By Ryan D. Paul
Jane Austen fans rejoice! Not only is the Utah Shakespeare Festival creating an original adaptation of Sense and Sensibility, but now (thanks to an online role-playing game currently being developed) you can live in a digital world inspired by Austen’s life. The eternal struggle between the head and the heart, so powerfully detailed in Austen’s works and her own life, is now yours to virtually immerse yourself in. Set in the world of Regency England, you will be able to guide your avatar through the ins and outs of high society and discover if sense or sensibility will win the day. The genius of Jane Austen in uncovering the truths about human nature and chronicling the war between the head and the heart can indeed cross many media platforms, from literature to plays, from video games to motion pictures. Now, before you rush to open your “Ever, Jane” account, please do two things: first, purchase your tickets for this summer’s production, and second, finish this article. Both of which you can do without leaving your computer. Go ahead, make it happen.
Sense and Sensibility became the first of Jane Austen’s published works. Originally titled Elinor and Marianne, the work was written as a series of letters. Austen began this work at the young age of nineteen and after a childhood surrounded by the great works of English literature. Austen’s brother stated: “her reading started very early,” and he thought it difficult to say “at what age she was not intimately acquainted with the merits and defects of the best essays and novels in the English language” (Rachel Lerman, “The Sense and Sensibility of Jane Austen,” Jane Austen Society of North America, http://www.jasna.org/persuasions/on-line/vol21no2/lerman.html). Jane, the sixth of seven children born to a country rector and his wife, often enjoyed familial readings of Shakespeare in the evenings. Her mother took great delight in writing poetic verse to celebrate joyous occasions. Jane proved very devoted to her family throughout her life and these themes of generational connectivity are present in her works.
Published under the pseudonym “A Lady,” Sense and Sensibility tells of the lives and loves of sisters Elinor and Marianne Dashwood. Austen reformatted her original work from a series of letters to a more traditional narrative style and thus created a more vibrant and realistic portrayal of the battle between the head and the heart. Scholars have argued whether or not Elinor and Marianne are an actual reflection of Austen’s current state or a dream of who she wanted to be.
Jane Austen, according to many accounts lived a life of practicality. She proved extremely thoughtful and caring where her family was concerned. Upon the devastation caused by her father’s death, Jane sent many cherished mementos to her brother in an effort to abate his grief. Like Elinor, Jane concerned herself with the welfare of her family and took it upon herself to look after them in their times of need.
According to Austen’s biographer, Claire Tomalin, Jane had some, all-be-it few, instances in which the flighty, fluttery personality of Marianne rose to the foreground. These rare occurrences provided Austen comfort in the gloomy times that beset her. At the age of twenty, Austen attended a ball where she met a young Irishman by the name of Tom Lefroy. Jane enjoyed dancing and flirting with him the entire evening. That night, Austen wrote to her sister to imagine “everything most profligate and shocking in the way of dancing and sitting down together” (Lerman). After four weeks of dances, dinners, and visits, Jane and Tom would part ways with Jane writing to her sister, “At length the day is come on which I am to flirt my last with Tom Lefroy, and when you receive this it will be over. My tears flow as I write at the melancholy idea” (Laura Boyle, “Who Was the Real Tom Lefroy,” The Jane Austen Centre, http://www.janeausten.co.uk/who-was-the-real-tom-lefroy/). It is a scene, right out of a Jane Austen novel.
Austen herself acknowledged that the themes she chose to write about were not as broad and sweeping as many of her contemporaries. She described them to her niece as “human nature in the midland counties." "Three or four families in a country village is the very thing to work on.” In a letter to her brother, Austen described her work as "the little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush, as to produce little effect, after much labour" (Ros Ballaster, “Introduction,” (http://www.us.penguingroup.com/static/rguides/us/sense_and_sensibility.html). However, this is exactly why Austen remains relevant today. While her writing is rich in intelligence and humor, it is her vast and deep knowledge of human nature that compels us to read on. We see some of ourselves and our neighbors in her characters. She is writing our story. We meet these people every day: the manipulative and over affectionate, the unscrupulous and charming, the impulsive and thoughtful, the lovers of gossip and the keepers of secrets. Austen scholar Ros Ballaster argues that “while the great events and philosophical movements of history play themselves out around us, it is our own nature and actions, and the nature and actions of the people around us, that most influence our lives” (Ballaster). This is what Austen excelled at writing about and this is why we as readers connect with her work.
Austen died at forty-two on July 18, 1817. During her life she jealously guarded her privacy, and after her death, her family destroyed or censored most of her letters. Her identity as an author was known to her family and a few close friends but she deliberately avoided the popularity that could have been hers. Critic Ronald Blythe argues that “literature, not the literary life, was always her intention” (http://www.cliffsnotes.com/literature/p/pride-and-prejudice/jane-austen-biography). Austen protected her identity as jealously as Bruce Wayne protects Batman. Austen is a rare literary superhero. The December following Austen’s death, her brother Henry reveled to the world her role as author. Almost thirty years later historian Thomas Macaulay stated that Austen as a writer has, “approached nearest to the manner of the great master, Shakespeare” (Ballaster).
In 1786, Thomas Jefferson, while serving as a minister to France fell in love with a young English woman named Maria Cosway. As Cosway left France, Jefferson composed a longing letter to her now known as A Dialogue between the Head and Heart. The letter vacillates between Jefferson’s desire for her love and his need to retain his integrity (Cosway was married). Spoiler alert: reason wins the day. Jefferson’s Dialogue, while filled with flowery, thoughtful and intense language falls flat compared to the similar discussion in Sense and Sensibility. Austen succeeds where Jefferson fails. The narrative structure, the characters which compel us to be involved, the powerful connections Austen creates between us as readers and those we are reading about all prod us onward. Austen builds a framework for our lives. She provides a structure for all aspects of our human nature to inhabit. Sir Walter Scott said of Austen, “That young lady has a talent for describing the involvements and feelings and characters of ordinary life which is to me the most wonderful I ever met with" (Janeite Deb, @Sir Walter Scott on Austen—March 14, 1826, Jane Austen in Vermont, (http://janeausteninvermont.wordpress.com/2009/03/13/sir-walter-scott-on-austen-march-14-1826/). Amen, Sir Walter. Now go and get your tickets and if by chance we meet on the Green please give an affectionate salutation. Just don’t ask me to play a piano forte; my skills are a bit rusty.