Joanna Trollope is the author of the "Jane Austen Project" novel "Sense & Sensibility" (Harper) will be released on October 29.
You know that song, "Summertime" from "Porgy and Bess"? Well, an eminent modern composer once told me that it has complete musical integrity. Which means that whatever you do to it - syncopate it, transpose it - the tune remains intact. "Summertime," the melody, is always recognizable. And exactly the same is true of the six novels by Jane Austen. Whatever you do to them - imitate them, send them up, extend them - they remain Jane's novels. Which is exactly as it should be.
Because -- well, where to begin. First, because her themes are the absolutely timeless themes that affected her world as much as they affect ours. Which are, in no particular order, money, class and love. Second, because she respected what we respect ( the genuine, the authentic, the deserving ) and made fun of what we despise (the affected, the pretentious, the malicious). Third, because she was funny and sharp and had the confidence never to talk down to her readers. And fourth - and it's a major fourth - because she understood that for women, be they in nineteenth century muslin or twenty-first century jeans, the romantic hope and even fantasy that lives inside even the most sensible and well ordered female head, was and is a reality that complicates and colors life to an astonishing degree.
When I re-read "Sense and Sensibility" for the Austen Project - which is a re-imagining of her novels, all to be set in the present day - I was struck by how modern the two sisters at the heart of the book are. Elinor - the "Sense" of the title - is prudent, rational, practical and reasonable. Her sister, Marianne - the "Sensibility" - is emotional, abandoned, self involved and passionate. I should think anyone reading this, and looking round their friends, can find several examples of both immediately; the friends who won't spend money they don't have, and the friends who are in a perpetual state of anguish that the latest Mr Perfect turned out to be clay from the knees down.
Both girls, too, fall in love with men who are very familiar. Willoughby, the physically gorgeous, profoundly charming love-rat, and Edward Ferrars, the sweetly diffident and mildly depressive Nice Guy, who gets himself into deep emotional hot water by trying to do the right thing the wrong way, are both types we know. And, waiting in the wings, is the rare creature we might dream about, the quiet, ardent, restrained real hero, Colonel Brandon - the man who waits at the end of the fairy tale to put the broken princess back together again.
It could be chick lit. But it isn't. And it isn't because of the steely preoccupation with money, and the persistent mockery of social aspiration. Money is seen as very important - and remember that in Jane Austen's day, if you slipped from prosperity, you didn't slip to mere poverty, you slipped into utter destitution - but also as alarmingly capable of corrupting humanity to a destructive degree. Willoughby makes a despicable and cruel choice because of it. Another young woman in the novel, Lucy Steele, is mocked by her creator for her determination to get her hands on it. And the sisters' sister-in-law, Fanny, a superb character is all her believable beastliness, devotes herself to keeping it and, if possible, making sure that no-one else gets their hands on a single cent that might be hers.
Then there is the wit. Jane Austen is perfectly serious about serious matters - cruelty, exploitation of the vulnerable, stoical suffering, the ever present fear of disease and death which stalked her century - but she is remorseless about any kind of falseness, in feeling, or manner or conduct. People who try to be what they are not get skewered in her pages, held up for ridicule with exemplary sophistication, so that they condemn themselves out of their own mouths. And all of them, in her deliberately small domestic circles, are metaphors for something much wider, something that we can all recognize in our own lives, right here and now.
She was only 41 when she died, and she was on the very cusp of bestsellerdom, which, I sincerely believe, she would have relished. Her surviving letters are full of practicalities and jokes and cleverness and clothes and the price of fish and sheer life. I have no doubt she would have approved of this project, just as she would have adored to find herself with millions of devotees in 2013. So this re-imagining of her first novel that I have done is not only still her novel, just as is only right and proper, but also, with my heartfelt admiration and gratitude, a tribute. To a novelist of genius.
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