Northern Mummy

General thoughts and wittering about all sorts of things

Sense and Sensibility

on November 20, 2010

OK, Sense and Sensibility – my second Austen read for the challenge.  Really should have written this before now, as it was a while ago that I actually finished it and my head is now full of something entirely different, having discussed Sebastian Faulks’ A Week in December at reading group last night!

A mistake I made, which I would advise against and steer clear of in future, was deciding to watch the film version, starring Emma Thompson, Kate Winslet, Greg Wise et al the night before I began reading the book.  What can I say? – we were on holiday, we had the novelty of “live” TV (only iPlayer and DVDs at home), the film was about to start and I had just finished a reading group book and was ready to start the next Austen the following day… it seemed fitting.  However, when I began to read I found it very difficult to “un-see” Emma, Kate and the rest when visualising the action in my mind.  Harriet Walter was the chief offender, appearing extremely clearly as my mental image of Fanny Dashwood!

It has been several years since I last read this novel and, having seen the film and the recent BBC dramatisation in the intervening time, I had forgotten quite how involved and nuanced the story is, in comparison to dramatised adaptations.  The character of Lucy Steele, as a most prominent example, is far more complex than she is portrayed on film and TV.  Her dramatised self often comes across as sweet and naive (and in the BBC version, seduced), deluding herself into believing that the man she fell in love with and became engaged to as a teenager is still the one for her despite the fact that four years later they are both different people who hardly know each other.  It is therefore much more shocking when she suddenly transfers her “affections” to Robert when Edward is disinherited.  In the book, she is far from sweet.  Jane Austen spares no opportunity to paint her – through the eyes of Elinor, from whose point of view she is described – first as uneducated and uninteresting, even before she confides in her about her secret engagement to Edward, then as devious and rather spiteful, persisting in describing her relationship to Edward to ensure that Elinor understands that she has the prior claim, with no regard for Elinor’s feelings.  Elinor is under no illusion that Lucy might not be aware of her feelings for Edward or that she would have any other motive for taking every chance to talk about him with her, than to “warn her off”, and is therefore put in the position of trying to give the impression that she is a disinterested friend and undergoing the pain of hearing about the attachment of the man she loves to another woman (although this is not entirely undesirable to her, as talking about him in any way seems to be somewhat enjoyable to her!).  Lucy’s behaviour also subjects Edward, the man she is purported to love, to extreme discomfort when he arrives to visit Elinor and finds Lucy already there with her.  I find her entirely unsympathetic (although enjoyable to read about), as opposed to the innocent, betrayed, party that she is painted as in screen adaptations, the wrong done to her only exonerated by her behaviour towards Edward after he decides to stand by her after being threatened with disinheritance by his family.

This is just one example of how the book provides more life and flesh to the characters than can be possible in film and TV.  Although an omniscient narrator in some senses, Austen has a tendency to tell her stories from the point of view of her characters, which gives the reader an insight into their thoughts in a way that their speech does not.  Elinor’s perception of Lucy’s character could not be portrayed on screen in this way, because nothing that Lucy ever does or says betrays her motivation or feelings towards Elinor.  Although Elinor is probably correct in her assessment, this picture of Lucy is entirely constructed in her mind and therefore impossible to portray on screen without some kind of voice-over revealing her internal monologue which would completely detract from the action (believe me, I know – at school, in the days before Colin Firth, Jennifer Ehle and Andrew Davies we were subjected to a dreadful, old adaptation of Pride and Prejudice which revealed Elizabeth’s feelings to the viewer by means of shots of her writing in her diary, accompanied by a voice-over monologue, which usually began “I am mortified!”)

All in all, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed reading Sense and Sensibility as I’ve never thought of it as one of my favourite Austens (in fact I usually rate it my 5th favourite of the 6 novels) but there was a lot more to it than I remembered.


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