I, along with I suspect the majority of all English Literature graduates, am well versed in all things Jane Austen. Admittedly I'm not her biggest fan (some of her books I love, others not so much), but when I heard about The Austen Project - the idea of popular authors updating her work and setting it in the 21st century - I was intrigued. I enjoyed Val McDermid's interpretation of Northanger Abbey (my review of which can be found here), and so I was eager to see what the next installment in the series would bring. Sense and Sensibility isn't one of my favourite Austen novels, but I did see an excellent stage adaptation of it this summer by Chapterhouse Theatre Company which reignited my interest in it. Despite her impressive back catalogue, I hadn't read any of Trollope's work before, so I had no preconceptions of what to expect from her.
Of course I knew exactly what to expect from the plot, which made it very easy to follow, almost too easy. The county estates, the huge houses and the awkward dinner parties were all the same. Minus the cars, converse and mobile phones and I might as well have been reading the original novel - and I had to keep reminding myself to picture it in today's setting.
That said, the story is well written, as are the characters. I especially liked Bill Brandon, but I'm afraid I have the same issues with the male suitors in this novel as I had in the original. Brandon -however lovely he may be - is too old for Marianne, and I can't help but find his obsession with her a little creepy. Edward, in short, has no backbone, and I don't think he is actually worthy of Ellie. He is honour bound to his adolescent promise to marry Lucy Steele, and rather than telling her the truth about his feelings for Ellie he is actually prepared to go through with the wedding. I mean, seriously!? Then turning up and finally declaring your love to Eleanor only because Lucy decided to marry your brother instead. If I were Ellie I'd certainly have made him stew for a while instead of jumping straight into his arms that's for sure! As for Willoughby, I didn't like his treatment of Marianne one bit. I know I'm not supposed to, but as a hopeless romantic like Marianne myself I actually had some pity for him in the original, and I believe that he sincerely loved her. I can't help but feel that his seduction of Marianne was taken a little too far in this version - there's a big jump between giving a man a lock of your hair and giving him your virginity!
Of course, being faithful to the plot means that Trollope had no say in her character's fates or flaws, so this criticism is by no means directed at her, it's more just me being cynical!
My favourite character, and the one who translated best was easily Margaret-the stroppy socially conscious teenager forever plugged into her iPod just works brilliantly - and I want her treehouse!
Trollope says in an author interview included in my edition of the book that 'Jane Austen's pre-occupations - romance, money and class - are timeless' and this is definitely true. However she also says that the characters and narrative translate 'seamlessly' to 2013, and on this point I have to disagree. Societies principles may have stayed the same, but their outlook on life has changed. Women are a lot more empowered (demonstrated to a degree by Ellie in this novel), and people are a lot more open on their thoughts and feelings. In the end though, as Trollope concludes 'the desire to be loveable, and popular, and fancied is as old and enduring as humanity is itself.'
I am now eagerly awaiting the chance to read Alexander McCall Smith's update of Emma. Again I only know a little of his work, and Emma is possibly my favourite Austen novel next to the mighty Pride and Prejudice, so I can't wait to see his take on it!
3/5 stars: A well written and enjoyable addition to The Austen Project, but although the characters translate well to the 21st century, the plot just doesn't work for me.