I recently re-read Sense and Sensibility (I’m in a Jane Austen book club, and that’s our next book), and as much as I love dear Jane, I had some serious issues with this book.
I’ve always kind of thought that Elinor and Colonel Brandon would have been a better match than Brandon and Marianne, but I thought that was mostly because of the movie, since Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman have played a couple elsewhere. I was really surprised on this re-read to find that the impression is even stronger in the book. In fact, I got the impression that Jane (we’re professional peers, so we’re on a first-name basis) kind of felt that way, too.
All the other characters seem to think Col. Brandon and Elinor are an item, especially after the truth comes out about Edward’s engagement. People are always assuming they’ll end up together, and Elinor has to keep correcting them. There’s even this whole bit where Mrs. Jennings overhears part of their conversation about him giving a living to Edward and misinterprets it to think he was proposing to her, with it taking some effort to untangle the confusion. There are far more scenes of Elinor and Brandon interacting than there are of Brandon and Marianne or Elinor and Edward. There’s even a line about how Brandon talks to Elinor and looks at Marianne. Jane really seems to like writing their relationship and their interactions. All the evidence cited for him being in love with Marianne is really just evidence that he’s a good and decent man, not anything specific to his feelings for Marianne. It’s more that their mother thinks he’d be good for Marianne than that there’s any real affinity between them. If I didn’t know the outcome, I would have assumed for much of the book that the happy ending would be Elinor realizing that Edward’s a bit of a twit and Brandon getting over his infatuation with Marianne and realizing that Elinor’s right there and far more stable and sensible.
Which makes me wonder about Jane’s process. Was she a plotter? Did she plan out the book with the outcome she wanted, but then the characters kept trying to go their own way and she fought it through the whole book before forcing them into the outcome she wanted at the end? Or, since she was often a rather caustic satirist, was it all deliberate? Was she making some kind of point rather than being sincere about this being the best outcome for the characters?
And Edward really is a bit of a twit. You don’t notice so much in the movie because he’s Hugh Grant, and Emma Thompson’s screenplay expands his role and makes him far more charming (and in the more recent TV version he’s Dan Stevens, and the screenplay has him doing manly stuff like chopping wood), but he’s a rather dull, lifeless character in the book. Even Jane doesn’t seem that interested in him because she keeps him almost entirely offstage. He’s someone they talk about, but he’s seldom actually there, and even when he is there, he doesn’t do much.
I know the whole deal with his secret engagement is a cultural issue that’s hard for us to understand. In that era, he really would have been considered brave and honorable for sticking to an engagement even after he realized he wasn’t really in love with the woman and even in the face of family disapproval, while we think he’s a wimp for not being able to break it off. But there’s still plenty about his behavior to raise eyebrows about. In the book, when he’s explaining himself to Elinor at the end, he even makes excuses, saying he never would have become engaged if his sister’s brother had given him a job after he finished school and before he went to Oxford because then he’d have been distracted and he’d have forgotten his infatuation. So, it’s someone else’s fault for not giving him a job, rather than his own fault for not finding a job and for taking a gap year to be idle rather than going straight on to Oxford or doing something worthwhile? And then there’s the fact that he’s attentive enough to Elinor that everyone who observes them assumes they’re as good as engaged while he’s actually engaged to someone else. That’s actually worse than Willoughby, who isn’t attached while he’s involved with Marianne. Not to mention that he strung his engagement along for four years rather than facing his mother about it. And this is the guy the heroine ends up with? (In the book, he’s not nearly as attractive as Hugh Grant or Dan Stevens, either.)
That’s what makes me wonder if there’s some satire going on. Are we supposed to think everything worked out right, or are we supposed to be smirking about all the things that are silly about society to lead to this outcome?
This is possibly the least timeless of Austen’s novels because there’s no good way to update the main plot. You can do the flighty emotional sister and the calm, rational one, but the Edward and Elinor plot doesn’t work in a modern setting. The key things are that he’s in a relationship he can’t get out of honorably even though he wishes he could because he’d rather be with Elinor and that this relationship is a secret, so Elinor has to suffer heartbreak in silence while her sister is having histrionics and acting as though she’s the only one ever to have her heart broken. In today’s world, Edward would have just given Lucy the “it’s not you, it’s me” speech and broken up when he wised up. You’d probably have to make them actually be married, so that ending the relationship is much more serious, but then there’s the secret part. You’d have to contrive a reason for them to have to keep their marriage a secret so that Elinor can’t even tell her sister that she’s heartbroken and can never be with the man she loves. If you move it into the modern world, Edward becomes almost as bad a villain as Willoughby since he’s leading on one woman while involved with another woman he has no plans to split up with, and about the only reasons I can think of for him maintaining a relationship he doesn’t want and keeping it secret involve money, which doesn’t make him look good (then again, that’s why he’s keeping it secret in the book, since he knows he’ll be disinherited if his mother knows).
It might be fun to do an update that fixes all these things. Have both Elinor and Brandon wise up and end up together.