Weep you no more, sad fountains;What need you flow so fast?Look how the snowy mountainsHeaven’s sun doth gently waste.But my sun’s heavenly eyesView not your weeping,That now lies sleepingSoftly, now softly liesSleeping.Sleep is a reconciling,A rest that peace begets:Doth not the sun rise smilingWhen fair at even he sets?Rest you then, rest, sad eyes,Melt not in weeping,While she lies sleepingSoftly, now softly liesSleeping.
Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility is full of poetry. Cowper, Shakespeare, Spenser: all the poets the Dashwood sisters would have read, and Marianne in particular would have relished. Towards the end, as she recovers from her great disappointment, she listens tranquilly as Colonel Brandon reads from a small brown volume the size of a hymn book. We only hear a few lines:
Nor is the earth the less, or loseth ought,
For whatsoever from one place doth fall,
Is with the tide unto another brought:
For there is nothing lost, that may be found, if sought.
I always liked them but never recognised them. They come from Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (Book V Canto II), which, though unfinished, consisted of over 2000 ‘Spenserian’ stanzas of nine lines each. (Colonel Brandon, then, probably reads from an abridged edition, or perhaps a book of elegant extracts.) They are part of a dialogue between the heroic knight Artegall and a wicked Giant who wants to practice a kind of radical equality that would raze the mountains and hold back the sea from encroaching on the land. Artegall’s answer is a lovely embrace of mutability: though everything returns to dust or fades away, there is after all nothing lost.
Of things vnseene how canst thou deeme aright,
Then answered the righteous Artegall,
Sith thou misdeem’st so much of things in sight?
What though the sea with waues continuall
Doe eate the earth, it is no more at all:
Ne is the earth the lesse, or loseth ought,
For whatsoeuer from one place doth fall,
Is with the tide vnto an other brought:
For there is nothing lost, that may be found, if sought.
Likewise the earth is not augmented more,
By all that dying into it doe fade.
For of the earth they formed were of yore;
How euer gay their blossome or their blade
Doe flourish now, they into dust shall vade.
What wrong then is it, if that when they die,
They turne to that, whereof they first were made?
All in the powre of their great Maker lie:
All creatures must obey the voice of the most hie.
Further meditations on Sense and Sensibility made me think about how letters drive the story. A letter from Sir John spirits the Dashwoods from Norland to Barton; a letter from Eliza Williams impels Colonel Brandon from Devonshire to London, and precipitates Willoughby's ultimate downfall; letters between Marianne and Willoughby are a revelation to Elinor as well as a catastrophic eruption, in the relationship between M and W, and in that between W and his fiancee. Mirroring Brandon's unhappy receipt of Eliza's letter while in company, Willoughby receives Marianne's letter while he is breakfasting with his new in-laws, and the truth of his perfidy is outed again, this time to his own shame, instead of to his victim's. Lucy's letters, more than her conversation, reveal how “ignorant, illiterate and artful” she is, and how unworthy to be Edward's wife; Elinor is struggling with the composition of her letter to Edward - a letter that must be extremely painful to both - when he walks in on her and begins their most exquisitely awkward and yet most tender and revelatory exchange.
Probably in the other novels, too, letters are important, but in this novel about painful suppression and unspoken feelings, they are all the more necessary as touchstones of emotion and instruments of action.
I have to confess that I enjoyed this one less on this reading. It seems to me the most bitter and most editorialising of all her books. They all have an argument of sorts to make, but this one involves more direct and repeated attack than the others. Marianne and her mother's sensibility is not always allowed to expose itself, but draws the ire and commentary of the author time after time. Though Elinor can sometimes appear unfeeling, and principled to the point of pedantry, there is no acknowledgement from the author of these faults. She is held up, and the others put down, more than is necessary or agreeable to the reader. Marianne's repentance and conversion is perhaps a little too total to retrieve the novel from the realms of a morality tale.
However, the minor characters in this novel are so well and simply drawn that there is no arguing with them. Lady Middleton “had nothing to say one day that she had not said the day before” - how damning! yet how commonplace. Mrs Jennings and Sir John make an endearing team: “With the assistance of his mother-in-law, Sir John was not long in discovering that the name of Ferrars began with an F. and this prepared a future mine of raillery against the devoted Elinor.”
But in Robert Ferrars I think we have one of the finest comic creations of all. We meet him first when he is ordering a jewelled toothpick case, and naming “the last day on which his existence could be continued without the possession” of it. When Elinor dances with him, he talks of his enthusiasm for cottages, and the valuable architectural assistance he rendered to a friend:
“My friend Lord Courtland came to me the other day on purpose to ask my advice, and laid before me three different plans of Bonomi's. I was to decide on the best of them. ‘My dear Courtland,’ said I, immediately throwing them all into the fire, ‘do not adopt either of them, but by all means build a cottage.’” And finally, when he learns of Edward's intention to take orders, he laughs “immoderately.” “The idea of Edward's being a clergyman, and living in a small parsonage-house, diverted him beyond measure;—and when to that was added the fanciful imagery of Edward reading prayers in a white surplice, and publishing the banns of marriage between John Smith and Mary Brown, he could conceive nothing more ridiculous.” Austen's contempt for such a fop is palpable and delicious.
I should also mention how much I love the 1995 Ang Lee movie, for which Emma Thompson wrote the screenplay. Though it contains many additions and departures, it is a gorgeous realisation, made with more art and insight than many of the more faithful adaptations. Kate Winslet as Marianne is simply perfect.
... reading Pride and Prejudice, which I've just done for the squillionth time. What sprang out at me this time was how much of the book is about happiness. The word ‘happiness’ appears 74 times and the word 'happy’ 84 times in the book. We tend to think that Jane Austen's all about social mores or moralities, and the correction of behaviour through painful experience, but I wonder if she sees these simply as structures put in place to secure or guarantee individual happiness. Charlotte Lucas sacrifices happiness in order to obtain the socially valuable goods of household and status. Elizabeth on the other hand rejects the same offer of social stability in favor of personal happiness and is ultimately rewarded. Her resolve to act in a manner that will constitute her own happiness without reference to Lady Catherine's strict preservation of the distinctions of rank makes her an appealing heroine and ultimately delivers Mr Darcy into her hands. In Sense and Sensibility, Elinor's constant caution is a means of guarding her personal happiness, rather than simply of obeying social codes, and Marianne provides an example of the pain that ensues when codes are flouted and happiness is squandered on undeserving objects.