Sense, Sensibility, and Me

By Tuesday, January 22, 2019 , , , ,

Y’all, it’s time to talk about Sense and Sensibility. I go on plenty about Pride and Prejudice around here – it was my first real introduction to Austen – but I’ve recently rediscovered just how fantastic Sense and Sensibility is. This was Austen’s first published work, it tells a tale of devoted sisters, and I’ve fallen in love with it all over again after listening to the audiobook narrated by Rosamund Pike, who played Jane Bennet in the 2005 Pride and Prejudice movie (she’s narrated a version of Pride and Prejudice too. Both are exquisite). After revisiting the story in this format, I have some new-ish/hopefully interesting reflections on my experience with Sense and Sensibility, especially when it comes to the two contenders for Marianne Dashwood’s heart. Here’s my Sense and Sensibility story, and I hope you’ll share yours. 

The Beginning
Like many of us probably were, I was first introduced to Sense and Sensibility through Ang Lee’s 1995 film version that starred Emma Thompson, Alan Rickman, and Kate Winslet. I now think that I might have seen it even before I saw Joe Wright’s Pride and Prejudice, which is the film I’ve long credited for introducing me to Austen. Either way, when I first saw Sense and Sensibility, I was unaware of the Jane Austen connection and had no idea how famous this story was.

And my sensitive, romantic-hearted little 12 or 13-year-old self was immediately captivated by the romance of the vivacious Marianne Dashwood and the charming… Willoughby. Yes, it was the handsome, roguish Willoughby who first turned my head. As a youngster, I frankly didn’t notice or understand Colonel Brandon’s generous heart and gentle, strong constancy. He was the older guy, sort of quiet and awkward, and definitely not as handsome (sorry, Alan Rickman groupies). Willoughby, on the other hand, was PERFECT for Marianne! Hello, he carried her home in a rainstorm after she’d sprained her ankle and then quoted her favorite sonnet to her! Swoon.

So, I was a goner. Such a goner, in fact, that even after all of Willoughby’s bad deeds were exposed, I was still convinced that he would come back to Marianne at the end with a full apology and explanation ready. I was utterly convinced of it right up until the ending scene in which Marianne walks out of the church on Colonel Brandon’s arm. Immediately, my jaw dropped, I uttered some exclamation of disappointed surprise, and I angrily stormed from the room. My emotional involvement in stories has clearly always been a thing.

Greg Wise and Kate Winslet as Willoughby and Marianne in Ang Lee's "Sense and Sensibility" (Photo Credit: Book Snob)

These Years Later
Fast forward some years, and I’m now firmly in the Colonel Brandon camp. As an adult, I’ve now willingly joined the ranks of women who sigh contentedly over his steady strength, gentle attentiveness, and quiet protectiveness over Marianne and others in his care. That angry scene I made after my first viewing of the '95 film ended up leading into a valuable object lesson for my 12 or 13-year-old self, but I’ve come to believe that my early, short-lived infatuation with Willoughby was due to his portrayal in that particular film adaptation.

Who is Willoughby in Ang Lee’s film, which is largely carried by Emma Thompson’s phenomenal script? I recently read a fantastic blog post about Willoughby which actually argues for more merit in this version of Willoughby than many give him credit for. I don’t know if I’d go that far, but I admit that even now, when I watch this Willoughby, played with ever-convincing charm by Greg Wise, I feel a little wistful. He is quite dashing, sweet, and thoughtful towards Marianne. If only he’d been less afraid to be poor. But I think that’s the major conflict that much of the plot comes down to for Willoughby in this version. The blog post linked above discusses this in detail – he’s portrayed as a bit of a rogue who made some mistakes, but in the end, still could have been a good match for Marianne if only he’d been willing to give up the promise of wealth. While this film is gorgeous and I love many things about it, I think this portrayal of Willoughby varies from the book in important ways. 

My conversion to Team Brandon, therefore, came when I read the book and watched the 2008 miniseries that was directed by Andrew Davies and starred Hattie Morahan, Dan Stevens, and Charity Wakefield. This miniseries was particularly important in my experience because it gives a more holistic portrayal of Willoughby’s character and Colonel Brandon’s thorough distrust of him. Dominic Cooper’s Willoughby in this version is perfectly charming and sweet, but he also has a definite edgy quality, and key scenes from the book that were omitted from the movie remain in this version. The unchaperoned visit to Allenham, Willoughby’s duel with Colonel Brandon, and his lengthy explanation offered to Elinor during Marianne’s illness are all lifted from the book and included in this version, and all of these are pretty vital to understanding Willoughby. Colonel Brandon’s young ward is also shown onscreen more than once, which gives cogent visual evidence to the audience of what Willoughby’s actions have done. He's a despicable scoundrel in this version without question, and even if he did truly love Marianne, his deceit and lack of remorse towards Brandon’s ward give ample evidence that he and Marianne probably would not have been happy in the long run. And I think this is what Austen had in mind when she wrote the book. Willoughby might be the more charming one to the eye on first impression, or even second and third impression, but Colonel Brandon is the truly honorable and good and faithful one. And I think that if I had seen this version first, I would have understood that better, even as a young teen.

Hattie Morahan and Charity Wakefield as Elinor and Marianne Dashwood in Andrew Davies's "Sense and Sensibility" (Photo Credit: Page to Screen)

And on that note, I admit that I do love David Morissey’s Brandon in the miniseries. Maybe even more than Alan Rickman’s. Sorry again, groupies. But Morissey’s portrayal brings a true military hero vibe from the beginning and I love the fierce protectiveness that undergirds every interaction with Marianne, or any of the Dashwood females, for that matter. More details are given about his tragic past in this version too, and I think Morissey brings the quiet grief needed for that part of the character beautifully.

But whichever actor you may prefer, I think most of us can agree that Colonel Brandon is a masterpiece of an Austen hero. It was after my recent listen to Rosamund Pike’s audiobook that I remembered how much I appreciate him. Currently, he and Mr. Knightley of Emma are close in my estimation for the most honorable, gentlemanly, and thoroughly good hero of Austen’s creation. That changes fairly regularly, so who knows how I’ll feel about it tomorrow, but that’s how it stands for now.

What are your thoughts? What’s been your experience with Sense and Sensibility? Which film version do you prefer and how do they compare to the book for you? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this lovely Austen novel and the film adaptations!

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  1. I don't know that I've ever read the book. If so, it's been so long ago that I can't remember. I enjoy both adaptations of Austen's story, but the miniseries is my favorite! I like the characterizations better as well as the cinematography.

    1. I highly recommend the new audiobook! It had been a while since I'd gone back to the book when I listened to it and it was just lovely. Rosamund Pike's narration is truly brilliant. Her voice for each character and even her inflections during the narration demonstrate a thorough understanding of Austen and the characters, and she makes it all wonderfully accessible for the listener! And I'd have to agree that I favor the miniseries, even if slightly. The cinematography is indeed gorgeous and the character development is more thorough, which I really appreciated.