I adore Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen for the simple fact it is more comparable to historical romance novels of today. I know people consider historical romance novels as escape lit (which in this day and age, who doesn’t want escape lit?). Somehow this is considered a derogatory term.
However, I find Austen’s witty criticisms of her own time and the social constructs she faced to be on par with some of the best sharp writers of historical romance novels today. Let’s take a look.
The Dashing Love Triangle
A common trope found in today’s historical romance novels is the love triangle. The love triangle in Sense and Sensibility is just as dashing as any romance novel could hope for. When Marianne is crippled by a fall on an English hillside, the dashing John Willoughby comes to the rescue. But alas, our dear Colonel Brandon has already captured our hearts, and we yearn for Marianne to come to her senses.
The Case of Mistaken Identity
There is no greater historical romance trope than that of the case of mistaken identity. Gossip traveled faster than a runaway carriage in Ms. Austen’s time, and she portrays this so exquisitely in all of her novels. For a society based on the perceived attributes of others, the most astonishing thing to happen is the communication of gossip.
In Sense and Sensibility, the gossip game has no shame. Between the outrageous tales of Willoughby’s behavior and the sudden marriage of a certain important character (I won’t tell, because it would spoil the whole thing!), the gossip is flying in this story.
Just as it does in historical romance novels of today.
Show Me the Money
Nothing drives a Jane Austen novel the way a man’s income does. Do I need to say it?
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
Income and Characters
Income plays a vital role in Sense and Sensibility as it does in many of Austen’s novels, but I enjoy how it plays a part in this story. The characters in this story are defined by the income they are expected to receive, might inherit, how they inherit it, or if they are already in possession of it.
For instance, our good man Edward Ferrars struggles to meet his mother’s expectations and so she threatens to disown him. When Ferrars is offered an estate with an income of £2,000, it is a huge windfall, and one he very much needs to choose in own path in life.
Elinor Dashwood, often described as the “sense” found in the title, lays out the very real truth of income when she speaks to Marianne of Willoughby’s betrayal. I love what Elinor has to say here:
His demands, and your inexperience together, on a small, very small income, must have brought on distresses which would not be the less grievous to you, from having been entirely unknown and unthought of before.Jane Austen: The Complete Collection, Bedford Park Books, Kindle Edition
…how little could the utmost of your single management do to stop the ruin which had begun before your marriage?Jane Austen: The Complete Collection, Bedford Park Books, Kindle Edition
For Willoughby is most certainly a big spender, and his own vice is what drives him into a loveless marriage when he needs money to cover his debts.
Income in Modern Day Historical Romance Novels
Income is often a trope in modern day historical romance novels. It’s depicted in characters such as the dreaded fortune hunters and the dashing dukes with their overflowing coffers. Members of the peerage and landed gentry relied on the income from their estates, what they produced and rent from tenants, to provide for their lifestyles. Hence the reason it was so difficult for second sons without land to make a living.
Off to Town We Go
Marianne and Elinor travel with Mrs. Jennings to London for what seems forever. It’s literally months at a go. This was entirely common during this period as people would travel from one estate to another with family relations or friends. In this case, Marianne and Elinor are keeping Mrs. Jennings company.
This is often seen in historical romance novels now, because it’s much easier to eschew the rules of propriety in the country where our characters are not under the noses of prying eyes that would be found in London.
As you see in Sense and Sensibility, gossip and news travels much faster as seen in the appearance of both Willoughby and Colonel Brandon. What would be unexpected at Barton Cottage was common place in London. Proximity allowed visitors and letters to travel quickly.
The Girls at Their Carpet Work
I love the snippets that show the girls at their “carpet work.” The Dashwoods were of a class that had leisure time. In this case, it was taken up by carpet work. (They would literally be weaving carpets.) Mrs. Dashwood is often depicted as returning to her carpet work.
I love this peek at domesticity because it’s something a modern day person wouldn’t fathom. Would you expect to spend your days in a very uncomfortable chair, corset firmly laced, bent over an embroidery hoop because you were not expected to do much else?
When Marianne concludes to be industrious by reading a minimum of six hours a day, Elinor thinks her overly ambitious. Such activity was not expected by women at that time.
I think modern day historical romance novelists struggle with this, because we’re under contemporary societal restraints. Readers today want strong women who are CEOs of shipping companies, but that’s just not realistic for the time period. Did it not happen at all? Certainly not. There were instances of women making their own way, but it was more common for women to remain at home.
The Girl Next Door
I would be remiss if I failed to mention the ever popular girl next door trope. You see this trope in contemporary historical romance novels as this was quite a common event during Austen’s time. Families of bordering estates often had children that wed each other. Sometimes this was simply due to proximity and one family knowing the other’s intimate details of income and societal status.
Raise your hand if you love Julia Quinn’s The Secret Diaries of Miss Miranda Cheever.
In Sense and Sensibility, you see this trope played out to the max. First, we see Elinor is expected to wed Edward Ferrars after he visits his sister Fanny, who is married to Elinor’s brother, John. Further, Willoughby finds Marianne simply because of the proximity of his estate. Then there’s Colonel Brandon who also lives near by. Proximity played a huge role as you see.
She’s How Old?
At the start of the story, Elinor is nineteen and Marianne is about sixteen. Our modern sensibilities says this far too young for these women to be even thinking about marriage. But as Marianne helpfully points out, thirty is very old. She accuses Colonel Brandon of old age when he complains of an ache in his shoulder.
The fact was people didn’t live as long, and thirty was old.
In historical romances of today, age is a struggle. You often seen spinster and wallflower tropes where the heroines are older to placate the modern day expectation that people get married later in life. Otherwise, the heroine is in her early twenties, and the writer must explain why she’s not yet wed.
At the conclusion of Sense and Sensibility, we hear Margaret is of an age to go dancing. At the beginning of the story is she supposedly about thirteen years old, and as the story progresses, she grows up. She is now of an age where she is permitted to attend social functions, which includes dancing. This would make her the coming out age of somewhere between seventeen and eighteen.
How To Approach Sense and Sensibility
I know some readers struggle with Austen, and I’m here to tell you it’s all right. The way stories were told in the early 19th century is different than how stories are told now. Your brain literally doesn’t understand how to interpret the way Austen is telling the story. it’s okay if you struggle with her novels. It’s biology!
So here’s my suggestion: audiobooks.
Audiobooks are a great way to approach classic literature that you find inaccessible. A talented narrator can give you an entirely different view of a story, and you’ll find yourself understanding why that particular piece has withstood the test of time.
In this case, I recommend the audiobook version narrated by Rosamund Pike.