This past weekend, we saw the musical version of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater. I have to say that I went into the show with reservations. I’ve never been a huge Jane Austen fan.
I’ll wait for all the gasping and hand wringing to stop. I started with Pride and Prejudice. I’ll admit that I rather hated the book for the first half. I thought it was rather petty and superficial; I couldn’t care about any of the characters. I’m not sure if it was the romance turned everything on its head but then I suddenly adored it. I went on to try Sense and Sensibility, which was meh, and Mansfield Park, which I found creepy.
However, I remember reading the introduction of the edition of Sense and Sensibility after the fact (like I always do) and was struck by its fine argument about how this work brought to light this hidden world of women: their letters, the parties they arranged and more. It talked about how these social occasions wove the social fabric of the age. It talked about how other novels (and art in general) ignored or derided these functions as immaterial and petty. It made me rethink my position about the book. I had a similar experience with Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. I just didn’t like it but I appreciated the argument that Woolf was bringing to light how parties were important to the women that threw them and society as a whole. These were worthy subjects to be written about.
But it didn’t change my opinion of the books. I still didn’t like them. I still wonder at this disconnect in myself. I value these works for bringing this hidden world to life but can’t really enjoy reading them. I’m still working on that. I don’t know if it’s just that I don’t Jane Austen’s prose or romance stories don’t really move me.
The other possibility is that I’m falling into a trap. I get the importance of talking about these social functions but I haven’t internalized the argument. There are some articles floating around on the internet about how we have to be careful about not devaluing feminine traits: http://www.ravishly.com/2015/03/20/why-we-need-stop-devaluing-femininity
I know that I have often been guilty of deriding feminine traits in the past (and the present), like turning my nose up at Chick Lit as a book category. (But Bridget Jones’ Diary is really good!). There are other more definite examples but I’m not going to go into them. I wonder if my reaction to the books is because I’m deriding the expression of femininity in them. I know it is wrong to devalue things that women in the 18th and 19th century valued but maybe I haven’t expected it fully yet. Or I have been socialized to feel that way and have to work harder to stop thinking that way? I don’t know. Maybe I should read Sense again to see if I’ll appreciate it more now with these complicated thoughts in my head.
So I had some trepidation about seeing a musical version of the book. Well, I was absolutely wrong. This production is simply delightful. I think they did a nice job of cutting the text down into a 2.5 hour musical. The songs were rather wonderful. There are two that really stick in my mind, one about rain and another “The Wrong Side of Five and Twenty.” The rain song was simply magnificently staged. You really felt for both sisters, admiring one’s unbridled passion and the other’s restraint. The contrast was fantastic. You loved the men they loved and hated the others who acted less than honorably. It was quite an affecting piece about love between sisters, honor, and romantic love. It might actually get me to read the book again.
Anyway, it’s a wonderful production. It’s my favorite of the shows I’ve seen at Shakespeare this season.
Mansfield Park will still be creepy to be. Cousins….eew.