Sense and Sensibility: UnTrolloped

Let’s Talk Opinion in conversation with Mrs Holder’s Legacy

Is it acceptable for contemporary writers to rewrite the classics? Do we want them to? There is a lot of that going around at the moment. Sexed up versions of our most beloved books are on the offensive left right and centre.

It is one thing to take an idea, even a plot and reinvent it. It is quite a different matter plopping someone else’s eighteenth century characters into the twenty-first with little attempt at giving the poor sods a leg up in this new and wonderful age.

This more or less sums up Mrs Holder’s Legacy (MHL)’s view re Joanna Trollope’s reworking of Sense and Sensibility.

Trollope is one of a six-strong “Austen Project” of contemporary novelists “reimagining” Jane Austen’s works for Harper Collins. And despite the unaccredited claims to the opposite, reading this early review persuaded me that whatever the author’s strengths – of which I am sure there are many – a modern Jane Austen she is not.

Joanna TrollopeI will not go into any further detail on MHL’s Out of time critique. Instead I will address her key concern: Austen’s characters are so bound by the social mores of her time – products of the society that birthed them – that when transposed into a modern setting the reader loses all empathy for their supposed struggles since those don’t cut the mustard in today’s world.

“It takes more than an iPod to make a twenty-first century heroine” says MHL. Well… I do love a challenge.

1.    A big NO to making the Dashwoods middle class.

The Dashwoods are aristocrats, and it is absolutely fine to be so even in the modern world. In fact, it would make it easier to then tailor their trials and tribulations accordingly, because the upper classes have undergone major transformations in the modern age in order to adapt and survive. Many would be curious to know how they fare nowadays and what kind of problems they encounter (I assure you, it has to do with more than just a shortage of crumpets at the breakfast table.); because it is seldom – if ever – that we get a point of entry into that world. I know that you, dear American cousins, like to think us Brits have five o’clock tea with our Liz on a weekly basis, alas, that is not so.

2.    “Unfit for work” are you, Miss Dashwoods? Get over yourselves and get a job!

The aristo Dashwood experiment? Now that’s got me interested. Middle class Dashwoods who do not work? Absolutely not. That cannot be. It is downright unbelievable, and not the right kind. Even as aristos, it is better by far if both sisters earn a living. In today’s world it is difficult to empathise with anyone who can and doesn’t.

How could two blue-blooded young ladies make themselves useful you ask?

Norland Park is the answer. Stately homes are notoriously expensive to run and have to earn their keep. The Dashwood sisters, Elinor and Marianne, take charge of Norland and open it to the public, organise guided tours of the house, and alter the grounds and gardens to provide additional attractions for tourists.

Margaret Dashwood, their thirteen year-old sister, would provide an additional occupation for the elder ones. Unable to pay for her to attend a good school – let’s admit it, public school fees in the UK would blow a hole in anyone’s pocket and aristos are unlikely to go stateside – they take her education on their own shoulders.

3.    Take away their money.

Henry Dashwood – the father – is a wealthy gentleman who dies at the beginning of the story. Let him die from a stress-related cause. He goes bankrupt in the midst of the financial collapse, and his only remaining source of income, the stately home, is entailed to his son from a first marriage, preventing him from leaving anything to his second wife and their children. I am not sure whether the entail law still stands in Britain today, but if it doesn’t the issue is easily resolved by making Norland the property of Henry’s first wife.

4.    When the going gets tough – make it tougher.

Her husband’s death sinks Mrs. Dashwood into a deep set depression that cripples her and makes it impossible for her to function as a human being. Elinor and Marianne now have this additional burden to deal with on top of losing their father and being on the point of losing their childhood home.

5.    Rob them of their dreams

To make things worse, Elinor gave up a reasonably well paid job in the city in order to help her family run the estate. Marianne postponed her application to a major music conservatorium to help her sister manage Norland. Both must have given up something key, their dearest dream, in order to be at home. That way, when they lose the house they have given up everything to save; we can really feel for them.

6.    Make sure the villains are at least somewhat villainous. 

When John Dashwood inherits, he must intend to do far more damage than Trollope’s re-decorating hogwash. Who would give a damn about that nowadays? No. What he wants to do, guided by his vulgar wife, is to rape and pillage his ancestral home.

He will empty Norland of all its historic artefacts, starting with the antique furniture, original paintings and prints, maps and leather-bound tomes, moving on to the expulsion of original fireplaces, hardwood floors and state of the art staircases – all important to the history of the house and, by extension, to the history of the region and Britain itself. He will go one step further and demolish the west wing of the house to be replaced by a steel and glass extension for a swimming pool and gym.

Norland will seize to be; its grandeur exchanged for an over the top ultramodern showroom monstrosity: a symbol of the tastelessness of new money and power. And, of course, he would be closing the house to the public. As someone who rather likes snooping around stately homes – as I’m sure many of you do too – such a change would make me gasp in horror alongside the Dashwood sisters: another reason to empathise with their plight. Now it’s personal.

7.    Add a few more obstacles to the mix.

Removed from the family home, with a depressed mother and a school-age sister in toe, Marianne and Elinor really have their work cut up for them. High unemployment and scarcity of opportunity in a country gripped by recession make it impossible for Elinor to find a job, but she must try and keep trying. Marianne is so distraught by their losses that she fails to get the coveted scholarship to attend the conservatorium. She tries to get private gigs, but faces rejection time and time again since venues want celebrities that put bums in seats and simply can’t afford to pay an amateur.

8.    Sprinkle in some sex.

This is better by far. The Dashwood sisters are really doing everything in their power to get back on their feet, but circumstances are against them. They’ve given up their dreams, lost their father, were thrown out of their house, can’t get a job hard as they may try, their mother requires full time care and their sister needs both to home-school her.

Meanwhile, Elinor’s one potential chance of getting the family out of a tough spot through an age-old method – by marrying well – is dashed when Edward Ferrars does a runner mid-steamy scene.

Alright. I know I’ve had a go at the whole sexing up of novels thing at the start of this piece, but this is the twenty-first century version. Keep in mind that in Austen’s novel everyone is persuaded, including Elinor, that Edward was about to propose. How likely would it be that as a modern girl she would think that without some actual proof of interest? No one pops the question nowadays without getting to first base at least. Moving on…

When their mother’s cousin, Sir John Middleton, offers the Dashwoods a rent-free place to stay, they take it gladly, because no other options are available to them. The place is remote, job opportunities will be nil, so this is not a decision they take lightly. Elinor hopes the cottage and the presence of family will help their mother come out of her crippling depression. Marianne believes it would be a good distraction for Elinor’s low spirits post-Edward Ferrars disaster.

Now we have true difficulties and characters we can empathise with because they don’t sit around complaining that they are not “fit to work,” expecting their elder brother to sponsor the lifestyle they got accustomed to, a la Trollope.

Elinor and Marianne wouldn’t have sat around doing nothing had they lived today. They would’ve been two gutsy young ladies with a plan!

15 thoughts on “Sense and Sensibility: UnTrolloped

    • 🙂 Now I’ll have to read Trollope’s version when it comes out to see whether my criticism is warranted. Although I do trust Mrs Holder’s Legacy on this, it will be nice to form a first hand opinion.

    • I love Austen’s novels (Persuasion is my favourite – can’t say no to a story about second chances), and personally I don’t see the need for a modern rewrite. However, if writers are going to do it, I hope at least that they will do so sensibly. From the review… it seemed like JT hasn’t done a very good job of adapting the characters to the modern age.

  1. Funny, I am reading a “modern – day Lady Chatterley’s Lover” by Nikki Gemmell. A raunchy version it seems, only chapters in and I am embarrassed to report I have not read the “classic”! I do enjoy her writing though and feel it is a very separate and genuine Gemmell- style novel. Seems there is room for re- interpretations??.. Great post.

    • Thank you Lucy, I think there are three different strands currently coexisting when it comes to reinterpretation – I may be wrong, of course, there could be many more. The first – Trollope style – where modern authors use existing characters and plot lines changing the time when the story takes place. Second – Where the story remains unchanged, but has sex scenes and other steamy fragments inserted in. Third – is the category of prequels and sequels to classics. Very curious to know which of these categories fits the book you are currently reading. I’ve focused on the first category mainly because of the review I mentioned in the introduction. May address the others in another post, but only if I find another blogger who has already written about it – fancy a try? 🙂

      • You are such a thorough thinker/ writer Vic, I’m not sure I would do the subject the service you seem to though I could try! I am certainly interested to read the Virginia Woolf classic. I actually feel like I want to play catch- up’s with a whole lot of literature that has passed me by and it might be a good opportunity to compare these two novel. “I Take You” is certainly seeming to fall into the “erotic” version of a modern- day interpretation of a classic though it is not completely smutty. Gemmell has charming language, she’s one of my favourite Australian authors. I’ll track down the classic, thanks to your nudge in the right direction! Keep you posted… x

  2. Pingback: Generosity and John Dashwood | Austen's Guide to Happiness

  3. I love the modern version you give of the novel. I am a big Jane Austen fan and, even if I find her work unequalled, I don’t despise a good retelling or a good sequel. I think it’s a good way to spend some more time with beloved characters, provided that the fiction is respectful of the original features of the characters.

    For instance I read a sequel of Pride and Prejudice (that is my favourite JA novel) in which the author turns all the characters up-side-down and the result was awful for me. I am too much in love with Darcy and Elizabeth to accept a sequel in which he doesn’t love her anymore and she admits having married Darcy for money and status.

    I read a lot of retellings, but I never ventured set in modern times. Regency Society was almost a character itself and uproot it seems risky even for the most talented writer..

    • Thank you, Irene, tat means a lot coming from a Jane Austen fan. I am very fond of her work and have read and reread her novels many a time. My favourite is Persuasion, probably because it is about second chances and lost love, although Pride and Prejudice comes close.
      Completely agree with you about Regency Society being a character itself, and I am yet to find another author who has managed to capture it quite as well as Austen.
      While I’ve written my piece based one someone else’s review, I will read Joanna Trollope’s book when it comes out. I’m curious to know to what extent my fellow blogger’s critique will be justified by its contents. I have a hunch that I won’t be changing my mind about it, but will try to leave all preconceptions off the table when I read it. 🙂
      Thank you for your comment – one last thought: can’t believe anyone would pull Darcy and Lizzy apart. That’s one story I’d rather leave unread.

  4. Love the post above! I read the book in question a month ago and agree completely with the comments. My review of Trollope’s book as Adm. Croft(my favorite minor character): It wouldn’t set the Thames on fire but there’s no harm in it. I’m a huge Austen fan(I have read 5 out of the 6 major novels this yr, ironically S&S is still to be read, my book club Austen in Boston is reading it for January) but not a purest. I have read many sequels, continuations that I love love love(“The Family Fortune” by Laurie Horowitz(Persuasion set in Boston!), “The Man Who Loved Pride and Prejudice” by Abigail Reynolds, “Jane Fairfax” by Joan Aiken etc etc). Trollope continues to attack “Janeites” for the lack of success of her version(I understand she basically called American “Janeites” fat and rich) . Yesterday it was “TV Janeites” don’t get her book because they don’t actually read Austen. Really! Finally(sorry, just abit worked up here!), I’d like to compare Trollope’s book with another S&S type book, “The Cookbook Collector” by Allegra Goodman. While I didn’t love some of things that happen in the book, Goodman’s Marianne Dashwood character, Jess Bach, (I’m a member of Team Marianne) is one of the most delightful characters I’ve encountered. I’ll probably reread Goodman’s book for the parts of the book Jess is in. Cheers!

    • Thank you. Very glad you enjoyed it. I am very fond of Jane Austen’s work. I have only read a couple of sequels. I understand how falling in love with characters can make one want to spend more time with them – and what better way than to write about them? 🙂

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