The Heroine’s Journey in “Sense and Sensibility”

“Sense and Sensibility” was the first and one of Jane Austen’s novels; she wrote it in 1795, but it was not published for 16 years, until she had found the courage to declare herself as a novelist. It was written by a young woman who ostensibly had little experience of the world – although her fiction proves she missed little that occurred on her domestic stage – and the story reflects that orientation, as a mother and her three daughters wait passively while all of the interesting men in the vicinity disappear on unexplained missions to London.

In a modern story, the women would have demanded explanations.

What gives “Sense and Sensibility” its tension and mystery is that the characters rarely say what they mean. There is great gossip within the women’s sphere, but with men, the conversation loops back upon itself in excruciating euphemisms, leaving the women to puzzle for weeks over what was or was not said.

As the story opens, the Dashwood estate passes to a stingy male heir, who provides only a few hundred pounds a year to his father’s second wife and her three daughters. The widow Dashwood and her girls find themselves torn from the life of country gentry and forced to live on this meager income in a cottage generously supplied by a distant relative.

It is now the task of the girls to find themselves husbands. The oldest, Elinor, is no longer in first flower. The middle, Marianne, is in full bloom. The youngest, Margaret, is still at this point largely interested in tree houses, and hiding under tables in the library. The women spend many hours by the fire at their sewing, waiting for eligible men to drift into their nets, and some of the film’s funniest moments have the mother and daughters quickly composing themselves into a tableau of domestic bliss just in time for a man to happen upon them.

The first man in view is Edward, the brother-in-law of the stingy Dashwood son. He is charming, and definitely interested in Elinor, but as Marianne observes, “there is something wanting.” Exactly what is wanting is explained later in the film, when we discover why Edward is prevented from declaring the full extent of his love.

Edward leaves suddenly for London. The next man to appear is Col. Brandon, played by that indispensable villain Alain Rickman , who is not a villain this time but seems to be, with his dark, brooding air and the speaking style of a sentimental hangman. He is attracted to Marianne, but before he can act, she is smitten by the dashing Willoughby, who rescues her from a mishap and charms her off her feet. No sooner have these men appeared when they, too, are called away to London – although not before Col. Brandon has suggested, almost by osmosis, that he knows something unspeakable about his rival Willoughby.

His secret is the sort of thing that would not be a secret long in the modern age, but in Austen’s time, such things were not spoken of, and Brandon might even allow Marianne to make a disastrous marriage rather than tell her what her maidenly ears should never hear. This maddening, intriguing inability to simply blurt out the truth is indispensable to 19th century fiction, and I find it enormously satisfying. Better the character who leaves us to guess at unspeakable depths than one who bores us with confessional psychobabble.

The men’s departure to London leaves the three daughters and their mother facing an indefinite future in their sewing circle. So when a kindly relative proposes a visit to London, they seize upon it with desperation, and it is there that secrets are revealed and alliances are smashed or formed. The screenplay, adapted from Austen by Emma Thompson, takes wicked delight in setting up scenes that would be farce in France a few generations later, but here still play as drama (with an undertone of dry humor). The scene, for example, when the hapless Edward (Grant) finds himself unexpectedly in the presence of two women, neither one of whom should know about the other.

“Sense and Sensibility” is an enjoyable film. I liked the wit, I liked the charm of the actors, I enjoyed the way that Rickman chewed his role as if he wanted to make it last, and the tension when Grant’s Edward is made to suffer – particularly since he appears to be a cad only because he has tried to do the right thing. And I appreciated the way Thompson’s Elinor kept her character’s face carefully expressionless as she negotiated scenes in which some knew her secrets and others did not.