Sense and Sensibility: New Riverside Editions

This is my first review for the ‘Sense and Sensibility Bicentenary Challenge 2011’ hosted by Laurel Ann of Austenprose. (Here is my introductory post: ‘By a Lady‘.)

All writers begin as readers, and Austen’s earliest compositions, including her early novels Sense and Sensibility and Northanger Abbey, are particularly literary in nature. We cannot fully appreciate these works without some knowledge of the literary conventions that inform them. In both Love and Freindship and Sense and Sensibility, the major genre commented upon is the novel of Sensibility, which was hugely popular in the second half of the eighteenth century. Both works are also influenced by another genre that became prevalent in the late eighteenth century: the novel satirizing what were perceived to be the absurdities or dangers of Sensibility. (p.2)

So says Beth Lau in her Introduction to the New Riverside Edition of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, and it is to provide “some knowledge of the literary conventions that inform” Sense and Sensibility that this edition was made.

New Riverside titles will reflect the recent surge of interest in the connections among literary activity, historical change, and social and political issues …. The New Riverside Editions respond to recent changes in literary studies …. Issues and debates crucial to a book’s author and original audience find voice in selections from contemporary writings of many kinds as well as in early reactions and reviews. (p. viii)

And that is pretty much what it does. I found it very enjoyable to read Sense and Sensibility again, comparing it to other literature of the time, and with the information and ideas included in the introduction and supplementary material in this edition.

In the Introduction, Beth Lau compares Sense and Sensibility with other books of the time, discusses the rise of Sensibility, or sentimentalism, in the eighteenth-century, its acceptance and criticisms, and introduces various, and conflicting, views of the novel. Wrapping up, she writes, “Far from being flawed by rigid adherence to a strict opposition between Elinor and Marianne, sense and Sensibility, the novel [Sense and Sensibility] is rich and dynamic in the multiplicity of perspectives it offers.” (p. 18)

The text of Sense and Sensibility is presented with a few short footnotes scattered throughout that introduce the reader to various authors and historical people mentioned in the novel, defines several words whose meanings have somewhat changed, explains various period articles, such as a barouche, comments on any variation from the generally used text, &c. They are brief, informative, and unobtrusive.

The supplementary material included in the book include excerpts from several contemporary writers. Excerpts from Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792), and Maria Edgeworth’s Letters of Julia and Caroline (1795), are included, as well as all of Jane Austen’s very capable parody of the literature of Sensibility, Love and Freindship (1790).

In The Sorrows of Young Werther, the main character, Werther, falls in love with an engaged woman, Charlotte. She loves him in return, but goes ahead and marries Albert, her fiancé. “She would have been happier with me,” claims Werther, “than with him. Albert is not the man to satisfy the wishes of such a heart. He lacks a certain sensibility; he lacks—put it any way you like—their hearts don’t beat in unison.” (p.282) Unlike Willoughby, who shows great “incivility in surviving” (p. 275) the loss of Marianne, when Charlotte finally decides that she and Werther must meet no more, Werther kills himself.

Love and Freindship is great fun! The “heroine”, Laura, writes to the daughter of a friend of hers, “A sensibility too tremblingly alive to every affliction of my Freinds, my Acquaintance and particularly to every affliction of my own, was my only fault, if a fault it could be called.” (p. 293) Not all of the characters in Love and Freindship have the same “tremblingly alive” sensibility as Laura, however. At one point she and her friend Sophia meet the daughter of a widow, a girl “who was then just seventeen—One of the best of ages; but alas! she was very plain and her name was Bridget. … Nothing therefore could be expected from her—she could not be supposed to possess either exalted Ideas, Delicate Feelings or refined Sensibilities—She was nothing more than a mere good-tempered, civil and obliging Young Woman; as such we could scarcely dislike her—she was only an Object of Contempt.” (p. 309)

Mary Wollstonecraft wrote a critique of Sensibility, A Vindication of the Rights of Women. The excerpts of it included in this volume begin with this: “My own sex, I hope, will excuse me, if I treat them like rational creature, instead of … viewing them as if they were in a state of perpetual childhood, unable to stand alone.” (p. 317) She continues on to say, “I wish to shew that elegance is inferior to virtue” (p. 317). At one point, Mary Wollstonecraft seems to be recommending the kind of marriage that Colonel Brandon and Marianne achieved:

Personal attachment is a very happy foundation for friendship; yet, when even two virtuous young people marry, it would, perhaps, be happy if some circumstances checked their passion; if the recollection of some prior attachment, or disappointed affection, made it on one side, at least, rather a match founded on esteem. In that case they would look beyond the present moment, and try to render the whole of life respectable, by forming a plan to regulate a friendship which only death ought to dissolve. (p. 319)

Colonel Brandon, however, is deeply in love with Marianne, and she falls as deeply in love with him, and according to Mary Wollstonecraft, “[O]ne grand truth women have yet to learn, though much it imports them to act accordingly. In the choice of a husband, they should not be led astray by the qualities of a lover—for a lover the husband, even supposing him to be wise and virtuous, cannot long remain.” (p. 320) How pessimistic!

Maria Edgeworth’s Letters of Julia and Caroline is a novel of “contrasting characters”. Two letters from it are included in this volume, one from Julia (a young woman of a sentimental disposition) to Caroline (a sensible, feeling young woman), and then Caroline’s reply to Julia. Julia writes,

In vain, dear Caroline, you urge me to think, I profess only to feel. “Reflect upon my own feelings! analyze my notions of happiness! explain to you my system!” My system! But I have no system: that is the very difference between us. …. Philosophy becomes the rigid mistress of your life, enchanting enthusiasm the companion of mine. (p. 321)

What has a woman to do with philosophy? The graces flourish not under her empire; a woman’s part in life is to please …. The moment grave sense, and solid merit appear, adieu the bewitching caprice, the “lively nonsense,” the exquisite, yet childish susceptibility which charms, interest, captivates. Believe me, our amiable defects win more than our noblest virtues. (p. 323)

Caroline, of course, objects strongly to this, and writes back,

I must, dear Julia, venture to … dissipate that unjust dread of perfection which you seem to have continually before your eyes. (p. 323)

Conscious of her worth, and daring to assert it, I would have a woman, early in life, know that she is capable of filling the heart of a man of sense and merit—That she is worthy to be his companion and friend. With all the energy of her soul, with all the powers of her understanding, I would have a woman endeavour to please those she esteems and loves. (p. 326)

An essay by Kenneth L. Moler, “Sense and Sensibility and Its Sources”, which “describes and analyzes several novels of contrasting characters that may have influenced Sense and Sensibility” (p. 328), is in the back, followed by excerpts from  four other essays (the last one, by Barbara K. Seeber, is, I believe, included in its entirety). These essays contain very differing points of view. Two seem to be “pro-Elinor”, while the two following seem to be “pro-Marianne” (in a somewhat broad categorization). Moler says in his essay, “I do not, however, wish to stress particular sources for Jane Austen’s novel so much as to suggest that there is no one particular source” (p. 333).

Marilyn Butler’s essay, “Sense and Sensibility”, compares, among other things, Elinor’s objective position, to Marianne’s more subjective one. Like Jane Austen’s other heroines, Elinor is not perfect, but, rather, a flawed individual. Marilyn Butler writes:

It is easy to mistake Elinor’s sense for coldness. She is intended to be quite as loving and quite as accessible to “feeling” as Marianne. The difference between them is one of ideology—Marianne optimistic, intuitive, un-self-critical, and Elinor far more sceptical, always ready to study the evidence, to reopen a question, to doubt her own prior judgements. She can be ready to revise her opinion of Willoughby. She can admit her mistakes, as she does of her wrong estimate of Marianne’s illness. The point about both episodes is that Elinor was never intended to be infallible, but to typify an active, struggling Christian in a difficult world. Indeed, Jane Austen clearly argues that we do not find the right path through the cold, static correctness of a Lady Middleton, but through a struggle waged daily with our natural predisposition to err.” (p. 343)

Susan Morgan’s “Polite Lies and the Veiled Heroine of Sense and Sensibility” has some interesting things to say about Marianne and Elinor:

The extent of Marianne’s misguidedness is perfectly caught when she informs Edward Ferrars, “At my time of life opinions are tolerably fixed. It is not likely that I should now see or hear anything to change them”. It is a shocking remark, shocking not just at seventeen but at any age. Apart from its vanity, it implies a rigidity of mind and denial of experience … (p. 350)

Elinor is a flawed heroine, not in the simpler sense of Marianne, through making mistakes and learning to see them, but in the more interesting sense of using an awareness of her own failings as a factor in maintaining a continuing and flexible process of judgment. A possible reason for the abiding claim among critics that she increases in sensibility, in spite of the textual evidence, may be that Elinor simply cannot be thought of as a static heroine and we are properly reluctant to see her as perfect.” (p.352)

Angela Leighton’s essay, “Sense and Silences”, seemed to me to have many holes in its argument, but, as the whole essay was not included, perhaps some things are cleared up in the rest of it. The author, however, in her discussion of the ending of the novel, forgets this quote from the author’s perspective (as opposed to that of any of the characters): “Marianne could never love by halves; and her whole heart became, in time, as much devoted to her husband, as it had once been to Willoughby.” Fans of Colonel Brandon, beware—this essay will displease you.

More than one of the essays contains mistakes, but the last one, “I See Every Thing As You Desire Me to Do” by Barbara K. Seeber, stood out in this way by beginning with a misquote: “Such behaviour as this, so exactly the reverse of her own, appeared no more meritorious to Marianne than her own had seemed faulty to [Elinor].” (p. 366) In the book this sentence quoted ends with “her”, which refers to Marianne, not to Elinor. The same misquote is repeated towards the end of the essay. This essay is “anti-Elinor”. She is presented as selfish and over-bearing.

Whether or not I agree with the points of all the essays, it is interesting to see the varying points of view pertaining to this novel. They cause one to think, and they remind me of why I agree or disagree with them.

There are a couple of things I found rather disappointing about this edition of Sense and Sensibility. The cover is much darker than the picture on Amazon shows and is quite blurry. I was disappointed, as the cover looks very pretty on Amazon. Fortunately, however, the cover doesn’t detract from the content. I was also disappointed that the excerpts from the “Contemporary writings” weren’t a bit longer and that the essays were not all complete. On the other hand, they were long enough to make me very curious to read the entire works.


All quotes with their page numbers are taken from Sense and Sensbility (New Riverside Editions), by Jane Austen, Beth Lau, and Alan Richardson (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2002. ISBN: 0618084835).

One comment on “Sense and Sensibility: New Riverside Editions

  1. Thanks for bringing this edition to my attention. It seems very interesting – and the supplemental material quite enlightening.

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