The opening pages of Jane Austen's first published novel give no indication that her reputation, in this post-literate age, hinges on something rather hazily labeled “romance.” An impartial reader might in fact find “Sense and Sensibility”, at the outset, to be much more like a ledger sheet. Austen explains in exhaustive (and exhausting) detail the means by which the female members of the Dashwood family (mother and three daughters) are reduced from easy living in stately Norwood House to a hardscrabble existence in a mere cottage, with just “two maids and a man” to look after them. (No romantic notions about them, either; once they've been mentioned, they might as well be a microwave oven, a sewing machine, and an Oreck XL Upright for all the humanity they're allowed. Shakespeare at least gave his plebians all the best jokes, and Dickens couldn't get his to shut up.) I expect that people who might have skimmed over these initial pages previously will pay more attention to them now; I know I did. As someone whose 401k has been pretty much decimated and who's seen the value of his house tumble down to meet his mortgage, I've suddenly got a keen interest in the mechanics of financial collapse. Misery loves company, even if it's fictional.
The principal agent of the Dashwoods' ruin is the wife of their stepbrother, Mrs. John Dashwood, the first of many monsters in Austen's fiction. What makes her monstrous—as opposed to merely wicked, or venal—is her thorough and transcendent shamelessness. She is, as Quentin Crisp once described Joan Crawford, radioactive with belief in herself. She's proud, insensitive, and has a sense of entitlement that threatens to devour the entire time-space continuum. For that reason, she's a startlingly timely figure, as we're just now reaping the rewards of years of “self-esteem” programs in junior and middle schools, which have produced a generation of Gap-clad Mrs. John Dashwoods who carry cell phones and drive SUVs and who will feel thoroughly justified in running you down with the latter because dammit WHO SAID YOU COULD GET IN THEIR WAY. (I bet more than one of them has a totebag slung on her passenger seat with the slogan “An Elizabeth In a Darcy-less World.” Oh hell YEAH I do.)
Anyway, Austen's Mrs. John Dashwood (whom the author names Fanny) pretty much steals the show in the early chapters of “Sense & Sensibility,” the way Shelob the giant spider steals the show in the third “Lord of the Rings” film. Fanny's attack is no less lethal; when she hears that her father-in-law has extracted a promise from his son to look after the “interest” of his stepmother and stepsisters—and that her husband intends to fulfill the vow by settling a few thousand pounds on them—she begins methodically demolishing every single inference that has led to this generous impulse, from asking what “interest” really means, to questioning the extent to which her husband even owes his father a deathbed promise at all. When John Dashwood contemplates paying his sisters an annuity, then, instead of a large lump sum, Fanny has one of the best lines in the book. Speaking of her mother having been saddled with such obligations to three old servants, she says:
“Twice a year these annuities were to be paid; and then there was the trouble of getting it to them; and then one of them was said to have died, and afterward it turned out to be no such thing.”
The utter cad! Turning up ALIVE like that! People are just no damn good.
She then goes on to say, of her sister Dashwoods:
“They will live so cheap! Their housekeeping will be nothing at all. They will have no carriage, no horses, and hardly any servants; they will keep no company, and have no expenses of any kind! Only conceive how comfortable they will be! Five hundred a year! I am sure I cannot imagine how they will spend half of it; and as to your giving them more, it is quite absurd to think of it. They will be much more able to give you something.”
Soon she has so far undermined her husband’s finer impulses, that he begins to think himself spectacularly beneficent if he sends his stepsisters a fresh fish every now and then. It's a wonderfully comic scene, subtle and yet relentless, first revealing, then reveling in, human nature at its appalling worst.
Then there’s this scene, as Fanny watches the family’s belongings being moved from Norwood:
Mrs. John Dashwood saw the packages depart with a sigh: she could not help feeling it hard that as Mrs. Dashwood’s income would be so trifling in comparison with their own, she should have any handsome article of furniture.
How bracingly, scaldingly hilarious. Fanny Dashwood has booted her mother-and-sisters-in-law from the only home they've ever known, and wheedled them out of obtaining a single penny of their inheritance; then she has the sheer cojones to resent them taking their own possessions with them, because what do POOR people need nice things for. This is bravura stuff; world-class ghastliness.
But with that Fanny is moved offstage, and a lot of the energy of the novel goes with her. We’re left with the displaced Dashwood sisters as principals, which is not, at this point, entirely cause for rejoicing. All we know of them so far is that Elinor governs her feelings, and Marianne indulges hers. Maybe that’s all we need to “get” them; after all, these are well-known character types, not only in literature but in life. (Marianne is the girl outside the bar, alternately shrieking “Whooo!” and throwing up on the sidewalk, and Elinor is the one pulling up to the curb to rescue her, while saying, “This is absolutely the last time I do this,” which even she doesn’t believe.)
But alas, Austen is not yet at the height of her powers. This is the only time in the canon where she presents us with two heroines instead of one, and we can see, for the first and only time, some of the thematic scaffolding holding up the narrative. Elinor represents the legacy of the Age of Reason; Marianne, the new Romantic movement that urges instead the primacy of feeling. This was the great matter of the early Nineteenth Century, driven by thinkers like Rousseau and Baudelaire, and debated hotly in coffee houses all across England. (Coffee houses were breeding grounds of intellectual ferment in those days; I don’t know why.)
It’s fairly easy to tell which side of the argument Austen favors. True, she’s a little bit in love with Marianne, who sweeps through the novel in a whirl of crinoline. She’s more filly than human; you almost expect her to neigh and paw the floor with her foot. But Elinor is steadfast; Elinor is measured in all things; she’s a goddamn bionic woman. She self-calibrates so much you can practically hear her go whirr, click. There’s nothing remotely attractive about her except her reliability and her faultless good manners, and when a writer puts a character like this at the center of a novel—like a bottle of milk in the middle of a sumptuous feast—you just know you’re seeing a self-projection. “Here’s me, all scrubbed of imperfections,” she’s saying. It’s a feat she’d try time and again in future novels, with both greater and lesser success (Elinor is a dish of tepid tea next to Lizzie Bennet; but she’s a feral, howling she-wolf next to Fanny Price).
What we still don’t have, five chapters into the Austen corpus, is a hint of romance. And by that, I mean the passionate, worlds-colliding, pull-the-sky-down-from-the-heavens-because-your-hand-touched-mine-in-the-barouche business people have come to expect from Austen because of the way Austen “fans” go on about her.
Oh, sure, we have a He and a She, and the stirrings of interest between them, and a Great Impediment, in the form of an iron-fisted mother (on his side) and a lack of fortune (on hers; Austen never forgets that ledger sheet, and never lets us forget it either). But the manner in which this epic, thwarted love is put forth is scarcely the stuff of Hollywood films:
He was not handsome, and his manners required intimacy to make them pleasing. He was too diffident to do justice to himself; but when his natural shyness was overcome, his behaviour gave every indication of an open affectionate heart.
Jesus. Put that in a personal ad and see how many Elizabeths-Seeking-Darcys flood your freakin’ In Box.
So Austen has, a little perversely, given her melba-toast heroine a rye-crisp hero. It doesn’t bode well for the narrative, from the reader’s point of view; but to her credit, she allows Marianne to stop twirling around like Stevie Nicks with a pashmina long enough to rebuke her sister for her mealy-mouthed praise of her fella:
“Esteem him! Like him! Cold-hearted Elinor! Oh! worse than cold-hearted! Ashamed of being otherwise. Use those words again and I will leave the room this moment.”
Elinor of course remains stolid and temperate; Marianne remains voluble and reactive. And as Reason and Romanticism bang away at each other like copper pots, we’re left longing for Mrs. John Dashwood to come back into the story, having figured out a way to extort Marianne’s piano from the parlor where the movers have just set it, and as long as the men are still here could they please move the island of Britain a few inches to the left, thank you and good afternoon.
But never mind; other grotesques are just around the corner.