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Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility

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Published by Manesse, Bibliothek der Weltliteratur, 1984

 

Jane Austen (1775-1817) is among the most successful female English writers of all time. The personality cult of Austen makes her comparable to William Shakespeare, but also her literary talent has been likened to that of the great English poet. That, as a female writer, she has become the object of such adoration is quite remarkable when considering the time she lived in. Female authors only gain access to the literary market in the course of the 18th century, so in 1811 “Sense and Sensibility” is published only with the addition “by a lady”. But Austen’s novels sell well. So well even that subsequently published books can be marketed with the addition “by the author of Sense and Sensibility”.

Jane Austen’s literary talent shows early on in her life. Already as a teenager she experiments with parodic plays and novellas, for instance with a humorous history of England, which her sister illustrates with portraits of rulers. When she writes “Sense and Sensibility,” she is not yet twenty years old.

Love and money are the central themes in all of her novels, the link between the two necessitated primarily because women were financially dependent on men in the 18th and early 19th century.  Many of her plots are jumpstarted because the female protagonists lose their financial income due to the death of a male relative and are temporarily exposed to relative poverty. In “Sense and Sensibility,” her first novel, it’s the sisters Elinor and Marianne Dashwood who lose the bulk of their income and have to experience a number of romantic twists and turns before arriving in the safe harbor of a happy marriage and financial security.

At first sight Austen’s novels may seem trivial. After all they are mainly about the “trivialities of day-to-day existence, of parties, picnics, and country dances,” as Virginia Woolf puts it so tellingly. But Woolf is a great admirer of Austen and her literary genius. So she claims that Austen, at the tender age of fifteen, had “few illusions about other people and none about herself. Whatever she writes is finished and turned and set in its relation, not to the parsonage, but to the universe.”

Born with a deep knowledge of the world, with astute powers of observation and the gift of describing human nature with exceptionally nuanced characterizations, Woolf believes Austen to be “one of the most consistent satirists in the whole of literature. . . . Never did any novelist make more use of an impeccable sense of human values. It is against the disc of an unerring heart, an unfailing good taste, an almost stern morality, that she shows up those deviations from kindness, truth, and sincerity which are among the most delightful things in English literature.”

Teresa Teklić