Between Jane Austen’s two best-known novels, Pride and Prejudice is having a moment while Sense and Sensibility is taking a breather. Lizzy Bennet, demanding R-E-S-P-E-C-T from D-A-R-C-Y, is a more immediately sympathetic heroine for the 21st century than Elinor Dashwood, patient and persevering in the face of repeated slights.
The Bennet business is also more involving than the Dashwood drama, which hinges on a seeming cad and a seeming saint, both of whom are absent for long stretches of the novel while the sensible Elinor and her sensibility-able sister Marianne shuttle among the homes of friends and relatives they don’t really like.
Then there’s the matter of rivals. While Pride has the gloriously conceited Lady de Bourgh and her ailing daughter, Sense has the hapless Steele sisters. Elinor’s appraisal of Lucy Steele — her rival for the hand of Edward Ferrars — demonstrates both the subtlety of Austen’s writing and the difficulty of getting all that excited about Elinor as a central character.
Lucy was naturally clever; her remarks were often just and amusing; and as a companion for half an hour Elinor frequently found her agreeable; but her powers had received no aid from education: she was ignorant and illiterate; and her deficiency of all mental improvement, her want of information in the most common particulars, could not be concealed from Miss Dashwood, in spite of her constant endeavour to appear to advantage. Elinor saw, and pitied her for, the neglect of abilities which education might have rendered so respectable; but she saw, with less tenderness of feeling, the thorough want of delicacy, of rectitude, and integrity of mind, which her attentions, her assiduities, her flatteries at the Park betrayed; and she could have no lasting satisfaction in the company of a person who joined insincerity with ignorance; whose want of instruction prevented their meeting in conversation on terms of equality, and whose conduct toward others made every shew of attention and deference towards herself perfectly valueless.
Snap! In Audible’s new production of Sense and Sensibility, reader Rosamund Pike keeps things just the way Elinor would like them: fast and dry. She often sounds as if she’d like to have the whole thing over with, which is also squarely in keeping with Elinor’s state of mind. Once Edward bolts early on, Elinor’s not truly at ease for most of the book’s remainder — all the more so given the vast humiliation suffered by her sister who sets her cap (an expression she hates) at the equally impetuous Willoughby.
(In real life, the audiobook has made headlines because of Pike relating, in an Audible interview promoting the book, the fact that she refused to drop her dress in an audition for the 2002 James Bond movie Die Another Day. Elinor would surely approve of Pike’s resolve.)
Pike played another sensible Austen character, Jane Bennet, in Joe Wright’s luminous 2005 film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice (above); she also narrated that book for Audible in 2015. While she’s not going to bend over backwards to make Elinor sympathetic, or to help us follow distinctions among characters who test Elinor’s patience, she’s certainly true to the character, and Sense and Sensibility fans who appreciate the character’s incisiveness will welcome this new audiobook.
Even listeners who are less sympathetically inclined, though, will be moved by Pike’s quavering rendition of Elinor’s central speech, the passage in which she admits to her sister that she’s known for months that her lover’s devotion is compromised. “If you can think me capable of ever feeling,” says Elinor, “surely you may suppose that I have suffered NOW.”