Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen
After their father’s death, the three Dashwood sisters and their mother are obliged to move to a cottage on the estate of Mrs Dashwood’s cousin. None of them regret leaving the house now in possession of young Mr Dashwood and his wife; but eldest sister Elinor does regret leaving the neighbourhood of Edward Ferrars. The suspension of one romance soon makes way for another, when second sister Marianne meets the dashing Mr Willoughby. Not one to repeat what she sees as Elinor’s mistake - letting prudence keep her from showing her true feelings - she is soon behaving in such a way as to spark suspicions of a secret engagement. Elinor pities Colonel Brandon, who adores Marianne; but soon enough she has to deal with heartache of her own.
I know there are some people who find Elinor boring, and granted she is staid and unemotional. But then, so am I. If she’s not my favourite Austen heroine, she is certainly the one I relate to most. And this being Jane, there’s an abundance of sharp observations and comical characters. The young Mr Dashwood is a fine example, with his boundless capacity to be persuaded by his wife that he is doing enough for his sisters - indeed, being quite generous - when he’s scarcely lifting a finger.
But I’m six years older and more cynical than the last time I read it. And I’m no longer under the influence of the film version. For one or both of these reasons, I didn’t find it as romantic as I once did. On the surface the story appears to have a charming twist - prosaic Elinor makes a love match, while romantic Marianne marries on the grounds of friendship and respect. Yet this seeming subversion is itself subverted. Edward is about as practical a choice of husband as you could make (rather dull, actually). And the Colonel’s fondness for Marianne struck me this time as a piece of romantic folly. His comparing her to his lost first love made me think that he loved her at least as much for who she resembled as for herself, and that he viewed a marriage to Marianne almost as a second chance with Miss Williams. Psychologically interesting, but a tad creepy.
Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell
Molly Gibson’s life is turned upside down when her father decides she needs a proper chaperone - i.e. a stepmother. He chooses Hyacinth Kirkpatrick, who is beautiful and generous, self-centred and vain. Molly’s two consolations are her friendships with the residents of Hamley Hall and her new stepsister, Cynthia. But Cynthia has a secret, and in her desire to help Molly finds herself drawn into her sister’s entanglements at the risk of her own reputation. Worse, Cynthia’s innate ability to lure men dazzles Molly’s friend Roger Hamley.
A 914-page classic might sound daunting, but I loved the length. Opening it was like settling down with friends, and it’s unfortunate that it was unfinished at Gaskell’s death. What there is of the novel advances far enough that it’s easy to see what would have happened in the end; but I would have liked to see Molly get her happy ending. She’s a sweet girl, and certainly she deserved some reward for putting up with Hyacinth without too many complaints. The new Mrs Gibson was not at all the typical evil stepmother; indeed she did her best to be nice to Molly, albeit in her own unthinking way and partly out of concern for what people will say if she doesn’t treat the two girls exactly alike. And she had a beneficial effect on Molly’s dress sense.
The two Hamley brothers were among my favourite characters. Osbourne surprised me - and everyone in Hollingford - with a wonderful secret, and Roger was just adorable. He reminded me of Gabriel Oak - not much to look at, but possessed of a heart of gold, and a good friend to Molly. I also loved Lady Cumnor’s cheerfully unmarried daughter Harriet. It’s left me me eager to read more of Gaskell’s works; not only have I loved all those I’ve read, I love the fact that they’re all so different, and long to see what other sorts of tales she told.
A Sicilian Romance by Ann Radcliffe
Sisters Julia and Emilia Mazzini live a quiet life in their father’s castle in Sicily - until he returns with his new wife in tow. A hedonistic stepmother is bad enough; the count’s intention to force his younger daughter into marriage with a loathsome duke is worse. Desperate to escape the fate planned for her, and shunning the idea of an elopement with the man she loves, Julia turns to her brother Ferdinand and her companion Madame de Menon for help. Their attempt to escape the seemingly haunted castle and its master plunge them into perils and revelations beyond anything they had imagined.
If it hadn’t already been in my TBR box, I doubt I would have tried Ann Radcliffe again after struggling through The Mysteries of Udolpho. I received a pleasant surprise; as well as being much shorter, this novel was also much easier to read. The story got less bogged down in picturesque scene-setting, the action got underway a lot sooner, and the heroines seemed not to faint as often. And they had a brother; how often do you get to see gothic-novel terrors inflicted on a male character?
My previous experience enabled me to overlook the melodrama, the swooning, the spontaneous poetry and the landscape-induced rhapsodising as simply hallmarks of Radcliffe’s style, and just enjoy the story. It’s spooky fun with a serious underlying commentary on the precariousness of a woman’s place in the world, and the problems of the dowry system. Not that it was always easy going; sometimes it’s slow, sometimes it’s overburdened with coincidence, and Radcliffe takes an unusual approach to her heroes. The bad guys get to be fully fleshed-out characters, and there are some fine examples here; I particularly like the development of the count toward the end. But the dashing heroes are mere cardboard cut-outs of Prince Charming; I really think you could switch Sicily’s Hippolitus and Udolpho’s Valancourt and never notice the difference. I suspect this is owing to the moral message inherent in her novels: adhere to the path of virtue, do “that which is right” and you will be rewarded. The heroine’s reward is her hero; so, just as the moral precept is one to which all her readers were intended to aspire, so too the reward is the kind of generic romantic figure of which any reader might dream.