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.
I 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!