Monday 18 December 2017

Book review: Sense and Sensibility - Joanna Trollope

Making sense of Austen for the YouTube generation

Sense and Sensibility - Joanna Trollope
Sense and Sensibility - Joanna Trollope
Becoming Jane: Joanna Trollope
Rowena Walsh

Rowena Walsh

Fiction, Sense and Sensibility, Joanna Trollope, Harper Collins, £16.99. Available with free P&P on or by calling 091 709350

She has achieved literary renown as the queen of the Aga Saga, so perhaps it should not come as too much of a surprise that Joanna Trollope is a fan of that most English of writers, Jane Austen.

She has reworked Sense and Sensibility as part of the Austen Project, which pairs contemporary writers including Curtis Sittenfeld and Alexander McCall Smith with Jane Austen's six complete novels.

It is an ambitious gamble. Two hundred years since the publication of her best-known novel, Pride & Prejudice, Austen's allure continues to enchant each new generation.

Trollope says there are three elements to our fascination with Austen: "Her pre-occupations are timeless, and of perpetual fascination to the civilised world – quite simply, they are romantic love, money and class"; her voice is "cool, amused, restrained and slightly ironic"; and, finally, "whatever age you are, Austen has something for you."

Which leads to the obvious questions, does Austen really need to be updated to show she is still relevant today and, if so, is Trollope the right person to launch the project?

Trollope has been derided for being too safe, too domestic, too middle-class, but her bestselling novels are beloved by legions of fans, and the key to her appeal lies in her warmth and understanding towards human foibles, as well as her ability to address the complexities of contemporary life and familial ties.

In that respect, she is not dissimilar to her hero.

In her previous novel, The Soldier's Wife, Trollope explored the power balance in relationships and whether it is possible to be happy if we subjugate our desires to somebody else.

Many of Trollope's female characters, while clearly having more choices than Austen's women, seem to feel almost as trapped by their lives and find themselves betrayed when their husbands (and partners) die.

Austen fans will have no trouble recognising Jane's characters and their situation in Trollope's latest work.

Elinor, an architecture student, and impulsive Marianne live with their mother Belle, who is just as maddening two centuries on.

After their father dies and they are unceremoniously asked to leave their country house by their stepbrother John and his poisonous wife Fanny, the three women (along with Belle's youngest daughter, Facebook-obsessed Margaret) find themselves dependent on the kindness of relatives.

As they adjust to their new circumstances, Marianne's life changes forever when she meets the dashing Wills (Austen fans will recognise this latest incarnation of the dastardly Willoughby).

Trollope has made a concerted effort to accessorise her version of the classic tale with the trappings of contemporary life – YouTube in particular is used to great effect.

But this is at odds with Elinor, Marianne and Belle's preoccupations of big houses, inheritances and arranged marriages. And that's the real problem with this tale. Although Trollope has put her heart and soul into this, perhaps she is too much in awe of Austen.

Her version of Sense and Sensibility would probably have benefited from a more radical reimagining.

In the 21st Century, it is simply not plausible that a mother – even one as ditzy and romantic as Belle – would want to marry off her 17-year-old daughter, or that level-headed Elinor would become engaged after a single kiss.

However, although it may rankle with die-hard Janeites, this is still a good read – hardly surprising given its high-class provenance.

Irish Independent

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