A New Sense and Sensibility

Joanna Trollope, Sense & Sensibility

HarperCollins, 368pp, £18.99, ISBN 9780007461769

reviewed by Jessie Burton

Jane Austen, perfect social observer, must have perceived only too well the wounds that her challenging life had dealt her. But her confidante and sister Cassandra, possibly under orders from beyond the grave, burned nearly all her intimate letters. Two centuries since the regrettable day Cass decided to make a pyre, the novels Jane Austen left behind continue to make up the material of her soul.

Yet those six spined works never seem to be enough. We are insatiable when it comes to Jane. We try to finish the unfinishable (Austen’s fragments include The Watsons and Sanditon, both of which have been subject to a stranger’s completion), we write sequels and we re-present what’s already there. The premature silence she left at the age of 41 has been filled in over the decades and centuries with noisy adulation, imitation and, quite often, scorn.

HarperCollins’ The Austen Project, which pairs six bestselling contemporary authors with Jane Austen’s six complete works, seeks to ‘refract’ Austen’s social commentary, her acidity and warmth, to remould her universal concerns into contemporary settings for new readers whilst still reflecting on the work Austen did herself. With this brief, Joanna Trollope has succeeded immensely.

There is nothing scornful about Trollope’s reworking of Sense and Sensibility, nor anything fan-girly. She has done a marvellous job; she is an intelligent writer full of respect and knowledge for the structure of Austen’s novel, its point and its early-doors charm. Describing her novel as ‘not an emulation, but a tribute’, Trollope is no fool. She points out the unavoidable truth that many young women (for women it will mainly be) have seen the TV adaptations but never actually read Austen’s prose. So let this be a springboard, she says. Love, money and class - what’s changed? Read mine, then take yourself to Austen and learn what her cool, ironic language can do with the same subject.

Trollope has described her process as ‘cannibalising’ - consuming the book, identifying its important plot shifts, what happens where and what happens after. She has kept the skeleton and had fun with the flesh. Old hands might raise an eyebrow and wonder what the point is, but Trollope’s reworking of Sense & Sensibility has refreshing results. The original material can take it, and a shrewd eye like Trollope’s has seen the weak spots in a younger Austen’s manuscript, explored them and created a novel that can stand on its own.

Texts and Facebook, tweets and iPhones serve to exacerbate the same pains the sisters suffered back in 181, but embarrassments on YouTube and pre-marital sex take those agonies further. Sir John (‘Jonno’) is a sort of Johnnie Boden, all business and money and Range Rovers and ruddy-cheeked children. Marianne is asthmatic, constantly misplacing her inhaler, hints of which lead more believably to the girl’s collapse around the last third of the book, Trollope arguably lays better crumbs than Austen throughout. Miss Grey becomes a shipping magnate’s daughter from Greece, and Willoughby (‘Wills’) is high-end property broker.

There are many other great touches. Trollope has truly modernised the Lucy Steele/Robert Ferrars get-together, going much further with it than Austen would have ever gone herself, though she was not one to shy away from marriages of convenience. Lucy and Roberts’s union is a nudge to remind us quite how excluding society used to be, and in many ways, still is. I loved the idea that Edward is being pushed into a marriage with an heiress to a scaffolding empire, and Fanny’s revealing regret that Brandon uses his gorgeous house to rehabilitate drug-addicts rather than keeping it closed to those on top of the feudal pile. Elinor is an architecture student, building towards the future, whilst Marianne is a gifted guitarist who moons over Rachmaninov.

Trollope has also dealt deftly with Marianne and Colonel Brandon’s courting, and, more importantly, the prospect of their marriage. In Austen, these nuptials always left a sour taste in my mouth, foolish ebullience quashed and the woman silenced - they always seemed cauterising. Not so here - Trollope teases out that stubborn plot-knot, forcing both characters to work harder whilst always remaining faithful to Austen - which must surely be the point.

Some of the characterisation in the original Sense and Sensibility has always been problematic. Austen came from a Restoration tradition of fops and sly maids, silly aunts and overweight gluttons, and some of her portraits in her early work slide into one-dimensional caricatures, there only to be ridiculed. This still jars. Nancy Steele is all ‘totes’ and ‘hilar’, and at one point says, ‘well jeal’, which I’m sure is not quite accurate, and slightly compounds her already disproportionate personality.

In a neater modernisation, the Dashwoods are dismayed to find themselves assigned a Barratt-esque home - ‘an uncompromising banality of design.’ The best way to translate a Georgian fear of unhappy dwelling to a reader in 2013 is to take that self-same gorgeous Georgian cottage away. Fear of poor proportion (in the original, Mrs Dashwood is upset at the cottage’s size) becomes fear of poor taste and a lack of heritage: a foolish love of pretty old things that leak and have no central heating. I felt chastised, inured as I had been to the dream of Austenland. The family’s reaction was not something I had previously considered - and in fact, what I developed through reading Trollope’s re-imagining was a more acute awareness of the sort of people Austen was writing about.

There are no impoverished people here, not even modestly-wealthy ones either. Yes, we might brush the underside of society in the shape of Eliza and her ill-advised affair with ‘Wills’, but nearly all the characters in this novel are phenomenally rich or aristo-bohemian. Everyone lives in Mayfair or the country, they appear in society papers in double-page spreads and the gender roles are still very traditional. ‘The men won’t be here till nine and Mummy’s glued to the telly news,’ says Charlotte Palmer. The world Trollope has created actually seems less reachable to me than Austen’s setting of 1811, which is rather interesting and a bit weird, and shows both how much I’ve taken Austenland for granted - a place I thought I knew, but really didn’t - and how I underestimated the wealth of the people she portrayed.

Since Austen’s death, obsession with bonnets and heritage paints has obscured the true, cold wryness of her words. Faced with the decorative power of a National Trust house, adaptations have often ignored the bald eye she had for what schemes lay within the beating hearts of nineteen year-old girls. Poverty is not genteel, and marriage is often a compromise. Somewhere, someone is going to have to pay, but this truth only seems to exist in the minds of sensible people like Elinor Dashwood or avaricious ones like Fanny and Lucy. Trollope has not forgotten this, and the problems with acquiring money and the keeping hold of husbands striate her pages constantly.

But are these money and love problems truly translatable? Here’s a question Austen’s generation was posed: What is a girl to do to get on in life? The answer: find a rich husband - a fat one, a louche one, a great one - any one - just as long as you can eat and stay warm. That is Austen’s baseline, never mind the critical and comedic scenarios she creates around it (remember, we barely see a decent marriage in the whole six novels). In 1811, finding a husband wasn’t just female flim-flammery, it was an act of not drowning. How can Trollope make that work for us now? Such a credo doesn’t speak to most young women. I suppose it is by the separation of love from marriage, beginning already to be a tangly subject even in 1811, particularly for women like Marianne Dashwood and Elizabeth Bennett.

I wonder, if as a tonic to this marriage and love chat, Trollope has emphasised the inevitable spectre of gainful employment - even, in the end, for Mrs Dashwood. Aside from Edward not going out with Lucy, a job is all Elinor really wants because she can see the writing on the wall. A job can mean independence, a sense of purpose and freedom to love who you want.

Trollope has alighted on the Brandon/Elinor dynamic and nicely warmed it up. In their scenes we have a friendship of equals, true conversations, an acknowledgement of one another’s worth without the muddied waters of romantic love. As their mother says to Mrs Jennings, in a nice meta-snook, ‘My girls never set their caps at anyone…you’re like those nineteenth-century novels where marriage is the only career option for a middle-class girl.’

As to not setting caps, that is not true of Marianne, of course - and let’s face it, we’ve all known a Marianne. Heck, we’ve even been one ourself, and managed to have jobs and cook baked beans. Yet in response to those modern thinkers who believe that marriage is secondary to developing a career, Mrs Jennings has little patience: ‘People pretend things have changed, but have they, really?’

I don’t know for sure. I hope they have. P60s and office water-coolers might have nothing to do with the heart, but having money of your own might make you grieve a break-up one month less. These are the sort of questions an enterprise like The Austen Project poses; love vs marriage, money and independence, family, the notion of security.

Trollope’s version of Sense & Sensibility is admirably executed and a real pleasure to read. It sometimes lacks the flash of Austen’s acerbic voice, but as Trollope points out, she was not there to copy - and in fact the original novel is not Austen’s most controlled work, spiralling off as it does towards the end. Trollope’s novel is best-viewed as an accompaniment to the original, a counterpoint to throw an old story into new light, one that examines, two hundred years on, how much better or worse we have become at balancing our heads with our unwieldy hearts.
Jessie Burton studied at Oxford University and the Central School of Speech and Drama. Her first novel, The Miniaturist, is to be published in July 2014 by Picador.