When I was a kid, growing up on the outskirts of a small city in central NY, I used to gravitate to movies that were set in Gotham. One of my favorites was My Sister Eileen which centers on the Sherwood sisters from Ohio, who are out to stake claim to their careers from their basement apartment in the Greenwich Village section of New York City. Older, sensible Ruth aspires to be a writer, while beautiful - and temperamental - Eileen dreams of success on the stage. A variety of oddball characters bring color and humor to their lives.
Austen's Dashwood sisters, Elinor and Marianne, bear a striking resemblance to them, except that they require husbands rather than employment. Marianne is at the center of the story which is mostly told from Elinor's perspective. Poor Marianne suffers from a fickle, flawed suitor and a life threatening illness, while Elinor neglects her own romantic interests to minister to the needs of her sister.
Like the Sherwood sisters, they are surrounded by a large cast of characters, who either enrich or complicate their journey toward matrimony. For them these secondary characters add texture, color and comic relief, but for us they also detract from the narrative precision that marks Austen's later novels. It's fascinating to see her experiment with earlier versions of some of her most memorable creations: the wickedly foolish Mrs. Ferrars morphs into Lady Catherine from Pride and Prejudice, her daughter, selfish Fanny Dashwood, is a prototype for Anne Elliot's nasty sisters in Persuasion and Colonel Brandon is a dead-ringer for Emma's Mr. Knightley. Willoughby, Marianne's fickle suitor, is not just duplicitous like Wickham and Henry Crawford, he is an impregnator, who defends himself with these words: "I cannot leave you to suppose that...because she was injured she was irreproachable, and because I was a libertine, SHE must be a saint."
Wow! That's a racy thought for Miss Jane to entertain. She backs away from it in her later works. Lydia Bennet may, or may not, have been sexually seduced by Wickham, but he is forced to marry her in any event and Maria Bertram of Mansfield Park, is an adulterer, not an unprotected maiden. Consider this, and Austen's novella, Lady Susan, which is about a reprobate home wrecker, and you might well wonder what she would have written about the nature of female sexual behavior, if it could have passed muster with her publishers and her reading public.
If you've seen the excellent 1995 Hollywood film adaptation, you have gone a long way toward experiencing the joys and tribulations of Sense and Sensibility. Emma Thompson, the actress and screenwriter, successfully captured its essence and made some sensible changes which brought needed focus to the plot. But without reading it, you'd be missing an opportunity to savor the subtleties of Austen's prose as she worked to perfect one of the greatest voices in English literature