This week saw The Austen Project’s launch publication of Joanna Trollope’s Sense & Sensibility. Writing exclusively for Waterstones, the author discusses why Jane Austen’s timeless novel is so perfect for a contemporary re-imagining…
Sense and Sensibility is a very significant novel in the small but perfectly formed Jane Austen canon. It was her first full length novel, and she had had it by her for no less than sixteen years by the time it finally made it into print. Even in its early form, it was partly about the eighteenth and early nineteenth-century pre-occupation with sensibility, that fashion for complete surrender to emotion, and to adoration of everything to do with the natural world. But by the time she came to revise the manuscript a decade and a half after first reading it to her family, her views on sensibility had been tempered by a new appreciation for reason and restraint.
The essence of the narrative is, like all her books, in the title. It concerns two sisters, Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, both good looking, although Jane Austen makes it plain: Marianne actually falls into the stunner category. They are accomplished, gently born, and uncomfortably poor, rather than glamorously penniless. When the book opens they have just lost their father, and are left with a sweet but slightly ditzy mother, a schoolroom age sister, no home and no prospects. Marriage is the only career open to them, as well as being the only likelihood for subsistence. The novel charts how their approach to their future, and thus to men, is conditioned by each girl’s governing characteristic – sense for Elinor and sensibility for Marianne. It is an imperative, if they and their mother and sister are not to starve, for their heads to govern their choice of husband. But Marianne is only interested in heart: for her reason and prudence represent a betrayal of soul and spirit. She is not, in her convictions, any distance at all from the modern belief in entitlement to complete emotional fulfilment.
This is only one element that makes this an extraordinarily modern book. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to describe it as timeless. They are all characters who translate immediately into the twenty-first century. As do the principal men, those possible husbands who range from the patient suitor (Colonel Brandon), through the appealing but depressive misfit, (Edward Ferrars) to the distractingly handsome, unreliable, emotional pirate (John Willoughby). Add the social climbing, trend-fixated Steele sisters, the party goose (Charlotte Palmer) and the ferociously money driven sister-in-law (Fanny Dashwood) and you have a completely contemporary cast list.
You also have Jane Austen’s sharply observant eye for the nuances of class. The time and the society in which she lived was particularly ruthless in its demarcation between cradle gentility and the eager aspirations of those whose birth had not been quite so blue bloodedly fortunate. The Dashwoods may be short of money, but they are confidently rich in breeding. Willoughby, Colonel Brandon, and Sir John Middleton are all equally secure socially, but almost everyone else in the cast list doesn’t quite make their fearless grade, and Jane Austen has finely tuned fun with all of them. Vulgarity, and those who have absurd respect for class, is the target of her wit and mockery, to wonderful and familiar effect.
Running throughout the novel there is a steely preoccupation with money. Having money in 1811 wasn’t so much a luxury as a necessity, since not having enough to keep body and soul together didn’t result in mere poverty, it resulted in the horrors of destitution. While keenly understanding this, Jane Austen was also never under any illusion about the sex appeal granted by money, which was as compelling then as it is today. A man could be, was, and is forgiven a very great deal if he has enough money. Without it, as Willoughby’s contemptible choices demonstrate, there is neither status nor choice. And not having money clashes absolutely and dramatically with Marianne’s conviction that heart is all that matters.
Marianne is, as a fictional character, a considerable achievement. Her fervent embracing of the Romantic creed could easily have made her too exasperating to sympathise with, just as Elinor’s persistent level-headedness could have been equally alienating in the opposite direction. But Marianne’s charm and true warmth of heart, and Elinor’s dry wit as well as occasional glimpses of her real emotional suffering, not only give both girls life, but also as much life today as when they were first created, over two hundred years ago. Take away the bonnets and the muslins, strip some of the formality from the dialogue, re-locate the action to modest modern houses, and Sense and Sensibility is, without question, a tale for our times.
Joanna Trollope, for Waterstones.com/blog
Watch our interview with Joanna Trollope at this year’s Cheltenham Literature Festival