Wednesday, March 3, 2021

S&S Read-Along: Ch. 1 & 2

Here we go!

One quick note: I don't know how your chapters are numbered in your copy.  Some editions use the numbering from the original publication, which was in three volumes, and so these first two chapters would be listed as "Volume I, Chapter I" and "Volume I, Chapter II."  Other editions just number them sequentially entirely, from 1 to 50.  Because it's the easiest, I'm using the latter method for these post titles, even though the annotated copy I'm reading uses the former system.  I hope it won't be too confusing for you if they're numbered differently from your copy, as we get into later chapters!  But now, you at least understand how I'm numbering things.

Okay.  On to the good stuff.

First, what a dismal way to open a novel!  Death, more death, and terrible disappointment.  Also, enter one of the meanest Austen characters almost at the very beginning.  I feel like this is Austen's darkest novel, and that darkness doesn't come on gradually.  Rather, we start off in the darkness and move forward through more darkness until we finally find some light at the end.

A bit of background info on this book:  Austen was nineteen herself when she wrote the first version of this, called Elinor and Marianne at the time.  That's how old Elinor Dashwood is in the story, and some people think she's far too self-possessed for someone who's only nineteen.  But I was pretty self-possessed myself at that age.  As a matter of fact, that's how old I was when I met my husband.  And Austen's having conceived of this character and written the first version of her when she was also that age makes me feel like those critics were just immature at nineteen and don't believe someone couldn't be the most adulty adult in the room at that age because they weren't that way themselves.

This was the first novel Austen had published.  Like Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion, it's an exploration through fiction of some more abstract ideas, such as how personality and behavior affect not only our own lives, but those around us.  Once in a while, the characters do behave a bit more like archetypes than real people, more the side characters than the principals, I think.   

It's really interesting to me that the whole first chapter is entirely exposition.  The only moment of any sort of dialog is John Dashwood telling himself how much money he's going to give his step-sisters.  And then the second chapter is almost entirely dialog, just page after page of Fanny Dashwood convincing her husband not to give his step-sisters the money he decided to give them in the first chapter.  Anyone here have a strong urge to slap Fanny Dashwood?  ::raises hand::  What a selfish, conniving, smug person.  Blech.

It also interests me that Austen flat-out tells us what her characters are like.  Elinor has "a strength of understanding, and a coolness of judgment," and "an excellent heart."  "Her disposition was affectionate, and her feelings were strong; but she knew how to govern them" (p. 8).  We don't learn that by watching her interact with people, we know this going in and get to see how these characteristics affect her and those around her, as well as the events of the book.

Likewise, we get told that Marianne is "sensible and clever, but eager in everything; her sorrows, her joys, could have no moderation" (p. 8).  And we see right away how she and her very similar mother let their emotions rule them, reveling in their grief, in a way.  "They encouraged each other now in the violence of their affliction.  The agony of grief which overpowered them at first, was voluntarily renewed, was sought for, was created again and again" (p. 8).  My annotated edition talks about how, at the time this was written, there was almost a "cult of sensibility" in the culture -- feeling things deeply and showing your emotions to the world was a sign of being very sophisticated.  Restraint and calmness weren't very fashionable, and this gave rise to Romanticism, with its emphasis on instinct and feeling over rational thought.

It's pretty clear from the start which sister Austen thinks has the wiser and healthier temperament.  I myself thinks that Elinor also carries things a little too far, maybe in a reaction to her mother and sister's own excesses.  We'll see as we read if I still feel that way this time through the book.

Discussion Questions:

1.  Why do you think Austen straight-up tells us what the sisters are like instead of letting us get to know them through the story?

2.  Do you find it credible that the Dashwoods' uncle left everything to a little boy?  Or is that just a convenient plot device to make them poor?

3.  Which of the three Dashwood sisters is your favorite?


  1. Elinor is my favourite sister. Marianne is detached from reality and the youngest one is still not formed in her personality.
    I like that Jane Austen tells us what the sisters are like, but I also like to have my own opinion as I go forward in the story.

    Fanny Dashwood needs her husband to stand up to her and do what iis right!

    No, I don't think that it's credible that the Dashwoods' uncle left everything to a little boy.

    1. Sandra: I can understand why you would favorite Elinor, compare to Marianne, Elinor is definitely more refine and more in control of her emotions. I also think since she is the oldest sister, she must believe she have to be the mature one, the one to take care of things. I actually do like Elinor a lot but I kind of wish she could be a little like Marianne and enjoy life more.

      Doubtful John would stand up to his wife, he seems to be the same kind of person as her, perhaps that's why he easily agrees with her.

      Have a lovely day.

    2. Sandra, I like Elinor myself. I see a lot of myself in her, being very serious and always trying to remain in control of my emotions rather than being controlled by them. But I think that, like Lissa says here, it's sad that she's so burdened by needing to basically be the adult of the family now, and it's sad she can't enjoy life a bit more for most of the book.

      I think perhaps Fanny married John because she found she could manipulate him really easily. It would be awesome of he would stand up to her! But I'm not sure he knows how. Sigh.

    3. Lissa and Rachel, I can understand Elinor better than I can Marianne. We see Elinor open up and evolve as the story moves forward.

      You're both right in thinking that Fanny manipulates John and influences him not to be generous with his father's second family.

  2. I want to slap Fanny. I've seen people act like her and it drives me nuts.
    I do think it's interesting that she decided to tell us what their like. Maybe she didn't want them to be misinterpreted or something like that.

    I don't really think it is, but people can surprise you.

    I think the youngest.

    1. Skye, I have too, and they always seem to blithely get away with this kind of thing, which is so horrible.

      I think because Austen is sort of using these two characters to embody the ideas of Sense vs. Sensibility, that's why she very directly tells us what they're like. As you say, then they won't be misinterpreted.

      I like Margaret too :-) Better than Marianne, but not as well as Elinor.

    2. It's surprising how often it happens.

      Oh that makes a lot of sense. Wow I didn't think of it like that.

      She's cute. I prefer Elinor to Marianne too.

  3. Some bonus thoughts on the descriptions of characters in these chapters, as Austen was coming through with her humor while telling us precisely how John is with this: 'He was not an ill-disposed young man, unless to be rather cold-hearted, and rather selfish, is to be ill-desposed...'
    Ha! I know that I wouldn't want to meet someone like Fanny in real life, but she is hilarious in a...mean way? I don't know. That second chapter is one of my favorites of the whole thing because it's what pulled me in to Jane's humor!

    3. Hmm, I don't know. I've always related more to Elinor while watching or reading the story, but I have the sneaking suspicion that if the same happened to me I would show some tendencies of Marianne. I also like Margaret a lot and think that the description of her is a little unkind!

    1. MC, there's definitely some very sly humor in these opening chapters, with her commentary on the characters! How interesting that you like the second chapter because it makes you laugh! Humor is so subjective, isn't it?

      Margaret is only thirteen, so I think there is hope for her to turn out well, even if she hasn't got much sense right now. I mean, a thirteen-year-old with good sense IS kinda rare...

  4. I wanted to slap John Dashwood even more than Fanny (but they both could use a good slapping!)

    I did wonder why the Uncle left everything to the boy after Henry's family had been so genuinely attentive to him. Your #2 question is interesting because it never would've occurred to me that Jane Austen would resort to a convenient plot device...but maybe she did...

    1. Becky, hah! Yes, they could. Goodness, so self-centered.

      I think it works as a plot device because it is NOT convenient for the characters. If they had been left comfortably off, and then had all these problems, that wouldn't make sense. Or if they had known they weren't going to inherit anything. But it's unexpected trouble for them, so it works?

  5. It's been awhile since I've read this, but I have seen the movie recently. I had forgotten how much I detested John and Fanny Dashwood!
    I think a man like John deserves to be bullied by his wife, and who better to do it than Fanny.

    1. Mom, yeah, they're thoroughly awful. Blech. I'm not sure I'd say John deserves it... but it certainly isn't surprising that she can manipulate him! I think it's a little sad, as I think he could have been a really nice guy if he'd married someone who was also nice.

  6. 1. When I read this, I haven't thought about why Austen starts the story that way but it certainly is a quick way to get to know the sisters. I actually kind of like this but in a way it's also missing a chance to put in a fun beginning scene instead of a death scene.

    2. In those days, most inheritance goes to the male side, so isn't that why the Uncle left such a will? I thought it's John's father who died, I guess I got that wrong. It seems so much clearer in the tv adaptation.

    3. I honestly prefer a little of Marianne and half of Elinor because Marianne is like the fun side and Elinor is the sensible side - that's how I would like to be. But I think if I'm a teenager reading this, I would rather prefer to be Marianne because she's really is a teenager but there's no denying Marianne knows how to enjoy life.

    No one likes Fanny but she's fun to make fun off, you know?

    Have a lovely day.

    1. Lissa, I think the lack of a fun beginning is good, though, because it lets us know this won't be a light-hearted story. Kind of the way she begins Persuasion with a whole long chapter about everyone except the heroine, making us understand how overlooked and ignored Anne Elliot generally is.

      Yes, the inheritance of property would go to the male heirs, and since the uncle doesn't appear to have had any sons, it could be assumed that it would go to his nephews, namely Mr. Dashwood and any others there might have been. But he skipped two generations and left it to his nephew's son John's little boy. If he had left it to Mr. Dashwood, then Mr. Dashwood could have split the monetary part of it between his daughters and given his son John the property, thus providing for all of them.

      Two people die in this first chapter -- first, a rich uncle that the Dashwoods had been living with and caring for. Then Mr. Dashwood, father of John Dashwood from his first marriage, and of Elinor, Marianne, and Margaret from his second, dies. That's the death the '95 movie starts with.

      I think both Marianne and Elinor are extremes, and it would be happiest to blend the two?

  7. I feel like Fanny is one of the worst "villainess" of the JA novels (Mrs. Norris takes the prize though, she's so awful), Lady Catherine has nothing on her.

    1. Why do you think Austen straight-up tells us what the sisters are like instead of letting us get to know them through the story? I'm guessing originally perhaps because she first wrote it when she was younger, I do feel that she tends to introduce a lot of her characters like this, albeit maybe not so abuptly?

    2. Do you find it credible that the Dashwoods' uncle left everything to a little boy? Or is that just a convenient plot device to make them poor? I kinda feel that it is a bit of both, credible that he'd leave a considerable amount to the son of the son of the male heir, but a bit extreme that he left it ALL to him, that part feels contrived. But then maybe that was a bit of Austen poking at the extremes of romanticism (The Brontes disliked the Austen novels, which I find hilarious, some comments Charlotte wrote feel like they totally missed the point, their novels are extremely romantic).

    3. Which of the three Dashwood sisters is your favorite? Probably Elinor, she does annoy me, but I usually frequently want to hit Marianne . . . and their mom (and I'm definitely Marianne myself). Margaret is not very well-developed as a character in the novel I don't feel.

    I too feel like this is her most depressing and melancholy novel, which is odd because Mansfield Park seems to have more elements to be depressing, but maybe because it has more action/movement it's less so? Persuasion is somber, but not melancholy at least to the same extent.

    1. Livia, yes, this book has some of the nastiest of all Austen characters! You've got Fanny Dashwood and Lucy Steele, and Mrs. Ferrars too! All horrible, horrible people. Not to mention Willoughby the Corrupter. Ugh.

      I think that telling readers what characters are like is kind of a thing in fiction of this era. I don't mind it, but it's rather different from what's considered "good" writing today.

      I think him leaving everything to the little Dashwood boy is meant to highlight the fact that it's really hard to count on anyone in this story -- so many people are going to turn out to be unworthy of trusting, even Edward in a way, with his secret engagement in place while he's falling for Elinor. Colonel Brandon is like the only person who never just utterly fails the Dashwoods -- even Sir John Middleton and his family let them down in more minor ways.

      And you're right, Austen is also poking fun at basing decisions on sentiment here.

      (I know the Brontes disliked her, and that's just so amusing.)

      Margaret doesn't have a lot to do in the book, yeah.

      I think in Mansfield Park the sad and melancholy things that happen are all internal, with Fanny being pressured to marry someone she doesn't respect, and being mistreated in a careless way and not a malicious one by her uncle's family (except Mrs. Norris, but she's mean to everyone), whereas so many of them are external in this. Big things happening from the outside and beating against these women, with being practically impoverished and left with no good prospects for marriage, and repeatedly betrayed. Nobody betrays Fanny Price.

    2. Comments from famous authors on other famous authors, especially unflattering ones can be pretty hilarious.

  8. (Is it okay if I comment if I don't have time to follow the read-along?? if not, I'll just read the posts quietly, and I'll try to keep this comment short ;))

    I, too, get a little annoyed with the critics who say Elinor couldn't possibly be a real 19-year-old. She's serious and sensible and focused, but it is definitely possible to be all those things at age 19! *slowly raises own hand* ;)

    I think what those critics may be missing, though, are the ways that Austen hints to us Elinor ISN'T completely mature and DOES still need to grow. The way I interpret Elinor, she's somebody who believes that following the rules and always doing the "sensible" thing will make her future work out smoothly. I think she's a bit blindsided by all the messes she ends up in with Edward, Lucy, etc, because she expected that her sensible, detached nature would save her from losing her heart to an unavailable guy. "I don't fall in love with boys I can't have! Only Marianne would do something as silly as that!"

    So by the end of the book, Elinor has learned (I think) that human beings are a lot more unpredictable than she once thought they were. That it's still good to be rational and follow sensible rules, but that's not a guarantee of entirely smooth sailing.

    1. I agree that Austen is hinting that Elinor needs to grow, that she relies too much on sense to the point of hiding her true feelings from her loved ones.

      I'm not at all Elinor, but I do know some of my sisters related more to her, maybe not quite a 19, but still young. I think because I was SO not like Elinor it wasn't hard for me to understand, everyone by contrast seemed more like her than me.

    2. Katie, it's absolutely fine for you to comment even if you're not reading! I'm sorry I missed answering this comment of yours originally.

      I love what you say here about Elinor being misguided in her conviction that following her head will ensure she sidesteps a lot of trouble. I don't think she expects it will make her future smooth, but rather, she thinks keeping her emotions so entirely inside will keep other people from making her life harder. She misses the fact that sharing your burdens with others makes them easier to bear.

  9. Ugh, I wrote a long comment and Blogger ate it.

    Anyway, I could be wrong but I think that one reason Jane Austen described Elinor and Marianne's characters is because it was kind of the thing that authors did back in the day? I feel like it's only been recently that authors 'show, don't tell' their characters' traits. Of course that also depends on each individual author's style, but I feel like there was a lot more telling in older books than there is these days.

    As to my favorite Dashwood sister, it's hard to pick! (Though Margaret isn't even in the running. :P) I related to Marianne more the last time I read the book, but I admire Elinor so much. Soooo...I'm not going to choose. :D

    1. Eva, Blogger comments have been REALLY DUMB for some people lately. Not sure what's going on. Hmm.

      Anyway, it definitely was more common in books of that era, to have the author straight-out tell us what characters are like. There's a lot more just telling about events rather than showing them, too. Definitely a different style.

      You don't have to choose a favorite!

  10. 1. I appreciate that Austen tells us what the sisters are like. It gets hard for me to sift through Regency-era British English and then still figure out when things are being exaggerated. Austen does like presenting caricatures to add humor, it works a lot better when I can figure out that it's supposed to be exaggerated.

    2. I find it somewhat credible that the uncle left everything to the little boy. That was quite commonly done. However, I find it unbelievable that he would leave everything to the little boy when he really wanted the Dashwoods cared for. If that's what he wanted, then he should have written his will that way.

    1. AnnMarie, I can see how that would be a total bonus!

      I don't have my copy right by me to check just now, but I don't remember if their uncle was concerned about them being cared for? I think he assumed his nephew, Mr. Dashwood, would be perfectly able to care for them... but then Mr. Dashwood died too, less than a year later, and without securing any sort of legally binding promise from John Dashwood to care for Mrs. Dashwood and the girls.

  11. 1. Why do you think Austen straight-up tells us what the sisters are like instead of letting us get to know them through the story?

    - Possibly to feel an immediate understanding of the character themselves. Character perception can be hard to nail, but if you know the true content of the character, then their story is easier to understand.

    2. Do you find it credible that the Dashwoods' uncle left everything to a little boy? Or is that just a convenient plot device to make them poor?

    - That's completely credible! Primogeniture had its reasons, but it tended to do more damage than good to those involved.

    3. Which of the three Dashwood sisters is your favorite?

    - I feel that as the middle child (and middle sister) I should feel a sense of loyalty to Marianne, but I've always admired Elinor for her practicality and mature nature.

    1. Ivy Miranda,

      That's a good point! She doesn't want us to wonder what these people are like.

      The thing with the uncle leaving everything to a great-great nephew is that it doesn't follow the laws of promogeniture! The uncle had no son of his own, so you would expect that his estate would go to his closest male relative in the next generation, which would have been Mr. Dashwood. But he skips Mr. Dashwood AND Mr. Dashwood's son John, and leaves it all to John Dashwood's little boy.

      I think both sisters have their good points :-) It's good to like both.

    2. I think he knew what Fanny Dashwood was like and didn't want to give her a chance to rip off everything she could for herself; by leaving everything directly to the small boy, he tried to preserve it from Fanny.

    3. Tamar, I had not considered that! It's possible, I suppose, though I'm not sure how much contact the uncle would have had with John and Fanny, since they did not live with him the way Mr. Dashwood's second family did.

  12. Favorite Dashwood sister? I'm going to go with Elinor. I know she isn't as excitable as Marianne but I like her understatedness (if that's a word?). It could be considered odd that Austen flat out describes the sisters but it seems to work well even if it goes against the "show, don't tell" rule of story telling. Flaunting the rules isn't something that surprises me with Austen.

    1. Dale, I think "understated" is a good way to describe Elinor. And yeah, Austen can break 'rules' because she is just that good :-)

      Lovely to have you along!

  13. John and Fanny's interchange always makes me laugh. That said, it's a master class in Manipulation.

    One quick question did come to mind: I don't have the exact spot, but near the end of Chap. 2, Fanny says the girls will no doubt pay their mother room and board out of their 50 pounds a year. I know families that do that today, but was that common practice in JA's day? Or just Fanny being Fanny? I wonder if your annotated version has anything to say on it.

    I've never been able to decide quite which sister I'm most like. Story wise I definitely tend to identify more with Elinor and probably most in real life too EXCEPT that mannerism-wise I tend to get much more up and down and excitable and Marianne-ish, but about very different things than she does if that makes sense. So I guess just some sort of weird mix? xD I always very much like Margaret (particularly in the '08 film). She needs a story of her own.

    Ok, onward!

    1. Heidi, yeah, Fanny is very artful!

      My annotated copy says nothing about her assertion that the girls would pay for their room and board, but I have always assumed that with their finances so tight, their yearly stipends simply got added to the general pot.

      I think being a blend of Elinor and Marianne is the best anyway :-) And Margaret is such fun in both the '95 and '08. It looks like there are a few pastiches about her, like Margaret Dashwood's Diary by Anna Elliott...


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