The Short Version: Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, sisters of an eligible age, deal with the trials and tribulations of loving the wrong men – whether Marianne’s dashing but inconstant Willoughby or Elinor’s seemingly-already-taken Edward. Meanwhile, their relations get all sorts of wrong ideas and are generally annoying people.
The Review: I have to say, I was actually genuinely surprised by this novel. That is, I was surprised by part of it. I expected, for some reason, that the couplings would pair off differently than they did – or, at least, I wasn’t expecting Elinor and Mr. Ferrars to end up together. This just goes to show, I suppose, that even someone who I might still be inclined to write off as an author of simply-diversionary-literature cannot be, in fact, so easily brushed aside.
I’m coming to understand more of the enduring pleasure of Ms. Austen’s work, I must say. As much as it all still seems to mostly be about balls/dances/parties and missed understandings between men and women, there’s a certain pleasure to be derived from just that. When Marianne takes a tumble while walking and Willoughby swoops in to ‘save’ her, it’s a damned dashing moment. And his betrayal struck me hard, dear reader. Not as hard as it strikes Marianne, for sure – who was, I have to say, maybe overreacting a bit – but still. I was surprised. I was angry. I was ready for Elinor to kick his ass – which, to her credit, she sort of does in their final meeting.
I think the most enjoyable facet of this book is the relationship between the two sisters. Yes, there are the Bennet sisters of course – but there are far too many of them and you never really get the sense (perhaps because of their numbers) that they truly have that deep-seated sibling bond in the way that Elinor and Marianne do. Half the book, I was forgetting that they had a third sister – and, not to be picky, but she probably could’ve been done away with and nobody would really have noticed. Sorry, Margaret, but I’d wager it’s true. I liked the way that they balanced each other, even as they fulfilled certain stereotypes or broadly structured outlines of “womanhood” (the outwardly swooning romantic vs. the serious one who, on the inside, longs for the swooning). They made a good team.
I feel a bit bad for Colonel Brandon, to be honest. Poor chap might be the most interesting character in the book, in a way – he’s off doing all kinds of things, has a whole strange and tumultuous past, and is a bit older in a sort of awkward way… but he never really gets much time to do his thing. He’s pining after Marianne, pretending he’s not, and never really does much more. Oh, sure, he does plenty of plot things – but the other gentlemen have a bit more nuance to them. The old man (as Marianne sees him, anyway) never gets to have the fun that the others do – and this disappoints me a touch. But, then, that’d be a very different book and quite likely not one Ms. Austen would’ve even considered writing.
Rating: 4 out of 5. Not actually knowing the plot of this arguably-second-most-famous Austen novel made it more enjoyable for me than its ‘sibling’ piece, Pride and Prejudice. Austen’s wit is as engaged as ever and there are even some rather flustery, wave-your-hand-demurely sort of moments – although I think P&P had a better share of those. Anyway, not the point: I found that the Dashwood sisters were most engaging and vivacious. Their exploits, along with their mother, felt… well, I got a sense of the humanity of the Regency. It all seemed real, as opposed to a dressed-up fancy story. I quite liked that.