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Restraint

and how to write restraint

I have been thinking about Sense and Sensibility lately.

It has always been semi-forgotten in my mind, the (forgive me!) stepsister to Pride and Prejudice, and perhaps the stepmother to my very favorite Jane Austen novel, Persuasion. Sense and Sensibility was an early Jane novel, while Persuasion was her last.

Hugh Thomson illustration from Chapter 28 of Sense and Sensibility, public domain via Project Gutenberg

Recently, I was prevailed upon to re-watch the wonderful 1995 movie version, featuring Emma Thompson’s Oscar-winning screenplay, and the all-star cast of familiar British actors. I was reminded that this was my first introduction to Alan Rickman, whom we sadly lost in 2016. I think the term “dulcet tones” was invented for his voice.

It is interesting how re-reading a novel at different times in one’s life (and correspondingly, re-watching a film) will bring forth differing reactions, interpretations, and feelings. I now wonder at myself that I used to freely tell people that Sense and Sensibility was “not my favorite,” and “a little boring.” I wonder if it was my youth, my ignorance, my life situation at the time? Perhaps all of these?

I now feel I missed the emotion, the longing, the passion in this book when I first read it. And perhaps when I saw the film, I was savoring the on-screen characters in a way that did not really combine to enlighten the story in the novel for me. When I re-watched the movie, I was struck by this scene between Elinor and Marianne:

Marianne walks up to Elinor, and framing her face in her hands gently, says, “Elinor, where is your heart?”

At which Elinor wrenches herself away and says in a tightly controlled voice, “What do you know of my heart? What do you know of anything but your own suffering?”

These words, this scene–so powerful!

Except, this dialogue is rather different in the book:

“If such is your way of thinking,” said Marianne, “if the loss of what is most valued is so easily to be made up by something else, your resolution, your self-command, are perhaps a little less to be wondered at. They are brought more within my comprehension.” <OUCH!>

“I understand you. You do not suppose that I have ever felt much.” <DOUBLE OUCH!>

And she continues into the part of the speech you see above (although rewritten–it’s a long speech).

I love this scene, and I think that Emma Thompson did right to give us what the modern audience expects. In fact, I blame Jane’s restraint in the book for my own lack of ability to see past the words of the above dialogue taken from the book, to be able to see Marianne’s shock and disgust, to be able to hear Elinor’s anger. But Jane did what was right for Jane and what was right for her audience in 1811.

Now that I am older, perhaps, I am struck by the pain that is hidden in those restrained words from the book. Perhaps in 1995 I needed to see and hear the anger and disbelief in Marianne’s countenance, and I needed to know that Elinor was not the unfeeling, boring heroine that she appeared. When I write, I am more attentive to the restraints that are placed upon us in life, as well as the restraint with which we act and speak. In the past, I believe I thought it was always better to be open with my thoughts and feelings, but I also understood that these were a replacement for action, which I could not always execute. I have pulled out my yellowing copy of Sense and Sensibility, that I may learn how to better portray characters who are similarly caught in one part of this puzzle over another.

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