Sunday, August 16, 2009

Back to Miss Austen

There's something special about having read an author's entire body of major works. Taking that class on Jane Austen last semester, I read all six major novels, Lady Susan, and Claire Tomalin's biography. Admittedly, I have not read Sanditon, The Watsons, any of the very early works, or most of her letters. Still, I feel I've acquired a pretty good understanding of Jane Austen, and can confidently compare her various books. I don't feel quite so well-read in any other author. I've read all the novels of Tamora Pierce and Pamela Dean, too, but I certainly haven't read a biography of either of them, which I think is rather crucial in understanding what's behind the writing.

I wrote a twelve-page paper about how I believe the sibling and sibling-like relationships in her novels were more important to her, despite the romances being the ostensible focus. In Sense and Sensibility, if not in the other novels, I think the need to wrap the book up with marriage actually detracts from the sibling relationships and thus from the book.

I read Pride and Prejudice first, and loved it, so then I went to read Sense and Sensibility. It's always been my least favourite novel, was always just a little bit unsatisfying. I think I'm not the only person who has found this (though of course there's some who like it best, which I still find a bit unthinkable), but I've finally figured out why. Most people do start with Pride and Prejudice--it's the most famous. Then they read Sense and Sensibility, because somehow this feels like the next logical step. They go into S&S expecting to find what they found in P&P, and it isn't there. The two books are really completely different. P&P is pretty much entirely structured as a romance. Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy are without doubt the main characters. But S&S isn't built that way. Its main characters are really Elinor and Marianne, and the story is built for them to play off each other; all their romances just highlight how they react and how they help each other. Everyone expects Sense and Sensibility to be a romance, but actually the romance is secondary to the sisters, and as such it is much less satisfying romance. If you read it to read about the sisters, you won't be so disappointed in your expectations and it will be a much more satisfying read.

I've come to learn that reading Jane Austen is all about your expectations.

My problem with the book, though, is that I'm not sure whether Jane Austen intended it to be about the sisters, or meant to write a romance that just didn't come out as she meant it. All the other books have much more well-put-together romances. And usually, that's what I choose Jane Austen for, even if I've learned to look more closely at the other relationships, too.

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