Austen lived through a very eventful and important period of history. The French Revolution began in 1789 and continued its turbulent, violent course until Napoleon came to power at the turn of the century. For much of the 1790s Britain and France were at war, but there are only a few hints of any of this in Austen's novels and in Sense and Sensibility there are none at all. Political upheaval did not interest her, but the broader issues raised by the French Revolution certainly did. The rights of the individual are central in Austen's novels, and the question of how any single individual can have an impact on society. The example of a nation which had deposed and killed its king showed just what was possible when people found themselves united on a single issue; in a less dramatic way, Austen's novels also demonstrate the power of group activity, contrasting it with individual activity. This is a particularly important theme in Sense and Sensibility, played out through the different attitudes of the two heroines. Elinor Dashwood puts society's rules above her own desires while her sister Marianne will not suppress her individuality for anyone. The story of these two sisters is a complex dialogue between rationality and passion, between restraint and self- expression, between sense and sensibility. The rise of Romantic poetry and the Gothic novel were the most important developments in English literature at the turn of the century. Read in this context, Sense and Sensibility can be seen as engaging closely with its literary context. In contrast to the unrestrained outpourings of Wordsworth and Coleridge and the surreal, fantastic plots of Mrs. Radcliffe, Sense and Sensibility argues for a more cautious, controlled world-view.

Sense and Sensibility is the only one of Austen's novels to have two heroines; however, it is Elinor's voice that we hear and into whose mind we are allowed to see. We follow the story through her consciousness and, some would argue, this makes her the central heroine of the novel. Sense and Sensibility was written over a period of about fifteen years; it was begun before 1796, and then was totally rewritten and published in 1811. Critics from Walton Litz (1965) to David Monaghan (1980) have found Sense and Sensibility unsatisfying. Certainly it lacks the structural ingenuity and emotional maturity of the later novels, but it must be understood on its own terms. It is not primarily a novel about courtship, as all the other novels are, but about how one can to interact harmoniously with society while preserving one's own individuality at the same time. This accounts for the fact that neither Edward Ferrars or Colonel Brandon is as fully-realised or convincing as either Elinor or Marianne. This deficiency in Sense and Sensibility must be taken as a casualty of its theme: to explore in a serious and balanced way the impact of society on the individual and of the individual on society.

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