Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Plotting a Modernized Sense & Sensibility

MrsDarwin's post last week on the modern re-imagining of Sense & Sensibility being written by Joanna Trollope generated some interesting conversation on the blog. It also generated some interesting conversation around the house, as our dissatisfaction with the modernization of the novel's inciting situation created a drive to come up with a better one. As you may recall, Trollope's method of translating the situation in which Mrs. Dashwood and her three daughters find themselves in reduced circumstances (with the late Mr. Dashwood's son by a previous marriage getting the estate and and making an informal promise to his dying father that he will take good care of the current wife and daughters, but the son's wife persuading him not to follow through on the promise) was to posit that the Dashwood girls are not legitimate:
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?


Unknown said...

I would rather read your version!

Literacy-chic said...

NaNoWriMo 2013?

mrsdarwin said...

No, no! Darwin has an epic WWI project in the works for next year. Maybe by that time I'll have finished NaNoWriMo 2011.

Jennifer Fitz said...

I like it. Nicely done, and it captures the modern imagination by giving us real contemporary pressures people have to deal with.

I was thinking there was some to be had in a *good* modern bit of Jane fan-fic. You've proved it.

I agree with the others -- it needs to be written.

I can think of a possible publisher too. They're stacked right now, but then again, you don't have a manuscript right now, so it works.

Jenny said...

#1 could still be a personal fortune. Mrs. Dashwood would not actually be Mrs. Dashwood, but Ms. Smith, Mr. Dashwood's shack-up, who has daughters from a previous relationship. Mr. Dashwood never got around to including his latter-day romance or her children in his will. Since they are not married and the girls are not his children, none of them have any legal right to his money.

After his father's death, the younger Mr. Dashwood promised Ms. Smith that he would continue to support them. However after speaking with his wife, the offer is rescinded. Ms. Smith decides to sue for her portion of the estate claiming a verbal contract with the son.

Edward is the lawyer the Dashwoods hire to defend their interests in the inheritance. All the lawyerly reasons that Edward and Eleanor cannot be together still apply.

I'm having trouble thinking of where Lucy would come in... Maybe Lucy is pushing for a countersuit against Ms. Smith citing a frivolous filing or something.

mrsdarwin said...

I think the problem with Mr. Dashwood not being married to Elinor and Marianne's mother is that the essential element in putting Austen in another setting is finding the universals that allow the characters to make the same moral choices as Austen's characters, regardless of plot modernization. Having the Dashwood parents be unmarried fundamentally changes the tone of the story and places it outside Austen's moral universe.

Darwin said...

My argument for why it can't be a personal fortune is that there's really no reason why someone can't split their personal fortune up these days. So even if Mrs Dashwood is Ms. Smith, Mr. Dashwood could have left her money. In the original, it's not neglectful of Mr Dashwood to have asked his son to watch over Mrs Dashwood and the misses Dashwood rather than actually leaving them money because there were very good societal and economic reasons for not splitting a family estate up. You always had to have one person in charge of it.

Also, I think the advantage of having 1) be a family business is that these days even moderately rich people generally rely more on incomes than on wealth (the very rich rely more on wealth, but Austen wasn't writing about the very rich.) So I like the idea of the Dashwood women having had some kind of job as a result of Mr Dashwood's status which, when he dies, they end up losing.

Not to say that the story couldn't be about a personal fortune. It just strikes me that the dynamics of a business that can't be broken up and the passing out (and revocation) of well paid sinecures at it seems to more closely reproduce in our modern age the kind of dynamics Austen was dealing with.

Brandon said...

How essential is it, really, for the Dashwoods to be in the situation they are because of losing out on something like an inheritance? Obviously it does have some important explanatory functions in the later plot, and allows for some really awesome characterization moments. But if, for instance, the story began around Chapter 4, or if the story were touched off by having lost money rather than by not having received it, would it really have changed all the much that's essential?

Jenny said...

It's true that I don't think you can stick with the personal fortune storyline without introducing some large degree of moral failing on the part of the original Mr. & Mrs. Dashwood. It gives the story a Maury Povich feel.

sciencegirl said...

1) I would set the story in 2008, and impoverish my characters through a combination of real estate crashes and healthcare costs. Mr Dashwood dies of a long battle with cancer, which his HMO doesn't quite cover, leaving the estate effectively bankrupt. The Dashwoods had refinanced their home 4 years prior, before his diagnosis. Mrs Dashwood, a housewife who has been caring for her husband, decides to sell the place. Oh, drat, it's 2008 and the housing market crashes. They can't sell and must default. The older stepson/stepbrother has a very nice salary, but he and his wife feel no obligation to help the ladies. Elinor has a tiny apartment, and is now the only wage-earner in the family. She has to find a small house outside the city where they can all live, and then has a long commute that takes up even more of their meager income. The youngest daughter is sad because she has to switch schools, which are so bad and so bullying that the much-tried Mrs Dashwood ends up homeschooling her.

2) Junior accountant Elinor is great at handling the paperwork associated with death, bankruptcy, and foreclosure, though it takes a huge toll on her emotionally. Who is the last person the family wants to meet? The real estate appraiser who comes to assess the value of their home before, as Mrs Dashwood says, they are, "Kicked out into the streets thanks to the rapacious banks and heartless health insurance agents." Yet this real estate appraiser, Edward, is an old acquaintance of Elinor's from college, and it breaks his heart to see her in such circumstances. They have many conversations as they go over the house, and he even volunteers to help with the move. The neighbors have cut the family out of social life, from combined modern embarrassment over death and economic distress. He warms over the family with his kindness and courtesy, and he and Elinor develop feelings. However, Edward feels he cannot act on his heart because 1) he worries that he can't date Elinor while her family is in the middle of filing bankruptcy, lest it complicate their claim and 2) his sister-in-law Lucy lives with him due to a deathbed promise to his brother and has alienated every woman he's dated. He can't even imagine trying to bring sweet, belabored Elinor into that Hot Mess at the moment. Elinor later meets Lucy, who tells her all kinds of crazy things, implying that Edward is gay and that he also relies on Lucy for financial help. Later, Lucy latches on to a rich man she meets online, and marries him. Edward feels so much better that he rushes to Elinor's side at once with the full story.

3) I'd make Colonel Brandon a slightly younger American army officer (35ish) whose college sweetheart was commissioned with him after 9/11, when Marianne was still in middle school (she is now finishing college on a music scholarship). His sweetheart joined a separate division, as per regulations, and was tragically killed by an IED in a transport line. Her parents, who died in a car accident shortly thereafter, left behind a teenage daughter whom Brandon adopted and paid to send to a nice boarding school while he continued to serve his commission. She used to sneak off with a group of teens that included young Willoughby, who not only got her pregnant, but has been evading childcare payment for years. It takes Brandon a while to figure out that Marianne's crush is his adopted daughter's deadbeat baby-daddy, but when he does, he arranges to sue Willoughby for childcare. Willoughby responds by marrying one of the rich, hot cougars he routinely sleeps with (he secretly cheats on Marianne rampantly, and excuses it with her "selfish" abstinence-only attitude). Willoughby is thus shown to be a horrid man, Marianne gets H1N1 in the summer of 2009, Brandon helps out and hangs around, and it's all love and sunshine from there.

Darwin said...


I like it. It's got plotting audacity and it's very different from something I'd come up with -- which is half of what I like about fiction: getting out of my own head.

Darwin said...


It seems essential that the Dashwood recently had more money than they do now, but thinking about it, I think you're right that the method of loss is not essential to the story.

Enbrethiliel said...


I wanted to come up with a reason why Edward could not ethically enter into a relationship with Elinor

Silly Darwin, twisting yourself into convoluted knots. It's so obvious that Edward is a vampire and is holding back out of concern for Bell--uh, Elinor.

Did I just get myself banned from the blog? =P

MrsDarwin said...

No, but you're banned from re-writing Sense and Sensibility. :)

Anonymous said...

Cathleen Schine has written a very modern take-off on S&S,
"The Three Weissmanns of Westport."

Kathleen Miller