A son from a first marriage is easily manipulated by his domineering and poisonous wife into deftly removing his father’s second family of partner and three daughters from a vast and much beloved country estate following the death of the patriarch. Bereft, they are taken in by a wealthy, distant relative to a modest cottage on his land, where they encounter a dashing but dangerous young man, a steadfast yet distant former colonel and fickle social climbing young ladies, all in the hopes of settling the two elder daughters down into suitable marriages with love and desire coming only slightly higher in the endeavour to money and social standing.
Sound familiar? Adding iPods, professional rather than solely matrimonial ambition, land rovers, modern slang and fewer deaths in childbirth and you’ve got the updated Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen’s classic work re-imagined by Joanna Trollope. It’s the first in a series due to be published this year and next, with Curtis Sittenfeld taking on Pride and Prejudice, Alexander McCall Smith Emma and Val McDermid Northanger Abbey. As yet Persuasion and Mansfield Park are unassigned.
It’s an ambitious project; Austen’s works are so well known, her readers so ardent in their esteem of them that it could be quite a risk to update the novels. To some it may seem as an affront, but really, how different are these modern day re-workings from other modifications, on stage and film? Pride and Prejudice got a whole new lease of life thanks to Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy emerging dripping wet from a lake in the 1995 BBC television adaptation. PD James wrote a murder mystery sequel, Death Comes to Pemberley which was well received and will itself get the BBC treatment, due an airing this year around Christmas time.
The cult teen film Clueless owes its plot to Emma, and although names are changed and the location is moved to 1990s Los Angeles the familiar characters are present and treated with appropriate fondness, if not a touch of irreverence. Because in bringing the social norms and expectations of the 18th and 19th centuries to the 21st, which are so pivotal to the plots, there is no hope in avoiding the faint ridiculousness of how they fit in to the present day.
The second Dashwood daughter, Marianne, in the original is passionate and romantic and capable of enrapturing the most stony of hearts with her forward thinking and captivatingly independent spirit. In this version she is insufferable, displaying horribly dramatic teenage histrionics, time and again ignoring the warnings of her elder sister in leaving the house without her inhaler – instead of a ‘weak disposition’ she has been cursed with asthma, to explain away her frequent brushes with death. I lost count of the times she was described as more or less wearing a bin bag and birds-nest hair but looking all the more beautiful for it. Rude, ungrateful and utterly self-involved, this Marianne is one of the worst characters conceived and although she begins to acknowledge her immature and reckless ways she is still forgiven and fawned over by most every other character in the book. Of course her deep distress is down to John Willoughby, or “Wills” as he is known here, and his abandonment of her after the briefest of affairs. He is as Willoughby as can be, a cad and a coward, but deserving of such vitriol, after putting up with such an over-dramatic bore, he is not.
Elinor is as sensible as expected, giving up her architecture studies to become the breadwinner of the house, something her ‘artistic’ mother Belle is unable or incapable of doing. She is something of a doormat, but a willing one, and while in the 1810s she would be expected to jump to every whim and obey certain familial obligations it doesn’t quite ring true in this version. Her romance with the perennially drippy Ed Ferrars is more pointed, her jealousy and distaste for man-stealing Lucy Steele more abject, but her grin and bear it mentality, her pathological deference and grating acceptance of her prettier and much more spoilt sister is hard to believe, even while still taking into consideration the persistent element of beauty over brains in today’s society.
The kind but somewhat uncouth souls who rescue the Dashwoods from destitution are jovially painted and gleefully faithful to the originals. The presence of Sir John’s wife Mary Middleton and a flurry of children is included – in Austen’s version she has long since died – and although not adding much to the story is not a bad addition in keeping with the jolly hockey sticks and cream pies dream existence the Middletons live in.
Fanny, the sister-in-law, is deplorable but as a character well-rounded, a social climber and snob of the highest order in keeping with her family’s traditions. Her other brother Robert is outed as a flamboyant party-planning homosexual which rings true with her awful mother’s desires to find him a wife, any wife, even a horrid Steele, in direct opposition to her writing Edward out of her will if he marries beneath him.
If we are to go by the chronology of Austen’s tome Marianne is 17 and looking for an engagement, Elinor is but two years older and secretly wishing the same, although one man and one man only will fit the bill. It’s only 14 year old Margaret who deigns to suggest boyfriends not being the only ticket to happiness. Seeing her sister go half-loopy over her first love she suggests that they “don’t need to make them our whole world, do we, like Marianne?”. There’s hope for the Dashwood girls yet.
As a Joanna Trollope novel it’s a good read, entertaining and funny but belief-suspending. It’s a simple plot really, but what makes Austen’s novels so timeless is her use of language, her satirical slant and the creation of believable heroines in a time very different to our own. Some of this magic is lost in the upgrading to the present day, and while it’s a novelty to read and enjoy it won’t, unlike Austen’s, stand the test of time.
– Aoife B. Burke
First Published in The Tuam Herald in November 2013