Austen Project – Sense and Sensibility

Sense and Sensibility by Joanna Trollope that is. An updated version. I signed up for this project because I genuinely thought it would be interesting. I didn’t subscribe to the view that this would be a dumbing down exercise. There have been fabulous modern day adaptations of Austen and I enjoyed them as much (and sometimes more) than the originals. I wanted to like this.

So this is awkward. Because I didn’t really like it at all.

Trollope has taken the brief very literally. She has, in essence, planted the entire plot of Sense and Sensibility into the modern world without really appearing to have given thought to how it comes across. The main point of Austen’s Sense and Sensibility is the powerlessness of the main characters to influence their circumstances. Marriage really was their only option – there were no jobs for women of their class, very few choices in how to supplement their income. They had to rely in charity of their relatives, of John Middleton and his family, to look after them. And within that wider world, Austen placed the love stories of two girls led by their respective characteristics of common sense and sensitivity.
In the modern world, where women can go out and get jobs, I’m afraid this just doesn’t work. The Dashwoods have been asked to move from their childhood home at Norland because it’s been inherited by their brother John. First anachronism. I’m sure it still happens but it doesn’t really help prompt our sympathy. There is some wailing and gnashing that they only have £200,000 and Elinor will have to leave her university course.
Really? I mean, really? £200,000 between the four of them is plenty to buy a house, let alone rent one. Their mother could get a job, Elinor could get a student loan and continue her architecture course. So could Marianne. This is what people do these days! 
Instead, they plead hardship and live cheaply off a house their cousin in the west country. And so we go on. And soon we come to the next anachronism. Does it matter these days that Edward has been secretly engaged to Lucy Steele? Enough to not break off the engagement and keep her honour intact? Enough to be disinherited? Does this actually happen these days? I wasn’t convinced. Especially with Marianne running off to sleep with Willoughby (or “Wills” as he’s known throughout the book. Other characters are referred to by their initials only. Is this what people do in the modern world? I know I don’t. But I don’t cry hardship when inheriting £200,000 either so who knows.)
In The Rector’s Wife, Trollope explored the actions of a woman who was trapped by her circumstances. Financially and emotionally, the novel’s achievement lies in how she grows and develops to kick off the traces of a previous stilted life. She gets a job. She gets a lover. She grows. She learns things. I had great hopes that this was the kind of thing Trollope was going to discuss in this adaptation. Instead we get a very narrow account of a lifestyle that means nothing to the vast majority of us. Reading about people born to privilege when they had no choices and when Austen was trying to point something out about the kind of life for women of a certain class is one thing; reading about that in these post-feminist days, when women can do so much more, when there is all kinds of help, is quite another.

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