An enthusiastic group met at the National Library of Australia to discuss the first volume of Sense and Sensibility.
A free flowing and wide ranging discussion covered many diverse topics including why Elinor was attracted to Edward Ferrars, which of the two sisters is more like Jane Austen and whether Mrs Jennings and Mrs Palmer are the only happy women in the novel.
So why is Elinor attracted to Edward Ferrars? Was she in fact attracted to his ‘reserve’, ‘turned on’ by it or was the attraction the contrast between his manner and that of her mother and sister. Did she find relief in his company?
It was pointed out that Jane Austen is critical of almost all of her characters but not of Elinor. Would this suggest there is more of JA in Elinor’s character than commonly thought. The consensus was that Marianne has JA’s liveliness and love of poetry but Elinor has JA’s ability to analyse, especially characters. There are numerous references to “judgement’, the word keeps recurring. Elinor can judge character but Marianne can’t.
There was considerable discussion about the humour of the opening sequence and the talent of the author for making a terrible conversation between two despicable people so amusing. Fanny and John are so serious but in Austen’s hands they are comic. The financial situation of the Dashwood sisters reflects Austen’s own.
The question was asked does Marianne ever gain sense but again it was agreed not in this volume. Marianne is not able even to tell the little lies that keep society together. Mention was made of D W ‘s ‘civil falsehoods’ and their importance in small communities.
There was a particularly lively discussion about Mrs Jennings and Mr and Mrs Palmer. Mrs Jennings and Mrs Palmer are arguably the only happy women in the novel, as their happiness doesn’t depend on anyone else other than themselves. The relationship between Mr and Mrs Palmer provoked considerable debate. Are they in fact just joking with each other rather than Mr Palmer ignoring his wife? It was decided that the relationship was more complex than it first appeared and should be watched as we read the next volumes.
One member felt that Elinor could be as boring as Mary Bennett, if the reader took the character seriously. Elinor is so sensible at 19.
The discussion also touched on feminism in the novel, the three sets of sisters, the issue of depression, whether S and S was first written in Letter form (and D W Harding’s argument that it was not) and the character of Sir John Middleton, whether he was an extroverted goodhearted man who enjoyed company or a gossiping meddler.
The group was not so keen to discuss the character of Willoughby though the question can be asked as to whether he is a villain or a victim at the end of volume I, The group consensus was that there are already indications that this is not a man to be trusted.
Many admitted that S and S is not their favourite JA novel but this rereading had revealed further insights, especially the tightness of the plotting. “Austen’s books improve with age” said one member- ie the age of the reader.
It’s volume II on Saturday 19th February and it promises to produce another fascinating debate/discussion.