Published in October 1811, Sense and Sensibility was the first of Austen's novels to be presented for public consumption. As it turned out, readers loved it, and the novel sold out its first edition of 750 copies (which was a lot back then) by 1813. However, Austen herself didn't become an overnight sensation; rather, throughout her brief lifetime, she published under the pseudonym, "A Lady," and never attained much personal fame. Her books, on the other hand, were quite successful; she followed up Sense and Sensibility with Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, and Emma, as well as two posthumously published novels, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion.
Though Sense and Sensibility is Austen's first full-length novel, it possesses a lot of the traits that we see in some of her later, somewhat more widely read, works – her books grant us an intimate glance into the everyday lives of women in early nineteenth century England. We learn about their trials and tribulations (mostly having to do with romantic relationships – looks like not much has changed there over all these years), as well as about the importance of family life.
On that note, it's thought that Sense and Sensibility was largely inspired by Austen's own relationship with her much-beloved sister, Cassandra; in the novel, we can see Cassandra in the older, wiser Elinor, while Jane is more like the impulsive, emotional Marianne. This personal connection makes Sense and Sensibility particularly dear to the hearts of many Janeites (Austen's devoted fans, who are legion in number).
The single most compelling reason to care about Sense and Sensibility is totally up front – so up front, in fact, that Jane Austen practically smacks you in the face with it. The whole book is basically an extended debate between two things most of us know well, logic and emotion (that is to say, "SENSE" and "SENSIBILITY"). The fact of the matter is, while it's also a novel about the nuances of nineteenth century social mores, family life, and economic reality, Austen's book primarily forces all of its readers to confront a very personal, very relevant question: how do each of us lead our lives? Are we Elinors (logic) or Mariannes (emotion), or some combination of the two? And are we happy that way?
The trials and tribulations of the Dashwood sisters may seem outdated to us at times, but in the end, Elinor and Marianne's individual ways of approaching life are still pretty gosh darn recognizable: we don't know about you, but here at Shmoop, we all know our share of practical Elinors, who are led by their logical minds, and impulsive, passionate Mariannes, who let their hearts take control. The question that the novel asks is simple: is one of these ways of living better than the other? Or is a third path open to us?
Both Elinor and Marianne have their pros and cons: Elinor may be practical and pragmatic, but she's also emotionally stifled, and ends up making her suffering greater by keeping it bottled up. Marianne, on the other hand, doesn't keep anything bottled up – she's all out there, all the time. However, her foolhardy, passionate nature is almost the death of her, and her lack of regard for others, or society on the whole, even, is legendary. It seems, then, that neither sense nor sensibility can function on its own. Both of the Dashwood sisters learn to combine them by the end of the novel, but the real final question is – can we?