There are two reasons for which I read novels. 1) I like to be wholly engrossed in another person’s life bearing no resemblance to me whatsoever; or 2) I like to read about a character or characters whose emotions or actions are relatable and warrant empathy. I’ve spent the last year reading books in the former category. But just last week, I started reading Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility.
I’m a huge fan of Jane Austen, but I’ve never read S&S and thought it was about time to do so. While reading in Chapter 16 last night, I realized something. I've been both Marianne and Elinor at different points in my life. Throughout my twenties I most closely reflected Marianne's impulsive, reckless, and passionate search for the sort of love that wrecks one’s world.
“She played over every favourite song that she had been used to play to Willoughby, every air in which their voices had been oftenest joined, and sat at the instrument gazing on every line of music that he had written out for her, till her heart was so heavy that no farther sadness could be gained; and this nourishment of grief was every day applied. She spent whole hours at the pianoforte alternately singing and crying; her voice often totally suspended by her tears. In books too, as well as in music, she courted the misery which a contrast between the past and present was certain of giving.”
How often I have listened to songs over and over again that reminded me of a long lost love-interest, or recounted times, places, movies we experienced together. Marianne’s “violence of affliction” as Austen calls it, is proportionally related to the degree of expectation she poured into the relationship. Most of us have had our expectations dashed to the ground in love. Some things never change no matter the era.
In contrast, as I grew older, my view of love and relationships became much tamer and more practical—like Elinor. Unlike Marianne who throws 150% of her affection after Mr. Willoughby upon first meeting him, Elinor reserves her opinion and her judgment of his character, managing it deep within her own heart, regardless of what her fluttering emotions tell her. Elinor’s guardedness can be summed up in one short quote from Chapter 4: “I am by no means assured of his regard for me.” Elinor is much more inclined to use her head first, suppressing her emotions. In the end, of course, as they usually do one way or another, her true heart is revealed.
As my years of singleness stretched into my thirties, and after far too many heartbreaks, I realized that this was a much more sensible approach to take to relationships. I will say, however, that after waiting so many years for the right man to come along (and much like Elinor at the end of S&S), the emotion, relief, and gratitude was that much sweeter when I finally married my husband.
Here are a couple of clips from the 1996 movie starring Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet. The scene regarding Marianne’s wild love for Willoughby is especially heart-rending.
What about you? What books/characters do you find most relatable?