What would be a fun and lasting way to celebrate Jane Austen? HarperCollins thought that pairing six contemporary authors with the the six novels would show her much her work is still relevant today and The Austen Project takes off in October with Joanna Trollope's version of Sense and Sensibility:
From their windows – their high, generous Georgian windows – the view was, they all agreed, spectacular. It was a remarkable view of Sussex parkland, designed and largely planted two hundred years before to give the fortunate occupants of Norland Park the very best of what nature could offer when tamed by the civilising hand of man. There were gently undulating sweeps of green; there were romantic but manageable stretches of water; there were magnificent stands of ancient trees under which sheep and deer decoratively grazed. Add to that the occasional architectural punctuation of graceful lengths of park railing and the prospect was, to the Dashwood family, gathered sombrely in their kitchen, gazing out, perfection.
'And now,' their mother said, flinging an arm out theatrically in the direction of the open kitchen window, 'we have to leave all this. This – this paradise.' She paused, and then she added, in a lower voice but with distinct emphasis, 'Because of her.'Trollope, who will be forever associated with the genre term "aga saga" is the ideal person to tackle this novel, with one of the most melodramatic of Austen plots. The loss of the exceedingly comfortable and gracious Norland, family home to the Dashwoods, puts us straight into Trollopian territory right from the beginning. And Sense and Sensibility is a fairly straightforward retelling in terms of plot - if you know Austen's work, and I'm assuming that you will, there are no surprises here either. What we have is two authors where you know what to expect.
If there's a surprise, then, it's how convincingly Trollope takes a story which must strike the modern reader as very old-fashioned – three women of reasonable intelligence with virtually no resources to fall back on – and constructs an entertaining and plausible novel around it. One device is to make Marianne not just over-sensitive but asthmatic, her emotional vulnerability in part the result of her physical frailty. Both Marianne and her mother, Belle, rely excessively on the eldest daughter, Elinor, but the whole family has been devastated by the sudden death of the father of the three girls (Margaret, the youngest, is as joyous a character as she is in the original book: forceful, opinionated, infuriating and, one suspects, very much like Jane Austen herself was as a girl). To add weight to everyone's fears for Marianne, her father Henry Dashwood died during an asthma attack.
Oddly (you would think, for such well-trodden ground), I don't want to say too much about the plot, because seeing how Trollope makes it work is part of the fun. What I can say, however, is that it's all done with her usual skill and aplomb: in a fine Austen tradition, there are some characters who make you positively writhe with loathing, while the old debate about whether Edward Ferrars is weak, spineless and unworthy of Elinor, or a young man of integrity and sensitivity, will find plenty to fuel it. Re-interpretations worthy of mention, I think, are Sir John Middleton, young Margaret and, of course, Elinor herself. And I can still see Alan Rickman as Colonel Brandon (grin!)
Trollope is well-known for the delicacy with which she can handle extremes of emotion in her characters. It's an area where it's all too easy to descend into bathos, but even the most melodramatic of scenes – Marianne's reaction on seeing Willoughby in London – is convincingly dealt with.
The Austen Project continues next year with Val McDermid's version of Northanger Abbey - I can hardly wait!
Sense and Sensibility will published on 24 October. My review copy came from Lovereading, where you can read lots of reviews of this and many other books.