New Historian

Sense and Sensibility

Jane Austen

<![CDATA[This week marks the anniversary of the publication of Sense and Sensibility in 1811. The book went on to be hugely popular, but its author Jane Austen kept her identity a secret to all but an exclusive circle of friends and acquaintances. Austen's work is renowned for its wit and observations on the English middle and upper classes. In particular her insights into the lives of women during the early nineteenth century were as revelatory to her initial audience as they are to a modern one. These traits were apparent throughout her work, but are especially so in Sense and Sensibility, her debut novel. Austen was born on 16th December 1775 in rural Hampshire. She was the seventh of eight children born to a clergyman, and was home schooled for all but four years of her education. Throughout her youth she was an avid reader, and started writing her first short stories at the age of twelve. Her life was disrupted when her father retired in 1801 and moved the family to Bath. She found the town dull, but amused herself observing the complex rituals and traditions of society. Within two years of publication Sense and Sensibility sold out its initial run of 750 copies, and received several favourable reviews. Austen went on to write several other well regarded classics of English Literature, including 'Emma' and 'Pride and Prejudice', but remained anonymous until her death. So determined was she to preserve this secrecy that she hid the manuscripts she was working on whenever someone approached her study. There are several possible reasons for this. Firstly, in the early nineteenth century entering the public eye was associated with a loss of femininity for women. The recent trial of Thomas Hardy also hinted at the atmosphere of repression in England at the time, as government censors gained increasing influence from the paranoia of the escalating Napoleonic Wars. The story depicts the lives of the Dashwoods in the aftermath of the death of Henry, the family's father. In particular it focuses on his second wife and three daughters, Marianne, Elinor and Margaret. The four women are left penniless because all of Henry's estate has passed to the son of his first wife. The Dashwoods are reluctantly staying with their distant relatives the Middletons at Barton Park. Elinor and Marianne meet a host of new acquaintances there, but Elinor is ultimately deeply upset to find the man she had been courting prior to her father's death, Edward Ferrars, in secretly engaged to Lucy Steele. Marianne is left equally distraught when she learns that John Willoughby, the man she has been openly courting with, must go to London on business. Throughout the remainder of the novel, a series of complex romantic entanglements ensue. Marianne and Elinor (who represent the Sense and Sensibility of the title) suffer from the self interest of unscrupulous men. The main focus of the novel however, is society, and the lengths certain people will go to gain greater credibility. Relationships are built purely for status and financial gain. There is ultimately a happy ending for Marianne and Elinor, but the novel reveals the complicated workings and customs of high society through their often naïve eyes. The anonymity Austen achieved in life quickly disappeared after her death. Pride and Prejudice and Emma are perhaps the two most well known of her novels and have become well read classics. The anniversary of the publication of her debut novel is a good time to familiarise oneself with the daring social commentary that introduced her to the world.

Related Books

Sense and Sensibility, and Persuasion
by Jane Austen

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