Out of time

Last week, courtesy of an offer from someone I follow on Twitter, I had the privilege of reading an advance copy of Joanna Trollope’s reworking of Sense and Sensibility in a modern setting.  As part of the evidently industrial-scale marketing of their “Austen Project”, which will see six contemporary novelists “reimagine” Jane Austen’s works, Harper Collins sent pre-publication copies to reading groups around the country, in return for their blogging about them, taking part in Austen-related activity and generally “immersing yourselves in the romantic world of Austen”.

It take more than an iPod to make a twenty-first century heroine...
It takes more than an iPod to make a twenty-first century heroine…

Well, I didn’t sign up for that; but given that I’ve received a rather beautiful edition of a book for precisely no pence, I’m happy to join in.  Sadly, though, I’m not sure my thoughts on this literary outing are going to be quite what HC were hoping for…

This has nothing to do with the writing.  I’m not the biggest fan of Joanna Trollope – the covering letter says that this book “perfectly affirms the description of Joanna as a modern day Jane Austen” whilst subtly avoiding the direct claim that anyone has ever actually described her as such before – but from my limited exposure to her novels, she seems to write a reasonable story perfectly well.  The disease stems simply from the misguided attempt to transpose Jane Austen’s characters into today’s world; unfortunately, it’s terminal.

It is difficult to imagine it working well for any of Austen’s novels, so bound are her characters by the social mores of her time.  It certainly doesn’t work for Sense and Sensibility, where at the very core of the plot lies the Dashwood women’s vulnerability, their inability to fend for themselves.  At a time when women’s opportunities for work were strictly circumscribed, and any attempt by a woman of a certain class to enter paid employment would be accompanied by plummeting social status and the loss of former friends, the death of a provider and accompanying loss of a home is genuinely pitiable.  Anyone with a second X chromosome can be grateful that this is not the case in England today.

The result is that it’s difficult to summon up a lot of sympathy for Trollope’s tedious, middle-class women bleating that they’re simply not “fit for work.” Send them to ATOS forthwith! And instead of feeling indignant at the sisters’ dreadful sister-in-law Fanny and her lily-livered husband John, you can’t help feeling that they’re not, actually, behaving all that unreasonably.  What’s wrong with wanting to move into and redecorate a home you’ve inherited? What’s wrong with feeling disinclined to share it – and otherwise financially support – your shiftless sisters and pointless mother, none of who have apparently seen fit to do a day’s work in their lives?

It would have taken a little more than having Marianne listen to an iPod to bring this story successfully into the twenty-first century. It feels like we need some kind of desperate illness for Mrs Dashwood at the very least, if we’re going to be able to muster a bit of sympathy; perhaps Marianne could be autistic and Elinor have some kind of mental health problem to convince us that they really, really couldn’t be expected to work for their bread. Does take us rather far from the original story though, doesn’t it?

And that’s the problem. We are all, to some extent, products of our time (anyone who’s cringed at racist comments by their grandparents will know the truth of that) and characters in fiction are no different.  That doesn’t mean we appreciate their trials and tribulations any the less if they’re set in an historical context ; simply that when they’re plucked out of their own time and plonked down in another era, they’re often left shuffling uncomfortably in their new surroundings.

Shakespeare, of course, is the greatest casualty of this inexplicable desire to transplant characters out of time.  The success of the Globe theatre demonstrates it’s a ploy that simply isn’t necessary to draw audiences: people are just as capable of imagining their characters in sixteenth century Verona as they are of empathising with them through their fears and hopes and loves. And whilst no-one has had the temerity to “reimagine” the Bard’s words just yet – not under the same title, anyway – the violence done to his language by ill thought-out changes of context can be gruesome.  I’ll never forget the production of King Lear, attended with my A’-level English class, which had a 1930s Gloucester in a straitjacket instead of stocks, loudly declaiming his “wooden prison”.  There were loads of those verbal-visual mismatches.  Apart from being wildly distracting it Made No Sense.

That’s not to say it can never work.  I saw A Midsummer Night’s Dream set in a mud bath – yes, really – and it was brilliant.  But it takes a lot of care and skill.  You can’t just say, oh Shakespeare’s so wonderful, he transcends the boundaries of place and time, and set Macbeth in a New York doughnut factory without any consideration of the actual words.

But back to Trollope (any relation?) and the Austen project. I’d like to say that, regardless of the difficulty of transposing Austen into the modern era, this is still a good read.  Honestly though, I can’t.  All the characters we’re supposed to sympathise with are so bloody annoying: Marianne is self-indulgent, self-regarding and downright rude; Elinor’s such a martyr she needs a slap; and this Colonel Brandon is even more of a wet fish than the original.  Enough of them all!

I see Alexander McCall Smith is lined up to rework Emma.  I think he’s got an easier ride with that one, but even so…  I might just content myself with re-reading the greatest English novelist of all time.

9 thoughts on “Out of time

  1. vicbriggs

    Wonderful piece. I really enjoyed reading every line of it, it is such a pity that you could not say the same of the book you had to take on and critique. I agree with you regarding the difficulty of transposing Austen’s world into contemporary times. And her novels are just brilliant as they are. I do not know whether this exercise was ever necessary to get people reading her books in any case.
    I can’t help but bring some ideas to the table as to how this might have worked.
    Of course, I am at a disadvantage here since I have not read Trollop’s re-interpretation, but I will allow my suggestions to be guided by your article.
    First: a big no to the middle class transposition. The Dashwoods are aristocrats, and it is absolutely fine to be so even in the modern world. In fact, it would make it easier to then tailor their trials and tribulations accordingly, because the upper classes have undergone major transformations in the modern age in order to adapt and survive, so a little research in that respect would have made for great writing thereafter. As a reading public, we seldom have an entry into that world as it stands today, and I do think that people would be curious to know how that class fares and what kind of problems it encounters, even if only to compare and contrast with their own.
    Jullian Fellows, if I am not mistaken has written some novels set in contemporary times with aristocratic characters. It worked for him. It may have worked for the Dashwood experiment. But middle class Dashwoods who do not work? No. That could not be. Unbelievable – and not the right kind.
    Even as aristos, it is better by far if both sisters work – in today’s world it is difficult to empathise with anyone who can and doesn’t.
    Some ideas that came to mind were related to the actual home:
    – If it were still a stately home – they are extremely expensive to run. The sisters could have been in charge of that, opening the house to the public, organising tours of the house, transforming the garden so that the house would provide an additional attraction for tourists, and unable to pay for their youngest sister to go to a good school they take her education on their own shoulders too.
    – The father could have died from a stress-related cause after the financial collapse, leaving them without the much needed additional finances to keep the house running.
    – This could have sunk the mother into a deep set depression that cripples her and makes it impossible for her to actually function as a human being. Marianne and Eleanor now have this additional burden to deal with on top of losing their father and being on the point of losing their childhood home. To make things worse, Eleanor could have given a well paid job in the city in order to help her family run the stately home as a business. Marianne – depending on what age we give her, is she still 18 or thereabouts? – could have given up a place at Oxbridge or a major music conservatorium in order to help her family open up the house to visitors. Both sisters must have given up something key, their dearest dream, in order to be at home. That way, when they lose the house they have given everything up in order to save, we can really feel for them.
    – When the brother inherits, he intends not simply to re-decorate, but empty the place of all its traditional artefacts – all important to the history of the house, and to the history of that region in Britain perhaps by extension – and completely demolish its history, perhaps even demolish a wing to build a glass extension for a swimming pool and gym: make it into some ultramodern showroom house, something over-the-top and tasteless, and of course he would be closing the house to the public.
    That perhaps readers who rather like snooping around stately home (I know I do) might empathise with better.
    – Now removed from the family home, with a depressed mother and a school-age sister in toe, Marianne and Eleanor really have their work cut up for themselves.
    – Recession and high unemployment make it impossible for Eleanor to find a job (but she must try and keep trying.
    _ Marianne is so distraught and emotional about everything that happened that she fails her conservatorium exam when she re-applies, and perhaps tries to get gigs to earn some money, but is rejected left right and centre because – given the financial situation – venues simply can’t afford to pay an amateur (she won’t put bums into seats as it were, because no one knows her. They need celebrity to bring in customers).
    Now – that is better by far – the sisters are really trying to do everything they can to get back on their feet, but circumstances are against them. Their mother requires full time care, and their sister needs them to be home-schooled.
    When their mother’s cousin offers them a place to stay rent-free, they take it gladly, because no other options seem open to them. Problem is: the place is remote and job opportunities there will be nil, or very nearly so. It is not a decision they take lightly, but they hope the place and the presence of family will help their mother get through and come out of her crippling depression, and it is also a great place for their younger sister.
    Now we have true difficulties and characters we can empathise with because they do try – and Marianne and Eleanor would have not sat around doing nothing had they lived today. They would’ve been two gutsy young ladies with a plan!
    How is that for a start? 😀

    1. yakinamac Post author

      Yes! I would absolutely read your version – and would care what happened to the characters! HC should have employed you to do it.

      1. vicbriggs

        Thank you, touched, and might return to it once I’ve finished polishing my current project. Might be fun to give it a try. 🙂

  2. Pingback: Sense and Sensibility: UnTrolloped | vicbriggs's blog

      1. vicbriggs

        My pleasure. I wrote my initial answer in a flurry and thought it may be a good idea to expand on it. So glad you liked it.
        I got some interesting responses on FB as well. Apparently not everyone was aware of this new trend in literature 🙂

  3. yakinamac Post author

    I hope I’m not one of those people who think the classics should be sacrosanct and you can’t have any fun with them – I loved “Lost in Austen” for example. But really, this one just didn’t hit the mark for me. I know it got a very good review in the Guardian though. I’ll be interested to see what other people make of it.


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