Sense & Sensibility by Joanna Trollope is the first book of ‘The Austen Project’, Harper Collins’ project to pair ‘authors of global literary significance with Jane Austen’s six complete works to write their own unique take on Jane Austen’s novels’. The fanfare in the media accompanying this series surprised me a little, when you consider how many books there are already in the Austenesque genre, albeit of variable quality, but I’m not going to complain about some bestselling authors having a go! Please note that I am working on the assumption that you’re familiar with the plotline of Sense & Sensibility by Jane Austen; if you’re unfamiliar with it there may be potential spoilers ahead.
I haven’t read anything by Joanna Trollope previously but I know she’s a well respected author so I had high hopes. Here, the Dashwood family had been living for the past decade or so at Norland, the home of Mr Dashwood’s rich uncle. Although the uncle welcomed them with open arms, he was traditional in outlook, and partly due to Mr Dashwood never marrying the girl’s mother, Belle and partly to keep the estate together, the estate has been left to John, who is Henry Dashwood’s son from his marriage. Henry died in hospital following an asthma attack, and while he was ill in hospital he asked John to look after his girls. However, John’s ideas of looking after aren’t what his father had in mind.
In Sense & Sensibility Mr Dashwood leaving his widow and children to the care of his son was understandable, especially if the estate was entailed. He may have had very little to leave them that wasn’t tied to the estate, but in this day and age that is less likely. In fact, Elinor reflects:
‘Was it an adventure not to leave a responsible will that would secure the future of the person you’d had three daughters with – or was it fecklessness?’
I couldn’t help but understand this point of view, although there are plenty of people who just trust to chance for their family’s future. It does seem fairly irresponsible, particularly knowing that your family is essentially living off the hospitality of a relative.
The Dashwood ladies are not left entirely penniless though, although they seem to think that they are. They are left ‘only’ £200,000! This is after being allowed to live in a stately home, gratis for over a decade. This kind of attitude makes it hard to sympathise with their situation. For most people in the UK this would not be an insignificant inheritance but they are unimpressed with it. Even being given a 4 bedroom cottage to live in for low rent doesn’t impress them. Instead they lament that it isn’t more picturesque. These are some deeply ungrateful ladies, Elinor excepted.
Elinor is studying, doing a degree in architecture, but she has to give it up. I’m not sure it was ever made clear why. I would have assumed the most likely scenario would have been that she’d get a loan and some student accommodation for the last year but she doesn’t even seem to think about it, instead resigning herself to the thought that she’ll have to get a job. The fact she didn’t even think about continuing with her degree surprised me, as surely her earning power would be greater with a degree in architecture? As it happens, Elinor lands herself a job earning a respectable £1,500 per month, though Marianne (who earns, and intends to earn, a big fat zero) deems this a pittance.
It doesn’t seem to cross the minds of Belle or Marianne that they could possibly work. Belle hasn’t worked in years, but you’d think having a family would motivate her to think about it, at the very least. It doesn’t, and she selfishly allows Elinor to sacrifice her degree rather than lift a finger herself. Marianne can’t work, because she has asthma and we are told she has a tendency to depression. I am not hugely familiar with the condition of asthma, but as far as I am aware most asthmatics are able to work. As for depression, the particular depressive symptoms that Marianne suffered from were described, but you never saw them. Instead you just saw her being vastly self-centred, for example, doing things she knew were likely to set off an asthma attack because she was so moved by whatever emotion she was experiencing.
Elinor’s family accept her self-sacrifice without question or appreciation. To me, this made them far more unlikeable than their Sense & Sensibility counterparts. Certainly Austen's Elinor took a lead in settling them in their new life when strictly speaking her mother should have been doing it, however, what did she give up to do so? She would have been going to live with them anyway. I couldn’t decide whether Joanna Trollope's Belle and Marianne were selfish, which is what led Elinor to have to sacrifice for them, or whether she enabled their behaviour. If she’d left a vacuum, would Belle have stepped up to the task? I think people are expected to stand on their own feet more these days.
Another thing which didn’t work for me in a modern setting was people’s reactions to Marianne. She is ravishingly beautiful, which makes men fall over themselves to protect her. I find this unlikely, and more than a bit sexist; I don’t think most men are dying to be knights in shining armour for vulnerable ladies! Her beauty also allows her to be childish, self-indulgent, deeply selfish and generally pretty obnoxious. She behaves like a surly teen. Such behaviour is understandable in Margaret, who is so much younger, but in somebody of Marianne’s age it’s just weird. Yes, Marianne in Austen’s original book was quite self-centred, but having grown up in a much more sheltered environment it’s more understandable, and she was a much more likeable character. To be fair, Marianne does show growth of character by the end of the novel, and is much improved for it.
Once the Dashwoods move to Devon we meet some new characters. Sir John in particular is a scream, being as thick skinned as a rhino. He seems to find Marianne’s immature rudeness hilarious. Which is just as well. We also meet John Willoughby. I loved his introduction:
‘Margaret could see that on the scale of hotness, he registered fairly close to a full ten. He was – amazing.’
We also meet Sir John’s wife, and his mother-in-law, Mrs Jennings. This part was another oddity; these days I don’t think somebody would see late teenage/early 20s girls as a likely match for a mid thirties man, at least until they got to know them. Certainly there are relationships which have these age gaps, but people in general would be less likely to matchmake between people with this kind of age gap. There were a few references to Colonel Brandon liking young people which made him seem almost like a bit of a perve, especially as he is quite old in his outlook, and Marianne is extremely childish. Obviously in the early 1800s a bride who was late teens marrying a man in his mid thirties would have been much more common.
The main thing that struck me as anachronistic about this book was the characters attitudes to marriage; I would say that most teenagers living in Britain today (with the exception of people of strong religious belief) wouldn’t expect to marry before the age of 25-30 or may not plan to marry at all. However, Elinor, Marianne and Lucy Steele all seem to think there is nothing unusual about marrying at the age of 20 or so. It was very strange, as was Elinor’s attitude towards Edward’s secret engagement:
‘I don’t know if he wants to be with Lucy or not, but he’s not going to let her down because he’s been let down himself by so many people all his life that he can’t bring himself to do it to someone else, whatever the cost to him is.’
Personally, I think attitudes have changed greatly in this regard. Firstly, it is not dishonourable for a man to break off an engagement. Secondly, very few people would expect an engagement made between teenagers to be morally binding. Thirdly, I would say that it would be the prevalent view that it is less honourable to marry somebody who you don’t love than to break off the engagement and give them a chance to find somebody who really loves them.
In summary, this book didn’t quite work for me. I think for the story to work in a modern setting more changes needed to be made. The attitudes of the characters were strangely outdated, which made some of the behaviour implausible, and in some cases changed your perception of the characters. I haven't read any other modern updates of Sense & Sensibility, but I will definitely try to; I am hopeful there is a way to make the story work both as a retelling and as a modern book in its own right.