As usual, the vast majority of students in my current Austen class are female. Last week one of the few brave men approached me and asked: "How can I connect with Austen's novels? They seem to be written for women." His question was honest, familiar, and well-timed. Here's how I would answer it:
This week marks the first anniversary of the Occupy Wall Street movement. And this week we turn to Sense and Sensibility, which features some of the very same indignities that ignited last year's protests. When Austen's second novel opens, the sister heroines have just lost their home and been made painfully aware of their "income inequality." They are not simply a random pair of luckless women. Like anyone who identifies with Occupy, the Dashwood heroines "are the 99 percent!" Who knows? They may even qualify as the "dependent" 47 percent recently excoriated by Mitt Romney.
The difference is the historical context of their struggles. The Dashwoods are not ravaged by cuts in so-called entitlements or by subprime mortgages and foreclosure. They fall prey to primogeniture, the age-old practice of bequeathing all family property to the oldest male descendant. To radical authors of Austen's time, the policy was as monstrous as today's big banks and Wall Street bonuses. As Thomas Paine puts it in The Rights of Man, the "law of primogenitureship... has never but one child. The rest are begotten to be devoured. They are thrown to the cannibal for prey."
In Sense and Sensibility, the cannibal is the heroines' oldest brother who (along with his bratty four-year-old son), inherits the family estate after their father dies. Suddenly Elinor, Marianne, their mother, and younger sister, become unwanted visitors in their former home. Under constant threat of eviction, they "occupy" someone else's private property.
But Austen is no radical, and she quickly sweeps away the housing crisis. By Sense and Sensibility's fourth chapter, a male cousin has offered to rent the Dashwood women a cottage on his property. This is a huge step down from their formerly large estate. Nevertheless, the women arrive at their new "comfortable and compact" home with "two maids and a man." Les Misérables this is not.
Still, no sooner is the heroines' housing loss resolved, than another one takes its place. Elinor and Marianne each fall in love with a man and each subsequently lose him. This is the loss Austen freely articulates, and, until the novel's inevitably happy ending, its devastation is unmistakable. Though their styles of grieving are different (Marianne is openly dramatic and Elinor is secretive) the sisters are equally tormented. Externally they are housed; internally they are bereft. In one of the novel's most famous scenes, Marianne is "stretched on the bed, almost choked with grief." Elinor, seated next to her, gives way "to a burst of tears, which at first was scarcely less violent than Marianne's." Shortly after, Marianne "almost screamed with agony."
The heroines are allowed to cry and scream about love. As heroines, they cannot cry and scream about income inequality and their housing crisis. And yet their romantic plight is inextricably tied to them. Like all of Austen's heroines, Elinor and Marianne need to marry well to maintain their respectability and lifestyle. More than with any of the other heroines, their suffering in love follows upon and replicates their experience of economic injustice.
And so, like the protesters on the first anniversary of Occupy Wall Street, they cry and scream out loud. And as with those anniversary protesters, their cries and screams are not enough.
(For more on Sense and Sensibility, tune in next time.)
Susan Celia Greenfield is a Public Voices Fellow with the Op-Ed Project.