Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Books - Sense and Sensibility, by Joanna Trollope

First off: apologies for the rant. This is my longest book review yet. I think I got slightly carried away.

I said in my first blog post that I love nineteenth century literature, and named Austen as one of my favourite authors. So as you can imagine The Austen Project is of great interest to me. Started last year, it is a series of reimagined and modernised versions of Austen’s six novels, bringing her plots into the twenty-first century.

The first in this series, Joanna Trollope’s new Sense and Sensibility, brings the Dashwoods into the modern day, into a world where horses are now cars and the landed gentry are (sometimes) replaced by high-flying London property developers, where everything is somehow rather different from the early-nineteenth century, and somehow a little bit the same.

I’m a big fan of adaptations, and was curious to see what the Austen project would be like. I have a soft spot for the film Clueless, based on Austen’s Emma, and have loved the youtube series The Lizzie Bennet Diaries and Emma Approved. As a great admirer of Austen’s novels, it’s nice to see alternative interpretations of them. But I’ve never come across a literary reinterpretation of her work before, so Joanna Trollope’s Sense and Sensibility was, to me, something very new, and very, very interesting.
Before I begin, let me make one thing clear: subjectively, I loved this book. I adore Austen, and it was hilarious, enjoyable and thoroughly lovely to have Sense and Sensibility reimagined in a modern setting. I read the book solidly in one afternoon, and barely moved from my sofa. I sat there grinning throughout. It was a brilliant read, and it was great fun. Subjectively.

Objectively, however, I’m just not entirely convinced that it worked.

The odd thing about this adaptation of Sense and Sensibility is that all the minor details are perfect. I myself am absolutely thrilled by the idea of a Marianne who plays Taylor Swift covers on her guitar rather than classical piano sonatas, who finds her embarrassing moments up on youtube, and who panics over whether Willoughby has updated his facebook relationship status or not. A version of Sense and Sensibility where Willoughby goes by ‘Wills’ and is thought by Margaret to be ‘close to a full ten’ on ‘the scale of hotness’ is, to me, a brilliant one. Making Tommy Palmer a businessman constantly welded not to his newspapers but to his blackberry is stroke of comic genius. The decision to make Marianne asthmatic is likewise a clever one, for it gives a proper explanation to the vague illnesses Marianne has in the original.

I also loved what Trollope does with Isabella Dashwood. She seems to me to have more personality than in the original novel (far be it from me to criticise Austen, but her mothers are rarely her most sophisticated characters). At the end of chapter six, we through her eyes, and suddenly get this momentarily amazing insight into her character and her relationship with Henry Dashwood. Trollope seems to imply that maybe Henry and Belle themselves might have represented the sensible and the emotional respectively just as much as Elinor and Marianne do – which is a lovely detail.

Nancy Steele is perfect. Although a minor character, she is the one I’m most convinced by in this modern adaptation. To my mind, Trollope gets her exactly right. She is brilliant, and hilarious. This Nancy Steele is obsessed not by ‘beaux’ but ‘boyfs’. She is constantly on twitter, wears long fake nails, uses phrases like ‘totes adorable’, ‘hilar’ and ‘amazeballs’, and refers to herself as ‘moi’. I laughed aloud. A lot.

However, despite these brilliant details, the overall plot itself isn’t quite as strong.

First up, why does Elinor give up her architecture degree? It makes no sense. For one thing, an awful lot of university students in Britain today don’t live at home while doing their degrees anyway, so it would be unnecessary for Elinor to give up uni just because her family were moving to Devon. Secondly, if it were a monetary issue then a) that’s what student loans are for and b) Trollope clearly states that the family as a whole have £200,000, out of which there would surely be enough to pay Elinor’s tuition fees, and to let her live away from the rest of the family for a year. If she were to take a year out to cope with her father’s death and help her family, that would be one thing – but to have her give up her degree entirely just doesn’t make any sense. I like that this modern Elinor was doing a degree, and I like that Trollope changed Elinor’s sketching to architectural drawings. I also understand that, for the novel to work, Trollope had to both show Elinor’s self-sacrificing nature and get her down to Devon with the rest of the family. But that doesn’t alter the issue at hand.

There were another few things that didn’t transfer well. For one: engagements/marriage. Obviously I understand that marriage is one of Austen’s main themes, but the fact remains that, nowadays, people tend to get married less young, and less quickly, than the upper and upper-middle classes of Austen’s day did. It’s also far more common these days for people to have several romantic relationships during their lives, and ending relationships is more common. Ignoring this makes certain elements of the plot a little less convincing, especially thought concerning Lucy Steele.

I’m also a bit disappointed with Edward Ferrars. In the original novel, Edward is self-sacrificing, respectable, kind, and always tries to do the right thing. In this version, within a modern setting, he doesn’t have quite the same characteristics. I appreciate that Trollope tried to justify this by describing him as ‘old-fashioned’, but he still seems a little... (for want of a better word) pathetic. This saddened me, because I’ve always liked Edward Ferrars.

I find it problematic that Trollope has to justify certain characters or parts of the novel as ‘old-fashioned’. For example, Sir John is a ‘double dinosaur’ (what a lovely phrase, I must say), because he is a baronet and he inherited his property, and these things are out of date. So, if Trollope thinks they’re out of date, why do they remain in the novel? Surely it’s not crucial for the plot that Sir John is a ‘Sir’, nor that his wife is an ‘heiress’.

This is another thing I struggled with. Everyone in the novel is (or recently has been) incredibly rich. I understand, of course, that the original Sense and Sensibility is about elites, about the aristocratic and the upper-class, at least the upper-middle class. I understand entirely that money and class are both central themes and central plot-points in Austen’s novel, and are therefore are in Trollope’s. Yet, if part of the aim of The Austen Project is to make to make Austen more accessible, then it here failed, because the modern elite is almost as alien to most of the general public as the eighteenth century elite.

Besides, maybe I’m naive, but I imagine less people today are concerned about marrying for money (or about their wealthy children marrying other people who are equally wealthy) than they were in the nineteenth century, especially now that middle-class women have more career paths open to them than governess or housewife. Of course, I’m not entirely certain how Trollope could have got around this problem, as the crux of the plot revolves around marriage and money, but these issues just didn’t translate all that well.

The one larger alteration Trollope does make to the original plot is the update of the Eliza scandal, to make it have the full impact to modern readers that the original would have had in 1811. This works brilliantly. I also like that Brandon’s Delaford is not a large estate but a rehab centre helping addicts. This was a fitting and clever update.

Yet to me, Trollope should simply have changed more. I imagine it’s very difficult, especially as a great admirer of Austen’s works, to alter her plots, to know what to change and what to keep in an adaptation such as this. The fact remains, however, that far more needed to be altered to really bring Sense and Sensibility convincingly into a twenty-first century setting.

But then again, perhaps it doesn’t have to work completely. The thing is, it all depends on what the aim of The Austen Project is. If it’s just a bit of fun, or a way to get more people to go back and read Austen’s original works, then it’s met its aims. I loved reading it, and the first thing I wanted to do when I finished was reread the original. I’m not entirely convinced it made Austen all that more accessible, but if it makes even a few people turn to Austen, I’m satisfied.

In short, as a fun tribute to Austen I loved it. As a novel in its own right, I remain unconvinced.

Greatest strength: Without a doubt Nancy Steele, who was hilarious. And the general joy that any Austen plot line always brings.

Greatest weakness: The plot elements that sat uneasily in their new modern setting.

Let’s finish on a quote:Honestly, Abi, it’s all you ever think about. You’re like those nineteenth-century novels where marriage is the only career option for a middle-class girl.’ 

‘Just like you then, dear. You and me both. People pretend things have changed, but have they, really?’

Again, maybe I’m naive, but I rather think they have.

Next week: The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

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