“We have neither of us anything to tell; you because you do not communicate, and I, because I conceal nothing.” Marianne Dashwood to her sister, Elinor.
And thus is Marianne’s yang to Elinor’s yin. Two halves of a whole, two women bound in love and in blood, as different and dependent as the sun and moon. Passion and logic. Emotion and propriety. ESFP and INTJ.
Jane Austen first crafted this story as an epistolary novel and titled it “Elinor and Marianne.” Although the structure would change as she revised the novel over fifteen years until it was published in 1811 as Sense and Sensibility, the relationship between these two young women remained its core.
But this novel isn’t about a conflict between sisters with opposing characters, one directed by Sense, the other driven by Sensibility. It’s about recognizing the sense and sensibility we each possess and how to release one and harness the other when love beckons and threatens in equal measure. It is about a quest for harmony and the embrace of one’s true self, about the ability to admit fallibility while still seeking personal growth. Sense and Sensibility is the Tao of Austen.
The moments of self-actualization are many and profound. Elinor’s is the least notable because she enters and remains the most centered and stable person; Colonel Brandon’s came many years before the novel takes place—we learn of it as he relates the sorrowful story of his lost love and the child he takes on as a ward; but John Willoughby, Edward Ferrars, Marianne Dashwood—each has a period of reckoning that challenges the weakest aspects of their characters and each arrives at a resolution.
Elinor may well be my favorite of Austen’s women (I hedge, because as soon as I reread Pride and Prejudice, I’ll claim it to be Lizzy). She is certainly the most dignified and humane. She is also the most relatable. Her compassion is justified and deeply-felt, which makes her uncharitable thoughts all the more delicious. In this comedy of manners, Elinor is above reproach, but beneath her unflappable surface is a wry sense of humor, prone to irony and exasperation.
Lucy was naturally clever; her remarks were often just and amusing; and as a companion for half an hour Elinor frequently found her agreeable; but her powers had received no aid from education: she was ignorant and illiterate; and her deficiency of all mental improvement, her want of information in the most common particulars, could not be concealed from Miss Dashwood, in spite of her constant endeavour to appear to advantage.
And although Edward Ferrars does not make my heart thump in the slightest, not compared to the enigmatic Mr. Darcy, the dashing Mr. Knightley, or the heroic Christopher Brandon, I have the most tender of spots reserved for the most hopeless of introverts:
My judgment," he returned, "is all on your side of the question; but I am afraid my practice is much more on your sister's. I never wish to offend, but I am so foolishly shy, that I often seem negligent, when I am only kept back by my natural awkwardness. I have frequently thought that I must have been intended by nature to be fond of low company, I am so little at my ease among strangers of gentility!"
Sense and Sensibility has Austen's most rousing cast of secondary characters, with the wicked witch Mrs. John Dashwood (portrayed with perfect insufferableness by Harriet Walter in the 1995 film adaptation. The one I must watch at least once a year), effusive, lovable busybody Mrs. Jennings, sly and silly Lucy Steele, and the preposterously mis-matched Mr. and Mrs. Palmer. But it is Elinor for whom I turn each page, in admiration and tenderness. It is Elinor who I most aspire to be, to create, who I wish I could have known, who I mourn because she is the closest connection to the author herself. Elinor had the Happily Ever After that Jane was denied.
“Know your own happiness. You want nothing but patience- or give it a more fascinating name, call it hope.”
The Tao of Elinor. The Tao of Jane Austen.
And now. I’m done parsing Jane Austen. For that is Sense. I read Jane Austen to indulge my Sensibility. I sink into her novels and want them never to end. I cherish her language, I adore her characters, I marvel at the simplicity and perfection of her plots, I cry because love triumphs in the end. There is just no making Sense of why I adore Jane Austen. There is only Sensibility: Capacity for refined emotion; delicate sensitiveness of taste; also, readiness to feel compassion for suffering, and to be moved by the pathetic in literature or art. (Oxford English Dictionary; 18th and early 19th c. Usage); the ability to appreciate and respond to complex emotional or aesthetic influences; sensitivity (Modern Usage).
Until next time, Jane.
Edited: Correction and Apologies to Harriet Walter!(less)
I wonder how it feels to be one of the thirty-one agents who rejected The Sparrow?
Oh, but I shouldn’t be so hard on hapless agents unable to recognize...moreI wonder how it feels to be one of the thirty-one agents who rejected The Sparrow?
Oh, but I shouldn’t be so hard on hapless agents unable to recognize genius or unwilling to take a risk. It took me many years (seventeen from its date of publication, five from when I became aware of it) to pick up Mary Doria Russell’s debut novel. And four days to devour it.
The threaded narrative is split in two by time and space, but follows the story of one man: Emilio Sandoz, a Jesuit priest from Puerto Rico with preternatural linguistic abilities. In 2022, Emilio and seven other crew members board the Stella Maris to explore the recently-discovered planet Rakhat. In 2059, Emilio returns from the mission alone, physically and psychologically broken. Although nearly forty years have passed on Earth since the doomed crew embarked on their voyage, Emilio—who travelled at light speed—is fresh from the horror. Not even three years have passed in his life since the Stella Maris's departure. The story of what happened to the crew had been relayed by another mission that followed a few years behind the Stella Maris. It is horrific—or we suppose it must be— for Russell raises the tension ante by shifting back to the recent future, keeping her hand on the release valve of the truth as the storylines gradually merge. Whatever happened, Emilio isn’t telling. His hands have been mutilated, he suffers debilitating migraines, and he refuses to defend himself against terrible accusations. The Father General of the Society of Jesus, Vincenzo Guiliani, gives Emilio two months at a retreat outside Naples to heal, then the questioning will begin.
Journey is a core theme of The Sparrow and the characters undertake many. The literal journey from Earth to a distant planet is the heart of the novel’s gripping premise, but the internal journeys make it fascinating and heartbreaking. There are journeys of faith, love, marriage, and ageing; journeys that test physical limits and break the spirit. The spiritual journeys resonate and Russell’s masterful plotting enthralls.
I’ve been thinking hard about this in the days since I finished The Sparrow and I struggle to come up with more than a few titles of books that have been as holistic a reading experience, in which my every literary need and desire have been so exquisitely satisfied. I managed White Dog Fell From the Sky, Eleanor Morse, Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell, Atonement, Ian McEwan, Matterhorn, Karl Marlantes, The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco, and A Suitable Boy, Vikram Seth. An eclectic mix, to be sure, but what they have in common is riveting story, characters who get under your skin, a scope awesome in size-either in research or world-building (or both) yet with deeply personal themes, and gorgeous but accessible prose. Each of these books changed me not just as a reader, but as a person. I add The Sparrow to this estimable collection.
Although I could have appreciated The Sparrow many years ago, I wonder if it would have touched me in the same way. The story caught me at a juncture of my own spiritual journey: the road that led me far from religion has crested a rise and I can see past the morass of dogma to the more orderly pursuit of theology. I am left with an inexplicable sense of beauty and hope and a renewed determination to continue my quest.
After forgoing The Sparrow for so long, why now? Well, that’s an easy one. I was gobsmacked by Mary Doria Russell’s most recent novel, Doc (review linked). If I could be this rapturous about a “western,” I was willing to follow her into science fiction. After The Sparrow, I’d follow her anywhere.
Just a sidebar about genre. I understand it’s in our genetic code to sort and classify. But it’s a damn shame to pigeonhole literary fiction with nugatory genres. How many times have I heard “Oh, I don’t really like westerns” as I’ve waxed enthusiastic about Doc in recent weeks (after moaning and groaning myself before digging into this book club pick)? More’s the pity. Ditto The Sparrow—often categorized as science fiction. I resolve henceforth to ignore simplistic classifications and explore a book based on the quality of its storytelling and prose, rather than knee-jerk a rejection because a novel is set in Dodge City, KS or on Planet Rakhat. End of soapbox. Continuation of reading bliss. (less)
In the Author’s Note at the end of Longbourn, Jo Baker writes,
One final note: in Pride and Prejudice the footman appears just once in the text, when he delivers a note to Jane (page 31 of Volume One, in my Penguin Classics edition). After that, he is never mentioned again.
Well, that is an undeniable fact. But what are we to glean from this tidbit? That Baker found her inspiration from this one tiny glimmer into the world behind the scenes? That Austen was remiss in showing only the “Upstairs” of early nineteenth century English country life? Much has been written about Jane Austen’s omission of socio-political context in her novels, but in the end we are left with the stories as she chose to tell them. Full stop.
In the same author’s note, Jo Baker tells us she has “interfered only so far as the give names to the unnamed—the butler, footman, and the second housemaid.” There ensued a great spluttering of coffee, coughing, and general wiping up. The plot itself depends upon interferences large and small! Early on Mrs. Hill, the Bennet’s cook and housekeeper, enters Mr. Bennet’s library and closes the door. A central twist of the story is predicated on a very mighty interference, indeed.
I’m not convinced that anyone who has read Pride and Prejudice can accurately assess whether Longbourn could stand on its own, a story complete. Well, for heaven’s sake, of course it couldn’t. It wouldn’t exist without Pride and Prejudice. But that’s not really what I mean. I mean that it’s built upon the backs of Austen’s characters. Little has to be done by way of introducing or maintaining this supporting cast, which is what the Bennet femmes et homme and their society neighbors are in this below-stairs account of life at Longbourne. We who know Elizabeth, Darcy and Wickham have already colored between those lines and need little in the way of further fleshing out.
For this first half of this novel, I said a resounding “No. There is no there here.” Longbourn—although far from an Austen pastiche—reads like a meticulously researched and lovingly crafted vignette of servant life in a middle-class Regency home. There seems to be little point beyond showing the difficulties and deprivations of a life in service and to point out that even in Georgian England, people pooped, masturbated and menstruated.
Then the novel enters its stride. Although I never lost the twitch of discomfort that Jo Baker was trying to make up for some absence of verisimilitude in the original, the characters begin to live on their own accord, as if the author herself snipped the ties constraining her to Pride and Prejudice. It’s somewhere around the time Wickham ventures into the kitchen to leer at Polly and we see each servant’s response to his trespass that we fully, finally, enter the world of distinct, complete characters who have more to offer than chilblains and chamber pots.
Baker won me over, however, with Longbourn's enigmatic footman, James Smith. She creates a haunting portrait of a soldier’s experience during Napolean’s “Guerilla” war in Spain and Portugal. Equally moving, though much briefer, is a recounting of Mrs. Hill’s troubles at Longbourn in the era before she became Mrs. Hill. From these points forward, the characters above stairs become more than ciphers and those below stairs develop backstories and backbones.
Jo Baker’s writing, though at times heavy-handed with the metaphors, is lovely. She maintains a formal, dignified diction that feels just right for the period and place, without trying to emulate Austen’s vivacity and wit. She sprinkles in jarring vulgarities and peers inside chamber pots to let us know if they contain solids as well as liquids—all of which seems a bit forced, as if she were trying too hard to distance herself from Austen gentility—but the moments are brief and tolerable.
Longbourn is a very engaging and enjoyable read. The quality of writing is such that I will seek out Jo Baker’s other novels and look forward to her next, though I hope she is finished outfitting 19th century classics with 21st century hindsight. (less)