[A]ll that can be said of one’s happiness depending entirely on any
particular person, it is not meant--it is not fit--it is not possible that it
should be so.
If we alter Elinor’s statement to Marianne, could we not say that to broaden our knowledge of Austen and her works, consulting a multiplicity of sources is beneficial? If so, two new editions of Sense and Sensibility, both displaying innovative scholarship and insight, will aid in our happy pursuit: the Norton Critical Edition, edited by Claudia L. Johnson, and the New Riverside Edition, edited by Beth Lau. Each editor, both of whom are university professors, has an exciting perspective on the novel as evidenced by their introductions as well as by their choice of contextual and critical inclusions.
In her brief but lively introduction, Johnson calls Sense and Sensibility
a “dark and disenchanted novel” (xiv) and says that even though its roots
are in Austen’s earliest work it is a mature undertaking because the author
has successfully shifted from parody to social criticism. Indicating that
Marianne may be a stellar example of codependency, Johnson posits that her
“intensity … obsessiveness … and dependency on Willoughby” is a “sort
of raw and helpless need.” Johnson agrees that neither sister should be held
up as a paragon, because each is equally plagued by problems of knowing and
discerning. Rejoicing that Sense and Sensibility finally is receiving the
dignity that it deserves in the critical arena, Johnson states that “once the
force of Sense and Sensibility is acknowledged, Austen’s canon looks
entirely different”--the sobriety of Mansfield Park seems less
“odd,” Persuasion appears to be more a continuation of previously
explored themes, and Pride and Prejudice can be newly appreciated as
exceptional in its “harmony and felicity.”
In her more detailed introduction, Lau begins biographically by outlining Austen’s life until 1811 when the novel was published. She then explains the literary conventions that inform the novel, focusing primarily on a detailed discussion of Sensibility. She explores its origins, political and literary, and the attitudes and lives of its practitioners; and she provides an informed and insightful analysis of the paradoxes that are inherent in the characteristics of those who professed this doctrine. Offering a shift from conventional thinking, Lau considers Brandon to be more of a romantic hero than is Willoughby--Brandon’s tragic past and unrequited love for Marianne against Willoughby’s need for economic largesse taking precedence over his desire for Marianne--and states, “Marianne ends up with a true hero of Sensibility after all.” Lau points out that one of the greatest strengths of the novel is that it is “rich and dynamic in the multiplicity of perspectives it offers.” She concludes the introduction with a brief but compelling argument for placing Austen among the ranks of Romantic writers such as Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, and Byron, pointing out their struggle with subjects such as emotion and individualism. As she explains, Byron comes very close in portions of Don Juan to the hilarious satire of Austen’s Love and Freindship.
Each editor has chosen excellent background materials. The only duplication is the inclusion of brief passages from Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Johnson’s selections include writers from the late eighteenth century: Smith, Johnson, Burke, Paine, More, and Edgeworth. Lau includes a different Edgeworth selection and passages from Goethe’s The Sorrow of Young Werther as well as Austen’s Love and Freindship and an essay by Kenneth Moler on the novel’s sources.
In selecting their critical essays, each editor also has only one choice in common: passages from Marilyn Butler’s Jane Austen and the War of Ideas. Johnson categorizes her selections into six early critical views (1812-1917) and twelve modern, including one of her own excellent essays. Johnson also reprints Eve Sedgwick’s controversial “Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl,” a call to arms against “punitive ... repressive” readings of Austen. Lau, in addition to Butler, introduces Susan Morgan, Angela Leighton, and Barbara Seeber, whose thought-provoking essays cover topics such as polite lies, silences, and Marianne’s “neutraliz[ation].”
Both editions contain Austen chronologies and thorough bibliographies. Lau and Johnson both annotate the novel nicely, with the latter providing slightly more detail. The main difference between the novels is that, for her text, Johnson relies on the Second Edition of the novel, published in 1813, whereas Lau substantially bases hers on the R. W. Chapman edition.
Previous editions of Sense and Sensibility still in print generally have included merely an introduction. The concurrent publications of these new editions demonstrate the robust and vigorous state of Austen studies. Austen’s current readership is more discerning and desires a variety of background and critical selections to enrich their appreciation of the novel. Both editions of this work are invaluable, not only to students, but to all Austen enthusiasts wishing to broaden their understanding (including Austen reading groups, for whom a superabundance of topics would be provided!).
Sue Bain wrote her master's thesis on "The Role of Surrogate Parents in Jane Austen's Novels." she is currently a JASNA Board Member and Chair of the JASNA Committee on Churches.
JASNA News v.18, no. 2, Spring 2002, p. 17
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