t in the original book!) But he also leaves in secondary and less important characters for the sake of authenticity. Most of the sardonic nature of the story has been toned down and this is not a satire so much as serious business, but I do not really mind. I like a serious, thoughtful approach to the material now and again, since it allows for more of a sense of drama and tension as the tale unfolds. I also have to say that the musical score for this production is stunning — there is something haunting and romantic about it.

The Good:
– The primary cast, which is close to the right age group (for the most part) and are all emotionally engaging.
– Margaret and Mrs. Dashwood are given more screen time. I liked seeing more of Mrs. Dashwood’s sensibility play out on screen; in the book we get hints that she is just as emotional and silly as Marianne, but this comes across really well in the miniseries, when Elinor is having to constantly bring her back to earth or prevent her from making social mistakes — such as pleading for Edward to come see them. Margaret particularly makes me laugh — I love her dour looks at her cousin and threatenings of poisonings and such.
– Edward is much more laid back and likable, which makes his awkwardness later on about Lucy somewhat understandable.
– The opening sequence. Don’t shoot me for this, but I like that the film establishes a seduction has happened immediately, that a girl has been abandoned. I think it makes Willoughby’s interaction with Marianne much more ominous, particularly the scenes when they are alone.
– Giving Brandon more of a role. I liked seeing him interact with Eliza in particular. I thought that really brought out his kindness.

The Bad:
– Too much is known too soon in terms of Willoughby’s character. Brandon asking him about his intentions toward Marianne is too obvious — let the audience be uncertain for awhile.
– Less humor. Some still remains but is for the most part gone, making this a much more serious film than its predecessor.
– Colonel Brandon. I’m sorry, ladies… but the actor did such a marvelous job of making me loathe him in Our Mutual Friend that I cannot separate him from the role. There is just something a tad sinister about him, but I do not like him as Brandon. For me, he’s the weak link in the cast and another British actor around the same age with less emotional baggage would have been better in the part. That being said, he did much better than I anticipated (believe me, when I heard the cast announcement I had a tantrum). He just… isn’t Brandon.

In Conclusion:

It’s a bit strange that I would begin with Jane Austen’s least popular novel when making my first attempt to read her works, but in all truth, it is my favorite overall storyline. As much as I love Pride & Prejudice and Emma, it is Sense & Sensibility that makes me happiest, because it has a sort of fairy tale ending in spite of much angst in-between. Yes, Marianne makes me want to smack her on a frequent basis but Brandon is my favorite of Austen’s heroes, so I put up with one for the benefit of the other.

Next up, Pride & Prejudice! (Which I am reading and enjoying immensely as a superior body of work.)

6 Replies to “Jane Austen: Comparing Sense & Sensibility”

  1. Jali: thanks for your thoughts on S&S. My opinion of its characterization of Edward may change with subsequent readings… I did not get much of a feel for him, but that's natural given that he's not in very much of the book. It is interesting how there's so much romantic “blather” from Marianne, meanwhile Elinor is quietly finding contentment at the end. I'm glad both sisters found someone to look after and love them.

    Ponsonby: in my limited circle of acquaintances, for some reason S&S is the least-favorite… perhaps because its men are so sketchily depicted. NA on the other hand is quite well liked, so maybe my friends are a bit unusual that way. =)

    Alexandra: I agree, S&S is one of my favorite films as well. (And to think when I first saw it, I didn't care for it! Thank goodness I came to my senses!) Alan Rickman is wonderful. It was so charming to see him in a romantic part for once. <3

    Lizzy: no, you are not the only one to adore Brandon! He appeals to me in a way that not even Mr. Knightley can! Thanks for reading along — it's nice to find kindred spirits!

  2. I think I mostly agree with your comparisons- and Sense and Sensibility is my favorite story, like you, and I was thrilled to learn that Brandon is your favorite hero- I thought I was the only one who thought so!

    By the way, I just discovered your website, and this post confirmed to me that I've found my new favorite blog, and that there IS someone out there who thinks on the same train of thought as I do.

    ~Liz

  3. Wonderful post, Charity! I loved reading it, and I agree with almost everything you said.

    -I can't believe you haven't read any Austen until now!! Can't wait to hear your thoughts on P&P – and all of the other novels, as you read them.

    -David Morissey as Colonel Brandon – for a time, he was actually my favourite Brandon. Then I saw OMF, and I've never been able to look at Morissey's Colonel Brandon in the same way again. Conversely, I've grown to appreciate Alan Rickman's Colonel more and more.

    -You are SO right about S&S 95 capturing the satire and the humour of S&S – as opposed to S&S 08, which is much less funny and more melodramatic. The 1995 captures the spirit of the book so much better, IMO, with its mixture of seriousness and comedy.

    -The costumes in the 1995 version!! And the soundtrack! *Sighs*. . . I adore everything about this film. . .

  4. S&S '95 is not only my favorite Austen film, it's one of my favorite films period. True, Alan Rickman is too old, but his character is completely amazing (he's my favorite Austen hero, second only to Jeremy Northam's Mr. Knightley). The scenes you mentioned have me balling every time – especially carrying her back in the rain. SOB.

    Kate Winslet is completely stunning in this. She captures Marianne perfectly. And Emma Thompson…while waaaay too old, yes, she's an absolutely amazing actress, and really does a good job of making Elinor more three-dimensional.

    I agree about Hugh Grant, though. And Hugh Laurie and Imelda Staunton's Mr. and Mrs. Palmer are some of my favorite characters – what an amazing comic couple.

    Anyway. All that said, I'm extremely leery about checking out the 08 version. Just that 95 is such a favorite, and I hate to “ruin” it. And Dominic Cooper as Willoughby…I saw a clip, and blech. You totally understood Marianne falling for dashing Greg Wise's Willoughby, but this one…noooo.

    Anyway. My thoughts on that. And yes, I found the book extremely hard to get through. Just for the record.

    Great post!!!

  5. I'm surprised Charity describes S&S as Austen's least popular novel. Setting aside the dislike many feel for Mansfield Park (though it also has champions), I would have thought that Northanger Abbey is pretty much the least read or regarded novel, mainly because it is pretty clearly a slighter work than the other five, though not without virtues of its own.

  6. I've got to tell you, S&S is my favorite Austen book, so it was great to read your thoughts on the adaptations. I definitely agree that it improves with each reading- the first time I read it I had just finished P&P, which is such an energetic, going and doing book, with such a lively heroine, I found S&S to be, honestly, completely tedious! But as you can tell, it's grown on me. 🙂

    I love that the book seems to be from Elinor's perspective- like you mentioned, the book is about the other characters. As one author said, Elinor is Jane Austen's 'voice' in the book, so you tend to agree with her about everyone else, which I found interesting. Elinor can't help but like Mr. Palmer, for example, so you end up reading his parts in the book with a grin. Elinor pegs Lucy within a few minutes of meeting her, so you never doubt for a minute that Lucy is exactly what Elinor takes her for. And like Elinor, you end up with a bit of mingling regret for Willoughby. (Much more than if you had only formed your opinion of the character from the adaptations!) And I loved the sharp comments that Elinor thinks to herself- some of them made me laugh out loud!

    My original complaint about the book was the lack of Edward, but reading it so many times since, I have come to realize that it seems to be a very smart omission that drives the point of the book home. Almost the whole book, you're flooded with romantic notions from Marianne and Willoughby and the other characters, when in the end their relationship comes to nothing. But Elinor and Edward love quietly, undemonstratively, and constantly, and have a happy ending. There's a life lesson in there somewhere! What there is of Edward in the book seems to come across with so much more passion, humor, and goodness than all of the parts with Willoughby- but that's just my opinion because I like him so much! 😉

    I couldn't help but giggle at your reaction to David Morrissey as Brandon- Our Mutual Friend was the very reason we loved him as Brandon. Every scene we saw him in we couldn't help but add “…and I'm not a psycho like last time!” We always link movies like that in my family- we'll watch David Copperfield, then we have to watch The Scarlet Pimpernel so we don't hate Anthony Andrews, then we have to watch Lord of the Rings so we don't hate Ian McKellen…

    I'm glad the music stuck out in your mind as well! All I can say is MARTIN PHIPPS = GENIUS. I wish more of his scores were available.

    Well, I think my ramblings are now as long as your post so I'd best get going! I could ramble about JA forever! 😉 Enjoy P&P; I've just finished it again!

    Take care,
    Jali

    PS- Since you're an Alan Rickman fan- have you ever seen The Barchester Chronicles? Highly recommended!

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