Thursday, September 23, 2010

Sense & Sensibility, Volume I, chapter 1

Austen's opening is not what one would call thrilling. Allow me to quickly summarize what's going on here:

The Dashwood menfolk with any ownership rights in the estate in Sussex? Yeah, they're dead. Mr. Henry Dashwood, husband to Mrs. Dashwood, has just died, leaving four children. Roll call:

1. Mr. John Dashwood, the son from a prior marriage, who is married to Mrs. Fanny (Ferrars) Dashwood, who is (as you will quickly see) a bit of a bitch. They are the parents of a fat young lad named Henry. John inherited a crapload of money from his deceased mother's estate, then gained a second huge helping of money when he married Fanny Ferrars.

2. Miss Elinor Dashwood, who, as the eldest unmarried daughter is usually referred to in company as "Miss Dashwood". She is practical and usually rational, and though she has feelings, she tries to do what society expects.

3. Miss Marianne Dashwood, who gets called "Miss Marianne Dashwood" or "Miss Marianne" because she is NOT the oldest unmarried daughter, is a highly "sensible" girl. In Austen's time, that was not a way of saying she was full of good sense; it was instead a way of saying she was highly emotional. She couldn't give a rat's ass what society expects in many cases.

4. Miss Margaret Dashwood, who is still a little girl. She is not technically "out" in society, so she doesn't really get a title so much. She only goes to dinners with relatives, although some of the gentlemen call her "Miss Margaret" to be nice. (Aww.)
Here's the thing about the estate of Norland, where Mrs. Dashwood and the girls have been living: when Mr. Henry Dashwood's uncle died, he inherited only a life interest in the estate, which will pass in full to his male children – in this case, Mr. John Dashwood, who probably only holds a life interest as well (meaning he really can't sell the estate), and fat little Henry Dashwood, who (if he lives to adulthood) will own the estate outright. The uncle left each of the girls £1,000.

Only a year after the uncle's death, Mr. Henry Dashwood dies. He leaves all his money to his wife and daughters, but it's a total of £10,000. What this means is that Mrs. Dashwood and her daughters? Yeah. They're now technically homeless, and they're going to have to live off the interest for the foreseeable future.

As Mr. Henry Dashwood lies dying, he makes his son, John, promise to do something to care for his step-mother and half-sisters. John at first intends to do something rather nice for them, but his wife quickly talks him out of it, in rather hilarious fashion, in the next chapter.

Speaking of his wife, I'm sure you all notice how Mrs. John Dashwood hastens to pee all over her new territory Norland in order to claim the house. (Because she is younger than her stepmother-in-law, she is differentiated when in mixed company by use of her husband's name. So, "Mrs. John Dashwood" is not as important as the elder "Mrs. Dashwood", as pecking-orders go.) Speaking of Mrs. Dashwood (mère), it's important to notice that she has an overdeveloped sense of drama. Like her middle daughter, Marianne, she is a pretty emotional creature, and left to her own devices, she would have rushed out of Norland immediately – nevermind they had no place to go, really, and that such actions would lead to an irrevocable break with her stepson.

Elinor is the voice of reason, who talks her mom off that particular ledge. We're told (not shown) that Elinor has strong emotions but deliberately tempers them, something her mother hasn't managed to figure out yet, and something that Marianne deliberately and willfully refuses to learn: EMO MARIANNE IS EMO! And Margaret? Yeah, she's 13 and a little too prone to emulate Marianne. But since she's 13, we really won't see her all that much in this version of the novel.

WAIT! Did you say this version of the novel?

Yes. Yes I did. When Austen first wrote this novel in the mid-1790's (at about the age of 20), she wrote it as an epistolary novel, which is, as you know, told through an exchange of letters. It is highly likely that Margaret was a necessary plot device then: an underage plot device who stayed home and got letters from her sisters when they went other places, so readers could learn what all was going on. And hey, Elinor and Marianne could even be away together and BOTH write to Margaret at home, each giving their own take on what goes on. *The More You Know*


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