On rereading Sense and Sensibility slowly and with immense pleasure, as befits this beautiful Belknap Press annotated edition edited by Patricia Meyer Spacks, I am awestruck by Austen’s maturity and delicacy in this her first published novel. The opening two chapters which set the scene with the death of Henry Dashwood and then set the plot ticking with the magnanimous ungenerosity of the sole heir, John Dashwood, toward his step-mother and his three step-sisters are so finely polished that you might imagine Austen writing and rewriting them for years on end. Indeed, much of the first volume is near this level of concentrated effort. The second volume, less so, and the third more sprawling still. But by then the reader hardly notices being so caught up in the all too real lives of Elinor and her sister, Marianne. And the horridness of John Dashwood and his wife is equalled, or possibly surpassed, by the self-serving self-love of the faithless Willoughby.
Apart from the mixed characters of Elinor and Marianne, who partake of both sense and sensibility in different measures, the reader is struck by how generous Austen is with the less than perfect men, Edward and Colonel Brandon. These are specimens not on a par with Mr. Knightley from Emma, though clearly gentlemen. They are sad men, stunted in some ways. And it isn’t until their happiness is realized at the end of the novel that the possibility of their being more than they seem can even be considered. Or take a character like Mrs Jennings, who is comic in many respects yet in Austen’s hands becomes the very essence of generosity, kindness, and fellow feeling. These are characters who are determined to think well of and do well by others. If only the same could be said of all of us.
The lengthy opening essay in this edition by Patricia Meyer Spacks is wonderful. After an entire career teaching and writing on Austen and related authors, Meyer Spacks still writes with verve and economy and real interest. Proof, if any could be given, that Austen’s novels have enduring charm and bear repeated readings. By all means, if you are planning to reread Sense and Sensibility, do consider this lovely edition.