Amiable or Ill-Disposed? Sense & Sensibility Read-along - Chapters 1 to 9

Three years ago, I started a read-along of Jane Austen's first published novel. I made it to Chapter 40 when I developed a bad cough, and could not continue. I never returned to it, as other projects took priority and I didn't have the time. Well, now that we are all stuck home in isolation, it seems the perfect opportunity to take it up again.

I have broken the book into 5 sections, and have written some commentary at the end of each section. I live-streamed my reading aloud of the book, done a couple of chapters at a time, and then posted them to YouTube. I will post each section of the book here, with the videos of the readings, and my commentary at the end. The commentary is more my personal musings than any kind of academic analysis.

Please also note that I did my readings in various locations around Edmonton, highlighting some of my favourite local spots and businesses, so there is some background noise. If you just want to listen to the readings all in a row, you can use this YouTube playlist, where I will post all subsequent chapters as I read them:

Welcome to the first commentary of our #SenseandSensibility read-along! Perhaps you have been listening to my readings of the book, or just reading it on your own, or just relying on your memory of having read it, or having watched the film, or possibly the mini series. Or you are just joining us now, with no background at all. Whatever the case, let us begin! (I did try to find some cute gifs and memes to illustrate this post, but I couldn’t find any that fit, and I’m too thick to figure out how to make them myself. Please therefore post yours in the comments.)

You might have noticed that the opening of this book hardly drops us into the heart of a high-speed car chase. We have about two pages of describing the lines of inheritance and the reasons for it. The 19th Century reader had time for this, and it was not unusual. Personally, I kind of like it, but then I am more of a 19th Century reader. And I love that Jane Austen always has all these details worked out, whether or not she shares them. And I like the legal detail as well. And her efficiency is incredible. This first chapter could be a whole mini series. In fact, I'd love to make that mini series. Watch this space... seriously, it’s not impossible... But since she has told it so efficiently, I won’t summarize the history, as I might as well just set out the text of the book.

But just so we all know where we are, Mrs. Dashwood and her three daughters get screwed over by their step-son/half-brother (respectively) John Dashwood and have to move out of their posh house into a cottage far away, but not before the eldest, Elinor, forms a shaky attachment with John’s brother-in-law Edward, much to Edward’s own sister’s chagrin. At their new home, they are welcomed by Mrs. Dashwood’s cousin, Sir John, and his family. A short while into their residence, the middle Dashwood girl, Marianne, falls down a hill in the rain and gets carried home by a galant stranger of the name of Willoughby.

I have noticed a general trend (with the prompting of the ever-insightful Laura Frey, of that all the characters are described as either amiable or ill-disposed. Mrs. Dashwood and her daughters are all amiable. I think only Marianne gets called so overtly, but they all are. Edward Ferrars is also described as amiable, by Marianne, and it takes one to know one.

John Dashwood COULD have been amiable, if he had married a more amiable woman, but Mrs. John Dashwood (AKA Fanny) is PROPERLY ill-disposed, and thus so is he as a consequence.

And there is another dichotomy at play among the characters. They tend either to be well-bred or warm-hearted. Sir John Middleton is warm-hearted and a bit vulgar, as is his mother-in-law Mrs. Jennings, but his wife is well-bred and insipid. I can see why she was left out of the movie. She doesn’t do anything and serves no purpose except to allow spinster Jane Austen to display, once again, her hatred of children and her distrust of anyone who does not likewise hate them. (Note her explanation of the reasons old Uncle Dashwood left all his property to little Henry’s benefit. No doting auntie there!)

Colonel Brandon does not fit neatly into either category. He is too reserved to be amiable, and too good and kind to be ill-disposed. He is both well-bred and warm-hearted, though the latter becomes apparent only over time.

We may keep this running theme throughout this read-along, and please contribute in the comments your questions for our Buzzfeed quiz: Am I Amiable or Ill-Disposed?

So, on to my thoughts and questions. I’m not going to give thorough analysis. You can find that online anywhere. But I do have some unanswered issues, mainly of a legal nature. Feel free to skip this paragraph if you find the law tedious. I assure you, no judgment here. It is tedious. I don't get how Henry Dashwood (AKA Tom Wilkinson) is “the legal inheritor of the estate and the person to whom [his uncle] meant to bequeath it.” Either you are the legal inheritor OR someone bequeaths it to you, not both. There is no mention of an entail, and if Henry Dashwood inherited the property outright, his wife would have had a life interest in it as a dower interest. It seems Uncle Dashwood gave Henry a life interest in Norland. Based on my knowledge of wills and estates, that's what it looks like to me. So he can use it and profit from it, but he can't touch it or deplete it. So how was he both the inheritor and the person to whom his uncle intended to bequeath it? Could Henry Dashwood have been the inheritor of a gift-over? So, a previous owner had some direction in their will about Hendry Dashwood getting a life-interest when the uncle died, but then after that it was up to the uncle. So, Henry was the legal inheritor by way of the gift-over, and his uncle INTENDED to bequeath the remainder of the interest to him. Then, along comes the little boy, and all is thrown over. This is the only explanation that makes sense of the line in the novel, but it does seem rather convoluted, legally speaking.

Mrs Dashwood has seven thousand pounds, which I suspect came from the sale of Stanhill, which Henry Dashwood must have owned outright, in freehold, for it not to have gone to his son. And Uncle Dashwood left each of the girls three thousand pounds. For the uninitiated, people lived on the interest of their money invested in fixed-rate bonds, of sorts. They are generally referred to as “the four percents” but the math here implies they are somehow getting five percent. Again, if anyone knows more about this than I do, please explain this higher rate of return.

Does anyone differ from me in opinion that the best scene possibly in literary history is of Fanny convincing John not to give his sisters any money, even though he promised his father on his death-bed that he would take care of them? What I love about this scene is how real it is. It's like an exposition of all cognitive dissonance played out on the page with perfect insight. Fanny is a “strong caricature” of John, and I think of her as the devil on his shoulder, part of himself, but completely out of balance. We all have this voice in our heads but generally we fight it. Here, there is no one to resist, and it's almost like a morality play in two pages. Such a revelation of the descent into evil! In my opinion, this is where Austen’s genius really shines, when she can display so aptly what we all experience, and bring it out into the light to be examined in all its ugly glory.

And I noticed that Austen gives quite a detailed description of the cottage and its situation. This is not like her. She wasn’t all that into descriptions, which can make it difficult to glean from her work much information about the period unless you are already familiar with it. But in this case, it is a bit foreshadowing. You think, why is she explaining so much about the geography of the valley? It hasn’t become clear yet, but it will.

And I cannot resist the chance to discuss how very well the film actually captures all of this. As I read, I am somewhat in awe of how Emma Thompson brought out the spirit of the book, even though it is not a verbatim translation. Contrast that with the mini-series, which utterly misses the point, in my opinion. And it was written by Andrew Davies! He of all people ought to know better! At the appropriate moments, I will explain my dislike of that production, which was a monstrous disappointment because I had been SO looking forward to it for so long before it came out, particulary because it was written by Andrew Davies, whom I trusted. And if you can’t trust Andrew Davies to adapt a work of classic literature, whom can you trust?

One last thing I always like to note are the physical descriptions of the characters, because I like to contrast them with the casting choices. Marianne is supposed to be taller than Elinor. Both are pretty, but Marianne is more striking and has very dark eyes. Elinor is more regular in her form (whatever that means). And Elinor is 19 when the book opens and Marianne 16. When the move to Barton Cottage, she has turned 17. Colonel Brandon is “the wrong side of five and thirty.” John Middleton is forty, and Lady Middleton is 27. Mrs. Dashwood is also 40. Margaret is 13. They have three servants, which may seem like a lot, but when everything had to be done by hand, it really isn’t.

Is anyone reading this for the first time? Anybody surprised by differences between the book and the movie/mini-series? Please comment! And please keep sharing the readings. Until next time, let us not say good-bye, but as the French have it, au revior!