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Sense and Sensibility | Context

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The Novel of Sentiment

Austen lived during the Georgian era (1714–1830)—the years during which England was ruled by four Hanoverian kings, all called George. Her life bridged the 18th-century emphasis on logic and reason and the 19th-century rise of Romanticism, a style which emphasized emotion, the experience of the moment, passion, and beauty. The title Sense and Sensibility reflects this dichotomy between reason and emotion. A rational, restrained approach to life makes the character Elinor the model of sense. An early review praises her for her "sober exertion of prudence and judgment" and her "fortitude" in the face of challenges. In contrast Marianne is the novel's romantic, guided by sensibility—strong emotional or aesthetic responses experienced in the moment. (While today sensibility is often understood as related to the modern meaning of sensible (prudent), in fact the historical meaning of sensible is "aware" or "able to feel.")

The novel, although still a relatively new literary form during Austen's life, was already splintering into subgenres. One of these was the novel of sentiment, in which characters respond deeply to art and natural beauty, admire passion and emotion over reason, and extol the heart's special wisdom. Love succeeds even against the odds, and those who would impose reason on young lovers are mocked for their stodgy ways. In pitting sensibility against sense, Austen invites readers to examine each. The novel's title is not Sense versus Sensibility, however. The conjunction and suggests that a balance between the two approaches—one hard-headed, the other starry-eyed—may be needed. In this way, Sense and Sensibility takes a gentle but critical look at the novel of sentiment (just as Northanger Abbey, an early Austen novel that was not published until after her death, does for the Gothic novel).

Austen probably first wrote Sense and Sensibility as an epistolary novel (a novel told through a series of letters). Austen would have known famous epistolary novels of sentiment, such as Samuel Richardson's Pamela (1740). But for the plot to advance in letters, Marianne and Elinor would need to be separated for most or all of the events. Austen's decision to change to an omniscient third-person narrator allowed her to express any character's thoughts and emotions through free, indirect discourse. Nevertheless, in the revision, letters still play an important role at critical moments in the plot when emotions run high, such as the scene in which Marianne reads Willoughby's letter and receives the rather impulsive letters she wrote to him earlier.

Class and Setting in Sense and Sensibility

The main characters in Sense and Sensibility, which is set in the late 1790s, belong to the landed gentry, a class of English society for whom work, in the sense of manual labor, was not a necessity. Austen's novels engage with her world's class structure, and Sense and Sensibility is particularly grounded in the challenges of life among people who generated their wealth through agriculture and rents. While some landowners took a hands-on approach to their estates (Pride and Prejudice's Mr. Darcy, for example), others (such as Sir John Middleton, who spends his time riding, hunting, and entertaining) delegated this work to managers.

The more land a person owned, the better his or her income, so having a large estate was important. Land normally passed to the eldest son—or if there were no sons, to the eldest male relative—because to break up the land among several children would reduce its value. This meant that younger sons had to find respectable work—in the church, the law, or the military—to make a living. Daughters rarely inherited but instead depended first on fathers and then on husbands for their income. The unfortunate daughter who made a poor match or—worse—remained unmarried had to rely on relatives for support. These pressures drive events in Sense and Sensibility, promoting some marriages while preventing others. Yet against the arranged marriages that keep wealth concentrated in a landed family, readers see the force of romantic love at work. Can both romantic love and the family's needs be satisfied? That is the tension that faces lovers in the novel.

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