Imagine that Joanna Trollope, author of seventeen well-regarded novels of contemporary family life, had just published a new book titled, say, Emily and Madeline -- the story of two sisters with divergent outlooks on life and love struggling to reorient themselves after personal and financial crises.
It might be possible to read that book as just another Joanna Trollope novel -- in other words, as an absorbing diversion whose psychological acuity and carpenter-like prose place it a cut or two above your average beach read.
Unfortunately, however, Trollope's latest novel, starring two sisters named Elinor and Marianne, is called Sense and Sensibility (yes, that one), and so it can only be read in the light of the original.
Trollope's book is the opening installment in a series HarperCollins has dubbed "The Austen Project": six new versions of Jane Austen's classic courtship novels, updated to contemporary times by authors who combine critical respectability with commanding sales. So far, Curtis Sittenfeld (Pride and Prejudice), Alexander McCall Smith (Emma) and Val McDermid (Northanger Abbey) have signed on to follow in Trollope's footsteps.
The impetus behind the Austen Project is transparently commercial: the success of Death Comes to Pemberley, P.D. James' mystery-themed Pride and Prejudice sequel, which reportedly sold more than 300,000 copies even before its paperback release, obviously caught HarperCollins' attention.
Before Death Comes to Pemberley, the world did not lack for Austen spinoffs, but most of those are the work of well-meaning amateurs. Some of these folks write well, others not so much, but none has the worldwide following of a Trollope or a McDermid. Perhaps more important, none has a critical reputation robust enough to apply a veneer of class to a genre -- fan fiction -- often maligned as faintly embarrassing, the province of teenagers with Harry Potter fixations.
Buy a Jane Austen fan fiction by Abigail Reynolds or Sharon Lathan, and you're admitting that what you crave is a romance novel chock-full of juicy sex scenes. Buy a fan fiction by P.D. James or Curtis Sittenfeld, and you can think of yourself as a Serious Grownup Reader.
I happen to enjoy Jane Austen fan fiction. I read dozens of examples of the genre while researching my book Among the Janeites: A Journey Through the World of Jane Austen Fandom, and the experience resembled a year-long Haagen-Dazs binge -- low on nutrition, perhaps, but high on guilty pleasure.
Like translation, adaptation is a form of interpretation, and even fan fictions that lack much artistic merit of their own can illuminate aspects of the works to which they pay homage, as long as they're undertaken in a playful spirit.
But if Trollope's Sense and Sensibility is any guide, the Austen Project is aiming less for expansive homage than for cramped imitation. Trollope is a nimble novelist, but her slavish devotion to every twist and turn in Austen's story makes her book a pale, unsatisfying shadow of the dark, edgy original.
Austen's insights into romantic relationships, social climbing and family life ring with such universal truth that it's easy to forget how much her plots owe to the social circumstances of her time. As Austen scholar John Mullan noted recently, that time differs radically from our own -- and not just because of the iPods and Facebook updates and cellphone video with which Trollope embellishes her story.
These cultural differences are more glaring in some Austen plots than in others. Unfortunately for Trollope, in Sense and Sensibility, they're crucial.
In Jane Austen's novel -- perhaps we should call it Version 1.0 -- Elinor Dashwood's love interest, Edward Ferrars, can't propose because he's four years into a secret engagement to a woman he no longer loves.
Austen means us to see Edward's insistence on sticking to this prior commitment despite his feelings for Elinor as a mark of his integrity. He's allowed his fiancee to take herself off the marriage market for four of her prime husband-hunting years; were he to brand her as damaged goods by jilting her, he might taint her marital prospects forever.
In Austen's moral universe, falling for someone else can't justify a rich man in ruining a penniless girl who depends on him. And for a young woman of Austen's time, a loveless marriage might well seem better than no marriage at all; he'd be doing her a favor by marrying her, even if he loves someone else.
Fast forward to Trollope's Sense and Sensibility, Version 2.0, and, once again, Edward is secretly engaged. And this time he can't break the engagement because -- well, "his own family had rejected him, so he had done the classic adolescent turnaround thing of attaching himself to the next family, or families, who were kind to him" (Chapter 9), or "he was neglected and bullied when he was little" (Chapter 14), or "it's all to do with family, his family" (Chapter 15).
It's hard to avoid the sense that Trollope keeps hammering desperately away at these unpersuasive explanations because she knows deep down that Edward's behavior is inexplicable in a world transformed by female employment, reliable birth control, divorce, Social Security, casual sex -- the entire apparatus of social change that gives young women a plethora of options besides marriage.
Previous entrants in the High-Brow Sense and Sensibility Update Sweepstakes -- Cathleen Schine's The Three Weissmanns of Westport, Allegra Goodman's The Cookbook Collector -- turned this plot problem to their advantage.
Schine's Edward figure is a charming but ultimately spineless object of female manipulation; by novel's end, her Elinor seems poised to fall for someone else. Goodman does even better, transforming the personal deception at the heart of Austen's story into a professional betrayal, and then killing her Edward off in one of the 9-11 plane crashes.
Apparently, however, the Austen Project won't permit such creative license. If Saint Jane married Elinor to Edward by novel's end, so must it be. Trollope is capable of better. I'd rather read Emily and Madeline.