Thursday, October 22, 2009

Sense and Colonel Brandon

I somehow got away with not reading any Jane Austen until I was out of college. Don’t really know why; I guess she didn’t appeal to me until I was old enough to have had some of the life experiences she dealt with in her amazing novels. In the last ten years or so, however, I have grown fond of Ms. Austen and her cavalcade of characters: the righteous Mr. Darcy, well-meaning Emma Woodhouse, mischievous ne’er do wells like Wickham and Willoughby. But lately I am especially enamored of the saintly Col. Brandon of Sense and Sensibility fame.

For those not familiar, Col. Brandon is pretty much the perfect man. He’s wealthy, steadfast, reliable, good-natured and though he is not conventionally handsome, he is not unpleasant to look at. He’s a good friend: kind, generous, brave. He’s modest, soft-spoken and self-assured. But what’s best about the Saintly Colonel is his uncanny ability to be at the right place at the right time, to offer hope and salvation to the hopeless. He’s a Knight in Shining Armor come to life for Marianne Dashwood, that’s for sure. Heartbroken and defeated after a traumatic and doomed love affair, she goes for an ill-advised walk in a rainstorm and passes out. Things look grim for the luckless Miss Dashwood. Grim, that is, until the ubiquitous Col. Brandon—who has, true to form, kindly volunteered to brave the storm in search of the beleaguered young lady—comes upon her limp form lying in the sodden grass and proceeds to carry her a not insignificant distance back to shelter, whereupon the unfortunate Marianne comes down with an infectious fever of some sort (aka “heroine disease”) and becomes gravely ill. Her sister Elinor, who has been nursing her, encounters the good Colonel roaming the halls outside her sickroom (what else would he be doing?) and when he asks what he can do to help, she instructs him to go fetch their mother as the younger Miss Dashwood may not last the night. This being Jane Austen, you just know what’s going to happen next, don’t you? Why of course—the saintly Colonel returns with Mother Dashwood post-haste, Marianne recovers, Willoughby (the cad who dumped Marianne in the first place) gets his comeuppance, Brandon marries Marianne, and all’s well that ends well. Sigh. If only…

I was thinking about Col. Brandon last night driving home from a visit with my sister. It seems life has never been easy for Nicole—poor decisions, depression, a host of physical ailments, career setbacks. She has had a couple close calls along the way, but she has never given up. I don’t know how she does it sometimes, because for my sister, the good luck that usually follows bad for the rest of us never seems to come to her. She’s not a weak person, but she is a lot more fragile than she’d care to admit, and I often become frustrated and angry at the world for all the things it keeps doing to her. She’s made mistakes—we all have—but does she have keep paying for them her whole life?

Nicole has always managed to get through it all somehow, but those of you who know her know that this year has been especially trying for her. I hadn’t seen her in a while, and when I visited with her yesterday, I was taken aback at how sad and defeated she looked. I hadn’t seen her look this bad in a long time. I know it’s bad, because she’s usually pretty stoic, and last night she confided to my mother and me that she was really struggling. We left her place very concerned for her safety and well-being, and I lay awake worrying about her much of last night. Well this morning I received the news that indeed, things had gotten worse after we left her, and the sinking feeling I had carried with me most of the year was drowned in waves of sadness and despair. We all have our ups and downs, but dammit, why can’t Nicole catch a break? What has she done to deserve this?

Today, needing the movie equivalent of comfort food to distract me a bit, I indulged in the umpteenth viewing of Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility, which, being a huge Kate Winslet fan, is my favorite film version of the masterpiece. But instead of taking my mind off my worries, today the movie only reminded me of them. Why, I thought, does my sister keep encountering the Willoughbys of the world when she so richly deserves a Col. Brandon?

Well truthfully, we all--male and female--deserve a Col. Brandon figure in our lives, don’t we? Even if we like to think of ourselves as strong, independent, capable, don’t we all secretly hope that if, heaven forbid, something terrible happened, there’s a Brandon waiting in the wings out there somewhere ready to Make it All Better? Don’t we all want to believe that the good guys win and the bad guys get punished, want to trust in the ultimate fairness of the universe?

I don’t know what’s going to happen to Nicole, I really don’t. She’s gotten through this type of thing before and gone on with her life, but for some reason she has never really been able to completely move past the trauma and get a solid foothold. I am not sure why; perhaps it’s because she really does need a Col. Brandon-like figure in her life. Not so much for the financial security he’d offer, or even for the romance. No, what Nicole really needs her Col. Brandon for is the simplest, most basic thing of all—something that sadly, she’s lacked most of her life. My sister needs someone who’ll be there when she needs him, who'll listen with compassion and without judgment, make her feel safe and secure, needed and most important, loved. In short, my sister needs Col. Brandon the friend. But really, don’t we all?

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