Sense and Sensibility by Joanna Trollope

This series asks modern writers of note to “adapt” Jane Austen novels for the modern world. I imagined Trollope’s greatest difficulty would be developing credible reasons why the Dashwood women couldn’t just work to support themselves; they should no longer be helpless. Belle Dashwood, mother to Elinor, Margaret, and Marianne, with her “mother’s propensity for drama and impulsiveness,” is upset to have to vacate “paradise” because of Fanny Dashwood, her deceased husband’s daughter-in-law. Margaret comments that their father couldn’t “leave [Belle] anything much because he hadn’t married” her. Elinor has the disadvantage of being able to see her father’s choices not as romantic but as careless—no marriage, no “responsible will” to secure his partner, and relying on “the charity and whim of an old man” whose desires end up going in another direction. She has been studying architecture. Belle was a teacher before she married. Margaret is 13 and in private school. Marianne spends her time with art and music and books.

We sense immediately how modern Trollope has made the story with Marianne beginning to curse (“shut the f–“) the first time we hear her speak. There are also some odd anachronisms; Margaret and “her school friends,” for instance, hold “up their splayed fingers in a ‘w,’ to demonstrate the ‘whatever’ shape,” but she also has an ipod. Is this 90s Clueless with 2010s devices? Everyone in this story has a nickname, and though the characters don’t seem offended by them as they might have been during Austen’s time, they became occasionally annoying to the reader. Sir John is Jonns, Willoughby is Wills, Margaret is “Mags,” Marianne is M, and Elinor is Ellie, for instance.

Sir John Middleton, a “double dinosaur” because he’s both a baronet and inheritor of the Barton estate, has spent some time in the army before becoming “managing director” of a company that makes “specialist pumps for desalination plants.” He also hosts great parties. When he meets Mary Jennings, an heiress of a clothing company and “also a considerable capital sum,” Sir John becomes “an admirable entrepreneur,” assisted by his mother-in-law, Abigail (Abi)Jennings, who brings the story of the Dashwood girls to his attention. In this version, Sir John goes to Norland to explain his plan for them and presents “a slide show of [their] new home” on his laptop (after Margaret offers to help him). Mrs. Dashwood is thrilled by the prospect, but each of the girls has her concerns (Ellie: finishing school, M: her music and the newness of the cottage; Mags: leaving all her friends).

Belle gets a lot more credit for intelligence (and wit) here than in the original, putting Fanny and John in place with a smile. When Fanny praises John for giving them “somewhere to live all summer, rent free,” for instance, Belle “brightly” responds with an affirmation “you let us stay on in our own home for a while and now we’ve found another one to go to! Perfect.” She does, however, foolishly throw Edward’s promise to visit them in Devon in Fanny’s face, which may bring a temporary “triumph” but which will cause problems. Belle is also a force of positive energy, exclaiming about the “new life” they are about to begin in Devon, as they drive away from Norland. Belle is also much more concerned about the speed and passion of the Willoughby-Marianne courtship than Mrs. Dashwood the original seems to be, confiding in her husband’s spirit that she’s “anxious” about Marianne’s situation (rightly so since the private visit to Allenham yields more than just some time unchaperoned in this version).

This Elinor is usually the sensible woman we would expect. From Elinor’s perspective, Marianne has inherited not only “their father’s asthma, but also his propensity for depression,” which may explain—or even negate—the difference of “sensibility” between the two sisters. Ellie, though, has more of it here than the original does—openly sad about the comments of her school coordinator when she tells him she can’t finish her studies and even admitting to M she knows Edward likes her. Here, she chooses not to follow him on Facebook and instead to focus on practical matters, like “packing up books.” As in the original, Elinor suffers quietly, but she does occasionally speak up, such as asking “What about me?” when it seems the needs of everyone but Ellie are being accommodated at Barton. She imagines how “extraordinary” it must be “to be able to surrender oneself so completely” to music, or books, or love the way Marianne does. She, by contrast, knows it is “unwise . . . to think too much about hearts.” She thinks herself “a little cold” for lacking faith in Wills and in this relationship, though we know she is right to do so. A few uncharacteristic moves occur, first, when Elinor, overwhelmed by the treehouse Thomas is building for Margaret and the prospect of paying for it, “seize[s] a saucepan lid” and flings “it wildly in frustration across the kitchen,” and then, when M finally learns about Edward, Elinor “writh[es] a little, on the floor.” First of all, Elinor wouldn’t “writhe,” and secondly, how does someone writhe “a little”? But, true to her original, Elinor is quick-thinking. Rather than a long period of despair in the face of Lucy’s revelation, Elinor quickly realizes that “everywhere [Edward] turn[s], there [is] a woman demanding something of him which he could not possibly deliver,” and that she is the one “he has actually chosen of his own free will,” even if he can’t actually offer her anything. Elinor does a lot more self-reproaching here than she seems to need and certainly more than the original needs, such as scolding herself for “lecturing Marianne about facing herself rather than seeking a rescuing soulmate” when she herself has been “stupid, stupid Miss Sensible.”

There are some particularly immature moments of our characters, interspersed with seemingly random narrative digs at various groups of people who didn’t really need to be taken down here. Little brat Harry is “clutching a giant American-style cookie” when the girls leave their home. Not sure why we have to bring Americans into this. Margaret isn’t much better then Harry, immediately deeming Mrs. Jennings “fat . . . as well as . . . a sick bitch.” At least Mrs. Jennings has the spirit to call Mags on her assumptions, claiming she is “far too fat for any self-respecting broomstick.” Margaret is annoying when she “eagerly . . . spear[s] [M’s] potatoes” when M is upset after Wills leaves. There’s an unnecessary slam of “right-wing politics” linked with the men (why just the men?) at the dinner in which the girls meet Mrs. Ferrars, too.

Marianne is frustrating as well. Though at times she does seem to understand Elinor better here than their mother does, explaining that Ellie “won’t let herself despair about things she can’t have,” she foolishly downgrades Ellie’s feelings by saying Ellie does “sort of miss Ed, in her way.” Marianne is drawn to Allenham in large part because it has “never substantially changed” since 1640. I’m not sure how rain affects the asthmatic worse than other people, but even Margaret knows to give Marianne her own fleece when they get caught in the rain; why does M come so ill-prepared that her 13-year-old sister has to help her? I found Willoughby unbelievable, even for him. He says “Ye gods” when Mags tells him about her sister’s asthma attack and later offers M a car (rather than a horse), which Ellie says M cannot accept (and even Belle agrees with Elinor here). They can’t afford the insurance, the taxes, or the fuel. M, too, is different and more sensible (sometimes) here, as when she agrees she cannot accept the car after Ellie explains why, but M is annoying inconsistent—which may be in keeping with Austen’s version. She defends Ellie as “private” but then tells Mags M herself doesn’t “need to be” since M is “proud of how” she feels. Why, then, won’t she show anyone else her ring? M is most annoying, however, when she tells herself she “must be forgiving and understanding about Elinor’s limitations” since Elinor doesn’t “have a passionate bone in her body.”

Margaret takes cues from both sisters, being annoying again when she “require[s] Elinor”—who is going out of her way to pick her up from school—“to park round the corner so that none of [Margaret’s] school friends would see” the car. But she at least apologizes. Marianne, by contrast, yells at Ellie that she is “so completely buttoned up” that she “can’t even begin to understand someone like” M. Elinor then texts an apology! Margaret is also trying to learn how things work, asking Elinor if woman “have to have boyfriends” and if Marianne is “overdoing it a bit” with the Wills drama. Margaret matures as Marianne does, staying “calm and together” when Elinor calls with the terrifying news about M’s condition. Margaret also generously offers her precious tree-house when Elinor and Edward need some time. We know M is recovering when she starts calling Wills by his full name again, telling her mom she is “pretty well over John Willoughby.”

Other characters worthy of note: The Steele sisters are annoying as ever. This Nancy Steele uses ridiculous forms of words like “amazeballs” (for “amazing”) and “totes inappropes.” William Brandon, who served with Sir John in Bosnia, now “devotes himself to good works,” much as Edward wants to do but hasn’t yet found a way to do. There’s a new character—Peter Austen, who has personally benefitted from Bill Brandon’s help and now is in a position as an architect to get Elinor some work assisting his “chief designer.” Charlotte and Tommy Palmer are fun. She’s hugely pregnant, pretty, and eager to talk. He uses his BlackBerry constantly, claims he married Charlotte “for [her] body,” but then kindly asks Elinor if she’s okay. Thomas, Jonno’s man-servant, seems to show a lot of attention to Belle Dashwood’s comfort, such as leaving kindling “arranged as carefully as breadsticks in a wicker basket.” This is a modern story, so I thought it possible Mrs. Dashwood wouldn’t be left behind on the romance journey, but Trollope took that story in a different direction. This Robert Ferrars (Robbie) attends a classical music event because he was “asked here by a duchess” who wants him “to organise her daughter’s wedding,” which I think was supposed to be the cue to the audience that this Robert Ferrars wouldn’t be enjoying Lucy in any way except outfitting her.

And as for Edward (here, Ed), his big revelation is far too explicit here and undercuts the impact of Austen’s understated one. (The Marianne-Bill romance is more smoothly handled, with M helping Bill relax by mimicking “Lucy Steele and old Mrs. Ferrars, and Fanny Dashwood having the vapours,” which leaves everyone “sobbing with laughter.”) Edward is so happy once Elinor accepts his offer that, when John calls for him, he asks how it feels to be “pussy-whipped by two women,” which hardly seems necessary or in keeping with Edward’s character, even an angry Edward.

The novel ends as it should, with Elinor and Edward experiencing true joy, Marianne growing closer to Bill, Mrs. Dashwood looking for a teaching position, and Wills “more rueful than angry” that his own behavior cost him Jane Smith’s fortune AND the woman he loves.

Published in: on October 12, 2014 at 7:29 am  Comments (1)  
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