Austen’s powers revisited

Sally Feldman welcomes a modern reimagining of the incomparable Jane

November 7, 2013

Jane Austen is having something of a moment. It was recently announced that her face will grace the new £10 note; a new film of Persuasion is out next year; the BBC will soon air its dramatisation of P. D. James’ Death Comes to Pemberley, a murder mystery inspired by Austen. And now the Austen Project has been launched.

In the unlikely event that you haven’t heard, it is the brainchild of publisher HarperCollins, which has commissioned six writers, each to update one of Austen’s novels. And the first one, just out, is Sense and Sensibility by Joanna Trollope. She obviously has had huge fun imagining how the book’s characters would fare in the 21st century. Elinor is an architecture student; Marianne’s indiscretions are all over Facebook and Twitter; Edward is vaguely hoping to do something good for the community. And Margaret is no longer a sweet little tomboy, but a sulky teenager plugged into her iPod and given to “whatevers” and “amazeballs”.

At first glance this venture seems like just another in the vast literature of Austen imitations: Pride and Prejudice alone, according to the website Republic of Pemberley (honestly!), has more than 50 descendants including a zombie version and Darcy’s Tale.

The result, for all the liveliness and fun, is a perceptive comment on the original novel and on Austen’s style and approach

And it is not just Jane. Suddenly, it seems, the publishing world is awash with sequels of popular literature: William Boyd has just brought out a James Bond story; Anthony Horowitz has written a new Sherlock Holmes novel; Sebastian Faulks is having a go at Wodehouse; there’s even a new Asterix – set in Scotland. And this Christmas, Emma Thompson will tread on the sacred toes of Beatrix Potter to give us a Peter Rabbit tale.

This rush to rehash is at least partly a reflection of the dire state of the economy and the perilous position of publishing: recreating some of our best-loved national treasures makes good commercial sense. But the experiments are not always greeted with rapture and none is capable of inspiring as much opprobrium as the Austen oeuvre. That’s why, at the Times Cheltenham Literary Festival last month, Trollope entreated “Janeites” not to put themselves through the torment of reading her update, since they are so quick to rise up when they fear that their saint has been traduced.

Normally I am one of those acolytes. I don’t dress up in bonnets and attend Regency-lite conventions or anything. Nor do I subscribe to any sickly sentimentality about Austen, whom I regard as a rather tough, sternly unsentimental moral commentator. But I don’t want her messed about. Austen’s novels are beautifully constructed comedies of manners that end as they should: with marriage. We are not supposed to enquire further.

And whoever attempts imitation will fall short, because Austen’s language is so mannered, so precise, so individual that it simply can’t be reproduced. Even Emma Tennant, whose sequel to Pride and Prejudice was widely praised, didn’t quite capture her sharp wit, her elegant verve.

Trollope’s reworking, though, is not a sequel but a modernisation, told not in Austen’s voice but in Trollope’s, with her own finely developed sense of social observation. So instead of Austen’s description of Willoughby as “uncommonly handsome”, Trollope tells us that “on a scale of hotness, he registered fairly close to a full ten”. “Comparisons with Jane Austen make me twitch,” she told The Guardian. “She is a Great: I am a Good – on a good day.” And that makes this a rather different experiment from the others – a more literary, even academic one.

Trollope has clearly done her homework – ploughing through biographies and works of criticism, and burying herself in Austen’s letters. And the result, for all the liveliness and fun, is a perceptive comment on the original novel and on Austen’s style and approach. Not only does she show how easily the characters transfer to the 21st century; she also picks up some of the more subtle themes and preoccupations of Austen herself.

Money, of course, is the great unsung hero – and villain – of Austen’s novels. And here it is, just as powerful as ever, driving the greed of a delightfully dreadful Fanny and the love rat (or, as Margaret puts it, “shagbandit”) Willoughby. The girls’ feckless mother is a vague hippyish kind of romantic who never bothered to marry their father, which is why she ends up with no inheritance.

The male characters’ obsession with their horses transfers easily enough to Range Rovers, Edward’s pathetic Ford Sierra and Willoughby’s present to Marianne of a (borrowed, of course) Alfa Romeo Series 4 Spider. And Trollope has also picked up Austen’s mistrust of modernisers. Arch-villain Fanny has completely transformed the Dashwoods’ beloved Norland, her army of Eastern European builders systematically eliminating all its most gracious features and replacing them with anonymous modern “pieces” and her “sitting room cum office”, from where she issues orders to the nanny.

Trollope has said that part of the motivation for writing the book was to engage young readers with the classics, rather as the film Clueless – a clever take on Emma – introduced a generation of wannabe Californian princesses to the original novel. And if it works, maybe the Austen Project should be included on English literature reading lists, too. Students could spend happy study weeks comparing the versions and searching for the one genuine Austen sentence that Trollope includes.

Trollope’s Sense and Sensibility is far from perfect. She’s the first to acknowledge that there are a few creases – the indolence of most of the female characters sits uncomfortably in a modern setting, as does their total reliance on male rescuers. But the spirit is there: the portrayal of women’s plight; the trap of romanticism as well as materialism; the constricting roles of money and class. And the saving grace of real love: of sisters, of friends and of life partners.

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