Monday, September 20, 2010

Sense and Sensibility - some preliminary thoughts

Our reading of Sense and Sensbility starts this Thursday, and I have to tell you all that in some ways, I find Sense & Sensibility to be the hardest of Austen's novels to read. It's certainly the hardest to get into for a LOT of people, and here are some reasons why:

1. Sense and Sensibility was first published in 1811. Yes, that means the 200th anniversary of Austen's first publication is next year, but it also means that Austen was writing using late 18th- and early 19th-century prose. Especially for this book and her second-published novel, Pride and Prejudice, which were first written by her in the 1790s. Early 19th-century prose is different from contemporary prose. Not as different as, say, Middle English or Elizabethan English, maybe, but still . . . the phrasing is a bit different than one is used to in some cases. This is the sort of thing to which one adjusts as a book goes on, and in which one can positively delight if one really gets the hang of it (say, by reading lots of Austen and Brontë and such). Really, it's not that big a deal - it's like reading Shakespeare (or hearing it spoken): a bit foreign-sounding at first, but eventually pretty intelligible if you roll with it.

2. The book opens with a complicated legal explanation about the inheritance of estates, a topic that comes up again throughout the novel. And I mean that sincerely - both that such a thing is quite near the start of the book, and that it is complicated, even for lawyers. I was one. I know whereof I speak. That said, Austen explains it far better than any Property Law professor I've heard, and I've heard some great ones. I promise to hold your hand for this bit, which we do need to discuss because the laws of inheritance are a major inciting event in this novel, and in order to appreciate some of Austen's social activism and protofeminism, we have to know what she is saying the law is, so we can understand why she rails about it. Savvy?

3. The book also opens with a glut of similar-sounding character names, all of whom are female and all of whom are variants on Miss or Mrs. Dashwood. The funny thing is that for me, these character's names sound nothing alike now, but that is because I understand the social niceties of titles used in Austen's time - in part from having read so many Austen novels. (This is one of the reasons I generally recommend that folks read S&S last if they are reading all six of the major novels - the naming seems intuitive if you've done that, and even the legal estate stuff is discussed a bit in Pride & Prejudice, although it's a horse of a slightly different color.) But when I first read this book in the late 1990s, I really struggled to sort it out.

Have no fear, it will all be exceptionally clear as we go along. Meanwhile, at least one person asked me what edition of Sense and Sensibility I recommend. I am personally a huge fan of the Norton Edition, which was edited by Professor Claudia L. Johnson from Princeton, who really knows her stuff. She went back to the first and second editions of the novel, both of which were printed in Austen's lifetime, in order to answer questions about punctuation and the like. (Many other editions rely on the extremely popular editions done by R.W. Chapman in the early to mid-1900s; sometimes, he made stylistic changes that weren't necessary.) I like the Norton Edition because of how Johnson went about working on it, and also for the numerous excerpts of biographical information and related texts in the back of the book, some of which were quite helpful to me when I was researching the Jane Project. (I have Norton Editions of all the six major novels.)

That said, any edition of this novel will work for you. I will be referring to the Volume and Chapter numbers from the original editions, so you ought to be able to keep up fairly easily. Most book stores and libraries stock more than one edition, and most of the bookstore versions are reasonably priced, so find one that you like the look and feel of.

Speaking of Volume and Chapter numbers, tomorrow I will be explaining why the original editions were put out in three volumes, when we can all buy a single-volume edition today and hold it easily.

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