Laughing Out Loud With Jane Austen; ‘Sense and Sensibility’ as Tragi-Comedy…


220px-Sense_and_Sensibility_Illustration_Chap_12Recently, I re-read ‘Sense and Sensibility’.

That is my favourite Jane Austen novel. The humour is brilliant; it made me laugh out loud a few times, and I can be hard to please.

‘Pride and Prejudice’ is equally funny, of course, and much lighter in overall tone; there is also the happy ending to the love affair of Jane and Bingley which is denied to Marianne and Willoughby. I loved the portrayals of vulgar relatives, the ‘pompous nothings’ of Mr Collins and his self-serving hypocrisy.

But in some ways, because I did ‘Pride and Prejudice’ for ‘A’ level, part of the fun was taken out of it on that first reading, seeing that you have to read with ‘an analytical eye’. You’ve got your notes to hand; look out for such-and-such. It was a wonderful piece of light relief after ‘Samson Agoniste’s’ (a poem I dislike to this day) and all the rest, though, and the first time I had read any Jane Austen.

My own delight in discovering her sense of the absurd, her penetrating exposure of hypocrisy – shared by so many readers over two centuries – was for me as for countless others, accompanied by the feeling that ‘Why didn’t people who recommended it tell me that this classic is so brilliantly funny? Saying, ‘It’s very good,’ means nothing.’

If I’d thought anything in my early teens about Jane Austen, I’d assumed that her novels must be primarily romantic, revolving around improbable love affairs, like those of some of her predecessors like Samuel Richardson, and many of her famous admirers.

And there’s the irony; I’m far from addicted to stories with misty happy endings, but as I have said in previous posts, maybe part of this is that stories with such endings so often are peopled by ‘lay figures’ – cardboard characters with whom it is hard to empathize. Unluckily, writers who are capable of portraying realistic and sympathetic characters tend to write novels where a happy ending – even a qualified one – is not the necessary or even a likely outcome.

Like countless others, I have always wished that a repentant (and unmarried) Willoughby came back to Marianne and that Henry Crawford returned likewise, glowing with new-found resolve of reform, to Fanny Price (who had started to soften towards him). I wouldn’t think it realistic that either couple should be any more than moderately happy for many years, though; the males aren’t sufficiently elevated to make sterling husbands; leave that to the Dull but Worthies…

Jane Austen’s characters are fully believable; they come from an age where terrible social injustice and the existence of servant drudges was necessarily taken for granted;  the sexual repression of the women of the time runs like an underground current of electricity throughout her novels; but the humour shines clear through all that. The sense of humour of Fanny Burney is crudely snobbish; that of Jane Austen begins to expose such assumptions.

Here we have a wonderful description of Sir John’s household at Barton Park: ‘Sir John was a sportsman; Lady Middleton was a mother. He hunted and shot, and she humoured her children; and these were their only resources. Lady Middleton had the advantage of being able to spoil her children all the year round, while Sir John’s independent employments were in existence only half the time. ‘

Here is Willoughby’s mode of courting Marianne: ‘If their evenings at the Park were concluded with cards, he cheated himself and all the rest of the party to get her a good hand. If dancing formed the amusement of the night, they were partners for half the time; and when obliged to separate for a couple of dances, were careful to stand together, and scarcely spoke to anybody else.’

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Here is Willoughby on Colonel Brandon: – ‘”Brandon is just the kind of man,’ Willoughby said, when they were talking of him one day, ‘Whom everybody speaks well of, and nobody cares about; whom all are delighted to see, and none remember to talk to.”
“That is exactly what I think of him,” cried Marianne.
“Do not boast of it, however,” said Elinor, “for it is injustice in both of you. He is highly esteemed by all the family at the Park, and I never see him myself without taking care to converse with him.”
“That he is patronised by you,” replied Willoughby, “Is certainly in his favour; but as for the esteem of the others, it is a reproach in itself. Who would submit to the indignity of being approved by such women as Lady Middleton and Mrs Jennings, that could command the indifference of anybody else?”
“But perhaps the abuse of such people as yourself and Marianne will make amends for the regard of Lady Middleton and her mother. If their praise is censure, your censure may be praise; for they are not more undiscerning than you are prejudiced and unjust’.
“In defence of your protégé, you can even be saucy.”
“My protégé, as you call him, is a sensible man; and sense will always have attractions for me. Yes, Marianne, even in a man between thirty and forty.’

Elinor is a witty and independent minded heroine; not as lively as Elizabeth Bennet, but in some ways more discerning, so it is interesting that this book was the author’s first, initially written under the title of ‘Elinor and Marianne’ and edited and partly re-written in later years under its new title.

When the story moves towards the tragic – which happens all too soon – and Marianne’s inevitable disillusionment with her dashing, handsome admirer, the humour remains; but the tone is now tragic-comic:

There are the good-natured gossip Mrs Jennings attempts to console Marianne after she has learned of Willoughby’s engagement to the plain heiress Miss Grey: –
‘”My dear,” she said, “I have just recollected that I have some of the finest Constantia wine in the house that ever was tasted – so I have brought a glass of it for your sister. My poor husband! How fond he was of it! Whenever he had a touch of the cholicky gout, he said it did him more good than anything else in the world…”
‘Elinor, as she swallowed the chief of it, reflected that though its effects on cholicky gout were at present of little importance to her, its healing powers on a disappointed heart might be as reasonably tried on herself as on her sister…’

Elinor, of course, shares a mutual love with Edward Ferrars, who is being held to his engagement with the unprincipled and manipulative Lucy Steele. The smile that this episode gives us is a temporary respite from the stark tragedy of poor Marianne’s loss of her idol when Willoughby first reveals himself to be capable of acting as a vulgar fortune hunter.

More next time on the characters in ‘Sense and Sensibility’.

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