The New Compass: A Critical Review



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Sense and Sensibility, Sensibly Edited


Bruce Stovel



Jane Austen. Sense and Sensibility. Ed. Beth Lau. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2002. ix; 387 pages. $11.96 U.S. paper.


The New Riverside Edition of Sense and Sensibility is a very attractive compromise, for teachers and ultimately for students, between the usual paperback edition, à la Penguin or Oxford, and the authoritative Norton Critical Edition. Like the former, it looks and feels like a novel that can be read for enjoyment; like the latter, it provides a critical and cultural-studies context within which the novel can be understood.


This New Riverside Edition has itself an interesting cultural context. Houghton Mifflin’s Riverside Editions of classic English and American authors, such as the Riverside Chaucer and the Riverside Shakespeare, had set the standard for scholarly editions by the year 1900; in the 1950s and 1960s, in accord with the New Criticism that prevailed at the time, Riverside Editions of classic English and American novels and poets offered the serious reader and the university student the standard paperback “text”: the work itself, a judicious scholarly and critical introduction, lucid footnotes. However, times have changed, and Houghton Mifflin has changed with them: beginning in 2000, the company began publishing New Riverside Editions which will “reflect both the changing canons of literature in English and the greater emphasis on historical and cultural context that have helped a new generation of critics to extend and reenliven literary studies” (according to Series Editor Alan Richardson in a prefatory note).


Beth Lau’s edition of Sense and Sensibility (1811) does not reflect a changing canon, but it does exemplify the value of a novel-in-its context edition. Lau’s remarkably deft, concise, and wide-ranging Introduction sketches within 22 pages the main issues of interpretation of this novel, which is, as she notes, often regarded as one of Austen’s least successful and popular novels. (Austen’s first-composed and first-published novel, it has been, in fact, the ugly sister in the family.) Lau’s Introduction has a valuable section on the kinship between Austen and the major, and male, Romantic poets who were her contemporaries, but whose work is rarely set beside hers. It ends with an account of the Ang Lee/Emma Thompson film adaptation of 1995, which, she writes, “attests to the relevance and appeal of Austen’s characters for present-day audiences” (21). 


What makes this Introduction especially deft is that each stage in Lau’s account of critical issues also serves as a rationale for the inclusion of the items in the two sections, “Background Materials” and “Criticism,” that follow the text of the novel. For instance, her brief but helpful account of the cult of Sensibility and the Novel of Sensibility draws on, and so defines the significance of, the first two texts in “Background Materials,” selections from Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774; first translated into English 1779) and Austen’s own parody of the sentimental novel, Love and Freindship [sic] (1790), written when she was fourteen. “Background Materials” also includes excerpts from Mary Wollstonecraft’s pioneering feminist treatise A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), a work that stresses the dangers to women of embracing Sensibility, and several letters from Maria Edgeworth’s novel Letters of Julia and Caroline (1795), a precursor of Sense and Sensibility that is also a story of two contrasting sisters, one sensible and reserved and the other emotional and outspoken. These four works from Austen’s time are followed by seven pages from Kenneth L. Moler’s essay “Sense and Sensibility and Its Sources” (1966) that summarize several other contrasting-sister novels that preceded Sense and Sensibility. All of these stories vindicate the sensible sister, as Austen does, but, as Lau points out in her Introduction, in Edgeworth’s Letters of Julia and Caroline, for example, “there is never a question in the reader’s mind as to which character is superior or what values and modes of behavior are being endorsed. In Sense and Sensibility, by contrast, our allegiances and assumptions are constantly shifting and being challenged” (18).


The four critical essays in the section entitled “Criticism” embody that difficulty and ambiguity of response. Two of the four essays present Elinor as the novel’s heroine: Marilyn Butler’s account of the novel in her Jane Austen and the War of Ideas (1975) and Susan Morgan’s chapter, “Polite Lies and the Veiled Heroine of Sense and Sensibility” from her In the Meantime: Character and Perception in Jane Austen’s Fiction (1980)—though for Butler Elinor is a Christian moralist and for Morgan she is an open-minded, even Romantic, empiricist. The remaining two essays, Angela Leighton’s “Sense and Silences: Reading Jane Austen Again” (1983) and Barbara K. Seeber’s “‘I See Everything as You Desire Me To Do’: The Scolding and Schooling of Marianne Dashwood” (1999) present a much more radical Austen, one whose sympathies with Marianne appear in Marianne’s silences in the final section of the novel (Leighton) and in the narrator’s multiplicity of perspectives (Seeber).


Set against its main competitor, the Norton Critical Edition of the novel, edited by Claudia L. Johnson in the same year (2002), Lau’s New Riverside Edition has several advantages. It costs several dollars less; it has the heft of a novel and not a phone book or political-science text. More importantly, compared to the Norton, it is modest and realistic in what it offers. The Norton suffers from overkill: the student, for instance, is offered twelve selections by modern critics, as opposed to Lau’s four, and eleven works by Austen’s precursors and contemporaries (including Wollstonecraft and Edgeworth), as opposed to Lau’s four-plus-Moler. Lau’s four essays are a fair-minded representation of the critical debate over the novel; Johnson’s twelve critics predominantly favour one view of the novel, the feminist one advanced by Johnson herself in an essay of her own that she includes. Furthermore, Lau’s selections are often complete and at least substantial (for instance, she has the whole of Love and Freindship), whereas the Norton excerpts from Austen’s contexts and her critics are often fragmentary. For instance, the one critic reprinted in both collections, Marilyn Butler, is represented by two pages in Norton and by nine pages in New Riverside (all but three pages of Butler’s chapter on the novel). Both editions end with a Chronology of Austen’s life and a Bibliography. Both editions have helpful footnotes—in both cases very few (Lau has 52 footnotes over the novel’s 50 chapters, an average of one per chapter) and provided on a need-to-know basis (identifying literary allusions, for instance, or social-history terms such as “enclosure”). The Norton does include, while the New Riverside does not, the two reviews of Sense and Sensibility that appeared following its publication in 1811 and four other excerpts from 19th- and early-20th-century Austen criticism.


All in all, this New Riverside Edition proves the worth of Houghton Mifflin’s new series. As Lau says, “Understanding the historical context of Sense and Sensibility makes us aware of how much we have in common with the men and women who lived two hundred years ago and whom Austen understood and depicted so well” (21).






Stovel, Bruce. “Sense and Sensibility, Sensibly Edited. The New Compass: A Critical Review 3 (June 2004) <>