An excerpt from her introduction to Sense and Sensibility.
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 fifteen. 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 twenty when I returned to Jane Austen. And from that moment not only did I love everything she had written but I was passionate about her anonymity…
[Austen’s] 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 every day—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 realize this, thanks to the skillful play between what is said and what is not 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 emphasize 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.
Excerpted from Sense and Sensibility, introduced by Elena Ferrante (translated by Ann Goldstein) and illustrated by Philip Bannister, available from The Folio Society.