Austen fans can be a fearsome bunch. Many are generally hostile towards any human being who deigns to mess with the perfection of an Austen novel. But that is exactly what UK writer, Joanna Trollope has done for the Jane Austen Project – an ambitious venture from HarperCollins, involving the re-release of Austen’s complete works, reimaged by six contemporary authors. Trollope’s book is phase one – Sense and Sensibility.
Of course, there are countless examples of books and films that rework classic novels for a modern audience. Not all of them are good. Some may argue that not many of them are good. And so I approached the Jane Austen Project with an open mind and a dash of skepticism.
But before I get ahead of myself, here’s some introductory info on Sense and Sensibility. I assume most people perusing this review will be familiar with the book but for those who are not, Sense and Sensibility (1811) is Jane Austen’s first (published) novel. It’s the story of two sisters, Eleanor and Marianne Dashwood who are the complete opposite in temperament. Eleanor is sensible, levelheaded and cool as a cucumber – or so she appears. Marianne is passionate, dramatic and looking to be swept off her feet. When their father dies, most of his money and property goes to a son from a previous marriage. The girls inherit next to nothing and must relocate from their home, Norland Park, to a little cottage belonging to a distant relation.
Sense and Sensibility (2013)
I’ll admit, it has been years since I read the original Sense and Sensibility. Reading Trollope’s book for the first time was a surprisingly nostalgic experience, as she manages to capture the spirit and the atmosphere of the story quite naturally. She transcribes the characters and the plot in clever and subtle ways – for example, she explains the inheritance situation by writing that Eleanor and Marianne were unable to inherit because their mother and Mr Dashwood had been in a de facto relationship. In this way, the modern setting takes a backseat rather than becoming a distracting centerpiece.
Another particular highlight was the character development given to the third and the youngest Dashwood sister, Margaret. The younger characters in Austen novels are rarely fleshed out. But thirteen year olds usually have opinions when they’re dragged across the country to a new home and a new school. In Trollope’s version Margaret is hilarious and a great addition to the story.
On the downside, as faithful as Trollope is to the original novel (something she certainly get points for) I don’t think she is 100% faithful to the contemporary setting. While the Dashwood sisters drive cars, listen to Ipods and attend school, their whole situation feels very old-world. They are depending on their family’s kindness, attending dinners, parties and picnics and lacking the skills and experience to support themselves comfortably without a male provider in their lives. Maybe this is how some young women live today, but it didn’t feel familiar to me as a reader.
There was also something distinctly old-fashioned about the dialogue – not so much the language itself, but the way it was constructed and delivered. Given the Jane Austen Project aims to reimagine Austen for today’s readers, I was expecting a modern story, written in a thoroughly modern style. Trollope’s approach does work well once you’re accustomed to it, just not in the way I imagined it might.
Trollope successfully captures the heart of the story and the characters and transports them to a new setting without lapsing into silliness (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies?). She certainly did Austen no disservice with her efforts. However, Sense and Sensibility (2013) didn’t feel like a totally modern take – it would have been interesting to read an Austen story written in a more contemporary voice – if you can’t get into classics because of the old-fashioned style, you may not find this much better.
All in all, reading this book allowed me to relive Sense and Sensibility through a fresh gaze, something I found thoroughly enjoyable. I hope the purists don’t throw rocks at me for saying that.
Next up – Burial Rites by Hannah Kent. A stunning Aussie novel, soon to be a movie starring Jennifer Lawrence. Stay tuned.