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.At the most basic level, this seems problematic in that it's really not that hard for illegitimate heirs to inherit in the modern world, and even in the absence of a will one could file a lawsuit and have a reasonable chance of getting some redress.
However, the deeper problem here is that it misses the point that in the world of 1800 England, marriage was not simply a personal relationship but a business institution. Entailing an estate exclusively to the oldest son may seem arbitrary, but it was a form of succession planning which kept financial and land assets together rather than having them dispersed through many heirs. Any period romance that fails to deal with the partly-business nature of marriage in that period ends up not coming off as realistic. And in this case, the failure to think of the family estate as a financial entity which needs a single clear successor is one of the things that makes Trollope's solution seem off.
We had so much fun going over how to convert the plot to the modern day, we thought it would be a fun exercise to share with you. As such, the remainder of the post is composed of two parts: a set of criteria that a modernization of Sense & Sensibility would have to meet, and a solution which we came up with. Please do pile on both with suggests as to the correct criteria and with your own suggestions as to how to update and set the story. (For convenience, I've kept the names, but of course if we wrote something like this we'd change the title and all the names so that only those who knew S&S well would realize it was an Austen homage.)
What Needs To Be Modernized
1) Mrs. Dashwood and her three daughters (or two if you only want to keep the ones who play significant roles in the plot) find themselves suddenly reduced in circumstances because the primary source of their wealth passes to John Dashwood (the recently dead Mr. Dashwood's son from a first marriage.) The women find themselves with the same social status but with far less income and resources than before. In Austen's time this was because the whole estate would usually pass to one person, and that person was typically the oldest male descendent, and so Mrs. Dashwood's continued income was dependent on the goodwill of her stepson, which was influenced by his wife. To my mind, you need to come up with a reason why the source of income can't be divided or passed to Mr. Dashwood's wife, as would be standard now.
2) Elinor Dashwood meets Edward Ferrar (the brother of John Dashwood's wife) and they are attracted to one another, but for reasons that do not become clear for a while he makes no move to enter into a relationship with her. In the book, it is eventually revealed that this is because he long ago entered into a secret engagement with Lucy Steele. He knows that if he admits to the engagement, he'll be disowned by his mother which will impoverish him, and he's since fallen out of love with her (and realizes that she doesn't really love him) but he's too honorable to break off the engagement with her (because, the nature of marriage at the time having strong financial aspects, Lucy has staked her economic future on this offer), so he's unavailable but can't talk about it. Later, Lucy Steele meets Elinor and tells Elinor her own version of this history which, like most things Lucy does, is rather self-serving. In the end, Lucy confesses the connection to Fanny Dashwood (John Dashwood's wife and Edward's sister) who blows Lucy's cover and gets Edward disinherited. Lucy breaks the engagement after snagging the attention of Edward's younger brother (the new heir) and the disinherited Edward is then free to marry Elinor. In a modern setting, engagements are readily breakable and inheritance isn't such a big deal, so there clearly has to be another reason why Edward can't form a relationship with Elinor despite their attraction, another connection between Edward and Lucy, and some other way of getting out of it.
3) Marianne's plot line strikes me as not necessarily requiring so much modification as it's entirely personal and thus more universal: the older Colonel Brandon falls in love with Marianne, but she has fallen in love with Mr. Willoughby, who seems young and romantic. She and Willoughby seem so close that everyone assumes they are engaged. However, he suddenly throws her over in a very public way and instead becomes engaged to a very rich woman. It then comes out that Willoughby has, previously, got Colonel Brandon's young ward pregnant and abandoned her. Marianne eventually recovers and married Colonel Brandon. Aside from people not having wards these days, all of this could essentially be used in a modern version, though all sorts of modifications are possible.
The Darwins' Updated S&S
1) We both agree that in order to make the inheritance plotline work, this can't be a personal fortune that's inherited but rather an old family-owned business. Mr. Dashwood must have been the president and majority owner. On Mr. Dashwood's death, ownership of the company passes to various heirs: Mrs. Dashwood, John Dashwood, the daughters. However, the actual dividends/ownership dispersements from the company aren't necessarily huge. Much of the family income during Mr. Dashwood's life derived from the fact that everyone was, in some sense, on the payroll. Mr. Dashwood as president, Mrs. Dashwood and Marianne in some sort of fluff roles (community outreach, artist in residence, some sort of completely unnecessary roles.) Elinor did something actually functional.
On Mr. Dashwood's death, John Dashwood manages to rally a majority of the board behind him and brings in a highly efficient new president (Fanny) who proceeds to clean out all the deadwood. Mrs. Dashwood and Marianne are fired immediately and Elinor falls afoul of some sort of internal power struggle and is fired as well. This means that they are now all without their over-generous salaries and (unless they can find work -- which Mrs. Dashwood and Marianne in particular are not used to) are living on the much smaller income resulting from their ownership shares in the company.
One of the key things I think this achieves is it reproduces the social situation in which the women find themselves: Their income and status within society turns out to have been based on a connection rather than being inherent to themselves. They are conscious of being the same people, with the same history and expectations, but they are now much poorer and less recognized. And yet, not the same as other people at their income level, and without the coping skills that someone at that income level would have.
2) This, to me, is the really tricky one.
MrsDarwin suggested that perhaps Edward is married already, but separated from his wife, and unable to honestly pursue any relationship with Elinor until he's received a divorce and annulment. My objection was that except for a small portion of society, that wouldn't actually be any obstacle, and it's certainly not something that Edward would feel unable to mention.
My approach was more business focused, I wanted to come up with a reason why Edward could not ethically enter into a relationship with Elinor, and also couldn't tell her why. My solution is that Edward is a lawyer. He's been hired by Lucy Steele to investigate a possible legal action against the Dashwood company (intellectual property or something else fairly secrecy related such as that.) Edward has come to think that Lucy's case has no merit, but he's convinced that he'd be accused of a conflict of interest if he started a personal relationship with Elinor while still representing Lucy, while he's afraid that if he dropped Lucy and started a relationship with Elinor, she'd accuse him of violating confidentiality. Further, because of the nature of the case, he would compromise Lucy's case if he told Elinor the nature of his entanglement. So after an initial couple of interviews in which they hit it off (Edward has been sent to discover something or other about the company) Edward is staunchly not returning Elinor calls. At some later point, Lucy could then meet Elinor and let her know about the case in such a way as to make it sound as if Edward believes it has great merit (this would have to be because Lucy hopes to get something out of Elinor and aid her case.) Finally, Lucy could throw over her case in some self serving fashion leaving Elinor and Edward free.
3) As I said, I really think one can do whatever one wants with the Marianne plot thread, as it's far more universal than the other two segments in terms of relationship and economics.
So, in my telling, the novel would become a pair of romances which are frustrated by personal obstacles (in Marianne's case) and by business obstacles (in Elinor's) with a resolution which is allowed by clearing up the business/legal problems. (My theory is that in order to update some of the key motives, the constraints on the characters have to be business constraints rather than personal constraints.)
MrsDarwin's novel would be a more personal narrative incited by business events but not necessarily tied to business thereafter for its complications and resolution.
How would you meet the requirements of these plot points?