Marianne could trust. She trusted her instincts; she trusted those dear to her; she trusted her emotions and her passions. She drank deep, you could see that; she squeezed every drop of living out of all the elements that mattered to her. It made her careless sometimes, of course it did, but it was a wonderfully rich and rapt way to be.
And I, Elinor, said silently to herself, am not rich or rapt in the very slightest.
(from Joanna Trollope’s Sense & Sensibility)
Joanna Trollope’s Sense & Sensibility is the first book to be released as part of The Austen Project, in which well-known authors have been recruited to put a modern-day spin on the novels of Jane Austen. I have mixed feelings about this project. Austen-inspired novels are my guilty pleasure, and I love how Austen’s stories and characters are timeless. However, I’m not too keen on the use of Austen’s original titles; those are hers and hers alone, and there’s no reason why these modern updates can’t have their own, original titles. Still, I couldn’t wait to see what these authors would come up with, and so I eagerly delved into Trollope’s rendition of Sense and Sensibility.
Trollope closely follows the original plot: Henry Dashwood dies, and Norland Park is left to his son from a previous marriage. John Dashwood’s insufferable wife, Fanny, convinces him that his “stepmother,” Belle (who wasn’t officially married to his father in this version), and his half-sisters, Elinor, Marianne, and Margaret must move out and that they will be fine on what little money his father left them. The women take up residence in a faraway cottage belonging to a distant cousin, dependent on the kindness of Sir John Middleton and his gossipy mother-in-law, Mrs. Jennings. Elinor, the sensible Dashwood girl, is the only one to recognize that they need an income, and despite her desire to finish architectural school, she finds a job, while her flighty artist mother and melodramatic musician sister, Marianne, spend much of their time whining about their circumstances and pining for home.
Of course, there are romantic entanglements; Elinor has bonded with Fanny’s brother, Ed Ferrars, who is overwhelmed by family obligations to marry well and choose a respectable career, while Marianne falls hopelessly and desperately in love with John “Wills” Willoughby, who sweeps her off her feet (literally and figuratively), and dismisses the kindhearted, generous Colonel Bill Brandon because she finds him old and boring. When their relationships fall apart, it becomes clear that one has too much sense and the other too much sensibility, and what they both need is a happy medium.
Trollope’s Sense & Sensibility is a quick read, but I missed Austen’s rich characterizations, which perfectly balance the seriousness of characters like Elinor and Colonel Brandon with the exuberance of Sir John (“Jonno” here) and the ridiculousness of Mrs. Jennings and her daughter, Charlotte Palmer, to name a few. Trollope’s characters are all a little too much, to the point where they become more annoying than humorous. The stiff dialogue and long-winded sentences, especially at the beginning, made it hard for me to connect with the characters at first, though Trollope does a good job showing how trying it can be to put up with crazy relatives.
There were a few touches that I enjoyed, particularly Bill Brandon’s use of Delaford as a rehabilitation home for drug addicts, but I wish the book felt more modern. There were plenty of mentions of fast cars, iPods, texting, and even humiliating YouTube videos, but they didn’t always work when placed alongside more outdated beliefs. Lucy Steele was still hunting for a man with money, Belle and Marianne had no problem mooching off Jonno and Mrs. J instead of finding jobs, and even Elinor’s argument that happiness shouldn’t depend on a man doesn’t hold up when she spends the entire novel pining for Ed.
I hope it doesn’t sound like I didn’t enjoy Trollope’s Sense & Sensibility because I did. Her portrayal of Margaret as a sullen 13-year-old who lost her father and was torn away from her friends when the family relocated was spot on, and Colonel Brandon was a more attractive hero in this version — so much so that I actually was rooting for him and Elinor to fall in love at one point. His relationship with Marianne was much more realistic in Trollope’s version, as I’ve always wondered about how quickly Marianne attaches herself to him in the original novel. Trollope’s Sense & Sensibility was fast-paced and fun overall, and I appreciate that Trollope strove to stay true to Austen. I just wonder if Sense and Sensibility might simply be more difficult to adapt to the present day, though I haven’t read any other modern-day re-tellings for comparison. (If you have, I’d love to hear your thoughts!)
Disclosure: I received Sense & Sensibility from Harper for review.
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