On Sense and Sensibility: An Annotated Edition

April 24, 2014 § 1 Comment

This is a piece about the Harvard UP annotated edition of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, edited by Patricia Meyer Spacks. When I was younger I used to reread Austen fairly often, so I’ve made the grand claim that “Austen’s in my bones”–and perhaps she is, but also, surprisingly not, in a lot of ways. And even when she is, it’s not all good, as Said made it clear. Though I’ve watched adaptations of S&S and read it several times, reading the annotated version felt like I was reading it again, for the first time–and was shocked anew by just how vicious the gender politics are. And because I’m older, and financially unstable (yes children, this is your future too), the fact of money (or the lack of it) made me more anxious than usual as the story progressed, even though I know exactly how it ends. There’s always that fear that the Dashwood sisters might be cast out onto the street into extreme poverty. And the old-fashioned, old-maidenish relief to get to the end and recall that, ah … yes, they make it through “okay”, in a sense.


Jane Austen is often accused by less-imaginative readers as a “domestic” writer of small, personal dramas involving the petty concerns of the upper classes of the landed gentry. This usually arises because the central narrative of Austen’s books revolves primarily around marriage, but that’s about as useful as saying that Shakespeare won’t interest some people because he wrote quite a bit about kings.

In Austen’s books, marriage as transaction is the microcosm by which she—quite ruthlessly, at times—explores the social relations between men and women of the upper classes. Mark Twain is known for a famous quote in which he talks about how “detestable” Austen’s characters are, and while this seems quite reasonable, it’s hardly a reason not to read Austen. Even someone who enjoys her books, as I do, find her characters detestable at times, especially her protagonists. It would be strange to love them unconditionally, as it were. Jane Austen wrote about upper class social relations in a newly capitalist society, and it’s no wonder that her characters are (often) detestable.

The new annotated edition of Sense and Sensibility, published by Harvard University Press, brings a sort of clear-eyed examination of the socioeconomic hierarchies and cultural values of Austen’s time without becoming overly fond of, or resistant to, the ideas of love and romance that run through the novel. Patricia Meyer Spacks, an English professor at the University of Virginia, seems neither enamoured of nor contemptuous of the central characters of the novel and is particularly astute at contextualising 19th century thought and ideas for a contemporary audience.

It might be difficult to say anything new about an author as canonical as Jane Austen, and Sense and Sensibility in particular. Its tale of two sisters, Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, who find themselves dispossessed of a home—and their subsequent challenges in moving into a new home and society, with all the attendant issues surrounding love and potential husbands—has resonated far and wide that even a Tamil film adaptation of the story exists as a popular hit in its own right.

In the first page of her introduction, however, Meyer Spacks dives right into the nuances of the title, pointing out that the concept of “sensibility” in the 19th century was often an object of ridicule because it “became often less of feeling than of show”. Austen wrote early drafts of the novel in the18th century and saw it come to print in the final version in the 19th, and Sense and Sensibility is often both interesting and hard to pin down precisely because it contains conflicting and perhaps contradictory ideas about sense and sensibility that mirrors turn of the century changes in dominant ideas of social conduct and personhood.

As Meyer Spacks points out, current conversations about the performance of feelings—as demonstrated in blogs and Tumblrs and tweets and Facebook status updates—is often pitted against some notion of “real” feeling and is similar to the novel’s narrative tug and pull between what constitutes good sense and what constitutes good sensibility. Marianne says “Elinor has not my feelings” because Elinor is not quite given to displaying them as Marianne does, and accuses others of “horrible insensibility” when they’re unable to appreciate her piano-playing as she appreciates Music and Art and All of the Other Glorious Things.

It would have been too easy to lampoon Marianne for being narcissistic and self-obsessed, a sort of 19th century Jonathan Franzen who just doesn’t understand why other people like the things they like, but Austen isn’t interested in punishing her for believing her feelings to be more authentic others because they’re more deeply-felt. Instead, Marianne is shaped by the discourse around feelings, particularly by her consumption of novels and romantic poetry. Perhaps it’s no surprise that Marianne, being a reader and lover of nature, and who regularly prefers solitude to the company of others, is regularly so misguided about the intentions and feelings of others.

This is not to say that Elinor, who is consistently attuned to the feelings and needs of others, is necessarily better; only more aware of the disjunction between appearance and reality, or form and content. Marianne, too often, judges by form and appearance, and is led astray by it.

This can raise the uncomfortable question of whether Marianne is thus punished for her sensibility, for the excess of it, for the very fact that she isolates herself from others and considers herself often superior to many people of her company in terms of both taste and feeling. Meyers Spacks is a valuable guide throughout, providing liberal and valuable notes on various iterations of the concept of sensibility, as when she writes, “The sexual vulnerability associated with sensibility is one of the novel’s understated themes”. Virtue is chastity, and the “dangers” of feeling too much correspond to how feelings are embodied, particularly through women’s bodies. God forbid that Marianne becomes a hysterical woman and a lustful one—or worse.

In a thoroughly fascinating reading, Eve Kosofsky-Sedgwick, in “Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl”, defines Marianne’s erotic identity in terms of “the one that today no longer exists as an identity: that of the masturbating girl”. She writes that “Marianne’s autoeroticism is not defined in opposition to her alloerotic bonds, whether with men or with women. Rather, it signifies an excess of sexuality altogether, an excess dangerous to others but chiefly to herself: the chastening illness that ultimately wastes her physical substance is both the image and the punishment of the ‘distracted’ sexuality that, continually ‘forgetting itself,’ threatens, in her person, to subvert the novel’s boundaries between the public and the private”. What is the modern reader to make of Marianne, so alive to her own thoughts and ideas at the start of the book, practically sleepwalking into marriage with Colonel Brandon by the end of it?

Elinor is often read as the opposite of Marianne, and in being more sense and sensibility, she gets her reward in the man she has always and only loved: Edward Ferrars. But here too, the novel doesn’t make it easy to see it that way—Meyer Spacks points out that “the revelation that Edward expects Elinor to accept him promptly, despite his mistreatment of her, reinforces the novel’s emphasis on marriage as an arrangement in which men exercise choice, while women wait to be chosen”. So Elinor, despite her modesty, decorum, and sense, is not quite the winner of these stakes, either. In some ways, we learn that Elinor is also quite like her depraved and materialistic foil, Lucy Steele, but only that Elinor is more proper about her own needs in relations to others; she has disciplined herself well so as not to want too much, whereas Lucy is pretty brazen about wanting money and having it.

The thing about Sense and Sensibility is that you never know if the reward is a good marriage to a reasonably decent man compared to the loutish, insufferable others (Elinor and Edward) or if the reward is financial security, even at the expense of being married to a loutish, insufferable man (Lucy and Robert Ferrars, Edward’s unpleasant younger brother). Maybe it’s Marianne who has it best, after, all—a decent man whom she could grow to like, if not love, and financial security.

If, as Susan C. Greenfield suggests in her essay “Moving In and Out: The Property of Self in Sense and Sensibility”, that “each sister copes with her lack of personal property by imagining she has a Lockean property in her person”, then Austen’s gender politics become a little more muddied, as lack of actual property or access to it makes middle and upper class women protective of themselves in a way that allows little room for sisterhood beyond shared principles and values between actual sisters.

Sense and Sensibility, like other Austen novels, is about central female characters in a capitalist society who are not like the other women, who are determined to avoid being copies of each other in an economic system that encourages and perhaps even requires, instant reproduction and thus, easy substitutions, and who ultimately have to distinguish themselves by being better than the other female characters. In every book, the Austenian heroine, though fallible and flawed, triumphs because she is superior to other women in terms of wit, intelligence, morals, and personal conduct. In short, she is the better product.

It makes sense, then, as Meyers Spacks points out in her introduction, that “characters’ attitudes towards money in Sense and Sensibility provide one index to the nature of their sense and sensibility”, that romance and marriage as transaction is linked to Austen’s focus on money and how capitalism began altering and reshaping relations between the landed gentry and the upper middle classes. Where Edward’s vile mother and sister are concerned, Meyers Spacks writes that “Fanny Dashwood and her mother embody one perverse kind of ‘sense’: constant attention to what will serve their self-interest.

Both also claim ‘sensibility.’ Their intense feelings focus on money”, which shows how affect, or sensibility, is to put to use by capitalist logic—a method that’s not at all unfamiliar to Sense and Sensibility’s twenty-first century audience. This isn’t to say that Austen wrote against the grain of capitalist logic; she was, instead, fully enmeshed in it, but her concerns are more to do with the moral and ethical boundaries of capitalism, as dictated by sense, propriety, and a sense of decency to oneself and others. (This is why a land-owning man like Darcy in Pride and Prejudice can go from being a toffee-nosed snob to a real catch in the space of the book—Darcy was a productive land-owner who put his land to good use by the labour of others, providing them with jobs and caring for their welfare in a distant but imposing way. A real patriarch, a true gentleman, Austen-approved.)

Meyers Spacks says that Austen “writes, and arguably, inaugurates” the kind of “polite or bourgeois novel” that Clara Tuite refers to in her book Romantic Austen, and the polite novel values the well-mannered and well-bred characters that are ultimately the recipient of the narrative’s goodwill. How would Austen have felt about being the new face of the Britist ten-pound note, then? Bemused, probably, mixed with some ironic delight—and perhaps still wary about how terms like “sense” and “sensibility” continue to be twisted and appropriated to mean anything at all by the likes of individuals in power like George Osborne.

There’s so much more to be said about Sense and Sensibility, and this new annotated edition might not be ideal for someone reading the novel for the first time because it might be better to just read it straight through without stopping to thumb through copious notes and illustrations. But for people returning to the novel, Meyers Spacks’ notes are quite illuminating, mostly serious, but occasionally fun—there are illustrations of “very knowing gigs” used by smart young gentlemen, or the kind of toothpick case that might have enticed Robert Ferrars, the type of wallpaper Elinor and Edward might have chosen for their new home, and even how the pocketbook into which Willoughby tucked a piece of Marianne’s hair might have looked like.

Some of the annotations strike a dud note, like paintings of young children whose facial expressions might suggest “the kind of personality manifested by the Middleton children”, as though bratty are not a historical constant and contemporary readers need help imagining how they might look or behave. But these are rare, and Meyers Spacks’ introduction and annotations indicate a person who has spent a considerable amount of time with the Dashwoods and their assorted friends and foes. This handsome edition is all the richer for it.


three reviews

December 18, 2012 § 5 Comments

It would seem like after I wrote that last blog post I exhausted myself and my capacity to spew words and collapsed in a crumpled heap near the bottom of my closet while looking for something decent to wear but no, that is not what happened. At least I don’t think so? I have been reading a lot of books lately and wondering why I have a stupid blog, i.e. business as usual. Or maybe more so than usual, especially since you can find any number of comments online about how people want other people to bring back the copy editors because so many articles these days read like crummy, messy, awkward, shit-as-hell, hell-as-shit blog posts.

A blog is a much-maligned thing.

Hug your blog today.

Pet it, stroke it, maybe even write in it.

Can we talk about the fetishisation of edited writing? What are the magical powers of editing that will make a piece of writing automatically better (suited to consumption)?

Let’s not.

I neglect to put up my Pop Matters reviews as they go up, so this is delayed self-promotion in one post. (And that’s a funny thing about self-promotion. It’s never eschewed, only postponed.)

Three reviews:

1)      Jamal J. Elias, Aisha’s Cushion: Religious Art, Perception, and Practice in Islam

This was dense, long, and really fascinating. Probably because it’s such a vast topic –there is so much history to sift through and situate—the book is very disciplined, never straying far from the outline of each chapter. I kept wondering about the women, who were mentioned so rarely. How did they see religion?

aisha's cushion_blog

How did Maymuna know God? Women were illiterate, we see from this example, but they weren’t silent. How do we know which words were their own, which were put into their mouth? And if their words weren’t recorded or archived then how would we know how they saw God? This book takes its title after Aisha, the wife of Prophet Muhammad, who makes a cushion (here Elias tells us that in another account, it was curtains) that troubles the Prophet because of its images. Aisha’s artistry in keeping house and making household objects for her husband is a domestic problem, a spiritual problem, a metaphysical problem. In both examples of Aisha and Maymuna, women pose a problem or they neutralise a problem. Men reign, men look, men decide, men theorise, men historicise, men write and this is not so much Elias’ fault as it is a huge gaping hole, a glaring silence, a substantial lack. Aisha’s Cushion is all men, all the time.

2)      Balaraba Ramat Yakubu’s Sin is a Puppy That Follows You Home

I’m pretty sure I said enough about this book in my review. I couldn’t shut up and keep it brief, but I will add that I enjoyed reading about Hausa popular literature just as much as I enjoyed reading the novel. Although “enjoyed” is a term not without its problems—there was too much to relate to, on the level of the operations of patriarchy through familial and social institutions—that it was a bitter pill to swallow, or more like cough syrup: deceptively sweet but ultimately unpleasant. I’m still wondering what Saudatu thinks of her marriage. I also want to know how the women see, how they look at their men. Yakubu is pretty clever in how she manages to depict instances of masculinity that come off as, in the words of Aaron Bady in this tweet, beyond satire. (And this is also due, no doubt, to Aliyu Kamal’s translation.) The world of Sin is a Puppy is a world that’s too-familiar because most straight men actually want others to believe that their intentions, thoughts, and actions are produced and defined by their hard-ons. They spy a beautiful face, a comely figure, and they are ready to disavow previous wives, existing kids, current jobs and social and political positions. AND THEN THEY’RE LIKE, SHIT! WHY ARE THINGS FUCKED UP AND BULLSHIT? This is basically the position of Rabi’s husband, who really doesn’t need a name because he’s All The (Straight) Men We’ve Known Before. I was pretty happy to read Aisha’s review because she was similarly troubled by the book’s complexities: I am not alone in my discomfort! I admit I am pretty chuffed, because Aisha is smart and wonderful, and it’s good to be of like mind.

3)      Kate Zambreno, Heroines

 This is another long-ass review where I couldn’t shut up. Heroines is troubled and troubling; I’m frankly quite puzzled by reviews that seem to consider it a superficial or simplistic look at constructions of femininity. It’s also a ridiculously quotable book, and if I were allowed to write like 10,000 words I’m sure I would have quoted multiple passages. Zambreno seems to be circling around mothers in her work—on her blog she has talked quite frankly about her relationship with her own (now deceased) mother: her relationship to her mother, her relationship to her death. There’s a great line in Heroines about “panopticon mothers”, one that echoes a line from her first book, O Fallen Angel: “Maggie was born in a repressive regime (her mother has policed her since birth).” We don’t talk enough about the mother’s all-seeing gaze. (Do we? Is it all-seeing?) What happens to the daughters of panopticon mothers? I also feel like the proper review of Heroines would have entered into the spirit of the book like Helen McClory’s review, because it feels like she really engaged with the form and spirit of the book, although the style of it is still distinctly Helen’s own. But I’m sure this book will continue to ooze out of me in the months to come, in blog posts and other kinds of writing. I would like it to ooze; I’m sick of the capitalist mode of literary production, after all, quite sick, so it’s only expected that books will ooze and fester.

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Virtues of wifeliness

August 15, 2010 § Leave a comment

By coincidence, I found myself reading two books about marriage and wifehood at the same time: Marilyn Yalom’s A History of the Wife and Julia Quinn’s The Secret Diaries of Miss Miranda Cheever. That one was a staid historical investigation and the other a genre romance seemed to me to be a rather serendipitous and fitting reflection of the current conception of Wifeliness, particularly here in Southeast Asia; one that requires a wife to be appropriately sober and sensible in tandem with being the ideal embodiment of femininity and the as the supreme gatekeeper to romance. Or perhaps not. I wouldn’t know, not being a wife. But from my perspective as wildly unleashed Single Woman it was vicarious fun to romp in satin sheets via the Quinn book and take a long, detailed walk through the history of Western wives via the Yalom book.

Yalom tries to be specific with her title, yet one still feels that it should have been subtitled: “The White Wife of America and Western Europe”. Full of historical facts and figures, and plenty of primary sources including letters and speech transcripts, Yalom’s book attempts to paint a broad yet cohesive picture of the white wife from the time of antiquity until the present day. I realise that my use of the term “white” is also fraught with complexities, but it refers precisely to Yalom’s focus of the book. In sections where there was a need to mention black wives (such as during the time of slavery) or Native American wives (during the conquest of America), Yalom, to her credit, does give a few pages to the subject, and then carries on with her primary subject – the white wives.

But this is not to devalue Yalom’s focus or historical approach, as a whole – typically, historians who set out to write a complete history of anything will naturally find themselves as at an impasse that must be breached or simply avoided when it comes to the curious matter of which groups of people to focus on, and why. While reading it, I tweeted about this book being a “sprightly romp” because it is – an extraordinary feast of historical nuggets ably extended to 400 pages thanks to Yalom’s strong sense of narrative and the genuine enthusiasm she seems to display for her material. It’s an able historian who’s able to draw attention to the changes societies have accrued over the years while still pointing out the many ways in which the changes can sometimes be at best, superficial, or limited to only certain groups of people. To wit:

In ancient Greece, a young woman was her father’s possession until she married. Then she was “given by her father to her husband. Remnants of this idea still exist in the Western marriage ceremony when the minister asks, “Who gives this woman?” and the bride’s father response, “I do.” A marriageable woman was a human commodity, to be transferred from her father’s home to her husband’s, where she assumed the latter’s name and was subject to his control.

When Yalom tells us that “legal wife beating did not disappear with the Middle Ages”, she contextualises the beliefs and mores of past societies that condoned the practice and assumed it to be as natural as breathing, while leaving readers with the uncomfortable reality of beliefs that persist in brutality and in number even when it stops being normal. The history of a wife, as Yalom tells it, is also the history of a husband – and because marriage was necessarily an integral part of life for all adult males and females up to the very recent 18th century – it is, also, quite simply the history of humankind.  Mediaeval Europe, heralding the birth of courtly or romantic love, emphasised flattery and wooing as means of winning over the female, but also sanctioned – in fact, promoted – rape and forcible sexual overtures as a way of breaking down the female’s “natural modesty”. It’s endlessly fascinating, the inherent conflicts that seem to be weaved into the very fabric of society itself, because a woman’s “natural modesty” is a construct of society, while rape also becomes a societal construct that is used to break down those defences that everyone knows might not really reveal a woman’s true feelings. That is, she might be shy and retiring because she is expected to be, but if you really love her and she really loves you, push her into a corner and sexually coerce her, because who knows? She might be really into you!

To that effect, Yalom’s book is also a fascinating glimpse of how “woman” is continually being made and remade to fit the exigencies of society. As she writes in her chapter on ‘Victorian Wives on Both Sides of the Atlantic’: “In keeping with the new view of woman as angel, she was stripped of all physical desire. The distinguished English doctor William Acton opined that ‘woman seldom desires any sexual gratification for herself. She submits to her husband’s embraces, but principally to gratify him.’ “

Quinn’s The Secret Diaries of Miss Miranda Cheever is set just before the Victorian age in that small bright flicker of a flame that was the Georgian/Regency period – where simplicity governed fashion but social norms and mores were given to controlled, elegant flights of fancy. In this time, women were still not expected to make the first move and actively lust after or pursue their delicious man-dish of choice. They could, however, primp and preen and display a little bit of delicious bosom in order to subtly and deviously get the right man-dish to be served at their table. Enter Miranda Cheever, only 10 years old, but already maligned for not looking the way pretty young girls who will soon be potential brides should. Enter also Nigel Turner, elder brother of Miranda’s best friend, Olivia, who on one particularly serendipitous day, tells Miranda this: “Someday you are going to grow into yourself, and you will be as beautiful as you are smart.”

Miranda goes home that night and writes in her diary: “Today, I fell in love.” As would anyone fall, 10-years-old or not, for the person who finds in them the promise of beauty. We’re not so much enraptured by the idea of being beautiful as much as we’re charmed by someone else’s revelation of the potential they see in us. How much more energising and vital to hear about our potential for beauty – which could be life-changing and GREAT, as it’s not in evidence yet – than it is to be told that “You’re beautiful”, which could mean nothing, really, once you go back home and look in the mirror.

And so the stage is set for the drama of love in Quinn’s book. Quinn is a clever writer with a great ear for fast-paced dialogue that’s ripe with casual wit and banter. Yet it still feels like she keeps reminding herself to stay well within the boundaries of genre, lest she go too far and allow her characters to say or think things that grasps the narrative by its petticoat and shoves it toward an unplanned direction. Because of this, situations or dialogues that initially develop with ease and spontaneity often end on a note of cliché or predictability. No doubt, that’s one of the challenges of writing intelligently in a genre. But in the case of this book in particular, it often feels lazy and uninspired.

That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy parts of the book or the occasional wit that transpires over the course of the narrative. Miranda is a character whom one is compelled to rally around, especially when she’s made out to be the underdog from the very first page. In a line of pretty, perfectly-behaved women waiting to be selected by men, Miranda earns herself the spot at the head of the line of the Interesting but Not Ugly women. In the Regency era, as is the case now, being interesting often left you with a good many men willing to dance with you, but none with the temerity to actually propose marriage.

Turner finally does propose marriage to Miranda, and that’s no surprise, because we pay for a romance novel in order to earn ourselves the right to enjoy the happily-ever-after. How it comes about is rather a twist; in this case, it’s Miranda who wants to marry for love, and because Turner has ex-wife issues that he has not dealt with, love is something that exists on the periphery of his consciousness. He likes Miranda, but marries her out of duty as he has “robbed” her of her virtue before they were engaged. The sex was consensual, but the handing over of virtue is the business of society. As Yalom outlined in her book, society was keen to look the other way in terms of pre-marital sex in pre-Victorian Britain, so long as the couple finally got engaged in the end. If this was pre-marital sex between the working classes, of course, no one really gave a flying chemise who did whom.

Miranda could have happily stayed single and enjoyed her father’s economic protection, if not his emotional one (he was distant and scholarly, if affectionate, and her mother is dead). There was no real urgency for marriage, unless she was pregnant (a scare that did come up as a momentum-creating plot device, but just as soon comfortingly dissolved). The fact that she could refuse Turner once doesn’t seem to have affected the relationship – as Turner is fulfilling his duty, he sketches out to Miranda a lifetime of good companionship, great conversation, and fantastic sex. She gives in, because she loves him. The thorn in her side at the beginning – that Turner never told her he loves her – is ably resolved in the end when she actually DOES become pregnant as a legitimate wife, undergoes a traumatic birth, and is recognised by Turner as the love of his life because she made a baby for him.

If Foucault wants to keep reminding us that power travels along a continuum and is never centred in one exact position forever, then perhaps Miranda and Turner’s marriage is a “modern” one that demonstrates how both husband and wife are able to antagonise and entertain each other, as well as keep the other in line. But in this particular world, it’s a power-balance that can be enjoyed only because Miranda herself is well-off. Furthermore, Quinn doesn’t so much write a central narrative that breaks the boundaries of the traditional marriage conventions as prescribe different methods of being within a marriage, assuming that all other factors – race, religion, class, and nationality – are all well under-control. But it’s clear, in the end, that Miranda is the only one who will ever play the role of the wife in this marriage.

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