Sense and Sensibility
Alright, before I begin today’s book review, I think I should explain the reason for my usual passion for books over films. It’s not that I don’t like movies. On the contrary, I really enjoy a good movie and I like some (I repeat, SOME) television series too, when they’re really good. But, the definition for me of anything (be it movie, television series or book) “good” is when it has a great story line. Narrative for me is one of the most important aspects of anything. I don’t care if Ryan Gosling or Tom Cruise or even Benedict Cumberbatch is in the film if the narrative isn’t a really gripping one. The same for novels. I don’t care how famously popular a book is, if the narrative is rubbish, I’m not going to be very kind about it. And my love of a good narrative is the reason I often prefer the book to the film. Books have so much more to offer in terms of narrative. In a two-hundred-page book, you can read so much about the relationships between characters, get a great picture of the world in which the story is set, get to comprehend back stories and reasons behind characters actions, thoughts and feelings. In a two-hour movie (even though descriptions of scenes aren’t necessary), it’s so much harder to fit all of those elements in. It’s so much harder to present a clear picture of the narrative. And that’s why I often prefer the book over the movie: to give me the proper understanding of what the narrative is about.
Right, well with that said, let this week’s book review begin.
If you’re anything like me, you’ve probably had enough curiosity to go through a number of reading lists claiming that the books in them are the “top novels of all time” to read or some such thing. The one thing that I’ve found (I don’t know about you – but let me know in the comments) in many of these lists is the emphasis placed on classic literature. If you’ve ever been in an English literature course as well, you’ll know that so much emphasis is placed on the study of “real literature” which is classic literature. While literary scholars may love or hates the books by Austen or Dickens (I’ve known a few who despise Dickens’ novels), they nevertheless regard them as extremely important to literature. It was with this in mind, I decided that my book reviews would never be complete (and I could never call myself a true literary enthusiast) until I had read those books deemed classics. And one of the classics I decided to read just recently is Jane Austen’s Sense & Sensibility.
Sense & Sensibility is the story of two young women. Forced out of their family home and all inheritance after the death of their father, the girls’ only prospects are to marry well and secure their family – prospects not so easily achieved when you’re almost penniless. Both desirous to marry for love rather than for material gain, the girls both believe they have found men worthy of them. But material society seems conspired against them. Can Elinor and Marianne find the love they so deserve?Or will the one’s over-emphasis on sense and the other’s desire for romantic sensibilities be too much to overcome?
Alright, so usually about now in my book reviews, I give you a brief review of any movies that have been inspired by the book and these reviews are often not so very complimentary – I guess because of what I told you above about narrative. You’re also probably not sure usually at this point what I think about the book. (I like to save my opinion of the book until the opinion section.) But, this week, I really cannot hide what I think of the book when compared with the movie.
I was – I don’t know if you would call it fortunate or unfortunate – to have seen the movie version of Sense & Sensibility, starring some of my favourite British actors and actresses including Hugh Grant, Emma Thompson and the late, stupendous (because great isn’t good enough) Alan Rickman, before sitting down to read the book. I must admit I had high expectations of the book after seeing the film. The liveliness of the characters, the interesting settings, the amusing speeches between characters in the film all made keen to read Sense & Sensibility for myself. In addition, I had read Pride & Prejudice and I did think there were a few funny moments, particularly with Mr Bennett, that suggested that Sense & Sensibility could be extremely funny.
But, sad to say, I was totally and completely disappointed in the book. And the reason was – odd as it sounds – the lack of a story in the book. When I watched the film, there was a definite story line: Elinor and Marianne lose their father; their nasty brother’s wife forces them to leave their home; Elinor discovers a love; the sisters move to Barton; Marianne discovers a love and so on…. It’s all a definite plot and each action taken, each scene, each speech is towards a definite end. At the end, you realise that everything that happened through the story happened for a definite reason. But I honestly didn’t get that from the book. There hardly seemed to be a story at all in the book and even though I had seen the film and knew the ending, there were events that took place that I couldn’t understand the reason for being in the story.
All in all, for once I was more impressed with the beauty and elegance of the film than the novel – a rarity for me but in my opinion, a justifiable one.
In My Humble Opinion:
Even though reviewing books does mean that I’ve got to be critical of what I read, I don’t really like insulting someone’s writing – even someone who’s been dead before my great grandparents were born – without trying to decipher a reason for the problem. And after a bit of thought, I believe I’ve come up with why there appears to be so little story in Sense & Sensibility.
For a long time now, I’ve known that Jane Austen wrote social critiques – that’s what her novels are all about. In Pride and Prejudice (Pst, click here for book review), she critiqued the importance society places on marriage for material gain – and the folly behind the class-system. In Sense & Sensibility, she again focuses on class and material wealth but more emphasis is placed on finding a balance between too much sense and too much sensibility. And in case you’re confused about the difference, let me briefly explain:
Although “sensibility” might sound like a derivative of “sense” (which technically is true) these two words really have quite different meanings in the context of the novel. Sense really refers to common sense – in other words, the ability to make logical and rational decisions. To have sense implies that you rely on rational thought. On the other hand, sensibility, while it derives from “sense”, doesn’t have anything to do with logic. Rather, it has more to do with the senses (you know, sight, smell, touch, taste and hearing) and with feelings or emotions. To have sense therefore is to be logical and rational; to have sensibilities is to have emotional feelings not governed by logic. I guess the simplest explanation is the idea of head and heart. Sense refers to the head; sensibility to the heart. Should the head rule or should the heart? This is what Elinor and Marianne have to try and decide. As opposites, each sister thinks the other is foolish for not believing the same as they do: that the head (or heart) should govern. And both sisters have to learn a balance between the two – something which, I believe, the society in which Austen lived struggled to do.
I must admit, I rather like a novel that critiques society’s problems like the problem of the balance between heart and head. After all, it is only by seeing our folly through another person’s eyes that we learn how foolish we have been. (I rather like that – it sounds sort of Austenian.) It’s only by seeing how foolishly both Elinor and Marianne behaved that we truly get the message about being properly balanced between head and heart. Or, if you take Pride & Prejudice, it’s only by seeing how a sense of pride or prejudice could lead you miss out on true love, that we learn that both pride and prejudice should be avoided and that we really shouldn’t judge people. Social critique is a marvelous tool to help better society. I’ve even been trying to write my own (more modern) social critique just lately.
But the problem I noticed in Sense & Sensibility, which I am trying to avoid in my own writing, is that while Austen is critiquing society, she is not doing so with a proper story behind it. What do I mean? Well, it all comes own to the rule that every creative writer insists you must do with any narrative: show, don’t tell. In other words, rather than telling a reader that two people got engaged and were pleased as anything about it, describe the scene: how the man knelt and gripped the woman’s hand, how neither could breathe as he spoke and how the woman had tears streaming down her beaming face when he had finished his speech. Show, don’t tell. In pursuit of the problems of society that Austen is desirous to reveal and critique, she forgets that readers aren’t really interested so much in what society’s problems are (or were) but how these problems flared up, how they are revealed.
And this, I think, is the reason that the film is so much better than the book. While Austen, as narrator, was able to talk about the problems of society (in other words to tell), in the film, with the absence of a narrator, the screenwriters had to show the story and thereby reveal social problems. It all comes down to the film showing and the book telling. (Which I guess makes the suggestion of every creative writing expert correct – it is better to show than to tell.) It was fine that Austen told us how sensible (or rational) one sister was and how emotional the other was but the reader needs to have proof. They need to know how the one sister bottled up her emotions, pushed the man she loved away from her out of convention, and how the other tripped all over herself in pursuit of true love. The reader almost needs to be able to picture, in their mind’s eye, the events that take place to bring about these two different views. And though it is easier, certainly, in a film to do this (because you don’t need a “mind’s eye”) it can be achieved in a novel as long as the focus is on actions that produce (or perhaps suggest) feelings rather than describing the feelings themselves. I guess that’s a lesson all writers have to learn.
So, would I recommend this book to you? Well, as an honest reviewer, I don’t really have any pressure to recommend it at all. But, honestly, I would recommend it, if not for the sake of reading a classic literary work, perhaps for a hands-on lesson in what damage simply telling a reader something can do to a novel. I would also wholeheartedly recommend watching the film for a different take on narrative – one that shows you a story of social problems rather than telling you about them.
Have you read Sense & Sensibility? What did you think of it? Did you love it? Did you hate it? If you have read it, let me know what you think in the comments. If you haven’t read it yet, take some time to read it and then let me know. And don’t forget to update your Challenge score and let me know how many books you’ve read.