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”.
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.