For a British novelist writing about class, manners and marriage, there is probably no higher praise than being compared with Jane Austen. Best-selling novelist Joanna Trollope earned that badge 13 years ago, when a critic reviewing her novel "Marrying the Mistress" called her "a modern-day Austen."
Now Ms. Trollope has invited the comparison once again, much more explicitly. Her new novel, "Sense & Sensibility," takes the characters from Austen's 1811 novel and plops them in contemporary England. The Dashwood sisters—Elinor, Marianne and Margaret—are cast out of their family estate when their uncle dies and leaves the house to their half brother and his heartless wife. In Ms. Trollope's update, sensible Elinor is an architecture student, and the emotionally volatile Marianne is a guitarist. Over the course of the novel, the sisters fret about their meager inheritance and uncertain romantic futures. Ms. Trollope sticks to Austen's blueprint almost slavishly, recreating nearly every scene with modern flourishes: One of the Dashwood sisters sends her suitor text messages, for example, and when Marianne's boyfriend, John Willoughby, dumps her in public, the humiliating encounter is recorded and posted on YouTube.
...A few critical plot points were hard to preserve in a modern context. She struggled to explain why the Dashwood sisters and their mother can't inherit the estate when their father dies (in Austen's original, the reason is simple: they're women). To make the disinheritance seem plausible, Ms. Trollope made Elinor and Marianne's parents fun-loving bohemians who never bothered to marry, making their daughters illegitimate heirs. And while Austen's heroines, even the middle-class ones, led lives of total leisure, Ms. Trollope felt that in 2013, the characters would need careers.
Ms. Trollope's book marks the first release in a new series of contemporary remakes of Austen novels, which were commissioned by HarperFiction, an imprint of HarperCollins in the U.K. HarperCollins is a unit of News Corp, which also owns The Wall Street Journal. The books are being released by various U.S. publishers.Well, that makes four of the six, but what about Persuasion and Mansfield Park?
Future books in the series, called "The Austen Project," include a retelling of "Pride and Prejudice" by Curtis Sittenfeld, an update of "Emma" by Alexander McCall Smith, and a modernized "Northanger Abbey" by crime writer Val McDermid.
The Austen updates aren't going over well in some corners of the fandom. When the Guardian's book blog asked readers to nominate contemporary authors to rewrite the remaining two Austen novels, "Mansfield Park" and "Persuasion," Austen lovers shot back with answers like "no one" and "leave her alone." Some called the project "vandalism" and "utter depravity."And they're right! Who would be so gauche as to tamper with the classics? Any writer who wants to mess with Austen ought to have her manuscript die a slow, lingering death.