February 24, 2018

Sense and Sensibility

On this day in 1811 Jane Austen's first novel, Sense and Sensibility, was published. Promotional advertisements called it a "New" or "Extraordinary" or "Interesting" novel, which in the jargon of the day indicated a love story. Its anonymous author was given as "a Lady" or "Lady ____" for reasons of privacy, but also to add romantic allure. Approaching the novel more or less as told, early reviewers found it to be "a genteel, well-written novel" as far as "domestic literature" went, and "just long enough to interest without fatiguing."

Marketing and critics aside, neither book nor author fit the conventional bill. Sense and Sensibility was more a send-up of the romantic-melodrama genre than yet another installment in it, and a comic slap at things genteel, such as the "sensibility" craze. Although indeed a lady, Austen was hardly representative of her class, or comfortable with it, or to blame for roasting it, she says in a letter to her sister, Cassandra: "If I am a wild beast, I cannot help it; it is not my fault." Many feel that Austen was at her most unladylike in Sense and Sensibility, and perhaps not at her consistent best. Virginia Woolf praised Austen's ability to portray "her fools, her prigs, her worldlings" with "the lash of a whip-like phrase which, as it runs round them, cuts out their silhouettes for ever," and then added: "Sometimes it seems as if her creatures were born merely to give Jane Austen the supreme delight of slicing their heads off."

The 750-copy first edition of the book sold out in a year and a half; some of the changes Austen made for the second edition perhaps show her drawing in her blade a little. The excerpt below is that moment when Mrs. Jennings agreeably provides the dirt on Colonel Brandon, as a possible explanation for his sudden departure; the bracketed sentence at the end of the passage was cut by Lady Jane in the second edition:
    "I can guess what his business is, however," said Mrs. Jennings exultingly.
    "Can you, ma'am?" said almost every body.
    "Yes: it is about Miss Williams, I am sure."
    "And who is Miss Williams?" asked Marianne.
    "What! do not you know who Miss Williams is? I am sure you must have heard of her before. She is a relation of the Colonel's, my dear; a very near relation. We will not say how near, for fear of shocking the young ladies." Then, lowering her voice a little, she said to Elinor, "She is his natural daughter."
    "Oh, yes; and as like him as she can stare. I dare say the Colonel will leave her all his fortune." [Lady Middleton's delicacy was shocked; and in order to banish so improper a subject as the mention of a natural daughter, she actually took the trouble of saying something herself about the weather.]

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