Sense and Sensibility: Insight Edition

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

This is a review of the annotated Insight Edition of Jane Austen’s novel Sense and Sensibility.

We do not have the living dead to offer in our annotated look at Sense and Sensibility [a reference to P&P&Z and S&S&SM 1]. Nor do we threaten her with dull, scholarly analysis. Rather, we leave Jane’s classic story untouched and focus on providing notes, facts, and thoughts in the margins that we hope will help you understand the story a little better, see the characters in a new light, or simply make you smile.

No PhD Austen scholars have joined our editorial team since [our annotation of Pride and Prejudice]. Through our research, we feel we know her life and work better, but we’re still just devoted fans. We reread her works, enjoy the same spinoff books you do, and argue over the same filmed versions. And because we work at Bethany House, we enjoy highlighting the quiet notes of faith that shine in her characters’ actions and words. (from the Editors’ Note, p. 7 2)

Some of the notes in this edition were interesting. The historical asides were sometimes handy when they defined words and the notes on Jane Austen’s life were also interesting on occasion. Very few of the other notes seemed worthwhile — informing us of such things as that Hugh Grant looked like his neck was in a brace in the 1995 movie and that Dad Stevens was too handsome for the part of Edward (p. 20). I was hoping that the “themes of faith” notes would be more thought-provoking than they turned out to be.

The notes were divided into seven categories: 1) “Historical and cultural details and definitions from England in the early 1800s”, 2) “Facts and tidbits from Austen’s life that parallel or illuminate the novel”, 3) “References to S&S in today’s culture, particularly in film”, 4) “Unscientific ranking of the novel’s most frustrating characters”, 5) “Themes of faith drawn from the novel or Austen’s life”, 6) “Comments and asides on the book’s characters and plot”, and 7) “The parts of the novel that just make us smile” (p. 8).

Probably the most helpful of the notes were the “Historical and cultural” notes. They give the definitions of such words as “superannuated”, “demesne”, and “jointure”, as well as commenting on Cowper, carriages, places such as Devon and Sussex, life expectancy, &c. Most of these notes are only a few words long, but a few have more to them. An example is the note to Edward Ferrar’s listing of his career options, “I was therefore entered at Oxford and have been properly idle ever since.” The editors noted, “The careers Edward lists are the only options socially acceptable to the gentry and aristocracy. In some ways, men were almost as trapped by societal constraints as women.” (p. 100).

The “Facts and tidbits from Austen’s life” were sometimes interesting. To the line from the novel “What brother on earth would do half so much for his sisters, even if really his sisters!” the tidbit is offered, “Jane’s brother, Edward, offered Chawton Cottage to his mother, Jane, and Cassandra — four years after their father died.” (p. 15). To Marianne’s comment that “A woman of seven and twenty … can never hope to feel or inspire affection again”, the notes observe that “Jane was 19 when she began S&S and 36 when she published it.” (p. 42).

Very few of the “References to S&S in today’s culture” were particularly interesting. They inform the reader of such things as “In Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, Colonel Brandon receives a summons to Sub-station Beta, a domed, undersea city” (p. 66) instead of the telegram that breaks up the party to Whitwell. Or, “It must be stated that the hairstyles of the Colonel, Sir John, and John Dashwood in the 1971 miniseries seems to have been stolen from the 1968 classic Planet of the Apes. And not from the humans …” There are also listings of the editors’ favorite Brandons, Mariannes, and Elinors from the various movie renditions. These would probably have been more interesting if they had stated why they were their favorites.

The “rankings of the novel’s most frustrating characters” are just that — lists of unlikable characters, headed by whichever happens to be the most annoying or despicable at the moment.

The “Themes of faith” were not very deep, but there were a few that were interesting. When Willoughby tells Elinor, “I have, by raising myself to affluence, lost everything that could make it a blessing”, the editors comment, “This rare bit of perception on Willoughby’s part brings to mind the words of Christ in the Gospels, ‘For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?'” (p. 286). There were excerpts from prayers that Jane Austen wrote, jotted in at appropriate passages. However, many of the notes were no more than observing that “Out of sacrificial love, Elinor looks first to the needs of others” (p. 28), when she allows her mother to move farther from Norland than she wished to do.

A number of the “Comments and asides on the book’s characters and plot” were thought-provoking. One question that gets several notes is the “question of when self-control becomes denial or emotional dishonesty” (p. 101). Quite a few of them, however, were nothing more than, “That was a 110-word sentence” (p. 121) or, to Willoughby’s cutting a lock of Marianne’s hair, “This is an old-fashioned romantic gesture that weirds us out a little” (p. 62).

“The parts of the novel that just make us smile” notes are little asides on the humorous side of the novel. To Marianne being “reasonable enough to allow that a man of five and thirty might well have outlived all acuteness of feeling and every exquisite power of enjoyment” and being “perfectly disposed to make every allowance for the colonel’s advanced state of life which humanity required”, the editors comment that “Those of us over 35 would take offense, but we’ve outlived the ability to be annoyed.” (p. 39). That comment did make me smile!

There is a list of twelve “Questions for Conversation” in the back of the book — “perfect for book discussion groups”, according to the back cover. One of the questions is one that is considered several times in the notes: “Was Elinor right in holding her secret about Edward from her mother and Marianne? Is there a difference between being emotionally composed and lying about your feelings?” (p. 340). One of the questions focuses on Marianne’s worldview: “Do you believe ‘true love’ means loving only one person in a lifetime?” (p. 340). Another of the questions is “Which of the many aggravating characters did you like the least?” (p. 341).

I do not agree with the editors’ interpretations of everything. For example, the editors suggest that Edward kept his engagement to Lucy Steele partly to avoid “a costly lawsuit” (p. 235). Jane Austen, however, writes that Edward had always believed Lucy “to be a well-disposed, good-hearted girl, and thoroughly attached to himself. Nothing but such a persuasion could have prevented his putting an end to [their] engagement” (Ch. 49, p. 327). I also found many of the notes dull. This edition is a light look at Sense and Sensibility — it really did not add much to my reading experience. However, for those who just want a little unobtrusive insight while they read, this is a fine choice.


1 That is, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (by Seth Grahame-Smith) and Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters (by Ben H. Winters): “Since our annotation of Pride and Prejudice was published, a bright spotlight has shone on Jane Austen’s world and her novels. Anne Hathaway portrayed her on the big screen, new interpretations of her novels were shown on PBS and the BBC, and her most beloved characters were attacked by zombies and giant lobsters.” (from the Editors’ Note, p. 7).

2 All quotes with their page numbers are taken from Sense and Sensbility (Insight Edition), by Jane Austen, notes prepared by Jeff Braun, Carra Carr, Ellen Chalifoux, Amanda Hall, Julie Klassen, David Long, Sarah Long, Charlene Patterson, Carly Rygwalski, Raela Schoenherr, Karen Schurrer, and Sarah Young (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Bethany House Publishers, 2010. ISBN: 978-0-7642-0740-2).

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