A few years ago it was announced that The Austen Project would task six bestselling contemporary writers with updating one of Jane Austen’s novels. Most probably in an attempt to introduce modern readers to one of England’s most loved authors and to prove that her work is still relevant within today’s society. The news was received with the inevitable dismay of her many fans who think it sacrilegious to mess with the words of their beloved novelist. To the chagrin of my Romanticism professors, I have never been a major fan of Austen: in fact I can only really admit to actually fully enjoying Northanger Abbey, which is simply because the second half of the book is batshit crazy and Gothic. It’s always seemed to me that Austen was writing Bridget Jones’ Diary with added corsets which meant that women of every generation have lapped up the hopelessly romantic journeys of her heroines whilst still feeling as though they are enjoying some sort of feminist doctrine.
Now I’m not trying to say that she isn’t talented and there is real evidence within her novels that she was clever and very witty. However, no amount of random and bitchy tangents can change the fact that she is the grandmother of chick-lit and I’ll never be able to get excited reading the tales of annoying girls falling in love with utterly objectionable men. Regardless, I was interested in this modernisation plan because when it is done well it can be fantastic. For example, Emma may be my dad’s favourite Austen novel but you can just give me Clueless any day of the week. Plus, no matter what I may have just said, I don’t really mind Sense and Sensibility but that is mainly thanks to Emma Thompson’s lovely adaptation. So, as soon as I could find a cheap enough version, I set about to see whether Trollope had pulled off a Clueless or a She’s the Man.
One thing I can’t criticise is the choice of author. No matter what I think of Joanna Trollope in the grand scheme of things she does understand the world that Austen was concerned with and she certainly knows the novel inside and out. In terms of her rewriting, she stays very close to the original plot: the level-headed and stoic Elinor becomes an architecture student whilst the emotional and dramatic Marianne is a layabout guitarist with asthma. Along with their family, the sisters must leave their beloved home to start a new life with no money and no real idea about romantic entanglements.
Trollope’s rewriting is an unchallenging piece where Austen’s archetypes are placed into a weird Made in Chelsea world of abbreviations, social media and, most shockingly of all for Austen fans, sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. The plot meanders along fairly easily but it often finds itself coming undone thanks to clumsy exposition, awful romantic-comedy clichés and cringey toff stereotypes. It is easy to get caught up in the tale but there are far too many moments when it is painfully clear that Trollope took the easy way out and the whole thing seems a little uninspired.
Although, the modernisation of the characters, for the most part, works quite well and I particularly enjoyed the stroppy teenage Margaret with her iPod constantly attached to her head. Trollope’s focus on well-rounded characters works in her favour and she is able to give new life to those that Austen kept more in the shadows. In the original both Brandon and Edward are horrendously eclipsed by Willoughby in order to highlight his overwhelming appeal but here they are given new life and more weight. Hell, Trollope even managed to make the girls’ awful mother seem like a real person and that is certainly something worth celebrating.
Then again, Marianne is a bit more of a problem here as you can’t really exchange the curse of sensibility with having asthma. In the original she falls into a depression because she is utterly destroyed by her first love: a full physical and mental breakdown brought on by her excessive sensibility. Her pain is complex and far deeper than the updated M is ever allowed to be. Austen was attempting to discuss a serious side effect of the cult of sensibility that was raging through society but Trollope has, for her own reasons, decided to ignore the psychological ramifications for modern teenagers. Her M remains an annoying hipster-ish girl who is rude and outrageous as a weird act of social revolution. No matter how awful the original Marianne may be you still care: Trollope’s version was a lazy, self-centred young girl who spent time she should have been using to help her family playing Taylor Swift songs. It feels like a bit of a waste.
Nevertheless, there are some other fantastic moments where the modern world comes crashing into Austen’s original. Take the moment when Marianne’s humiliation at the hands of Wills is posted to YouTube so all the world can be a part of her emotional downfall. Then we have the awful Nancy Steele channelling the ultimate Sloane ranger whilst Robert Ferrars, the closeted party planner brother of Edward, is pure Marc-Francis from Made In Chelsea. There are some joyous moments of real-life situations that fit the novel perfectly and Trollope has clearly enjoyed updating the novel. The rewrite of Willoughby’s past turns him from being a mere libertine to something much more sinister and, quite frankly, he needed it.
However, as wonderful as Austenites may find Trollope’s dedication to the original, I think the decision to stick to it so closely is the novel’s ultimate undoing. It was always going to be a tricky task to update a novel in which everything revolves around love and marriage. The world of country houses, inheritances and marriages as a necessity just doesn’t exist in the same way it did in Austen’s time. Women of 2013 have so many options and the idea that three intelligent and capable women would be unable to cope on their own is frankly ludicrous. Elinor aside, the women flounder when it comes to financial independence and, for some undefined reason, are unable to seek work. Trollope’s novel is full of problems arising that simply wouldn’t be as much of an issue today and it takes a great deal of suspension of your disbelief to stick with it. Rather than feeling like a modern novel this feels like a novel of the 1800s that has been badly transferred into a modern setting. It’s strange and jarring as you move deeper into the narrative. In order to make this exercise seem worthwhile Trollope needed to take a few more risks.
At one stage in the novel, and in a failed moment of self-awareness, Mrs Jennings is accused of having the attitude one would normally find in a 19th century novel where a girl’s only ambition is to marry. Her response is: “people pretend things have changed, but have they, really?” Trollope may be trying to convince us that they haven’t but, if Sense & Sensibility has taught us anything, it’s that they most certainly have.