Sunday, 27 March 2016

Book review: Sense and Sensibility (The Austen project)

The Austen project is a series of six contemporary novels, modern interpretations of Jane Austen’s major works and written by well-known authors. The project was started to celebrate the 200-year anniversary of Austen’s works and the first book written for the project was Sense and Sensibility by Joanne Trollope.  The story is well-known I think, the Dashwood family, consisting of Mrs. Dashwood and her three daughters, sensible architecture student Elinor, romantic guitar adept Marianne and teenager Margaret have to move to a small cottage in the middle of nowhere after their husband and father dies. Elinor and Marianne both fall in love, but are their men really what they seem to be?

Modernizing a classic story such as the beloved novels by Jane Austen is a tricky undertaking. Still, I’ve read some quite enjoyable ones, both in print (Persuading Annie by Melissa Nathan for example) and fanfiction. I wasn’t at all happy with this book by Joanne Trollope. Trollope’s take on S&S was so extremely true to the original that the story totally felt out of place in the 21st century. Hardly anything was changed Austen’s story, including the fact that the everyone wanted to help the Dashwood girls to ‘marry well’, having no money was an enormous obstacle to relationships and hardly any of the women in the story seemed to have, need or want a job. Truly, like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies apparently (I haven’t read it myself) consists of the story of P&P with zombies thrown in, this book could have been called Sense and Sensibility and Cars and Cell phones, because that’s how it felt! The funny thing is Trollope seems to know this and sometimes makes her characters point out the absurdity of the situation they are in! I think a very important ingredient of an Austen retelling is the balance between being true tot the original story and introducing interesting and clever additions and subtle changes. In this retelling, the balance was totally of!

Maybe because of this, a lot of characters felt like caricatures and not real people at all, including Sir John Middleton and Charlotte Palmer. Also Marianne was really quite annoying in this retelling and I found it hard to sympathize with her. Probably also because the story is mainly told from Elinor’s perspective and the reader doesn’t get to know Marianne as well as I would’ve liked. Margaret was quite funny and felt like the most real modern character of the book, but it was clear that Trollope leaned heavily on Margaret's characterization in the two S&S screen adaptations (1995 and 2008).

As to the relationships, while I love the romance between Edward and Elinor in the original novel, I had a really hard time connecting to their romance here. For one, because Edward felt totally adrift and clueless in this retelling and secondly, because their Edward and Elinor's first connection (at Norland) was hardly explored, so it was really hard to root for them. I was actually 'shipping' Elinor with Brandon in this story! Also because Bill Brandon was one of the best written characters and just all-around-great-guy.

The ending of the book is quite cute and I liked the place Trollope ended with Brandon and Marianne, which felt realistic, but still hopeful. Unfortunately, that last chapter can't make up for what is, all-in-all, a really weak S&S retelling.

I do wonder, is S&S maybe Jane Austen's work most difficult to adapt to a modern setting? Because I have seen parts of multiple webseries of S&S, but they never seemed to work as well as the other Austen webseries did. What do you think?


  1. Firstly, I've been wanting to read Persuading Annie for so long, I'm glad to hear that you enjoyed it!

    Great review! I've been hesitant to check out these contemporary takes on Austen's works just because it can either be great or not so great. You'd think S&S would be an easier novel to adapt to a modern setting because of the contrasts but thinking on it now, the secret engagement bit would be a little difficult to work into a modern equivalent/require a bit of creativity & flexing there...

    1. I think S&S would work better in a setting where constrasts are still of much importance, so maybe it could work as a Bollywood adaptation (though I didn't like the Bollywood S&S that is already out there (Kandukondain Kandukondain) very much, it was just too weird) or a setting with immigrants maybe? Just not with only middle and upper class English characters, like in this work.