Review: Sense and Sensibility, Joanna Trollope

I have mentioned before that I had my reservations about the Jane Austen Project which has commissioned famous authors to retell Austen’s novels for the modern age.  However, a few months ago I acquired a copy of Northanger Abbey by Val McDermid and I thought it was brilliant.  Actually, I wrote a review of it and Val McDermid was kind enough to retweet it which was no bad thing for my blogger stats for that week.  So, I decided to give Trollope’s Sense and Sensibility a chance.  Hmm.  Sadly my impression was not as favourable this time.  I’ve never actually read anything by Joanna Trollope before although I did read Dr Thorne by that relative of hers a few years ago and loved it.  That being said, I did listen to the Radio 4 adaptation of Marrying the Mistress with my mother when I was about ten and I watched the BBC version of Other People’s Children so I am going to claim a certain familiarity with her repertoire which tends towards the frothy.  What we have here is perfectly acceptable – this is no Death Comes to Pemberley style horror show but unlike McDermid, Trollope is never quite able to take her story into the twenty-first century.

The original Sense and Sensibility targeted the rise of romanticism, comparing the sensitive Marianne with her level-headed sister Elinor, Austen was actually making quite a serious point about how excessive sensibility in young women could lead to depression.  When Marianne is recovering from her illness she tells Elinor that if she had died it would have been ‘self-destruction’.  Basically, Aunt Jane is telling us to get a grip.  Trollope transfers these personality traits into the modern day with Elinor having a filing system for everything and Marianne strumming away at her guitar but even so the point does not quite carry across.  Our society is much more aware and attuned to sufferers from depression and ironically enough I felt that this could have been explored with greater sensitivity.  Marianne’s eventual collapse comes from her congenital severe asthma which also claimed her father, giving an aura of tragedy to the Dashwood family that they lacked in Austen’s version where it was entirely normal for tragic consequences to arise from everyday ailments.

Ang Lee adaptation – Elinor & Marianne (Thompson & Winslet)

In this modern retelling, Belle and Henry Dashwood had never quite got round to marrying, giving her no legal claim to Norland and thus setting the stage for John and Fanny Dashwood to take it over.  Still despite Belle’s vagueness it was difficult to imagine that no attempt would be made to get a more generous settlement from John.  The papers are always full of similar legal battles being fought out in the courts – The Daily Fail in particular is always packed with them.  Still, Trollope sticks stubbornly to the original storyline but again it all becomes slightly improbable.  The Dashwood women are forced to up sticks to live on the generously reduced rent offered by a distant relative, forcing Elinor to drop out of her architecture course and forcing them to take Margaret out of school.  Particularly in cases where children are in full-time education it is very difficult to force people to leave their homes and the move down to Devon seems a bit drastic.

There were times when Trollope’s novel felt like a prolonged exercise in suspended disbelief.  Particularly tricky was Edward Ferrars.  In Austen’s novel we can feel sorry for the foolish young boy who trapped himself into an engagement to a nefarious female before he was old enough to know any better and then had too keen a sense of honour to go back on his word.  The contemporary expectation of an engagement was that the woman has the power; if she wants to break it off, a decent man will release her from her obligation but having made the offer, the gentleman is bound.  As long as Lucy Steele wanted to marry Edward, he was trapped and Elinor was heartbroken but understanding.  Taken forward two hundred years and as a reader I had no such sympathy.  It was again reasonable for Edward to have been taken in but as a twenty-first century man it was within his power to free himself – he did not have to willfully choose to marry a woman he did not love.  He becomes therefore a weak-willed wimp and I felt that Elinor could have done a lot better.  Still there was fun to be had in how he became the ‘F-word boy’ to the Jennings family.

BBC adaptation – Willoughby & Marianne

‘Wills’ as Trollope’s Willoughby was known was another interesting re-invention.  Many of the endearments
his Regency equivalent lavished on Marianne simply do not translate so Trollope allows Marianne and Wills to progress to the bedroom.  Rather than simply showing Marianne around his aunt’s house without her consent, Wills takes her upstairs without his aunt’s knowledge.  This was a very audacious change – Austen’s Willoughby later confesses to Elinor that he had planned to simply physically seduce Marianne and then abandon her just as he had many other women but that he had then sincerely fallen in love, so did not seduce her.  He planned to propose but was thwarted by being disinherited meaning that he would then never make love to Marianne.  Falling in love had made him truly value Marianne’s person but his past behaviour placed her forever out of his reach.  In allowing Wills to sleep with Marianne, this paradox is lost.

Sense and Sensibility is one of the Austen novels where sex peeps out – in the most recent BBC adaptation, the opening credits have Willoughby seducing Eliza in the background.  Austen is not exactly known for her wild physical love scenes so script-writers have to take what they can find.  Unfortunately, to our modern eyes this is just not enough.  So Trollope stirs in some drug addiction as well to add shock factor but even so – if it was drugs that Willoughby introduced Eliza to rather than sex, to a modern reader it was still her choice.  We may not yet have achieved full gender equality but reading Sense and Sensibility one realises quite how much more agency women have now than they did then.  Trollope makes nods to this every now and again with observations such as ‘This isn’t 1810 you know” which seems a little clunky but I felt quite sniffy when Mrs Jennings was challenged with sharing the view of ‘nineteenth century novels’ that marriage was the only career for a girl, so of course Mrs Jennings responds that ‘People pretend things have changed, but have they, really?’  If Mrs Jennings is really being awarded the role of ‘Voice of Experience’ here then this novel has got real problems.  Wider options allow women to support themselves respectably without relying on the men in their lives.  The original Dashwood girls and their real-life contemporaries had only their charms to recommend them to a husband or else to face a long spinsterhood eking out an existence on the charity of others.  Even married women were forced to share in their husbands’ fate which could be unpleasant if they found themselves to have married a Willoughby.

Ultimately, I felt that the novel’s failure came because its original focused so heavily on Elinor and Marianne’s two opposing mind-sets.  Somehow Trollope is never quite able to conjure up the contrast.  Marianne’s behaviour seems unstable as she continues to hear nothing from Wills and yet refuses to doubt him.  Her eventual humiliation naturally ends up on Youtube where by contrast Elinor is determined to maintain a poker face.  It is interesting as a human drama but it is not a comedy of manners in the way that its namesake was.  I laughed out loud as Austen listed all of the different responses to the question of whether Harry Dashwood or Johnny Middleton were taller.  The equivalent scene did not have the same impact at all.  While Sense and Sensibility addressed the contemporary rise of Romanticism, it strikes no such chord today.  Perhaps if Trollope had set her novel in the Sixties, allowing Marianne to be a hippy or similar then it might have worked better.  Really any kind of risk-taking would have given this novel a lift – Marianne shows that she is sensitive by strumming her guitar vaguely and playing Taylor Swift songs and Elinor shows she has sense by running the household expenses.  Neither of them are extreme personality types.

While Northanger Abbey does basically function as a novel in its own right, Sense and Sensibility never lets go of the original’s apron-strings.  Trollope is at her best in the way she writes women and her re-invented Fanny Dashwood and Mary Middleton are superb in their ghastliness as are the fake-tanned Steele sisters.  Mags Dashwood is also a gloriously grumpy and grunting teenager.  Still, seen as an independent work, I did not believe that Marianne would ever love Brandon and I wished that Elinor would tell Edward to take a hike.  A braver writer might have made Lucy the mother of Edward’s child to give him a more convincing reason to feel responsible or perhaps given Wills a violent history but in keeping so stubbornly to the events of the nineteenth century we have instead a novel which collapses under the weight of twenty-first century social rules.

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Sense & Sensibility by Joanna Trollope
Published by HarperCollins UK on October 24th 2013
Genres: Fiction, Literary, General
Pages: 368
ISBN: 9780007461783

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4 thoughts on “Review: Sense and Sensibility, Joanna Trollope

  1. I read Val McDermid's Northanger Abbey a few weeks ago and was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed it. Hoping to read this one too soon so it's really interesting to read what you thought of it! I saw a stage version of Sense and Sensibility a couple of weeks ago which was brilliantly done, but it made me realise that it really is a novel of it's time so I can imagine how difficult it was translating it to modern times.

  2. I definitely prefered Northanger Abbey – but to be fair it was that way round with the originals too. I think though that you're absolutely right that it was a novel of its time – Edward's central dilemma just doesn't work as a problem in the 21st century when it is completely acceptable to break up with someone. It just felt like an odd nineteenth century story playing out with twenty-first century gadgets. Will be interested to hear your opinion! 🙂 x

  3. Well crud! Too bad this wasn't as good as Northanger Abbey. Have other books in this project been written, or are Northanger Abbey and Sense and Sensibility the only two that have been written so far?

  4. Hey 🙂 I think that Vicki's point above was an excellent one – Sense and Sensibility is very much a novel of its time so it was always going to be tough to bring it forward. There are plans to do all of Austen's main novels, I know that Alexander McCall Smith has been hired for one of them but I forget which … we'll just have to see how the others turn out … Hmm.

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