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Sense and Sensibility, The Jane Austen Bicentenary Library

Sense and Sensibility  by Jane Austen was first published 200 years ago in 1811. A fully annotated and illustrated edition available at Amazon. A foreword, annotations, biography, bibliography and notes on further reading are by AustenBlog's Margaret C. Sullivan. Illustrations are by the talented Cassandra Chouinard. The following is Sullivan's Foreword along with selections of Chouinard's illustrations.

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Jane Austen published her first novel, Sense and Sensibility, in the autumn of 1811. While in London attending to the page proofs, she wrote to her sister Cassandra, “I am never too busy to think of S. and S. I can no more forget it than a mother can forget her sucking child. . .” That was the first time that Austen referred to one of her books as a child, but not the last; and this particular child had a disconcertingly long gestation period: sixteen years.

Cassandra Austen, her sister’s lifelong companion, first reader, and literary executor, left a note stating that Jane first wrote a novel in letters—a popular literary style of the time—in 1795 that she called Elinor and Marianne. The following year, Austen wrote a prose manuscript that she titled First Impressions, which was later published as Pride and Prejudice, and in 1797 she rewrote Elinor and Marianne in prose style. The novel retains some of the flavor of its epistolary beginnings: the scene in which Colonel Brandon tells Elinor his romantic history, as well as the scene in which Willoughby explains his actions, are easily imagined as letters, and of course several letters are included in the novel and are vital to the plot.

Deirdre Le Faye writes that Austen may have found a new title for Elinor and Marianne in the journal The Lady’s Monthly Museum in 1798-99, which contained an essay with the phrase “Sense and Sensibility” in a headline. Austen continued to write into the new century, and even sold the manuscript of a novel she called Susan to the publisher Richard Crosby. However, Crosby, for reasons known only to himself, never published Susan, and offered to return the manuscript to Austen for the ten pounds he had paid for it; a sum beyond Austen’s means.

In 1811 her brother Henry arranged for Thomas Egerton to publish Sense and Sensibility at the author’s expense—meaning if sales did not cover the publishing expenses, Austen would have had to make up his losses. However, the book sold well and made a profit of 140 pounds on the first edition, and a second edition was published two years later. Neither edition bore the author’s name: the title page said only that Sense and Sensibility was written “By a Lady.”

Within a few months of its publication in late 1811, Sense and Sensibility had many admirers, including among the highest in society. Princess Charlotte, the Prince Regent’s daughter, wrote that she thought Marianne Dashwood much like herself. The Countess of Bessborough wrote in a letter, “Have you read ‘Sense and Sensibility’? It is a clever novel. They were full of it at Althorp, and tho’ it ends stupidly I was much amus’d by it—”[1]

The Countess might have been the first person to express the opinion that the ending of Sense and Sensibility was “stupid,” but she was hardly the last. Many readers have had difficulty with various characters. Elinor Dashwood, with her good sense, well-developed sense of justice, and occasionally wicked sense of humor, is nearly universally liked; but her sister does not fare so well. Romantic, headstrong Marianne is amusing to some, and annoying to others.

The girls’ suitors do not fare well with some critics, either. Edward Ferrars is seen as weak and bland, and Colonel Brandon’s affection for Marianne is considered hard to believe and, because of their age difference, a little creepy. Elinor and Brandon are seen by many as a much more suitable couple; but I submit that Brandon could only fall in love with Marianne. He was not looking for romance or for a wife, Mrs. Jennings’ matchmaking notwithstanding; he fell in love with Marianne because she reminded him of his lost love, Eliza. Marianne was about the same age as Eliza when Brandon “lost” her—when she married his brother. He felt that he had failed Eliza by going away and not staying to look after her, and in Marianne he perhaps felt he had a do-over; but can he save her as he failed to save Eliza?

Edward Ferrars is a sober young man, certainly; he does not read poetry with sufficient feeling for Marianne, and Austen herself writes, “Edward Ferrars was not recommended to their good opinion by any peculiar graces of person or address. He was not handsome, and his manners required intimacy to make them pleasing.” This is certainly not a description meant to create flutters in a young girl’s heart. However, Elinor Dashwood is the steadying influence in her family—not only of Marianne and young Margaret, but also of her mother, who also has a tendency to be romantic and to not think things through very carefully. She is not looking for someone dashing, and the reader only has to wait with Elinor to see if Edward shows his quality, and that he can be as honorable and steadfast as Elinor deserves.

I think the careful reader will find all the evidence she needs to be happy with the ending of the novel the way that Jane Austen wrote it. In the end, deserving characters get their rewards for good behavior and good choices, and the reader can close the cover of Sense and Sensibility (or turn off her e-reader!) with an untroubled heart: all is well in Devonshire. Jane Austen has made it so; and in Jane we trust.

Margaret C. Sullivan
Lafayette Hill, Pennsylvania
October 2011

[1] Althorp is the estate of the Earl of Spencer; the Countess was born a Spencer, and was the sister of the famous Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire, and the mother of Lady Caroline Lamb, famous for her affair with Lord Byron.

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