Modern spin on a classic
JOANNA Trollope’s modern take on Jane Austen’s Sense & Sensibility is the first instalment of the Austen Project. With the tagline “Jane Austen Reimagined”, the project by publishers HarperCollins has six contemporary authors re-imagining six of Austen’s works: Sense & Sensibility, Northanger Abbey, Pride & Prejudice, Emma, Persuasion and Mansfield Park (theaustenproject.com).
Honestly, as a teenager I struggled to understand all the hype over Austen’s books and, quite frankly, had never been able to comprehend the Janeites’ (a term used for Austen fans) fascination and devotion for the books.
Until Trollope’s re-imagining of Sense & Sensibility.
She ingeniously skips the original’s long and winding narration of the details of inheritance, which always irked me, and plunged right into the conflict that has the Dashwood ladies (mum Belle and daughters Elinor, Marianne and Margaret) expelled from their home of 20 years, Norland Park. The start of Trollope’s version already earned a leg up in my book.
However, this expulsion is tricky to manoeuvre with the changing of times in mind. In the original, the Dashwood ladies could not inherit the estate after the passing of their father because they were not men. In this book, Trollope cleverly has Mr Dashwood leaving his first wife but never marrying the Dashwood girls’ mother, Belle – thus making Norland Park’s new inheritor the girls’ half-brother, John Dashwood. Neat!
Although the book gives such modern spins to many events, Trollope stays true to Austen’s characters and plot, so much so that many times I wondered where I was at. The re-imagining concept of this book does play against Trollope, though, as certain aspects like inheritance and mansions just do not gel in this era, in my opinion.
I can only imagine the tough battle Trollope had on hands in trying to merge a plot and characters that were valid some 200 years ago with the Internet-loving, gadget-addicted, informal people of today’s world. Well, Trollope should be applauded for her ability to connect the two disparate worlds quite seamlessly in this book.
In Trollope’s reimagining, the elder, responsible sister, Elinor, remains a strong character, though she is now an architecture student and the family’s main breadwinner; high strung Marianne falls for John Willoughby (aka Will), a cad by nature who is also a very good guitarist; and little Margaret, well, she is indifferent and very attached to her gadgets.
Other modern aspects woven into the book are interesting to spot – horses are now Aston Martins, Marianne’s love notes are sent via e-mail and her rejection by Will is uploaded on YouTube for public ridicule. However, not all of Trollope’s attempts to modernise seem necessary, like the cringe-worthy “totes amazeballs” that Margaret uses.
A smart omission by Trollope is Colonel Brandon’s age. I hadn’t noticed it at first, but after some thought, it struck me that the colonel, who falls for Marianne, is much older than her – in fact, if I’m not mistaken, he’s retired and she’s a teenager in Austen’s original! This would have been acceptable when the original was written, back in the 19th century, but times have changed, and that sort of an age gap is no longer acceptable. So leaving out the age was a good idea.
All in all, Trollope’s update of a classic might not be perfect but it is an interesting read. She is an extraordinary writer who, I am quite certain, will introduce Austen’s world to a new and younger audience.
Perhaps it was my tender age that left me unappreciative of Austen originally; while I shunned the thought of revisiting the novel, I was still eager to understand why these stories are so well-loved. So for a reader such as myself, the Austen Project promises to open a gateway to an Austen binge.