Many books have been written to continue the stories of the characters that Jane Austen created, including sequels, prequels, continuations, and diaries. Most of these books have been written about the most popular of her novels, Pride and Prejudice while ignoring some of her other different, but equally well-written and beautiful novels–Sense and Sensibility, Northanger Abbey, Emma, Mansfield Park, and Persuasion. Now for the first time, all six of Jane Austen’s books have been re-imagined and set in the 21st century. The Austen Project has started their new series with an update of Sense and Sensibility by Joanna Trollope—a version filled with unique problems and surprises from today’s world, while still holding true to some of the qualities in Jane Austen’s original novel that makes Sense and Sensibility a timeless tale of sisterhood and second chances.
Invariably, as with all modern retellings, things were left out or changed that were in Jane Austen’s original. While the basic plot stays the same, Joanna Trollope’s Sense and Sensibility has some minor differences in characters and culture—an understandable change because of the different time setting. The updated characters include: Colonel (Bill) Brandon–who converted Delaford into a rehab for drug and alcohol addicts, Edward Ferrars–the philanthropic black sheep of his family, Elinor–the practical student of architecture who has to financially (and emotionally) support her two sisters and mother, Belle Dashwood–Elinor and Marianne’s free-spirited and sentimental mother, Margaret–the moody teenager who is addicted to Facebook, Twitter, and her iPod, Marianne–the guitar-playing romantic who suffers from severe asthma attacks, and John (Wills) Willoughby–the very hot and seemingly rich playboy.
I enjoyed seeing all the characters from Sense and Sensibility from a modern perspective. Joanna Trollope had to answer some uniquely modern questions in her novel. How to keep Regency titles and hierarchy in the setting of present-day England? The Dashwood women had to work to support themselves (unlike upper-class Regency women)—which one of them would be the one to keep everyone afloat, pay bills, and get a job? How to account for the lack of contact (and dramatic suspense) between love interests in an age of texting, cell phones, cars, and email? All the characters had to “transition” from the Regency world to the modern world, and for the most part, Joanna Trollope did a great job.
Alas, some things from the Regency world just do not translate well into the present day. In trying to update certain parts of the plot some important aspects were lost, especially the view of proper behavior between men and women—namely, Jane Austen’s view of marriage. In this version of Sense and Sensibility, Marianne and Willoughby sleep together, Mrs. Dashwood was never married to Henry Dashwood (she ran away with him while he was still married), and Elinor comments that sex is completely normal in short-term relationships. (Somehow I can’t picture Jane Austen’s Elinor saying this!) Robert Ferrars is gay and marries Lucy for a cover, and once or twice in the novel sex is casually discussed. Willoughby, unlike the original, doesn’t get Colonel Brandon’s ward pregnant; he sells her drugs and she becomes an addict (like her mother before her). It was jarring to discover these things in this book, especially since, despite being a contemporary version, it is still at its core Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. The other Jane-Austen-meets-modern-world shock I received was when I read the modern interpretation of the scene where Willoughby talks to Elinor during Marianne’s sickness:
‘Do—do you still think I’m a shit?’
‘Elinor sighed. I think you’re a car crash. A destructive car crash.’‘I’ll take that as one degree more approving than a complete shit.’ (316)
Something I absolutely loved about this Sense and Sensibility was the depth at which the other characters were portrayed. They all came to life, sparkling and realistic—Mrs. Jennings, Mr. Palmer and Mrs. Palmer (now two of my all-time favorite characters), Colonel Brandon, Mr. and Mrs. Middleton, Margaret, Edward—even Fanny Dashwood and Mrs. Ferrars! Joanna Trollope’s rendition of all of these characters was surprising. Every character, no matter how evil or irritating in the original, was multi-dimensional. Mr. Palmer wasn’t just a grouch, Mrs. Palmer was loving and kind, and Fanny was evil for a reason. Thanks to this Sense and Sensibility, I understood the actions and motives of all of the characters so much better, especially Colonel Brandon and Edward Ferrars.
Elinor and Marianne however, seemed flat. The closest I felt to Elinor was when she had two or three pages scattered throughout the book of just her thoughts. The rest of the time she seemed unapproachable and cold. Marianne changed towards the end a little bit, but throughout seemed weak and overly passionate—with no strong, understandable sisterly bond between them. They seemed to stay as they appeared at the beginning—without any major changes over the course of the book.
I enjoyed seeing how Sense and Sensibility translated into 2013. Some things were lost and some things were gained—I loved the well-developed minor characters as well as the addition of almost all of the characters getting together at the end for a picnic. Elinor, Mrs. Ferrars, and Lucy Steele—oh my! I did miss some major pieces of the original Sense and Sensibility—the proper romance, bewitching Regency period, and beautiful language of Jane Austen. But Joanna Trollope’s reimagining IS a good piece to lead into reading the original. Maybe that’s how it should be—no matter how good the author, Jane Austen can never be truly replaced in the telling of her own tales.
3 out of 5 Stars
Sense and Sensibility: The Austen Project, by Joanna Trollope
Cover image compliments of HarperCollins © 2013; text Katie Patchell © 2013, Austenprose.com