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

Saturday, November 16, 2013

The revamped Sense & Sensibility, reviewed

Passionate discussion was had here over the idea of re-writing Austen to fit into a modern framework, touched off by news of Joanna Trollope's forthcoming modern-day Sense and Sensibility. How'd that work out for her? The WSJ reports

No book series could be both so unnecessary and yet so inevitable as the "Austen Project," which, beginning with Joanna Trollope's "Sense & Sensibility" (Harper, 362 pages, $25.99), will bring out "reimaginings" of Jane Austen's six canonical novels. Why does Ms. Trollope need such a fancy imprimatur? Writers have been exhaustively reimagining Austen's fictional worlds for years in an unstoppered gush of adaptations, prequels, sequels, modernizations and alternate narratives. Her characters have starred in board books for babies and fan-fiction erotica. Her settings have been the site of zombie invasions and murder mysteries (including by eminences like P.D. James). And this doesn't even take into account the cottage industry of Austen-themed self-help books, dating manuals, travelogues, recipe collections and social-science monographs—or the critical studies that try vainly to explicate the international infatuation. 
Amid such a flourishing garden, Ms. Trollope's "contemporary retelling" is a rather drab shoot. Just as the title is unchanged (save for the ampersand—some kind of nod to modern times?), the characters keep the original names and play out an identical drama: Thoughtful and guarded Elinor Dashwood and her impulsive sister, Marianne, fall in love with compromised men, console each other when their hearts are broken and are finally rewarded with happy endings. 
Ms. Trollope's present-day updating offers novelties like text-messaging and YouTube scandals, as well as the frisson of seeing Elinor utter mild profanities. But the writing isn't so much modernized as simplified, like those Shakespeare editions for grade-schoolers that provide colloquial "translations" on facing pages. Egged on by her rakish suitor, John Willoughby, Marianne in Austen's original cruelly gibes at her principled but unglamorous admirer, Col. Brandon, saying: "Add to which, that he has neither genius, taste, nor spirit. That his understanding has no brilliancy, his feelings no ardour, and his voice no expression." In Ms. Trollope's version this becomes: "He's not a fruitcake. He's just very, very dull." 
The book's halfhearted rendering seems ominous for the series as a whole. However absurd the profusion of Austen homages may have become, most of the adapters have been genuine Janeites, whose zeal infused even the silliest spinoffs with charm and personality. With the Austen Project, a spontaneous movement looks to have become officially franchised. This puts it in league with recent cynical estate-commissioned sequels such as William Boyd's 007 novel, "Solo," or Sebastian Faulks's Wodehouse pastiche, "Jeeves and the Wedding Bells," about which the best you can usually say is that they don't manage to spoil your enjoyment of the original.
Doubtless this comes as no surprise to anyone wincing at the thought that text message alone is enough to modernize Austen, or to rejuvenate any canonical text. It seems to me that a far more successful (or at least righteous) approach would be for an author to ask: what is it about Austen's novels that are universal? What is the underlying appeal of the story, and are there elements of modern life that reproduce the tensions and the constraints that the characters confront? Are there any parallel structures nowadays to the social conventions, legal restrictions, and etiquette that kept the course of true love from running smoothly for Elinor Dashwood et al.? And if so, can the author explore those with enough zest to make the plot hum?

It sounds like Joanna Trollope doesn't have quite the deft touch with human nature of her more famous literary ancestor.

The same column also reviews a retelling of Pride and Prejudice from the point of view of the servants.

It would be a pity if the taint of commercialization stopped readers from picking up Jo Baker's intelligent and elegantly written "Pride and Prejudice" adaptation, "Longbourn" (Knopf, 331 pages, $25.95). Ms. Baker's novel is about the Bennet family's household staff—Longbourn is the family home—particularly a housemaid named Sarah, whose love affair with a newly arrived servant takes place simultaneously against Elizabeth's courtship and marriage. 
Through the brief quotations from "Pride and Prejudice" that open each chapter, Ms. Baker makes it clear that maids, cooks and footmen are omnipresent in the classic and yet are taken for granted not only by the Bennets but by Austen herself. From the point of view of their overworked help, even Austen's most lovable heroines cannot escape appearing cosseted and self-regarding (more heretically, "Mr. B." is implicated in a paternity scandal). Ms. Baker at times belabors the quotidian unpleasantness whitewashed in Regency romances—we regularly find Sarah rinsing soiled linens or emptying chamber pots. But the emotional imbalance between upstairs and downstairs is affecting. Darcy, in his famous declaration to Elizabeth, called love a force that left him "properly humbled." But to Sarah, who has had humbling enough for a lifetime, it's the distant promise of fulfillment and self-worth. 
Her elusive interest, an enigmatic ex-soldier named James Smith, widens the perspective of the story even further. Although the visiting militia in "Pride and Prejudice" exists purely to tantalize the foolish younger Bennet daughters, Ms. Baker reminds us that they were veterans of ugly battles in the era of Napoleon. To James, the cozy world of the Bennet family is marked by an "innocence as deep and dangerous as a quarry-pit." "Longbourn" reveals these messy backdrops while still, in fitting tribute, inventing a touching love story of its own.
A "paternity scandal" implicating "Mr. B"?  This novel may share names and settings, but we're working anymore with the characters Austen actually wrote. Let's remember that there's a paternity scandal in Sense and Sensibility too, so it's not as if she's too squeamish to touch sexual immorality. I'm curious as to whether the mysterious Mr. B is Bennet or Bingley -- guessing the former from the context, but I confess myself insufficiently intrigued to search out the book and find out.

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