Pride & Prejudice and Sense & Sensibility: A Comparison of Romance Novels by Jane Austen

Jane Austen, a woman of little enough importance in her time, but a woman who gave people of all ages, genders, and ethnicity’s joy through her writings of love, life, and loss in 18th century English society. Austen has always been a favorite author of mine; she brings together comedy, romance, and drama in the most perfect rapport. What brings her books to life is the fact that she wrote about what she knew best: life of woman in Regency England. Her personal experience means that everything in the novels is historically accurate, making her educational as well! But her books go beyond just providing historically accurate accounts of life in the time period. They also tell universal stories that many can relate to: everyone wants to find love, stability, friendships, and gain understanding of themselves. Her books are, in essence, textbooks, textbooks of life and love.

This is why her writings continue to be read and loved as much as they are. And this is why every one of her novels has been made into a film, often several times. Now, all her novels are great; the question is which to choose? I’ve decided to pick two of her best known and most popular books and compare them, so this won’t be a typical book review. No doubt, everyone has at least heard of Pride and Prejudice, thanks to great actors who portrayed Austen’s characters: Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy (who also appears in King’s Speech) or Keira Knightley as Elizabeth Bennet (better known as Elizabeth Swan from Pirates of the Caribbean).

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Sense and Sensibility, although a bit less known, too was adapted to the screen several time and featured several great actors such as Emma Thompson (aka Professor Trewlaney in Harry Potter), Hugh Grant (Daniel Cleaver in Bridget Jones’s Diary, which is actually based on Pride and Prejudice), Kate Winslet (Rose in Titanic), Alan Rickman (Professor Snape in Harry Potter), and Hugh Laurie (Dr. House). Pride and Prejudice is the story of the five Bennet sisters and their handling of their upbringing, morality, and marriage in early 19th-century England. At this point in history it was expected that all woman marry well, and because these girls had no other male relative who could take care of them if their father suddenly died, entering into marriage as soon as possible was their top priority. Yet, this pursuit was complicated by the fact that women couldn’t inherit at that time, leaving the protagonists of the novel in a destitute situation, with no good prospects or their own means. The novel explores how Elizabeth, the main heroine, is trying to resolve this problem and find love, herself, and suitors for her sisters.

She accomplishes this goal when she meets the despicable, yet dashing, Mr. Darcy who despite her dislike for him, provides exactly what she needs: not only he loves her, but also allows her to remain her strong and independent self and even somehow manage to furnish suitors for her sisters, including her elder sister Jane who favors Mr. Darcy’s closes Friend, Mr. Bingley (how convenient – the sisters marry best friends!) The romances have a few hiccups along the way – and this is where all the fun of this book is – but to the altar they do go. The love stories in Sense and Sensibility are quite different yet they still revolve around a couple of very close sisters – a very consistent theme on Austen’s novels – dealing with the death of their father, loss of their fortune, and expulsion from their home. Elinor and Marianne Dashwood are as different as sisters could possibly be, and it is from them that the title stems: Elinor, the elder of the two, sensible and reserved, falls in love with Edward Ferrars but places her family’s best interest before her feelings which causes others to think her cold-hearted and indifferent.

Marianne, on the other hand, is romantic and impassioned and falls in love with the handsome Willhouby, though the elder, more serious Colonel Brandon is a much better man. Once again, here too, the sisters have to overcome obstacles while searching for love – and they accomplish it splendidly. More importantly, this book too raises a more universal theme: how to find balance between your responsibilities and emotions, and how not to lose your sense of self in that pursuit. The Dashwood sisters succeed in this. Elinor learns to put her interests and happiness before her families for once and lets herself emotionally open up, and Marianne eventually realizes her sensibilities were selfish and foolish and she develops the most through the novel. Of the two books Pride and Prejudice is written with more humor yet Sense and Sensibility has, I think, more enticing characters.

All of Austen’s characters are wonderful and dynamic, often learning important life lessons in the course of the story, yet the sisters and their men in S;S are much more deep and tragic. There aren’t as many comedic characters or aspects in S&S as there are in P&P, though the seriousness is in no way a bad thing, the romances don’t seem as perfect and predictable as those in P;P. The romances in neither book are not petty or peeving as some are (I’m thinking of a certain ‘vampire’ here) but, on the contrary, are beautiful in so many ways. In both of the stories there is forbidden love and heart wrenching longing. In S;S, Austen illustrates more sides of the Regency lifestyle; beginning with the girls in their upper-rank lives and then progressing to throwing them into the lower, simpler circumstance that is all they can afford. Yet in P;P the reader comes perceives the different kinds of people that lived in the time, from the clergymen to the gentry to the militia.

P;P is more fast-paced than S;S; the book starts with a humorous exchange between Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, immediately bringing the reader into the happenings and problems of the Bennet family. S;S also shows you the difficulties of the Dashwood family, but in a less engaging way. If I had to suggest which one of these a first time Austenite should read, I would probably say Pride and Prejudice, as hard as that is since Sense and Sensibility is my favorite book.

P;P is, put simply, easier to read as a casual book and is more entertaining. There is no moment when reading that book that I ever have a straight face, or have to struggle to keep a straight face. There is always reason to smile, laugh, grimace, or cry. Austen’s skill at impelling the reader to feel one or another emotion strongly has consistently astonished me and is probably the reason why I repeatedly go back to the pages that have become so familiar.