Sense and Sensibility is not Joanna Trollope’s favorite Jane Austen novel. That would be Persuasion . “The older you get, the more you feel the emotional reality of suffering and waiting and being a little bit older,” says the British author of more than 25 novels including The Soldier’s Wife, The Other Family and A Village Affair . “I suppose we all come to it eventually.”
But the more Trollope thought about her publisher’s request to rewrite and modernize Sense and Sensibility as part of The Austen Project, in which six writers will reimagine Austen’s works, the more she liked the idea of taking on the romantic (and economic) journeys of the Dashwood sisters — Elinor (practical, capable) and Marianne (dreamy, passionate). Next year, Curtis Sittenfeld will tackle Pride and Prejudice, and then Alexander McCall Smith will work his magic on Emma.
“ Sense and Sensibility is such a timeless novel,” says Trollope, who’s distantly related to Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope. “It translated completely from the 19th century to now with hardly a beat. It’s amazing. Because she is interested in romantic love but really only in the chase. She’s interested in the journey. But she’s passionately interested in money.”
She’s a sacred icon! But I thought about it at length and came to the conclusion that my version would be a tribute, not an imitation. It’s written in my voice, not her voice. ... I remember a composer telling me once about the essence of a good melody. He cited Summertimefrom Porgy and Bess. You can do anything to it: syncopate it, transpose it, and you still know it’s Summertime. It’s the same with Jane Austen — and Shakespeare. Not Dickens; his is so much a caricature world. But those who write about us in all our complexity, you can do anything you like to them, and the essence remains.
Marianne herself: She’s a product of the 19th century fashion for ‘sensibility,’ this adoration of all things natural and complete surrender to emotion. That’s not a million miles away from modern girls’ sense of entitlement. ‘I want Mr. Wonderful, but he has to make 50 thousand a year.’ Their wishlists are very like Marianne’s. And someone like Willoughby [the cad with whom Marianne falls in love] would be called a trust fund baby. He’s living on the expectation of tremendous inheritance. There are plenty of rich kids here now living that way. They never take public transport. They never have to sweat the summer out in some terrible tenement.
I suppose I was 13 or 14. I started with Pride and Prejudice. ... As you get older you like the more complex heroines like Emma and Anne Eliot. And you begin to realize Fanny [from Mansfield Park] is a right little cow. Pride and Prejudice has gotten so cliched since Colin Firth and his wet shirt. Poor Colin. What really emerged from that was how sexy money is.
Q. Do you see a bit of a dark side to Austen’s work?
Almost everybody in Jane Austen’s books were supported from money from the slave trade. That’s what gave Bingley money. Where does Darcy’s money come from? The coal mines of Derbyshire built Pemberley. In Pride and Prejudice, there’s a moment when Kitty is talking to Lydia about the barracks in Meryton and the exciting redcoats and how there was a flogging. A man would have been stripped to the waist and flogged until he passed out. There are all these hideous things hidden in the background.
What’s fascinating about the devotion to Jane Austen is the work is seen as an idyll. But the idyll is illusory. Her books are not quite as sugared almond as the kind of vulgar common perception of them is.