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Austen Chat: Episode 4

October 5, 2023

Jane Austen & Her Endings: A Visit with Inger Brodey

Illustration of Emma Woodhouse and George Knightley Proposal SceneHow "happy" are the endings of Jane Austen’s novels? In this episode we chat with Professor Inger Brodey about Austen’s endings: what she includes, what she leaves out, her unique mix of romance and satire, and her technique of “zooming out” that often leaves readers wanting more. Drawing from her forthcoming book, Jane Austen and the Price of Happiness, Inger also shares her thoughts on why Austen ended her novels as she did, her use of various forms of happiness, and how her endings differ from those of other authors she read.

Inger Brodey: Prof. Inger S. B. Brodey is an Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature, Affiliate Professor of Asian Studies, Adjunct Professor of Global Studies, and Director of the Office of Distinguished Scholarships at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is also the co-founder and co-director of the Jane Austen Summer Program and co-directs and co-hosts the Jane Austen & Co. web series. As a life member of JASNA, Inger has served on the board of directors and as a JASNA Traveling lecturer. She has twice been the JASNA North American Scholar lecturer at our annual conference and has given AGM breakout sessions on a variety of topics. Her forthcoming book, Jane Austen and the Price of Happiness, will be published by Johns Hopkins University Press in 2024.

Show Notes and Links

We thank Inger Brodey for appearing as a guest on Austen Chat!

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You can listen to Austen Chat here or in your favorite podcast app: Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, and other streaming platforms

Credits: From JASNA's Austen Chat podcast. Published October 5, 2023. © Jane Austen Society of North America. All rights reserved. Illustration: C. E. Brock, Emma, 1898 (Internet Archive). Music: Country Dance by Humans Win.


This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and readability.

[Theme music]

Breckyn Wood: Hello, Janeites, and welcome to Austen Chat, a podcast coming to you from the Jane Austen Society of North America. I'm your host, Breckyn Wood, from the Georgia region of JASNA. My guest today is such an accomplished scholar and Austen expert that it's difficult to even know where to begin with her bio. She's three different kinds of professor at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill in English and Comparative Literature, Asian Studies, and Global Studies. She's the co-founder and co-director of the annual Jane Austen Summer Program and co- host of the Jane Austen and Co. web series.

As far as her JASNA involvement, she's served on the board of directors and as a traveling lecturer, and has twice been the JASNA North American Scholar Lecturer at an AGM. In 2024 she has a book coming out from Johns Hopkins University Press called Jane Austen and the Price of Happiness. Clearly, she could expound knowledgeably on pretty much any Austen-related subject, but today we're going to chat about Austen's endings. Are they happy? I always thought so, but Inger has some interesting new angles for us to consider. Welcome to the show, Inger.

Inger Brodey: Thank you so much. It's great to be here, Breckyn.

Breckyn: I just realized that maybe I didn't say your full name. This is Inger Brodey. I just feel like she needs no introduction after that very long bio. But, yeah, her name is Inger Brodey, and we're so happy to have her today.

So, before we dive in, I'd like to start with our “Desert Island” segment. You're stranded on a desert island, and you can only have one Austen character as your pen pal. Who do you choose and why?

Inger: Well, okay, pen pal. So that means there's back and forth, right?

Breckyn: Yes.

Inger: That means they must be able to send me packages. So, I think Elizabeth Bennet might have the combination of humor to cheer me up and the ability to be helpful in practical matters, especially if Mr. Darcy pays the postage.

Breckyn: That's really funny. So, most people have not approached this from a survival perspective, but I appreciate that you're thinking that way as well.

Inger: Or maybe Mrs. Jennings.

Breckyn: She would send you olives, right? Mrs. Jennings.

Inger:  And Constantia wine might come in handy.

Breckyn: Exactly. That's great; that's a good choice. Okay, so let's get started. Let's talk about your forthcoming book, Jane Austen and the Price of Happiness. You look at the endings of Austen's novels. So, what prompted you to study that aspect of her work, in particular?

Inger: Well, I think Austen is very mischievous with her endings—by what she excludes, what she includes, the snide commentary, the rushed pace, intrusions that remind us that it's just fiction after all. So, there are many interesting recurring techniques that I've always wondered about.

But it started when I was a teenager and read Mansfield Park for the first time. My brother had introduced me to Austen. And I stormed into his room—he was in college—and I said, "what is Austen doing? What happened with Mansfield Park's ending? Did she die or something?" Because you had this long time to develop, in minute particulars, all these characters, and then a page-and-a-half from the ending Edmund still sees Fanny as a sister. It's just crazy. So, later, when I studied Austen, I realized that in criticism, tons of important scholars have attributed this to personal weakness or coldness or ignorance, rather than a conscious artistic choice. So, that's what I wanted to explain and explore.

Breckyn: That is so interesting. And I would say I agree with you. Mansfield Park has to be the least romantically satisfying ending. That one line where it's like—and all that was left was for Edmund to learn to prefer blue eyes over brown. I was like, "are you kidding me? This is all that Fanny gets after everything she's suffered for the past 400 pages?" 

Inger: Yeah, it's like transferring from a blue waistcoat to a dark waistcoat.

Breckyn: Yeah, like she's just an object. Like, whatever eye color. Oh, man. Yeah, she made me really mad. Do you think she's doing that on purpose in Mansfield Park

Inger: Oh, absolutely.

Breckyn: It's incredibly frustrating. I remember learning in high school that pretty much all that's required for a Shakespeare play to be considered a comedy is that there's a marriage at the end. Even if some tragic things happen, like in Merchant of Venice. I remember reading that and being like, this is a comedy? This is horrifying! So how do you define a happy ending within the context of literature? And how would you say Austen's work aligns with or challenges that definition?

Inger: Well, yeah, Shakespeare was definitely part of her inspiration and a big part of my book, too. And where he has "problem plays"—like Merchant of Venice is technically a problem play. Originally, they called it that because people couldn't decide whether they were comedies or tragedies, and they felt a strong need to have either/or. So, anything that couldn't be put "either/or" was called a "problem." So, she has problem novels, and she often portrays happiness under a veil or on a strong foundation of tragedy. And I think she gives readers the marriage plots that they expected and expect, but she always draws attention to them, and she—one of the things she does in relation to literature around her is that she expands drastically the idea of who can be a heroine. And that's most obvious in Northanger Abbey, where she's talking about the common and contrasting Catherine with the exotic heroines.

Breckyn: She's very explicitly setting out the tropes and how she's undermining them in Northanger Abbey.

Inger: Exactly, everything that she's not. But she does this, I think, in all of her novels to some extent—expanding who can be a heroine. And when feminist discourse around the 19th-century novel talks about that whenever there is a central female heroine embarking on any kind of quest, there are two possible outcomes. One is marriage and the other is death.

Breckyn: Great.

Inger: Yeah. And you look at Samuel Richardson, right? So, he has examples of each. He's got like—Pamela could only end in marriage or death. Marriage, he chose for that one. Clarissa, he chose death. But Austen questions this false dichotomy in her own way. And she really contrasts romantic fulfillment with other forms of happiness. And those other forms of happiness are also traditional to the comedy. Like restoration, recognition, reconciliation—lots of “R” words. Yeah. So, I think that's a short version of what she does.

Breckyn: Well, you've mentioned this already, so I want to jump to this question, which is, how did Austen's reading influence the way that she handled the endings of her novels? What was she reading, and how is she mimicking that or undermining that with her happy endings—or with her “air quote” happy endings?

Inger: Yeah. Well, that's complicated. And obviously there are so many different things she was reading. That's one of the really fun things, actually. I've been collecting books that she read for our Jane Austen's Desk project, and the range is astounding. So, she was really very well read in history and science and all sorts of other things, as well as geography, as well as literature. But I guess a short answer to what you're saying is that Austen was—one of the things I learned, I think, is important about Austen—is that she was really self-conscious of her existence as a novelist. So, like a lot of other women authors at the time, they wouldn't just publish novels, they would do poetry, or anthologies, or they do a whole range of things, even within one book. And so, the long titles—including all these other things. But when she published her first version of Northanger Abbey, it was “Susan," colon, “a novel," Period.

Breckyn: She's not going to tell you anything. She's so coy sometimes.

Inger: But she's also really dedicated to this new kind of fledgling genre of the novel. She was dedicated to it. There was a tradition of the marriage plot which goes back beyond the novel—of course, to Shakespeare and others. And so, she accepts that plotline, but she draws attention to it. She expands who can do it, and by accepting it, she is able to focus more on the psychology of the heroines. But at the same time, she kind of chafes at it and shows—she wants to show that there are many—with her mix of satire and romance—that there are many alternative forms of happiness outside romantic happiness, which depends so much on luck.

And that mix—her mix of satire and romance is also very unusual. So, most of the female authors that she was imitating did not have that element of satire. And so, you can see that in her endings—how she's negotiating those two poles.

Breckyn: And I want to go back to something else you said: that the only two options for heroines were marriage or death. Do you think that in Sense and Sensibility her contemporary readers thought, like, oh, Marianne's a goner or she's going to die? Do you think that—I don't really think of her recovering as a surprise ending, but would that have been a twist for her readers? 

Inger: Absolutely. I've written elsewhere about how she's modeled on Goethe's Werther, who appears in her juvenilia, too, because someone is proving her worth by reading The Sorrows of Werther because it's so sentimental. And so, Marianne—she plants all these little connections to him in there, and he dies by suicide. So, I think that, in many ways, that would be the natural conclusion in terms of those tropes of sensibility in the time.

Breckyn: So, listeners, Inger very sweetly asked me in an email if we should put a spoiler alert at the beginning of this episode because we're talking about so many endings. And I—it was very thoughtful of her—but I also felt that the statute of limitations has passed for these 200-year-old novels. So, in case you didn't know that young Werther dies by suicide—he dies by suicide, just FYI. And, yeah, if you don't want to hear the endings of all the other Austen books, maybe pause now, go read them, come back, and finish the episode.

I want to talk again about Sense and Sensibility. I have a friend in my JASNA Georgia Region who insists that Sense and Sensibility does not have a happy ending. And when she said that, I was shocked and, like, a little offended. I was like, "of course it does. What are you talking about?" But then she's really given me something to think about. And so, what do you think? Which would you say is the least happy of Austen's endings? Or do you think any of them are particularly unsatisfying, and that's on purpose?

Inger: Yeah. Sense and Sensibility—so, happiness in a traditional comedy is also about justice, right? Like distributive justice. And both Sense and Sensibility and Mansfield Park—well, particularly Sense and Sensibility is very unjust in its ending. Edward, who was supposed to be the wealthiest, barely has enough to marry, and he's disinherited for threatening to marry the one that his brother, who inherited, actually married. So, it begins and ends with tremendous financial injustice.

But in terms of the marriage plot, I think those are the two novels, Sense and Sensibility and Mansfield Park, where people dispute frequently whether Austen put the right protagonists together. So, my first encounter with JASNA, actually, when I gave a talk at a debate in Chicago—a very lively debate about "did Marianne marry the wrong person? Or did Austen match Marianne to the wrong person?" Of course, I came to Colonel Brandon's defense.

Breckyn: Thank you. I have such a soft spot for him. And I don't know if it's because—I think it might be because he's played by Alan Rickman, and I just love Alan Rickman so much.

Inger: Yeah, well, Rickman hadn't filmed by then, so I didn't have that ally.

So, one thing that's helpful to think about, I think, is that her novels kind of divide up between the heroines who were right and the heroines who were wrong . . . in a way. Like the heroines who are—half of them have to face—their biggest barriers are internal. And for those, it's easier for Austen to separate the moment of enlightenment from the marriage because she always separates those two. And the moment of enlightenment happens whenever they think they're not going to marry.

So, it's trickier for her with the heroines who are right, because you feel so much for them. They have all these external things that have happened, and you feel like they—oh, they deserve happiness in all its forms. I'm thinking of Elinor and Fanny and Anne Elliot. And so, what she does is she has a different technique in each of those novels to show, still, that romance, while wonderful, is secondary. And, for example, in Sense and Sensibility it's really the reconciliation between the sisters and Elinor's recognition by her mother that Austen separates out as that almost happier ending than the romance. She does similar things in the others. 

Breckyn: That's what my friend argued was that—well, maybe she was talking about that Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility could be seen as love stories between the sisters and that that's the more important love relationship than the romantic one. And I was like, "oh, that's an interesting way of thinking about it." And so, since we brought up Pride and Prejudice, which of Austen's endings stand out to you as particularly happy? Would you say that Pride and Prejudice is the only fully happy ending? What are your thoughts?

Inger: Actually, when I was starting to write this book that's what I thought—that it was kind of an exception. But as I looked more carefully at what she does in Pride and Prejudice, I don't think it is an exception. It's partly because Austen really cares about education. She wants to educate her readers and not just entertain. She's always thinking about the growth necessary to manage disappointment. She doesn't have a name for it initially, but by the time of Persuasion, she calls it "resources for solitude."

So, anyway, with Pride and Prejudice, we have that lovely bit of the engagement conversation—lively dialogue. We have three chapters after the engagement, which is unusual. And it stands out from the things that she does not do to the ending. I have a complicated argument probably in the book about this, but what I would say is that she still, in the ending, really subordinates the romantic to the social. Because she does this thing of zooming out, and people get annoyed because she zooms out too quickly. Like, oh, we want that closeup of the engagement. Or the kiss, the cinematic kiss in the movie. Anyway, my argument revolves partly around civility and how Elizabeth remarks to Darcy about how well we've both grown in civility. And I think that's such an interesting word to use at that point in the novel.

Breckyn: And you said that a lot of her heroines teach themselves or learn to manage disappointment. Isn't it Elizabeth who has the line about, think only on the past as far as it gives you pleasure, or something like that?

Inger: That is a fun quote. I like "What are men to rocks and mountains?" But I think that Elizabeth actually has some similarity with Marianne, oddly, in that they're both kind of warnings about hope and the dangers of hope and disappointment, what they can do to you. Because in that moment where Elizabeth is most distraught and disappointed—where she says "what are men to rocks and mountains?"—she shows that she could become like her father and become a cynic and despairing in that sense. Despairing enough to pull away from the world. And that's another reason why civility is important, because civility means you're considering to engage in the world even in the absence of affection. But Emma actually is the novel that has the longest post-engagement. We have six or seven chapters post engagement.

Breckyn: I'm glad you brought up Emma because the ending of Emma has always really bothered me, and it makes me really uneasy. And I don't know if it's because I am 200 years later, so it's a modern perspective, or if it's because I'm American, but the way that Emma just throws those class barriers back up between herself and Harriet after they've been so chummy the whole book, and she's like, oh, everyone was right. Harriet is beneath me. I've always felt really weird about the ending . . . because there is a really romantic—I rode through the rain. Right? His whole speech. It's so good. It's so satisfying. Tell us your thoughts on the ending of Emma.

Inger: I think that Emma is flawed. She's not perfect, but that is part of what Austen was doing. As you see the transition from one novel to the next, she's always taking on a challenge that relates to the previous novel. So, you know, Pride and Prejudice, she says in her letters, was too "light and bright and sparkling." She doesn't really mean that as criticism of—in fact, it's in the context of somebody not reading it well enough to get the lightness and brightness out. But then she decides basically it's too charming. And in the same way that she is involved with teaching readers to avoid self-indulgent involvement in an ending, in a romantic ending—like, she doesn't want us to get all teary eyed. I mean, she doesn't want us to be self-indulgent about the romantic endings. Which is so ironic, considering what she's doing in contemporary society.

But so, in the same way, she's disciplined that way about her own artistry. So, she could have written six more Pride and Prejudices, I think. But instead, she decides to take on a novel that really is explicitly against "charm"—about "charm"—in Mansfield Park and then going from the most powerless heroine to the most powerful. Can a really powerful heroine full of her own self and her power be a heroine too? So, she takes on all these imperfect people and difficult situations to expand her heroism into.

Breckyn: That is really interesting. I've never heard anyone say that—that she's setting herself a new challenge with each book. That's new knowledge to me.

Inger: Yeah. I think that's the way I make sense—it's really fun to teach her in that way. But she—what did you ask me?

Breckyn: I was asking you about the ending of Emma. There are several chapters after the romantic climax.

Inger: I think those chapters—what they do is they establish—it's pretty radical in a way. I think the partnership between Mr. Knightley and Emma becomes quite an actual partnership of near equals, in some ways, toward the end. And she models that by their reading Frank's letter together. So, there's this kind of joint reading that happens—very leisurely, where they stop and comment and reflect—that I think is supposed to be a model for their marriage. And which is maybe important because there was such a mentor/mentee aspect before that. I think she needs that time to actually set them into a partnership.

Breckyn: Back in episode one, when I was talking to Lizzie Dunford, she talks about how Emma, even though it's so much about this powerful heroine, and it's even just called Emma—it's really a novel of a village and of neighbors and of how to be a good neighbor. And so, I think those ending chapters are also important because Emma isn't the only one who matters in this novel.  Harriet matters, and the Bates's matter, and Jane Fairfax—and everybody gets their story told.

Inger: Yeah, I guess I see it a little differently. I think it's a novel about being an artist, about being a novelist, and that Austen shows, through Emma, the temptations of being an artist and creating your own worlds. And when she brings Mrs. Elton in—telling the secondhand story of the wedding and so forth—when she does that, she's doing her zooming out from the romance and puncturing it for those people who are maybe indulging too much in the sense of romance.

Breckyn: Well, so let's talk about the adaptations versus the novels. We've mentioned them a little bit. There's certainly a lot of people who only know Austen from the movies, and I think that group would reasonably assume that all of Austen's endings are happy. The girl gets the rich guy, they kiss, we fade to black. But her endings often extend quite a few chapters beyond the confessions of love. And so, why do you think Austen keeps going on after the romantic climax? And why do you think none of the adaptations ever bother to really do that?

Inger: I think that actually what the adaptations tend not to do is to include the zooming out to other social or broader issues. They don't intend to include the ironic puncturing of the romantic happy ending, because I think Austen—she certainly believes in love and its power and the dream of marriage to a true companion with mutual respect, etc., but she thinks it's extremely rare. So, part of her didactic message overall is to always subordinate the romantic to the social. And that's what almost really never happens in the adaptations. But there are some that do interesting—in my book I have examples of how adaptations can miss a mark and how a lot of adaptations manage to capture aspects of her endings in creative ways.

Breckyn: Can you give us an example of one of those? Is there any modern adaptation that you think does a good job of capturing the essence of Austen's endings?

Inger: I don't have one that I think does everything, but I think, as in many ways, Clueless does a really good job. The way that it tempts us to think it's Cher's wedding and then it isn't, I think really calls out how modern viewers want the marriage plot. One of the things that surprised me most writing this book was how little readers have changed since Austen's time. Like, we still need the lessons that she's teaching, even though all these movements have occurred in the meantime. It's very strange and interesting to me. And then aspects of—even though I have mixed feelings about it as an adaptation of Mansfield Park by Rozema, that one—some of the camera work really cleverly captures aspects of her endings. 

Breckyn: I'm thinking of the BBC adaptation of Northanger Abbey. It was like, mid-2000s, I want to say, like 2008 or 2009. I really like it. And the ending actually reads the last line of the book, and it's while General Tilney is angrily swishing his cane in the grass or something, and it says, "I leave it to be settled by whomsoever it may concern, whether the tendency of this work be altogether to recommend parental tyranny or reward filial disobedience." It's such a good line of the book. And you see the happy couple, and then you see General Tilney just angry in the weeds.  2007, Felicity Jones. That's the one that I'm thinking of.

Inger: Oh, right. It has the wonderful Henry Tilney. Yeah, I like that one. That one's, I think, the best of the Northanger Abbeys. I agree. I just don't remember that part of the ending that you just mentioned.

Breckyn: That's just the last scene. You see them coming out of the church, and then you hear the narrator. Because that book has such a strong narrator presence—there is an actual narrator, like in the Gwyneth Paltrow Emma—and so you hear the narrator's voice coming on, and everybody's celebrating the wedding, and then General Tilney's not there, and they read the last line of the book. It's rare for an adaptation to just so explicitly read from the book.

Inger: Yeah, I'll have to watch that one again.

Breckyn: It's always worth rewatching.

Inger: Absolutely.

Breckyn: Okay, so what's the key takeaway that you'd like listeners to have regarding the endings of Jane Austen's novels? That's a big question. Condense your entire book down into one little gem for us, Inger.

Inger: Well, I would just say that there's much more to Austen than how to marry. And for those who don't want to find a romantic happy ending or can't, there are many other kinds of happiness within reach. And she's pretty wise on that subject.

Breckyn: Yeah. And that she'll probably undermine your expectations because that's one of her favorite things to do, right?

Inger: Yeah.

Breckyn: Well, this has been so much fun. Thank you for talking with me today. Where can our listeners go to learn more about you and your books and your other work?

Inger: Oh, they could go to ingerbrodey.com, my regular website, and janeaustenandco.org, janeaustensummer.org, jaspplus.org, the various Austen programs I run. And the Price of Happiness should be—you should be able to pre-order it in about November, I think, of 2023.

Breckyn: Okay. Thank you so much.

Inger: It was a pleasure.

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Breckyn: Okay, everyone, it's time for another nugget of JASNA news. Are you familiar with our International Visitor Program, also known as IVP? Well, it's awesome. Each year, JASNA offers a fellowship grant to a member who is working on a creative or scholarly project that requires them to do research in Jane Austen's village of Chawton, England. The IVP Committee selects the International Visitor based on applications received each year by December 16.

For those of you who may be working on an Austen-related project or have one in mind, we've invited the chair of JASNA's International Visitor Program, Carol Chernega, to tell us more about the program and how to apply to be considered for the 2024 fellowship. Thanks for joining us today, Carol.

Carol Chernega: I'm excited to be here to discuss this great opportunity for JASNA members. So, I was the first International Visitor in 2005, and I used my time in Chawton to research a book I was writing on the writers’ homes in England that are open to the public. And this met one of the first criterion of the application: you must need to be in England to work on your project. In other words, if you can do your research online at home, then it's less likely you're going to be chosen to be the International Visitor.

The second criterion for this grant is that you have useful skills to offer our Chawton partners, since you're required to work with either St. Nicholas Church, Jane Austen's House, or Chawton House at least two days a week. So, for me, this meant that I worked at Chawton House one day a week, transcribing the minutes of the early meetings of the Jane Austen Society of Great Britain, which was really very interesting—to see how they got organized back in the 1940s. Another day each week, I worked with the gardener at Jane Austen's House, since I'm a professional gardener at home. This gave me a wonderful opportunity to not only help the head gardener there, but also learn about what the garden was like during Jane Austen's time. I later developed a lecture based on that experience, which I presented at the Williamsburg AGM.

Other International Visitors since then have worked on their PhD dissertations or they’ve written books. And we’ve had one Visitor who set Jane's prayers to music, which she then performed at St. Paul's Church in Covent Garden in London. So, as you can see, there are a lot of different opportunities and a lot of different options for projects that an International Visitor could work on.

You don't have to be a student or an academic to apply, but two additional requirements are: applicants must be a JASNA member who resides in the US or Canada, and they must be able to live in England for four to six weeks during July and August, which includes the date of the UK Jane Austen Society’s AGM in Winchester. I encourage everyone to visit the JASNA website for more information: jasna.org/programs/international-visitor.  Or click on the Programs link [in the main menu] and then on the International Visitor Program link to read all about the projects of our past visitors. And also pay attention to the Austen-Related Institution section. The application on the website is open for you to start perusing, and submit it anytime between now and December 16.

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Breckyn: Now it's time for "In Her Own Words," a segment where listeners share a favorite Austen quote or two.

Jennifer Weinbrecht: My name is Jennifer Weinbrecht, and I'm from the Ohio North Coast Region. It's hard to say this quote from Sense and Sensibility is my favorite because I have so many favorite lines in Jane Austen. Marianne is recovering from her broken heart and her illness, and Elinor and Marianne are walking together, discussing Willoughby.

Elinor: "Do you compare your conduct with his?"

Marianne: "No, I compare it with what it ought to have been. I compare it with yours."

The first time I read Sense and Sensibility, I teared up at this point. Elinor had been my focus throughout the novel, and I was very much in her head. At this moment, I felt that Marianne went through that moment of self-knowledge very seriously. And when Austen's characters do that, they deal with those moments with dignity and strength and courage and sometimes humor. At that point, I felt that Elinor and Marianne become equals, and the true story of this novel is the love between these sisters. Their sisterly relationship is really the love story in Sense and Sensibility.

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“I am fond of superior society.”

Pride and Prejudice