Elena Ferrante on Sense and Sensibility: ‘I was passionate about Austen’s anonymity’


This article was published on The Guardian

Jane Austen kept her identity secret – Elena Ferrante, whose ‘Neapolitan’ series of novels has taken the literary world by storm, does the same. She pays tribute to a novel that casts a clear gaze on the condition of women


by Elena Ferrante

The fact that Jane Austen, in the course of her short life, published her books anonymously made a great impression on me as a girl of 15. It was the surly English teacher who told us this, and I was tempted to ask why, but I soon abandoned the idea, out of timidity. Meanwhile, I read Pride and Prejudice, but it didn’t interest me. At the time, I was enthralled by the great male adventure novels, with their stories that ranged all over the world, and I wanted to write such books myself: I couldn’t resign myself to the idea that women’s novels were domestic tales of love and marriage. I was past 20 when I returned to Austen. And from that moment not only did I love everything she had written but I was passionate about her anonymity. Sense and Sensibility appeared in October of 1811, in three volumes, with the sole clue: “By a lady”. The three other books that she published in her lifetime – Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park(1814), Emma (1815) – also came out anonymously. As for the two novels published posthumously in a single volume, Persuasion and Northanger Abbey, they, too, appeared without the name of the author, but with a note about Austen written by her brother Henry: an interesting example of how the living can both respect and, at the same time, violate the memory of the dead.

We have to follow Elinor to compose an answer. Marianne, of course, let’s not forget, has an important role. She’s a beautiful model of the blossoming young girl to whom all conventions seem constricting, and who adheres to a new convention: considering her own sensibility as the only possible truth. Marianne wants to be Marianne, an extraordinary, unique Marianne, even at the risk of her own ruin. She has inherited the giddy, incautious thoughtlessness of her mother, but she is also the product of new times and new tastes and new requirements of freedom. All things considered, she might be a female version of Werther, a pastel representation of oppressive revolutionary times. All things considered, it’s not impossible that Tolstoy thought of her and girls like her created by women writers when he imagined Natasha. All things considered – yes, all things considered – she is not very different from the other women, old and young, who appear in the novel, and who, although their motivations are less pure, are led by their sensibility.

Elinor (Emma Thompson, on the left) is 'a product of the prudent control of sensibility'.

Elinor (Emma Thompson, left) is ‘a product of the prudent control of sensibility’. Photograph: Allstar/Columbia

Elinor is something else. She has nothing of her mother and nothing of her sister. She has nothing of the world of females struggling to escape spinsterhood and secure for themselves a solid matrimonial arrangement. She has nothing of the women who manipulate men to safeguard their interests and those of their children. She has nothing of the women who are in daily conflict with other women. She doesn’t have their egoism, their treacherousness, their gossipy chattiness, their opacity as fiancées, wives, mothers. And yet she is totally absorbed by the hierarchy of values of her sex. Elinor knows that money counts and should be counted. Elinor wants love. She seeks a husband. She aspires to happiness and happiness is marriage. She has a strong sensibility that makes her tremble with desire, with suffering, with indignation. Her originality lies in the fact that she is both outside of and within the daily life of her sex. But it’s not only that: closeness and distance could have produced a lopsided figure, now hypercritical, now hypocritical. Instead, what we get is a person who is involved but not audacious, vigilant, armed, and yet understanding. Both sisters are educated; they value elegance, refined manners, kindness, intelligence and wit in conversation, narrative ability. But while Marianne uses those qualities as a means of discriminating – on the one hand, the few who possess them, and are worthy of her attention; on the other the majority, male and female, who do not have them and scarcely deserve to exist – Elinor gradually achieves an ironic acceptance of flaw, an understanding of error, a sympathetic closeness that keeps conflict from exploding. She sees the worst of her sex, but, unlike Marianne, without tracing a line of demarcation between herself and others.

Her sister at one point accuses her of a lack of sensibility. It’s an unfounded charge; Elinor will demonstrate that she is mistaken. What makes her different is not coldness but an attention to others that allows her to reduce to the minimum her own need to be central. She is fully aware of the small-mindedness of her neighbours, but, skilled as she is with words, she can confront the world without setting off a recriminatory explosion that will destroy it.

Elinor, in short, is a product of the prudent control of sensibility. She eliminates from herself what in others generates confrontations, open or hidden – that is to say, occasions for turmoil, suffering, unhappiness. To put it another way: Elinor hides Elinor in order to become better than Elinor; she goes through her world maintaining self-control in the face of those who for various reasons can’t control themselves. She does so with far-sightedness. She prefers men who are not handsome, not clever in conversation, incapable of giving a narrative order to their experience, but serious, reliable. Yet she is able to understand the handsome, egocentric and cynical Willoughby, whose suffering touches her even though it derives from the most banal of men’s torments: that another man possesses the woman they wanted and could have had.

Jane Austen, after a watercolor by Cassandra Austen

Jane Austen, after a watercolor by Cassandra Austen Photograph: GraphicaArtis#Unified ED/Getty Images

As for her own sex, Elinor perceives the cage in which the male world confines it, and the bad feelings that explode in that cage. But she does her best to manage the situation and ably stands up to the sharp-witted egotism of her sister-in-law, Fanny, as well as to that of her rival, Lucy, an ambitious woman who, like her, practises self-control, if only in order to hone a hypocrisy that serves to procure an optimal arrangement for herself. Elinor’s “sense” is, in short, the art of living in the world with equilibrium, satisfying her own desires without hurting other women but, rather, offering herself as a support for their fragility. She behaves like a lady who can confront a storm of individual feelings, with their egotistical impulses and ungovernable desperation, with an orderliness made up of ironic detachment and a spirit of observation. If, at a certain point, she allows room for sensibility and bursts into tears, it is only when she is sure that her own most secret anxieties will not disturb the life of anyone else.

It seems to me that Austen, by not putting her name on the books she published, did the same thing as Elinor, and in an extremely radical way. She uses neither her own name nor one that she has chosen. Her stories are not reducible to her; rather, they are written from within a tradition that encompasses her and at the same time allows her to express herself. In this sense they are indeed written by a lady, the lady who does not fully coincide with everyday life but peeks out during the often brief time when, in a common room, a space not hers, Austen can write without being disturbed: a lady who disappears whenever something – the disorderly world of the everyday – interrupts her, forcing her to hide the pages. This lady doesn’t have Jane’s anxieties or her reserve. The lady-narrator describes the ferocity of the male world that clusters around income, is afraid of change, lives idly, contends with futility, sees work as degrading. And above all she rests a clear gaze on the condition of women, on the battle between women to win men and money. But she doesn’t have Jane’s natural resentments toward daily life. The lady-who-writes can set aside dissatisfaction and bitterness, spread a light, ironic glaze over the old world that, with its wrongs, is collapsing and the new world that is emerging, with its abundance of new wrongs. But pay attention, for the lightness conceals pitiless depths – it’s a glaze that, miraculously, doesn’t sweeten anything. There are a thousand traces of these depths, continually opening up in a narrative that proceeds at the easy pace of a dance. The last sentence of Sense and Sensibility provides an example:

And among the merits and the happiness of Elinor and Marianne, let it not be ranked as the least considerable, that though sisters, and living almost within sight of each other, they could live without disagreement between themselves, or producing coolness between their husbands.

“Though sisters”: the relationship between the sisters is full of perils, and if we read the novel attentively we realise this, thanks to the skilful play between what is and isn’t said. But a happy ending is a happy ending, and the happy entrance into adulthood of Elinor and Marianne is marked by a change in their primary bond. The lady-who-writes, after staging all the conflicts between women, also makes plain to the reader, almost as a fact of nature, the conflict within the relationship that has been at the centre of her novel, the relationship that is the hardest to examine truthfully, the relationship between the sisters. But she does it lightly, almost in spite of Jane, and only to emphasise the fact that, thanks to the careful management of sense and sensibility, Elinor and Marianne, although they will live for the rest of their lives within sight of one another, have overcome that dangerous obstacle as well.

Sense and Sensibility, introduced by Elena Ferrante (translated by Ann Goldstein) and illustrated by Philip Bannister, is available from The Folio Society.

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