A Story of Sisters: Austen’s Sense & Sensibility
Originally Published December 2017
My faithful readers will know that Sense & Sensibility was the first of Jane Austen’s books that I read. For a long time it was my favorite book. I think that’s because, in many ways, I am like Elinor. I could identify with her desire to take care of her family, making sure that, no matter what, they always had what they needed. If only I could say I have always shown her level of poise and grace. I also have a heavy dose of Marianne’s romantic nature, which may or may not be a good thing.
Sense & Sensibility does not center on a love story. The central relationship in the book is the relationship between Elinor and Marianne. It is a story about sisters and how they relate to each other, conflict with each other, rely on each other, and support each other. Having five sisters myself, and a unique relationship with each one, I know what this is like. While it’s wonderful to fall in love with a good man, no other relationship is quite like the one between sisters.
Jane Austen’s exploration of sister-relationships is not unique to Sense & Sensibility. In Pride & Prejudice, we have the five Bennet sisters. Persuasion has the three very different Elliott women. In a minor capacity, Emma shows us the differences between Mr. Woodhouse’s daughters. Mansfield Park is a different sort of beast, with the cousin/sister relationship between Fanny Price and the Bertram sisters, and, towards the end of the book, the newly-discovered relationship between the Price sisters. Only in Northanger Abbey is the relationship between actual sisters nearly non-existent. But the one book where the sister relationship is most noticeably at the forefront is Sense & Sensibility.
Elinor and Marianne Dashwood are the opposite personalities of the book’s title. Practical Elinor shows the sense, while romantic Marianne is the sensibility. When both sisters appear to lose everything else, they must lean on each other to hold onto the hope that they so desperately need. Their differing personalities serve to strengthen their friendship and provide an avenue to explore new perspectives. Yet the sister relationship is actually stronger than friendship. I can’t help but wonder how much of the relationship between Elinor and Marianne was inspired by Jane Austen’s relationship with her own sister, Cassandra. My sisters are probably not friends I would have chosen for myself, but the bond I feel with them is greater than any bond of friendship. When we look at the story of Elinor and Marianne—who have little reason to hope that they will ever marry—we see how important it is to hold onto the relationships we do have.
But the fact that they have little reason to hope for marriage is why their personality differences are so important. Much is made of the fact that, near the end of the book, Marianne decides to adopt some of Elinor’s sense, but we tend to overlook that Elinor also takes a little of Marianne’s sensibility. Throughout the novel, Marianne refuses to give up hope that she will not only find a husband, but that she will find a husband who mirrors the men in the romantic poems and novels that she reads—wealthy, handsome, and desperately in love. She learns, though, that trying to live out the plot of a romantic story will not make her happy and could end in tragedy. A little bit of practicality will actually do more to fulfill her dreams than constantly dreaming will.
Elinor, on the other hand, spends much of the novel believing that there are many practical things needed to make a marriage work, no matter how much love exists between husband and wife. Yet, instead of pursuing Colonel Brandon—whom friends and family believe would be a great match for her and who could provide a comfortable living—Elinor continues to love a man she believes she can’t have. In the end, when she learns that she can marry Edward, she doesn’t let practicality get in the way. They are by no means wealthy, but they are comfortable and very much in love.
Anyone with sisters knows that, despite being born to and raised by the same parents, we can have very different personalities. But like any good team, this is what allows our relationships to be so strong. We learn from our sisters in ways we can’t learn from anyone else. Sisters help us to look from a different perspective and consider possibilities we might not have considered before. They can help us to become our best selves.
This is only one of the many things I have to say about Sense & Sensibility. When thinking about this blog, I had so many thoughts and knew that it would take more than one post to cover them all. That’s what you can expect when you’ve read a book more times than you can remember. I’m sure any book I’m passionate about will be that way. If this post has sparked any thoughts in your own mind, I would love to hear them!