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Sense and Sensibility
was published two hundred and one years ago today, and I thought of Jane Austen’s heroine Marianne Dashwood this past weekend when I went hiking with my family and we listened to Jeanne Birdsall’s novel The Penderwicks on Gardam Street in the car. For one thing, at both Graves Island and Uniacke House, we found “the woods and walks thickly covered with dead leaves,” as Elinor Dashwood says of Norland in the fall (Sense and Sensibility, Vol.1, Ch.16). And then there were Birdsall’s references to Mr. Penderwick’s dates with the mysterious Marianne Dashwood.

The widowed Mr. Penderwick tells his daughters and his sister Claire that he’s going on a date with Marianne, a woman he met “in a bookstore.” Claire has been trying to get him to start dating again, a plan suggested by his wife Elizabeth (or “Lizzy” — another Austen reference?) in a letter she wrote just before she died, four years ago, because she thought he would be lonely. After two unpleasant blind dates, he claims to have met someone new, but when his daughters Rosalind, Skye, Jane, and Batty try to find out more about Marianne, he reveals only small details: “she likes taking walks,” and he won’t wear the blue shirt Claire gave him for Christmas because “Marianne doesn’t like flannel.” When the girls ask to meet her, “their father always had excuses. Marianne was too busy. Marianne had a cold. Marianne was in London — that one really drove Rosalind crazy, and made her more determined than ever to meet the woman.”

Ten-year-old Jane, an aspiring novelist, finds a copy of Sense and Sensibility in her father’s study, under a pile of botany books: “it had an orange spine, and on the cover were two young women in old-fashioned clothes” (Ch.14). (When I read Sense and Sensibility for the first time, I read that Penguin edition with Gainsborough’s 1772 portrait of “The Linley Sisters” on the cover, and just as Mr. Penderwick sometimes carries the “orange book” in his jacket pocket, I carried the novel with me in the pocket of my winter coat because I couldn’t stand the suspense — I wanted to find out if Marianne would survive her illness.)

Mr. Penderwick tells Jane the novel was one of her mother’s favourites. Jane thinks it’s a “boring title,” and dismisses it because the titles of “grown-up books” are never “as fascinating as, say, Emily of New Moon or The Phantom Tollbooth.” Her opinion echoes that of Jane Austen’s niece Anna when she visited a circulating library and “threw aside” a copy of Sense and Sensibility “with careless contempt, little imagining who had written it, exclaiming to the great amusement of her Aunts who stood by ‘Oh that must be rubbish I am sure by the title.’” Jane Penderwick is looking for something new to read, to escape from her “tragic day” of feeling sorry for herself, and she would rather be reading L.M. Montgomery or Norton Juster, not Jane Austen.

In Montgomery’s novels, as in Birdsall’s, there are traces of Jane Austen’s characters. In Anne of Green Gables, Anne Shirley, like Marianne Dashwood, is effusive in her praise of autumn leaves: “‘Oh, Marilla,’ she exclaimed one Saturday morning, coming dancing in with her arms full of gorgeous boughs, ‘I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers. It would be terrible if we just skipped from September to November, wouldn’t it?” (Ch.16). While Anne brings the leaves inside to decorate her newfound home at Green Gables, Marianne remembers watching the leaves outside at Norland, her beloved former home: “‘Oh,’ cried Marianne, ‘with what transporting sensations have I formerly seen them fall! How have I delighted, as I walked, to see them driven in showers about me by the wind! What feelings have they, the season, the air altogether inspired!’” (Vol.1, Ch. 16). Anne asks Marilla if the maple branches give her “‘a thrill — several thrills?’” and Marilla replies that they are “‘Messy things.’” Autumn leaves don’t thrill Elinor, either, who tells Marianne, “‘It is not everyone … who has your passion for dead leaves.’”

Just before Jane Penderwick’s conversation with her father in his study, she admires the October scene outside her bedroom window — “It was bright and beautiful outside, with fluffy clouds cruising across the sky and a crazy quilt of fallen leaves covering the ground” — and at the end of the conversation, he suggests that she go outside to rake leaves. Reluctantly, she does:

Abandoning herself to the relief of tears, she pushed the leaves this way, then that way, then another, trying to build a big enough pile to crawl under. She was crying too hard to manage even that, though, so finally she simply lay down and pulled a few leaves over her face, and cried and cried until there were no more tears, but still she lay there, thinking that maybe she would stay forever, moldering along with the worms and the leaves, and at least she would help the lawn grow. (Ch.14)

Birdsall, like Montgomery and Austen, pokes fun at her heroine’s Romantic ideas. Jane is practical, too, however, later searching the phone book and finding that Marianne Dashwood is not listed. She doesn’t solve the mystery, but she is suspicious of her father’s story. I did wonder why Aunt Claire didn’t recognize the name and catch on earlier, especially given that when she babysits while her brother goes on his first date with “Marianne,” she watches “a movie — one of those old-fashioned English dramas, it looked like.” If she watches that kind of movie, she would probably have at least a passing familiarity with Austen’s characters.

Eventually, in a chapter called “All Secrets Revealed,” Mr. Penderwick reads a few pertinent passages from Sense and Sensibility to his daughters, and Jane is the first to realize that Marianne isn’t a real person. (Skye persists in thinking she’s real: “‘Of course she’s real … Daddy’s been going on dates with her.’”) Instead of going on dates, Mr. Penderwick went to his office and read the novel. His daughters agree to forgive him, though Jane adds that she’s “not sure about forgetting” because “the mystifying Marianne who hated flannel will long linger in my memory.”

Most of the time it’s great to live in a world where there are Octobers, with plentiful dead leaves in Sussex, or Prince Edward Island, or Western Massachusetts, or here in Nova Scotia. While I don’t share Marianne’s passion for dead leaves, I’ve been enjoying the beautiful, warm summer weather here over the last few weeks. I’ve been reminded of Jane Austen marvelling about October weather in a letter to her sister Cassandra: “What weather we have! — What shall we do about it? — The 17th of Octr & summer still!” (Letters, 17-18 October 1815).

But this year, with the “superstorm” that hit New York City and surrounding areas, and is continuing to travel towards Quebec and Ontario, I wish we could have skipped the end of October in favour of some ordinary November weather. “What shall we do about it?” In Austen’s words again, “we must think the best & hope the best & do the best” (Letters, 26 November 1815). All good wishes to those affected by the storm.

The story of Anna Austen judging Sense and Sensibility by its title is told by her daughter, Fanny-Caroline Lefroy, quoted by Deirdre LeFaye in Jane Austen: A Family Record (Cambridge UP, 2004), page 191. Austen’s letters are quoted from the fourth edition of Jane Austen’s Letters, edited by Deirdre LeFaye (Oxford UP, 2011).