The Dashwood Sisters Tell All by Beth Pattillo

This modern version of Sense and Sensibility is a fun one. I was thrilled to see, listed as the very first to whom Pattillo dedicated her third in the series, Bob and Claire! How delightful! There’s also an intriguing premise: two sisters are forced by the will of their mother, who wanted them to bond, to go on a walking tour of Jane Austen’s England and, together, decide where to scatter their mom’s ashes. Only then will they get their inheritance (3).

The characters are easy to identify. Our narrator, the sensible sister, is Elinor (Ellen). The one who made them late because she was giving herself a facial is Marianne (Mimi). The distinguished group leader with “unmistakable military bearing” is Colonel Brandon (Tom Braddock) (3). I assumed at first, since Pattillo seemed to be making this discernment easy for us, that Melissa must be Lucy Steele, the high-school sweetheart, but when Ellen sees Daniel Edwards again (we don’t find out his last name until the picnic, but by then we already know who is he), he has already split from her, so maybe not, and then that plot piece wasn’t picked up the way Lucy Steele is, so not really. Each of our heroines has some personal trouble to work out, but this story is also very much about their working out their relationship with each other, the goal of their dying mother when she devised this plan. Each feels alone, each grieves differently, and each feels her sister doesn’t understand her.

I was surprised when Mimi first took over the narration from Ellen, but I suppose I shouldn’t have been. If Austen’s argument is that we need a balance of sense and sensibility, why should Pattillo’s differ? I grew easily accustomed to seeing the plot unfold through the eyes of both sisters. The links to Austen personally made the story work on yet another level: the sisters in Pattillo’s story, the sisters in Sense and Sensibility, and the sisters Jane and Cassandra Austen. Cassandra and Tom are like Elinor and Edward; Jane and Lefroy or Jack Smith are like Marianne and Willoughby, except Willoughby’s betrayal and removal are quite different here. (Who is this Jack Smith, supposed love interest of Jane’s?) Pattillo is more direct than the usual writer about the parallels and the characters’ awareness of them: Mimi, upon reading S and S, finds “Elinor and Marianne’s similarity to Ellen and (Mimi) . . . just short of eerie,” but then Pattillo deftly redirects our attention to “the similarity between the Austen sisters and the fictional Dashwood girls” (168).

I was always relating to their plight, especially when Mimi finds herself in an awkward, new-man situation. Without thinking, she uses the present tense when speaking about her mother, who has passed away just six months earlier. That change to past tense is something with which I still struggle when I talk about my dad. But when the new man starts to ask more questions, Mimi thinks: “Now I would have to take the conversation in a morbid direction, a situation I’d learned long ago to avoid with a new man” (56). I can so relate to that! When Ethan doesn’t respond, it’s a sign to the audience he isn’t right for her (or for any compassionate person), but she still tries to capture his attention.

In a conversation between Ellen and the man she once loved, Daniel says he thinks Jane would be “proud of all the happiness she’s brought to people” (118). In light of the early passing of Jane Austen and Ellen and Mimi’s mother, his question makes a reader contemplate, as does Ellen, “what would I leave behind when my time came?” (118)

On a lighter note, I loved the details of the walking tour—the Steventon stuff is just like I remember; it feels like I’m there again. Twenty minutes in JA’s Chawton cottage? Quel horreur! Not nearly enough. The students I brought there gathered in the gardens and told me, when I went to check on them, that they would wait there happily while I spent as much time as I wanted in there.

Tom, too, is sensitive and kind, and even Mimi warms to him, relatively early on (if Marianne’s affection for Colonel Brandon’s is our comparison point). When the nettles get her, Tom immediately grabs the solution—dockweed, for those of you contemplating a journey to Hampshire any time soon. Mimi’s excuse for acting silly with an attractive, eligible man is not that she’s young and inexperienced and passionate, but here, that she is passionate, 36, “still single,” and starting to worry (157). But when she finds the real thing, their exchange struck me. She says: “I waited for you for so many years. What took you so long?” And he says, “I got here as soon as I could” (220). Beautifully said!

As the week of Austen progresses, even the sisters start to piece together that they have more in common than they realize, but Pattillo helps us see parallels right away by juxtaposing their thoughts and their reactions to what they are experiencing—everything from the heat to Mimi’s appearance.

In addition to all these delights, there is also the mystery of Cassandra’s diary, Ellen and Mimi’s mother’s connection to it and to the tour adviser, and the lives of the Austen sisters themselves. Pattillo’s latest is a true pleasure to read.

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Published in: on March 17, 2012 at 7:57 am  Leave a Comment  

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