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Book review: Sense & Sensibility, By Joanna Trollope
This opening shot in a set of updates hits its target – but is the Austen Project really necessary?
Note the ampersand: it's Sense & Sensibility, not Sense and Sensibility. The Austen Project has commissioned six bestselling authors to update Jane Austen's six completed works. It's a project which elicits disquiet even though no other novelist has been pursued by as many fan-fiction riffs as Our Jane.
Irritation aside, Joanna Trollope is a good choice. A skilled, intelligent and witty novelist whose work is persistently marred by dreadful dust-jackets and sneers about "Aga sagas", she comes from the same kind of upper middle-class world as Austen. In this update, the Dashwood sisters, now an architecture student (sensible Elinor), a musician (Marianne) and a schoolgirl (Margaret), are forced like their Georgian originals to leave Norland Park because their arty mother Belle was not married to their father. It's a nice contemporary twist on the issue of male primogeniture which formed the basis of three of Austen's plots and, like Marianne's asthma, makes perfect sense.
Though brilliantly revived by Emma Thompson's script for the Ang Lee film, Sense and Sensibility is not one of Austen's masterpieces. It has an excellent plot and characters, but its prose is curiously inert because the novelist had not yet learnt to show more than she tells; you have to read it carefully to realise that, by the end, Brandon has fought a duel with Willoughby to avenge Marianne.
Trollope's possesses a talent whose fortes are in exposition thorough dialogue, and empathy: she elicits easy sympathy with both the freely emoting Marianne and the repressed, practical Elinor. However, the waspish philosophical wit Austen brought to her heroines is absent. Instead, we have deft modern touches. Marianne's utter humiliation comes not just through the passionate texts she sends her lover but from having his public rejection of her at a party spread via social media. Her fidelity to the outline of the original never deviates, though having Lucy Steele's sister Nancy talk like the stupidest Sloane Ranger ("Totes amaze…Hilar!") is grating. An amusing detail for the modern reader is that the pretty Dashwood sisters' benefactor in their upwardly mobile climb is called Middleton.
Trollope is wise not to tell us the precise age gap between Marianne and the ex-army officer Brandon. In the original, we surmise she is still a teenager, Brandon pushing 40 (not unusual for Austen's audience but distasteful to us), but a modern Marianne would find a man of 30 so. The genteel class Austen described still flourishes, and we remain as obsessed by the congruence of money and sex as the Georgians, although less comfortable in discussing the first.
All of this is ingenious but serves to remind us how much of Austen's genius lies in her style and elegance of mind. John Mullan has pointed out in the utterly fascinating What Matters in Jane Austen how she invented the style indirect libre long before Flaubert; when one comes across it in Joanna Trollope's heroines, its revolutionary nature is, inevitably, muted, even though the result is still a cut above the usual rom-com.
Next to re-reading Austen herself, I would far prefer to read Mullan, or indeed the great Tony Tanner, than any updates - but then I am not the target audience. If the project encourages the middlebrow reader who fears encountering the canon to tackle the real thing, it is benign; if not, then no harm is done.
Amanda Craig is the author of six novels, including 'A Vicious Circle' and 'Hearts and Minds'
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