Sense & Sensibility
For those who don’t know, the HarperCollins Austen Project is reimagining the Jane Austen novels under the auspices of “six bestselling contemporary authors”. (As opposed to, like, the thousands who do it on FanFiction or who aren’t bestselling contemporary authors.) First up is Joanna Trollope taking on the Dashwoods in modern Devon and London, and she manages the almost unachievable for me: I actually like Marianne.
If you aren’t familiar with Jane Austen’s classic, the premise is this: Two sisters with completely different temperaments experience the hardships and vicissitudes of love, fortune, gossip, and vocation. The elder is Elinor Dashwood, introverted, controlled, and practical. The younger is Marianne, passionate, hides nothing, and lives life to the full. Over the course of a year men wreak havoc, inheritances are lost, their mother has her head in the clouds, and gossiping trolls just won’t shut up.
When an author reimagines a classic novel while staying true to the original, the key isn’t to transplant the same characters to a new setting, or situation: It’s to create opportunities to allow the same personalities to flourish. In this case it means modernizing minor details — upping Elinor and Marianne’s ages by a few years, giving Marianne asthma and a guitar, giving all of them mobiles and YouTube a starring role, introducing drugs and sex more concretely — but Ms. Trollope also takes the opportunity to make a few crucial adjustments that, in some ways, improve upon the wonderful but slightly bloated original.
The first are the circumstances of the Dashwood family that lead them to leave Norland Park, their family estate in Sussex, for a poor relations’ existence in Devon. Belle Dashwood is not, in fact, Mrs. Dashwood — she met Henry Dashwood of Norland Park, a married man, and they lived for love for over twenty years until he died prematurely, leaving his common-law family with nothing. This is a stroke of genius. It gives a plausible reason for the Dashwoods’ reduction from manor living to lower middle class. It explains why John doesn’t fight harder to help his half-sisters. It explains why Fanny, John’s wife and of the wealthy Ferrars, really doesn’t want her brother Edward to go out with Elinor. And crucially fleshes out Mrs. Dashwood, transforming her from a scatty airhead to a woman with Marianne’s sensibilities finally seeing the very real financial and family repercussions of her and Henry Dashwood’s irresponsibility.
The second is the effect that modernizing has on the Dashwood girls’ outlook and ambitions. As the characters say occasionally, this is not 1810. The Dashwood ladies do have the option of finding work to support themselves, and the fact that Marianne and Belle do not take this option initially — relying on Sir John Middleton and Mrs. Jennings and leaving Elinor to pick up the slack — increases the disparity between Elinor’s attitudes and her family’s. Unfortunately, I think this throws Elinor a shade too much into the Good Girl seat, and even I (who thoroughly empathize with Elinor as a rule) got a bit tired of her martyrish air. Her character is so much older than Marianne’s that I was actually hoping she’d get together with Bill Brandon; Edward gets short shrift and comes off as understandably but unfortunately weak.
But on the plus side, this gives Marianne and Belle much more room to grow, and they’re better characters for it, especially Marianne. Marianne’s YOLO behaviour is heightened by looming unemployment and the evils of instant social media; she does a lot of growing up in this book. While I was disappointed that I didn’t get the big scene where Elinor tells off Marianne, what we got instead were a few touching and emotional moments where Marianne visibly tries to understand, and behave, more maturely. Willoughby really does a number on her, and no one deserves that kind of treatment, but she is truly for the better afterwards, and becomes a much more complex character than Elinor.
Ms. Trollope’s spare, witty prose cuts the book into a short, zingy novel that zips by, and her only failure is convincing me that Bill and Marianne belong together. 18 and 35 worked well enough in 1810, but in a time where the average age of marriage is creeping closer to 30, I’d be more inclined to grimace at the prospect of a grown man dating a girl just out of high school. But in all other respects, by all means read the updated Sense & Sensibility. Joanna Trollope really did Jane Austen justice, and yippee! — there are five more books to come.