In April 1811, Jane Austen wrote to Cassandra, “No indeed, I am never too busy to think of S&S. I can no more forget it, than a mother can forget her sucking child; & I am much obliged to you for your enquiries.” Sense and Sensibility would appear in print six months later, becoming Austen’s first published novel. Jane Austen’s letter reveals both her strong attachment to her novel and her excitement about its publication. Similarly, this collection celebrates Sense and Sensibility two hundred years after its original publication, reflecting both the attachment and the excitement Austen’s novel continues to elicit.
This special issue of Persuasions On-Line originates in the international conference “200 Years of Sense and Sensibility” organized at the University of St. Andrews by Marina Cano López and A. Rose Pimentel. Conference participants were invited to reflect upon two hundred years of readership and encouraged to open up new interpretations of the novel. On September 9-10, 2011, St. Andrews welcomed to Scotland speakers from three different continents and ten countries—the U. S., Canada, the U. K., Ireland, Spain, Germany, Turkey, Hungary, China, and Japan.
This rich gathering proportioned their words to the number of their ideas—which were many. Plenary speakers Kathryn Sutherland and Paula Byrne explored, respectively, Sense and Sensibility’s numerous “lives” and connected it to modern biography. Some papers considered the origins of Sense and Sensibility and its relation to epistolarity, the Enlightenment, the Cult of Sensibility, and Romanticism; others tracked elements of the novel (death, secrets, even furniture) that opened up the mysteries of its construction; still others compared Austen to writers such as her contemporary, the Spanish playwright Leandro Fernández de Moratín, or a successor, Nancy Mitford, or examined the readings of Austen offered by late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century sequels and adaptations of Sense and Sensibility. A small group of these essays is published in this special issue.
The essays selected for this special issue on Sense and Sensibility ground the novel in its textual practices and historical setting. The first three essays in this collection offer insight into Austen’s formal powers through their careful probing of text and language in Sense and Sensibility. Nora Bartlett’s close reading of Chapter One explores how that opening chapter serves as a transitional space for Austen’s move toward becoming a mature novelist. Bartlett shows how Austen in Sense and Sensibility has acquired narrative complexity, seriousness, and control—has “learn[ed] how to present the interplay between feeling and action.” Using Habermas’s theory of communicative action, Bill Hughes focuses on the formal mechanics of dialogue in the novel, which Austen uses to both validate communicative reason and acknowledge its limitations. Daragh Downes’s energetic reading insists Sense and Sensibility “is a story about the danger of reading stories.” The novel demands, he suggests, a reader who employs a dialectic between sense and sensibility.
The second set of essays in this collection contributes to a complex contextual picture of Sense and Sensibility. Kathleen James-Cavan and Márta Pellérdi both see Austen as a Christian writer: James-Cavan’s piece thoughtfully demonstrates how the novel engages in theological questions while Pellérdi’s shows how Austen infuses melancholy and idleness with a Christian inflection. Kimiyo Ogawa’s essay situates Sense and Sensibility within the context of contemporary medical debates as Austen both draws upon and challenges assumptions about the relationship between the mind and the body, particularly those to do with gender. Widening that context beyond Britain, Antonio Calvo Maturana’s comparative reading explores how Spanish literature at the beginning of the nineteenth century provides a new perspective on the novel.
Finally, Paula Byrne’s afterword sketches the shape of criticism and biography of Jane Austen over the last two hundred years and points to the direction her own forthcoming biography will take.
Two hundred years later we are still never too busy to think of Sense and Sensibility. The editors are “much obliged” to all the speakers who participated in the conference, to Jane Stabler for her generous help, to the School of English in St. Andrews for their support, to Sara Lodge and Katie Halsey for their contributions, and to all those who generously gave of their time to make the conference work. Thanks are also due to the Editorial Board of Persuasions for their careful readings of the submissions, to JASNA Publications Secretary Lee Ridgeway, who created the masthead for the issue, and to JASNA’s web manager Carol Medine Moss, who, as always, contributed her time and energy to bring this celebration of Sense and Sensibility to virtual life.