Book Review by Brenda S. Cox
“It is best to remember our mistakes. To forget is to risk repeating them. Do not you agree?”
“Of course, but there is also risk in carrying the remembrance of our failings too far. God forgives us, and then we must move forward and not continue to wallow in false guilt.”—Marianne and Col. Brandon discussing their past mistakes in Colonel Brandon in His Own Words by Shannon Winslow
Colonel Brandon in His Own Words, by Shannon Winslow, has given me new insights into Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. As I read it, I was amazed to see implications of Sense and Sensibility that I had missed. It also brought Colonel Brandon alive for me. It parallels the original story, staying faithful to it, but adding much more, making it compelling reading.
As we were discussing S&S recently with my JASNA group, they were complaining how little we really see and hear of Brandon in S&S. That makes it difficult for us to really believe in his romance with Marianne. But I wasn’t having that difficulty–because Shannon Winslow’s book showed me the story from Brandon’s point of view.
Winslow, of course, gives Brandon his own backstory, with Eliza, and in the military. The story also brought minor, off-stage characters alive–Eliza and Brandon’s brother and father–and helped me imagine their stories.
The story also has deep faith elements, and I asked Shannon Winslow to tell us about that.
Shannon Winslow on Faith in Colonel Brandon in His Own Words
Shannon: When I began writing Colonel Brandon in His Own Words, I didn’t set out to show he was a man of strong faith. I must have unconsciously believed he was, however, because as I got into his head to write from his point of view, I found the evidence. Instances of faith very naturally came through in thought, word, and deed as he faced this challenge or that crushing disappointment. And believe me, the long-suffering Colonel Brandon faces challenges aplenty!
He is no saint, though, and he often questions his faith – not so much the truth of his beliefs but his imperfect ability to live them out. Here’s an example from early in the book. Brandon is only seventeen, and he has just learned that his father plans to force Eliza to marry his elder brother Max. This excerpt, like the rest of the book, is told in Brandon’s own words.
Max took her arm from me, tucking it firmly inside his own instead. As he escorted her away, Eliza turned pleading eyes over her shoulder at me.
Raw anger smoldered in my belly. To see him touching her, taking possession of her, as if she were already his wife… I held my brother in no particular esteem, but until that moment, I had harbored no ill will against him either. Now, so violent an antipathy was kindled in my heart, such a loathing as I had never experienced, exceeded only by what I felt for my father. The day before, I should not have considered myself capable of such violent feelings, and towards my own blood too!
Had my long-held but chiefly untested Christian principles deserted me so swiftly? What of honor thy father and so many other tenets? Or if I held to love your enemies and turn the other cheek, here was my chance to prove it. But no, I could not give Eliza up in order to demonstrate my selflessness; she was not mine to surrender. The biblical principle truly at stake in this situation was the directive to care for the fatherless and widows in their affliction. Eliza was indeed fatherless, especially now that her appointed guardian had abdicated his sacred responsibility to defend her welfare, and she was certainly in dire affliction.
My higher calling, therefore, was to come to her aid. My love and service to my father and brother must take the form of preventing them from dishonoring themselves by doing the evil they intended. As for me, I could only pray that the anger burning inside my soul was of the righteous sort, that which our Lord himself experienced without sinning. But I doubted it.
In this first serious test of his long-held but chiefly untested Christian principles, Brandon, like the rest of us, discovers that he is not immune to the weaknesses and failings of his sinful human nature. He’s shocked by his anger, even hatred, against his brother – something as old as Cain and Abel in Genesis 4. But in his shock and confusion, he turns to the right place for answers. He sorts through what he knows of right and wrong from the Bible, determining to the best of his ability where his duty lies.
Prayer is mentioned here and 31 other places in the book! – often, but not always, as an expression of faith. I was surprised to find it was so many, actually. I shouldn’t have been, though. Throughout his life, Colonel Brandon repeatedly finds he is helpless to do anything else for the people/situations that deeply concern him: Eliza’s unhappy marriage to his brother, the challenges of his military life, Marianne’s devotion to the dashing but unprincipled Willoughby, and later her life-threatening illness:
I felt particularly indebted to Mrs. Jennings for this because there was nothing I could do for Marianne myself but pray. I could not carry any of the burden for the others either. Useless and helpless once again, I could not see, speak to, or minister to the dear invalid in any way, since naturally I was not admitted to the bedchamber where her feverish body lay.
We’ve all been there, feeling helpless in the face of something completely out of our control. And Colonel Brandon does what any person of faith would do; he turns to God in prayer, as the only one with power to act and save. Brandon’s faith is not perfect, however, and he doesn’t pretend that it is. On the contrary, he openly tells how fears prey upon his mind when Marianne’s prognosis is said to be grave. Again, I think most of us can relate. We pray. We trust God for the ultimate outcome. But at the same time, we can’t help feeling some degree of worry, grief, or fear anyway.
Perhaps the most powerful faith-based theme of this book, though, is forgiveness (mentioned 35 times). Through life, Colonel Brandon carries a heavy burden of largely misplaced guilt and responsibility for his supposed failures: failing to keep Eliza safe, failing to protect her daughter from a similar fate, failing to save another women he met in India, etc.
I exhaled, and part of the weight I had carried with me for three and a half long years lifted from my soul. Though I could not yet forgive myself, I was extremely relieved to have [Eliza’s] absolution before it should become forever too late.
Eliza forgave him and so, of course, did God. But Colonel Brandon needed to, once and for all, put down the heavy burden he’d carried far too long. He also needed to find a way to forgive others, especially his brother Max. Over the course of the story, Colonel Brandon slowly learns to do that. And by the end, he and Marianne have helped each other to lay all their ghosts from the past to rest.
Colonel Brandon in His Own Words might be one of the most angsty books I’ve written, but it’s also one of the most hopeful, showing the healing and peace that can be found in a life of faith. I hope you will read and enjoy this story. ~Shannon Winslow
Brenda: Thanks very much, Shannon. Readers, I agree; I think you’ll love this one!
About the Book
Here’s what the back cover adds about the story:
Colonel Brandon is the consummate gentleman: honorable, kind almost to a fault, ever loyal and chivalrous. He’s also silent and grave, though. So, what events in his troubled past left him downcast, and how does he finally find the path to a brighter future? In Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen gives us glimpses, but not the complete picture.
Now Colonel Brandon tells us his full story in His Own Words. He relates the truth about his early family life and his dear Eliza – his devotion to her and the devastating way she was lost to him forever. He shares with us a poignant tale from his military days in India – about a woman named Rashmi and how she likewise left a permanent mark on his soul. And of course Marianne. What did Brandon think and feel when he first saw her? How did his hopes for her subsequently rise, plummet, and then eventually climb upwards again. After Willoughby’s desertion, what finally caused Marianne to see Colonel Brandon in a different light?
This is not a variation but a supplement to the original story, chronicled in Brandon’s point of view. It’s a behind-the-scenes look at the things Jane Austen didn’t tell us about a true hero – the very best of men.
Besides Colonel Brandon in His Own Words, you can find Shannon Winslow and her other lovely books, including Prayer and Praise: A Jane Austen Devotional, at shannonwinslow.com and at austenvariations.com .
Both Colonel Brandon and Marianne Dashwood lived through some very hard experiences. How does your faith help you go on, when you face trials? And how does belief in God’s forgiveness help you forgive yourself and others?