torsdag 1 februari 2018

Elinor, Marianne and their beaux

I'm now one book down in my Jane Austen Rereading Project, having finished Sense and Sensibility. At the beginning, I must admit I didn't like it much, but it got more enjoyable as the story went on. The first 60 pages cover a lot of ground - in no time, Elinor meets Edward at Norland, the girls and their mother decamp to Barton Cottage, the family gets to know the Middletons and Colonel Brandon and Marianne is romanced by Willoughby - but the characters don't come properly to life until more dialogue is included. Elinor's and Marianne's stay in London may take more time than it needs to, as does the winding-up of the happy endings (so as to make them seem as realistic as possible, I suppose). However, as the characters have more to say for themselves and the author has more to say about them, it is on the whole time pleasantly spent.

So is Elinor a stick in the mud, and Marianne a complete flake, as one would have reason to fear from the setup of the book? Well, no, not entirely. At first, the novel does seem to be something of a "compare and contrast" exercise, but fortunately it's not quite as simple as that. I must admit that Elinor sometimes got on my nerves. It is very hard to imagine any nineteen-year-old in love behaving as she does and hiding her feelings as much as she can simply in order to spare her family worry. Also, there is a certain smugness about her - she's well aware that she's behaving more nobly than Marianne, and at one time even hopes that her greater fortitude will act as an inspiration to her sister. Add to this that I didn't always think her behaviour was as admirable as all that, and that the "sensibleness" of it carries its own risks. Granted that it's maybe not necessary to make such a meal out of one's broken heart as Marianne does in front of her concerned family, but to hide your heartbreak altogether means depriving your loved ones of any chance to comfort you. When Elinor takes such pains to hide her feelings for Edward from Marianne and her mother, can she really blame them when they end up with the impression that he's not that important to her after all? Elinor has better manners than Marianne - I feel a bit guilty now for stating that the novel's Marianne is "a great deal" more polite than the film's, because she can be very rude - but that doesn't necessarily mean that Elinor appreciates, say, the kindness of Mrs Jennings, more than Marianne does for the better part of the book; she's just better at hiding her sense of superiority. Both Dashwood girls think of themselves as a cut above the whole Middleton family. In one instance, Elinor's politeness (unsupported by any real warmth of feeling) is downright counterproductive: while Marianne distances herself from the Miss Steeles, Elinor suffers their company while despising them, which gives Lucy Steele the chance to make an unwilling confidante out of her.

At the end of the day, though, the sisters' real affection for each other makes them both likeable, and Elinor is not annoyingly sensible all of the time. She believes at one point on scant evidence that Edward is carrying a ring with a lock of her hair (which she never gave to him), and she does some endearing pining after him. For instance, she is pleased that she doesn't like Mr Palmer better than she does, even if he improves on acquaintance, because it enables her to compare him unfavourably with Edward.

The sisters' love interests are a little more problematic than the girls themselves. The providers of the happy endings long remain scantily characterised. We learn little more of Edward Ferrars and Colonel Brandon when they are first introduced than that they are "not handsome" and do not fulfil Marianne's romantic notions of how a man should be. It's small wonder that adapters have seen fit to ignore the "not handsome" tag for these suitors, especially in the cases of Alan Rickman as Colonel Brandon in the film and Dan Stevens (albeit with an unbecoming haircut) as Edward in the BBC adaptation. Of Brandon, we learn that he has a grave disposition, and he seems particularly unsuited to the lively Marianne. Even as we learn more of him - and his tragic past does much to make him more interesting as a potential suitor - he still appears as a better match for Elinor than for Marianne. I'm with Mrs Jennings and the mercenary John Dashwood on this one: Elinor and the Colonel would have made a fine couple. As for Edward, yes, he does reveal himself to be gently and self-deprecatingly amusing on topics such as admiration of nature, but it's still not entirely easy to see why Elinor should be so very much in love with him.

And as for the supposedly seductive Willoughby - I had forgotten just how awful his attempt at self-justification is, and it's made even more so by Elinor showing so much sympathy with him. From beginning to end, he is full of self-pity, and his only self-reproaches are of the dramatic "oh, what a fool I was to let this lovely woman go" kind. He has little real regret - certainly not when it comes to seducing the 15-year-old Eliza and leaving her pregnant - and is keen to blame any cruel behaviour towards Marianne on his wife. That the sensible Elinor should be so taken in by what this whining puppy has to say for himself is more than a little strange, even if she gradually comes to realise just how selfish his behaviour is. I stand by what I've implied earlier: the film did Willoughby a favour by cutting this scene.

I can understand why there are those who are disappointed in Marianne's fate; it is a little unfair to have her marry Colonel Brandon at a time when she's not yet in love with him and only feels "strong esteem and lively friendship" towards him. But she does grow to love him, and one thing's for certain - she didn't miss out in not becoming Mrs Willoughby.