Jane Austen is chick lit.
Yeah, I know. So the next question is: Why is such a manly man of manliness like me reading her?
Let’s get some stuff out of the way first: My brother, who is also quite manly, enjoyed and highly recommended her. And then there’s my good buddy the author, English scholar, and manly man who recommended them to me. So my manly credentials remain intact.
And second, most importantly, if something is good, it’s good, regardless if I’m a member of its so-called intended audience.
I recently finished reading Sense and Sensibility, Austen’s first novel, and let me tell you, it’s good. And I think men should read this book, and Jane Austen in general. Why?
Because it’s good for men to read things written by women to understand their perspective.
There. I said it. No, I haven’t gone full feminist. But I am concerned by how messed up man-woman relations are in the twenty-first century. In reading Sense and Sensibility, I’m struck by how nice it is to enjoy a story where men are manly and women are womanly, each sex exhibiting strengths, weaknesses, and in general complimenting each other the way those in healthy relationships should. Throw away all of the social stuff regarding the limited opportunities for women at that time and enjoy the story for what it is.
Sense and Sensibility tells the tale of the Dashwood family, in particular the elder two sisters Eleanor and Marianne, and their search for love in early 19th-century England, a time when most young ladies could only improve their social standing via an advantageous marriage. This is probably “problematic” for feminists and social justice-types who don’t believe in marriage, romance, or fun. If this is you, then my message is don’t read this book. Stick to bell hooks or whatever.
The important thing about Sense and Sensibility though, in addition to being both charmingly entertaining and a fascinating slice of life into what families were like during this time period, is the fact that Austen is a very good observer of human nature, with each character a fleshed-out study of a different personality type.
You have the wise-beyond-her-years Eleanor, the passionate Marianne, the conniving Lucy Steele, the rakish Willoughby, the moody Edward, the solemn Colonel Brandon, the Dashwood girl’s somewhat foolish but loving mother, the matchmaking Mrs. Jennings, and the girls’ upwardly mobile half-brother John and his judgmental, insincere wife Fanny. Oh, and there’s also the youngest Dashwood sister, Margaret, but she doesn’t really do much of anything. If she pulled a middle-sister from Family Matters and walked up the stairs in an early chapter, never to return, nobody would notice.
The fun is in how these characters interact.
Lots of you were probably read Jane Austen before, perhaps in high school. I never did, so her snappy dialogue is a treat for me. I can safely say that Jane Austen writes some of the best, wittiest dialogue I have ever read. I love the banter. I love the bickering. I love the sly insults, not only in what the character say, but in Austin’s narration.
But most of all, I like her insights into human nature. For example, we all know people like this:
Elinor made no answer. Her thoughts were silently fixed on the irreparable injury which too early an independence and its consequent habits of idleness, dissipation, and luxury, had made in the mind, the character, the happiness, of a man who, to every advantage of person and talents, united a disposition naturally open and honest, and a feeling, affectionate temper. The world had made him extravagant and vain; extravagance and vanity had made him cold-hearted and selfish. Vanity, while seeking its own guilty triumph at the expense of another, had involved him in a real attachment, which extravagance, or at least its offspring necessity, had required to be sacrificed. Each faulty propensity, in leading him to evil, had led him likewise to punishment.
Or who hasn’t fallen into this trap, especially when they were young?
Like half the rest of the world, if more than half there be that is clever and good, Marianne with excellent abilities and an excellent disposition, was neither reasonable nor candid. She expected from other people by the same opinions and feelings as her own, and she judged of their motives by the immediate effect of their actions on herself.
Sense and Sensibility drags in some parts, and the end feels a little too tidy and rushed. This might might be a function of Austen still perfecting her craft–this was her first novel, after all–but it in no way diminished my enjoyment of the book. I highly recommended it, and I’m looking forward to digging into the rest of her oeuvre.
Next up: Pride and Prejudice.
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