The Sisterhood of Austenland
Welp, I’m behind on this blog. Not for lack of reading, just been super busy. One of the best additions to my life in the last two months is the Our Jane Austen Book Club I started (I know, I know, it’s a very creative name). Yes, this was inspired by reading The Jane Austen Book Club this summer but it’s not wholly that. I have never managed to find my way into a book club. Despite the numerous “I love books” and “It would be so great to be part of a book club” hints I have dropped everywhere, I’ve never been invited to join and so I created my own. Let me tell you, book clubs are great! Perhaps this is not a universal truth but certainly in my experience so far, book club is more than just getting around to talk about a book - we discuss life. And roles of women in society then and now. And how these themes and causes are still battles we fight today. I feel enriched in both the conversations we have and the relationships I feel I am building. In short: get yourself to a book club!
For now at least, Our Jane Austen Book Club is simply making it’s way through her novels. We started with Northanger Abbey, but for this past month, we read Sense and Sensibility so let’s dig in there and at some point I’ll go back and write about how Northanger makes me laugh out loud perhaps more than the rest of the her oeuvre combined. (this is a compliment to the author).
If you’ve never picked it up (or seen a movie version), Sense and Sensibility is about two sisters: Elinor and Marianne Dashwood - they also have a mother and younger sister, Margaret, who legitimately disappear for at least half the book. The patriarch of the family was previously married and has a son by this other woman so upon his death, the son stands to inherit most of the estate. Because patriarchy. Father Dashwood’s current family of four women are left relatively penniless (though not penniless enough to be relegated to the working class) as their elder half-brother is easily swayed by his shrewish wife to rescind any help he was perhaps intending to give them. After some truly rude behavior from Mrs. Fanny Dashwood (half brother’s wife), the Miss Dashwoods pick up residence at the cottage of a family friend, the Middletons. But not before Eleanor develops a sincere attachment to Fanny’s brother, Edward Ferrars (“I esteem him greatly” It’s the stuff of great romances, folks). While the move to Barton Cottage separates Edward and Elinor, it introduces Marianne to the other points of the love triangle she is quickly to complete. There’s Colonel Brandon, the steadfast but perhaps a bit boring (and sooooo old…at 35. Ok, Marianne IS only 16) friend of the Middletons who is instantly taken with Marianne’s beauty and youthful energy. And there’s John Willoughby. Oh Willoughby. The guy who you know is just so bad for you the minute he walks in the door and then you promptly fall for him immediately anyway. There’s a rainstom, a twisted ankle, two star-crossed lovers, another visit from Edward(!) and then a pretty intense breakup between Marianne and Willoughby. This all serves to get us to London and….wow this story synopsis is longer than I like to spend on plot. It’s a long book and in want of some editing, but the plot events are not what makes this book as enduring as it is so, trust me, things get really gossipy and interesting once we get to London with love triangle #2 plus more heartbreak, disinheritance, severe life-threatening illness and above it all is this fantastic relationship between two sisters. Whew, we’ve gotten to the heart of it.
Elinor and Marianne Dashwood. Two sisters who possibly could not be more different and yet have a relationship stronger than most of Austen’s familial pairings. Elinor is all sense whereas Marianne acts entirely on her sensibilities. (Oh hey, is that where the title came from?) Which means they need each other to help find some balance in their own lives and I think that’s such a wonderful statement on relationships in general. Whether family by blood or bonds, those closest to us often, in some way, help to balance some of the more extreme parts of our personality. While the sisters Dashwood differ in their idea on how to handle almost every situation they come up against, they do continually support each other, care for each other, defend the other against those who would besmirch their good name and rise up in defiance against those who wish ill will on their family. It’s a solid sisterhood and, frankly, we don’t have enough of those in literature.
So….would this book pass the Bechdel test? Maybe. One of the reasons this is not my favorite of Austen’s novels (despite how much I enjoy it) is because we seem to spend a lot of time focusing on the men and the “will they, won’t they” choose me. And I find that annoying but, also understandable. The thing to keep in mind with all Austen novels is that for a woman of high society in the 18th century, perhaps your greatest goal was to marry above your class and move your family into a higher social ranking. I hear you, it sounds abhorrent to me as well; but, without an occupation or a chance to mingle in society without being on the arm of a distinguished gentleman, perhaps the best way to get a voice in the conversation was to climb the social ladder through marriage. And that brings me to Lucy Steele.
At book club, I mentioned that I really found myself feeling for Lucy Steele. And the looks I got…woof. Because we aren’t supposed to like Lucy. She is in competition with Elinor for Edward’s affection, and she is not subtle about it. In fact, she is sneaky and conniving at every turn. And she’s feisty. So feisty, I can’t help but love her a little for it. Lucy may be the most feminist character in the book. Elinor, with all her sense, will follow the rules as written to the point where she is willing to sacrifice her own happiness rather than break from the expectations placed upon her sex. Marianne, with all her sensibilities, is determined to marry for love, for the greatest love, and this will surely come in the form of a white knight on his steed. But Lucy is making her own luck. If society sets the rules, she will follow them in public and break them in private and do what she can to better her position in the world. Sound like a certain lady politician we all know and I especially love? It is nothing short of what I would do, so while perhaps she could be a little less “Mean Girls” about it…you can’t say Lucy Steele isn’t interesting.
Ultimately, the reason to read this book is because Austen truly was ahead of her times. If you are an Austen virgin, please remember these were written to be social satire. If her characters seems excessively silly, it’s because she found a lot of silliness in the manners of her daily society. Austen was a woman who wanted to have her own occupation and a life partner who would respect her as a person with independent thoughts and opinions - and when she couldn’t find that, she chose to remain a “spinster” who was forced to write relatively anonymously for most of her life. Sense and Sensibility may be the closest thing she writes to a romance novel, but a romantic Jane Austen is not.
Post script: if you have not treated yourself to the 1995 adaptation of this novel, written by Emma Thompson and directed by Ang Lee…do that right now! I would NEVER say this lightly: the movie might be better than the book. But certainly Emma Thompson (Elinor) and Kate Winslet (Marianne) will win you over in their incredible general amazingness.
I mean, just look at that shade Kate's throwing!