Early in Joanna Trollope’s modern-set rewrite of Sense and Sensibility, Fanny Dashwood sweeps into Norland, which she is going to run as a commercial concern (a B&B), and tosses out the rumpled, genteel, shabby-chic furnishings, replacing them with shiny sleek modern decor.
And they say irony is dead.
When we first heard about what Harper is calling The Austen Project, we were intrigued by the idea, but had a difficult time figuring out what Harper was trying to accomplish. It’s one thing if an author is inspired by the idea of writing a book based upon one of Jane Austen’s novels. No matter one’s feelings about such an endeavor in general, it is coming from the author’s inspiration. She may want to play with the characters in a modern setting; he may want to tell a story about what happened to the characters next; she may want to introduce a spanner into the works, and see what happens. In all of these cases, the author is trying to accomplish something. None of the authors involved with The Austen Project had a thought to doing this on his or her own; they were all assigned the book by the publisher. Why did they accept? For money? Perhaps. There’s nothing wrong with that; we don’t think Jane Austen would have begrudged any author some “pewter” for his or her work. But we felt like there was no heart or soul to Ms. Trollope’s workmanlike rewrite of Sense and Sensibility. At best, it could be considered an intellectual exercise, and we hope that for Ms. Trollope’s sake, it was.
We think this book will inevitably be compared to The Three Weissmanns of Westport by Cathleen Schine and The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman, two other modern-set books inspired by Sense and Sensibility. Unlike the former, it is not a meditation upon how women in these modern times often still have the same financial issues as women in Jane Austen’s time; and unlike the latter, it is not an homage, with the original story a mere shadow in the background of the author’s story. This is a rewrite. It is a copy of the original, set in modern-day England. Everything in Austen’s original is there; nothing is missing. For the Janeite, there is a comfort in that; but one wonders who is the audience for this. Young People bored or intimidated by Austen’s “Olde English” are a touch below Ms. Trollope’s usual audience; and that usual audience would likely just read Austen’s original. It appears that the audience is not Janeites. (Perhaps that’s why we’re having trouble figuring out this book, as we are a non-anorexic American who owns a Regency gown, and therefore apparently cannot hold a valid opinion. As we opined on Twitter, Ms. Trollope’s humility must disarm reproof.)
We liked this book. It was a pleasant and enjoyable read, at times funny, and with a few scenes that we really liked. (One in particular should satisfy those who howl that Marianne and Colonel Brandon are ill-suited: they discuss who was more broken-hearted over their lost first loves. They really are a lot alike.) There’s nothing wrong with this book.
But in our way we are as romantic as Marianne Dashwood. We think anything associated with Jane Austen should make our heart sing. We should love it, and not by halves. On Goodreads, our personal star-rating system is: 1, hated it; 2, didn’t like it very much; 3, liked it, would recommend; 4, loved it; 5, want to get naked and roll around in it. This book will get a 3 on that scale. We liked it, sure, but we didn’t get “any burst of feeling, any warmth of indignation or delight, at the evil or good” from it, either. If you are curious, read it; just don’t expect to love it.
We borrowed a copy of this book from our local public library.