Oxford World’s Classics: Sense and Sensibility, by Jane Austen – A Review

“Pray be composed,” cried Elinor,” and do not betray what you feel to every body present. Perhaps he has not observed you yet.” Elinor Dashwood to her sister Marianne, Sense and Sensibility, Chapter 28 

So you want to read Sense and Sensibility. Great choice! Jane Austen’s first published novel (1811) can get lost in the limelight of her other ‘darling child’, Pride and Prejudice, but is well worth the effort. There are many editions available in print today, and the text can stand on its own, but for those seeking a ‘friendlier’ version with notes and appendixes, the question arises of how much supplemental material do you need, and is it helpful? 

One option is the Oxford World’s Classics new revised edition of Sense and Sensibility that presents an interesting array of additional material that comfortably falls somewhere between just the text, and supplemental overload. This volume offers what I feel a good edition should be, an expansive introduction and detailed notes supporting the text in a clear, concise and friendly manner that the average reader can understand and enjoy.

The material opens with a one paragraph biography of the life of Jane Austen which seemed rather slim to this Austen enthusiast’s sensibility, and most certainly too short for a neophyte. The introduction quickly made up for it in both size and content at a whopping 33 pages! Wow, author Margaret Anne Doody does not disappoint, and it is easy to understand why after eighteen years publishers continue to use her excellent essay in subsequent editions.

Illustration by C.E. Brock, Sense and Sensibility, J. M. Dent, (1898)Amazingly, the introduction is not at all dated. The material covered is accessible to any era of reader, touching upon the novels publishing history, plot line, character analysis, and historical context. Doody thoughtfully presents the reader with an analysis of the major themes in the novel such as; the dichotomy of sense and sensibility as it relates to the two heroines Elinor and Marianne, the portrayal of negligent mothers, men represented as the ultimate hunter, secrecy, deceit and concealment, and the crippling impact of the inheritance laws and primogeniture on women during the Regency era. Interlaced with Doody’s interpretations are her astute observations of Austen’s writing style with references to pages in the novel and outside sources. The entire essay is well researched, populated with footnotes, and an enjoyable complement to the text.

The notes on the text explain the editorial trail since the novel’s first publication in 1811, whose subtle changes and their significance I will defer to my more learned colleague Prof. Moody. The select bibliography is indeed select, and includes many editions that deserve recognition as the best of what is available in print on Jane Austen’s life, works and critical analysis. One of my favorites listed is Jane Austen: A Family Record (1913) by William Austen-Leigh and Richard Arthur Austen-Leigh, revised and enlarged by Deirdre Le Faye (1989). I was also pleasantly surprised to see a category including film versions and commentaries which is often overlooked by other publishers.

The chronology of Jane Austen’s life lists both significant events and what transpired historically in matching columns. The choices are relevant and interesting with the exception of two events that this writer found humorous; – 1795 Jane Austen flirts with Tom Lefroy, and in 1815 Humphry Davy invents miner’s safety lamp. I have yet to be convinced that Austen’s flirtation with Tom Lefroy had a significant impact on her life, nor am I clear how a clergyman’s daughter living in southern England would be directly affected by the invention of a miner’s safety lamp. Just thinking out loud here!

Illustration by C.M. Brock, from Sense and Sensibilty, 1896The two appendixes on rank and social status, and the intricacies of country dance touched upon both subjects clearly, but briefly, using stories from Jane Austen’s life to put the era in context. I appreciated the humorous example of how young women attending balls and assemblies were accompanied by chaperones, usually a mother or an older woman, who were expected to pass the time with cards or socializing rather than dancing themselves. In a letter to her sister Cassandra, thirty-seven year-old Austen recognizes the transition from dancer to on-looker when she writes “Bye the bye, I must leave off being young, I find many Douceurs in being a sort of Chaperon for I am put on the Sofa near the Fire & can drink as much wine as I like.” Too funny! Even though each of these appendixes is short, they do offer a list of books to explore further reading, which I was inspired to investigate.

Since contemporary novels do cease to be contemporary the day that they are published, growing even more distant with each generation, notes can become indispensable to the enjoyment of the modern reader. Prof. Claire Lamont has supplied excellent and insightful explanatory notes, allowing for instant gratification with detailed descriptions of language usage, social and historical context, and character and plot insights. I found this the most interesting aspect of this edition, and reading the explanatory notes alone was like reading a condensed dictionary to Jane Austen, her times, and the plot and characters in Sense and Sensibility. 

In short, Oxford World’s Classics has pulled together just the right amount of supplemental material from reputable and readable sources for their revised edition of Sense and Sensibility. I found very little wanting in this edition, and recommend it to first time readers, or veterans seeking new insights.

5 out of 5 Stars

Image of Molly the Oxford scholarSense and Sensibility, by Jane Austen
Oxford World’s Classics
Oxford University Press, Rev. Ed. (2008)
Trade paperback, 384 pages, ISBN-13: 9780199535576
James Kinsley, editor

Supplemental Material
Margaret Anne Doody: Introduction
Claire Lamont: Explanatory notes, Textural notes,
Vivien Jones: Select bibliography, Chronology and Appendixes

Cover image courtesy of Oxford University Press © 2008; text Laurel Ann Nattress © 2008, Austenprose.com

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