A Book Club for Jane Austen’s Novels, Part 1: Sense and Sensibility

A Book Club for Jane Austen’s Novels, Part 1: Sense and Sensibility

I live in a retirement community where the connecting buildings house over a thousand residents. The management encourages us to start clubs or activities. I started a club devoted to reading Jane Austen’s novels. Although I want the discussion to be able to go in any direction, as long as it is about the novels, I supply a list of questions to get people started.

We are reading the books in order of publication, which had us start with Sense and Sensibility. For every book, I have some generic questions:

  1. Did you like [Whichever Novel Being Discussed] Why or why not?
  2. Is there any scene that you enjoyed more than others? Explain.
  3. Is there any scene that you disliked? Explain.
  4. Is there a quote from the book you enjoyed?
  5. Is there a character you liked more than others? That doesn’t mean liked as a person, but as a character. For example, Lucy Steele and Mr. Wickham might be considered good characters but not good people.

Sense and Sensibility

  1. Did you sympathize more with Elinor or Marianne?
  2. Was Elinor unrealistically mature and sensible?
  3. Was Marianne charming, a spoiled brat, or something else?
  4. Some critics think Colonel Brandon and Edward Ferrars were both depressed. Were the symptoms of depression a result of their temperaments or their circumstances?
  5. On paper, Colonel Brandon seems like a romantic hero. He has a romantic past, he’s a man of action, he is a good person, he is sensible, he is generous, and he has traveled. Yet, many think he is stodgy. What do you think of him?
  6. Is it fair to judge Willoughby’s relationship with Eliza Williams, who was sixteen at the time, by today’s standards?
  7. Can you forgive Willoughby?
  8. Why were Colonel Brandon and Sir John Middleton friends?

My co-author, Summer Hanford, recommended I mention I was a teacher. To please her, I am doing so.

You may notice that I did not ask anything about symbolism or literary techniques, such as indirect speech. That is because I was a math teacher, not an English teacher. I’m quite happy with mathematical symbols, but literary ones must be explained to me.

Summer and I met in an online writing class, where our teacher criticized my work by saying not everything is plot. My main interest is plot, but characters and dialog must be consistent with the plot. Jane Austen makes her characters behave in a way that is believable. Therefore, my questions emphasize characters. Sense and Sensibility is hard to understand without understanding both the characters and the time in which they lived. A modern reaction would be to arrest Willoughby for statutory rape and to tell Marianne to get over it. When she doesn’t, she’s sent to counselling. I am inclined to want to tell both Elinor and Edward that they do not need to keep their word to Lucy Steele, although I respect both for their integrity.

What other questions should I have asked? Alternatively, pick a question and answer it. As this isn’t math, your responses will not be graded.

14 Responses to A Book Club for Jane Austen’s Novels, Part 1: Sense and Sensibility

  1. These are fun questions! I just recently finished the book, and have been itching for other opinions on it. With the current pandemic, it’s been more difficult to get out and talk to people about it.

    1). This one is hard because I sympathize with both, but I think I sympathize more with Elinor. She is trying so hard to exhibit respectability and decorum while carrying the emotional and financial weight of the entire family. I think it is also hard for her to watch Marianne fall in love with Willoughby, knowing she cannot protect her. From the beginning, I got the impression that Elinor suspected Willoughby was shady.

    2). I’m not sure if she was unrealistically mature, given the difficult circumstances her family found themselves in, and being the oldest. However, it shocked me every time something heartbreaking would happen, and she remained externally calm almost every time. Her outburst at the end was long overdue!

    3). I didn’t think Marianne was a spoiled brat, but rather immature, inexperienced, and opinionated, which are not necessarily bad qualities, given her age. Without the influence of Willoughby, she was very respectful in her interactions with others. It was only when somebody slighted her sisters or something that she loved that she became blunt or defensive.

    4). I think it was their circumstances. Edward felt the constant pressure of having marry well and obtain a respectable profession by his mother’s standards. He also seemed to resign himself to the fate of marrying Lucy out of duty, knowing he would not be happy. Colonel Brandon experienced numerous tragedies throughout his life, and I would be surprised if a person in his situation did not experience some degree of depression.

    5). Colonel Brandon was actually my favorite character in the book. I found him to be wildly romantic, though maybe not in the superficial sense that Willoughby was. He was everything a person should be, and I found it inspiring that he did not lose his ability to love after the tragedies he endured. It’s rare to find a male character that does not have some ulterior motive, but Colonel Brandon’s only motive was to love deeply.

    6). This is hard, because it seemed that even the book itself scandalized the relationship between the two. I got the impression that Eliza was young enough to be taken advantage of by Willoughby, which made the relationship inappropriate.

    7). I am a forgiving person, but Lord help Willoughby. He does not seem to learn from his mistakes, nor see the error of ways. Even when he came to check on Marianne when she was near death, it seemed he was only rambling on to Elinor for his own sake, not Marianne’s.

    8). I think Colonel Brandon found Sir John Middleton to be a respectable person. He seemed to be one of the only men around him from whom he could seek serious counsel.

    • You have made a lot of interesting comments. I’m only going to reply to a few of them.
      3) Yes, Marianne’s behavior was appropriate for her age. In spite of her initial unwillingness to see viewpoints other than her own, she had a great deal of charm.
      4) I agree completely.
      5) I like your point that Colonel Brandon “did not lose his ability to love after the tragedies he endured.” I had not thought about it in those terms.

  2. Out of interest, do you suggest that the book club readers check out one of the TV/movie adaptations as an alternative if they’re struggling with the book? JA’s prose can seem fairly heavy and dense to many casual readers – know a lot of fans found their way to Austen via the gateway of one of the screen adaptations.

    • Actually, I was trying to avoid the adaptions, because it meant we would be talking about different things. I deliberately named the group “Jane Austen’s Novels Book Club” for that reason. The people who attended were prepared to read the novels or had already read them and wanted to talk about them.

      To put it another way, I didn’t want people to think that Jane Austen wrote about Darcy in a wet shirt, even though I think that was an excellent adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.

  3. I used to want to participate in book clubs but never joined as I like reading what I want and never seem interested in the books chosen. Now one devoted to Jane Austen is one I wouldn’t mind participating in.

  4. 1) I sympathize with Elinor and the eldest sibling syndrome
    2) Yes: She carried the weight of the family on her shoulders
    3) A spoiled brat thinking only of herself and her imagined feelings and emotions
    4) yes: CB due to circumstances: EF due to both circumstances and his temperament
    5) Stodgy??? What movie version were they watching? Rickman rocked as Colonel Brandon
    6) Yes: by any standards. That girl was not our yet and he should have respected that. That adult who was supposed to be watching them should have been more careful for a young girl not out yet. And Willoughby certainly shouldn’t have seduced an innocent by any standards. Grrr!! That sets me up to answer the next question.
    7) NO! Not in this lifetime!!
    8) CB and Sir JM served in India together and Middleton looked after him after his disappointment. Mrs. J was afraid CB might have done himself harm if not for Middleton. They lived near each other so I could assume they were neighbors.

    This was a fun post. I hope your group was successful and you have others that now enjoy JAFF stories. It is hard to be by yourself in enjoying a genre.

    • I enjoyed your answers

      as to #5, I loved Rickman as Colonel Brandon.

      One of the advantages of Austen Authors is that you get to interact with others who also enjoy the genre.

      I am fortunate enough to live in a community large enough to have Jane Austen fans, but there were only six of us for Pride & Prejudice and I suspect many won’t finish Mansfield Park.

  5. I wouldn’t say the Colonel and Edward were depressed, I would say they were both resigned to having to either live alone (Brandon) or live with someone they didn’t care for (Edward). Is resignation and depression the same thing in this case?

    • I think you are correct, but I’ve seen the comment about depression in more than one source. Brandon didn’t think he could fall in love again and Edward began to realize what kind of woman Lucy was and that he could love someone else.

  6. I like Colonel Brandon!(especially played by Alan Rickman) I think he is romantic and probably protects very much those he loves.My two favs are
    Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility. Wish we had anxiously where I am!

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