Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

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Reviewed by Julie Barham

S&S Austen OUP

The inevitable question is, do we need a new edition of one of Austen’s books? Well, on the evidence of this super book, sent to me by Oxford University Press, I would say that the answer is a resounding yes. A lovely hardback, it has come out as part of a classics collection. It is obviously a high-quality print run, and it is lovely to have a favourite book in an edition which reflects its importance in my reading life. I’m sure we have all read classics in very cheap editions, but this is clearly printed although the type is not large. A casual glance may actually suggest that the type is a little small, but it genuinely feels like a grown-up book. The other books in the collection will include Anna Karenina, a super classic.

The story of Sense and Sensibility is well known. Elinor Dashwood is the oldest of three sisters. Excluded from inheriting any part of their father’s estate, the girls and their mother are exiled from the family home to a small cottage, but not before Elinor has met and been attracted to Edward Ferrars, the brother-in-law of her rich half-brother. Marianne, the next sister, becomes involved with Willoughby, a handsome young man who literally drives her to a breakdown. Both girls seem to have loved and lost, and it is their reactions to their seemingly disappointed circumstances that give us the title. Elinor’s sensible acceptance and forbearance is in contrast to Marianne’s extreme romanticism. This extends in true very late-eighteenth-century fashion to devotion to poetry and music of a most romantic sort, as Austen gently satirises those whose sensibilities became ‘refined’. This is not the most popular of Austen’s comedies, but her creation of the younger Mrs Dashwood and the Palmers show her ability to write brilliant less important characters.

The introduction, by John Mullan, is an excellent example of putting a well-known novel in a new light. Covering many aspects of the book, including Austen’s subtle comedy and the financial implications of the yearly incomes discussed, Mullan comprehensively strikes a balance between supplying new information for the repeat reader, while avoiding revealing the story for the person having their first-time encounter. He points out Austen’s ‘technical audacity’ in handling dialogue and the narration of the story, in contrast to the novels that had gone before. Her choice of subject, her brave holding of not one but two romantic outcomes to the final pages are celebrated by Mullan for those of us who have long accepted that her novels seem without dramatic incident. In addition his notes actually make a difference to understanding the novel; for example ‘repulsive’, which seems to us a strong word, is shown to have changed its meaning over the centuries from meaning ‘discouraging’. This is not an academic dissection with intrusive footnotes but a clear, readable text with help to understand the more obscure points.

Altogether this is a lovely collectable edition of a well-loved novel which reveals the text to be far more than the adaptations on television and films would suggest. If the standard of all the classics in this collection are of the same high level, I would love to replace dog-eared paperbacks with these books, and would be assured that I had collected notable editions.

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Julie blogs at Northern Reader.

Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility, introduced by John Mullan (Oxford World Classics, 2017). 978-0198807452, 336pp., hardback.

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