Back in the saddle again. Real life got me a bit too busy to do much blogging for a while there.
One of the things that I think is really important when reading Jane Austen is to have a good edition. There is a really easy test to determine whether your edition is or is not. Check to see if it is split up into three volumes. Because, outside Northanger Abbey all the Austen books were originally written in three volumes. If you went to a lending library in the early 19th century—and this is where most people got their reading—you would have gotten not all of Sense and Sensibility but one third of it. When you were finished that one third, you would have returned it and then paid to borrow the next third.
Now that may seem like so much artificial nonsense now. We don't do that and, damnit, I want the whole book.
But Jane Austen wrote her books with this structure in mind. She didn't write until the page count hit a hundred and twenty and then pack that off as volume one. She constructed each volume as a unit with a story that builds up to a crucial turning point and then works its way towards a significant ending. Only the last volume is meant to have a satisfying ending such that we can put the book down contented but the others have endings. It may not seem like much but having an edition that shows you where the volumes begin and end tells us how the action flows. If we just have all the chapters consecutively numbered with no volume breaks, we can miss these transitions.
[I wish this weren't the case, but the worst offenders here are American publishers. And it's not just Jane Austen books, in reading almost any great English novel, Americans are better off if you spend the time and money to get a good foreign edition. That is also true of French novels by the way. Even if you are reading in translation, try and get a quality British edition.]
In any case, we have just passed the climax of Volume 1. The very centre of this first volume is all about Mrs. Jennings the sleuth. It is about her need to uncover what Colonel Brandon's business in town is and to uncover what Willoughby and Marianne were up to when he whisks her away in his curricle.
If we read Volume 1, Chapter 13 again, in a dispassionate way, the stunning thing about it is that Mrs. Jennings gets more lines than anyone else. Recall it in your imagination and you will think about the visit to Allenham or maybe Colonel Brandon's departure. But all three of these characters are determined to keep their lives as secret as possible.
What really happens here is that Mrs. Jennings very determinedly, and successfully drags the feelings of Colonel Brandon and then Marianne and Willoughby out into the light. She doesn't get all the facts (not yet anyway). We don't know what the Colonel's business is and we don't know what did or didn't happen on the threshing room floor at Allenham. But the sensibilities—the things that Marianne and Willoughby believe to be the source of their superiority over anyone as crude as Mrs. Jennings—she gets at with no troubles at all.
And she isn't here as a plot device. That is to say, she isn't in the story merely to provide a convenient way for us to discover what otherwise would be a secret. We couldn't replace her with exposition or with the camera. No, the whole point of the chapter is to show us how the world really works. No matter how little Willoughby and Marianne think of Mrs. Jennings, she is a formidable character.
And now, dear reader, I want you to consider a rather unattractive proposition. Who else in this story resembles Mrs. Jennings? Who else is a crude voyeur hungry for the juicy details of these people's lives?
Why yes, we are. No matter whom we might fantasize about being in this story, Mrs. Jennings is who we are most like. And that is telling, no?
And let's not content ourselves with the notion that we are interested in the finer things, that our curiosity is not, after all, pornographic. Because neither is Mrs. Jennings' curiosity. She doesn't wonder what the couple did at Allenham, she is interested in the path of the relationship just like we are. There is no more accurate portrait of a devoted Jane Austen fan than Mrs. Jennings.
Be honest, when you replay this in your mind, don't you minimize her? Wouldn't you rather focus on all the elements that are most fun to watch, to dream about and to imagine? But we also minimize ourselves don't we? We want to disappear in the face of the story. We want to forget that we are leering voyeurs hungry to learn the intimate details of these people's lives. Jane Austen won't play ball with our fantasies, however and she determinedly forces Mrs. Jennings on us.
At the climax of Volume 2—and the climax of the whole book—when Marianne's letters to Willoughby are revealed to us, Mrs. Jennings will be there. At the climax of Volume 3, Marianne's dangerous illness, Mrs. Jennings will be there. We can't say she is the most important character because the story isn't her story but it is very much about her.
And she has to be there because—make sure you swallow any liquids before reading further—because Mrs. Jennings is the voice of sense in Sense and Sensibility. Any time we might get tired of all these people going on with their feelings and we want to ask ourselves but what is the real meaning and significance of this, Mrs. Jennings, and not Elinor Dashwood, is our guide.
And that is important to remember lest we make the crude and ignorant mistake that critic Jane Nardin makes. She thinks that Elinor Dashwood's standards of propriety are "excessively rigid and stoical". Jane Austen doesn't have any illusions about standards of propriety because, for her, they grow out of the facts of life. Like Margaret Thatcher, Jane Austen is quite willing to accept that the facts of life are blunt and brutal things and it is this understanding that made both women conservative. Ms. Nardin correctly notes that Elizabeth Bennet's standards of decorous behaviour are easier to swallow than Elinor's but forgets that Elizabeth comes to see that her standards are not good enough; forgets that she comes to accept the more rigid standards of Mr. Darcy as superior.
Manners are never a perfect reflection of truths about character and moral truth in Jane Austen but it always turns out to be the case that attempts to throw manners aside and just "get to reality" fail. (And the most spectacular of these failings is Captain Wentworth. He has to be humbled before he can be happy.)
In this respect, it is worthwhile noting what a philosophically sophisticated writer Jane Austen was. There is always an entire world of sense outside our sensibilities but Jane Austen would never descend to the crude and vulgar realism of a Voltaire. We, rightly, see Austen pushing away the excesses of Romanticism here but she is also pushing off the excesses of Enlightenment rationalism. (I almost said crude Enlightenment rationalism but there is no other kind.)
She also never forgets that neither stories nor reality have an independent existence. She always knows that the story has to have readers to exist and she is always right there reading it along with us.