Austen began this novel in her youth and called it Elinor and Marianne, after the Dashwood sisters, its principal characters. They are Elinor, who masks her emotions, and Marianne, who is "eager in every thing," who lets the world see her joy, sorrow, and affection. Austen allowed the story to be told through a series of letters that offered a cynical view of a society that dealt unkindly with anyone foolish enough to betray his or her feelings, a world in which greed and ambition made up the formula for success.
Sometime later, Austen rejected the epistolary, novel-in-letters form and rewrote this book as a traditional third-person narrative. In doing so she made a crucial, and very wise, choice, one that allowed her to broaden her scope. Letters, you see, are limiting; they can reveal nothing more than the correspondents know or wish to relate. But an onmicient narrator can go anywhere. She can be present at events the main characters may not yet know about, and she can peer inside people's heads to reveal hopes and worries that letter writers might not express. Best of all in Jane Austen's case, an onmicient narrator can insert observations of her own. Austen perfected the art of the wry comment, precisely understated; no one has ever done it better:
On every formal visit a child ought to be of the party, by way of provision for discourse.
A fond mother ... in pursuit of praise for her children, the most rapacious of human beings, is likewise the most credulous; her demands are exorbitant; but she will swallow anything.
Marianne Dashwood was born to an extraordinary fate. She was born to discover the falsehood of her own opinions, and to counteract by her conduct her most favorite maxims.
Austen's manuscripts of Elinor and Marianne and Sense and Sensibility have been lost, so we cannot compare one version with the other. But we can get some inkling of what the earlier version might have been like by reading one of Austen's minor works, the novella Lady Susan. Composed of letters, it is a clever, entertaining farce, but it lacks the depth of Austen's six novels. It shows us that by exercising her own voice in Sense and Sensibility rather than letting her characters do all the talking, Austen likely turned an amusing bit of writing into a significant work of literature.
The cynicism remained in the mature work, but characters who had been flat figures sketched on a page emerged as if carved in relief. They became three-dimensional people with well-developed personalities. Because of Austen's artistry, countless young women--beginning with England's Princess Charlotte in 1811--have likened themselves to open-hearted, impulsive Marianne, and readers of both sexes and every age have found in Sense and Sensibility an enlightening reflection of human nature. What is more, they have discovered in its author a friend to whom they can return repeatedly and always be rewarded for their effort.
HAPPY HOLIDAYS, MY READERS, MY FRIENDS.