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Sense & Sensibility

Review

Sense & Sensibility

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a work of art in possession of a good reputation must be in want of a new version.

That paraphrase of the first line of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE--- the novel turned 200 this year --- suggests that no masterpiece is safe from modernizing hands. In this case, Remake Fever meets Jane Mania in the guise of The Austen Project, HarperCollins’s plan to issue updates of her six celebrated works. Joanna Trollope’s take on Austen’s first published novel, SENSE & SENSIBILITY, kicks things off. (Other writers who have been signed up so far include Alexander McCall Smith, Val McDermid and Curtis Sittenfeld.) 

Reader, I must confess that I’m skeptical. Is this a creditable literary experiment or a marketing gimmick? I quote the excellent pre-publication commentary of journalists Sam Leith (pro) and Elizabeth Day (con) in The Observer last month: “Writers always exist in dialogue with their predecessors,” Leith reminds us. “Shakespeare nicked his plots from Holinshed and Chaucer from Boccaccio.” Day opines, more cynically, “These novels have been commissioned because the publishers know that if you slap ‘Austen’ on the cover, any book is guaranteed to be snapped up quicker than a bosom-enhancing gown on the day of the Netherfield ball.”

One thing is sure: Trollope’s version requires a certain reorientation on the reader’s part. If you’re familiar with the book and/or have seen the Ang Lee/Emma Thompson film, you probably envision the female characters in bonnets and high-waisted muslin dresses, quaffing tea, sketching. Now you have to picture them wearing jeans, hunched over laptops, checking Facebook. Nothing could say update as clearly as the cover of this SENSE & SENSIBILITY, with its two cameo-like silhouettes in profile, complete with earbuds.

Here’s a quick recap: Upon the death of Henry Dashwood, his wife and three daughters (Elinor, Marianne and Margaret) are banished from their family home, Norland, because of that hoary old plot device, primogeniture. The heir is Henry’s son by his first wife, John, and his disagreeable wife, Fanny. A Dashwood cousin, wealthy Sir John Middleton --- who has a great Downton Abbey-type pile of his own --- rescues the family from homelessness with a pretty rustic cottage. His mother-in-law, Abigail Jennings, a compassionate busybody, also becomes an ally. Suitors appear: Fanny’s brother, Ed, seems made for elder sister Elinor, while delicate, asthmatic Marianne is swept off her feet by dishy John Willoughby (Wills). Waiting hopefully in the wings is Colonel William Brandon, a kind and honest “older” fellow --- all of 35 --- who has turned his stately home into a center for substance abusers.

"Trollope keeps her book so tasteful, authentic and respectful of the original that from time to time I forgot which century we were supposed to be in.... The new SENSE & SENSIBILITY may not approach the genius of Austen’s novel, but it is a worthy companion."

Wisely, Trollope does not constantly call attention to the contemporary setting. Some of her sentences are gently Austenesque (“However detestable Fanny had made herself since she arrived at Norland, all the Dashwoods were agreed that she had one redeeming attribute, which was the possession of her brother Edward”), but she doesn’t lay it on too thick. Nor does she succumb to the trap of making Austen’s characters so modern in their opinions that they are unrecognizable. There are a few quasi-feminist moments, to be sure:  Elinor tries to persuade Marianne to think of her future in terms of an independent profession, not an attachment to “some guy you hardly know.” And again, when 14-year-old Margaret asks plaintively if girls have to make the opposite sex “their whole world,” Elinor replies, “No, if it doesn’t suit us to.”

Marianne and her mother, on the other hand, are unrepentantly romantic (Marianne regards herself as “only half a person” in her boyfriend’s absence), and most of the female characters are ardently marriage-minded. Indeed, Trollope keeps her book so tasteful, authentic and respectful of the original that from time to time I forgot which century we were supposed to be in.

Maybe it’s too respectful. Trollope’s own best novels deal with family and village life: the humble blessings and small, terrible defeats that rule our days. Her two greatest strengths, in my view, are the complexity and likability of her characters and the ambiguity of her endings. But, faced with the task of channeling Jane Austen, she pretty much is forced to make the two older sisters poster children for sense and sensibility. By the same token, Bill Brandon is virtuous, John weak, Fanny wicked, etc., etc. Trollope’s gift for rounded characters is stymied by the assignment, as is her resistance to tidy conclusions. This SENSE & SENSIBILITY ends the way Austen’s did, with everyone suitably partnered.

Moreover, Trollope is not a natural wit and acerbic social observer like Austen. She does go in for a little satire. The horrible sisters Lucy and Nancy Steele --- who are like the evil twins of Elinor and Marianne --- say things like “Totes amaze” and “Fabby,” and Ed’s snobbish, small-minded mother is a typical Austenesque romance-squashing dragon lady (think Lady Catherine de Bourgh in PRIDE AND PREJUDICE). But the sharp, unsentimental assessments of property and personality that make Austen’s work so brilliant don’t have much of a presence in this remake.

And why should they? Trollope isn’t writing BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES; she is trying to retain the essence of Austen’s book while ushering the plot into our own timeframe, and she does a more than satisfactory job. Her intention is clearly to emphasize the continuity between young women’s emotional life then and now rather than work the obvious contrasts. “You’re like those nineteenth-century novels where marriage is the only career option for a middle-class girl,” Mrs. Dashwood says reprovingly to Mrs. Jennings. Unruffled, Mrs. J. answers, “People pretend things have changed, but have they, really?”

The new SENSE & SENSIBILITY may not approach the genius of Austen’s novel, but it is a worthy companion. Trollope, in fact, says she hopes that her retelling will inspire readers to seek out the original --- which you can buy as an eBook on Amazon for a mere 99 cents.

Thrifty Elinor would approve.

Reviewed by Kathy Weissman on November 15, 2013

Sense & Sensibility
by Joanna Trollope

  • Publication Date: October 29, 2013
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Harper
  • ISBN-10: 0062200461
  • ISBN-13: 9780062200464