Tag Archives: Joanna Trollope

Austen Project – Sense and Sensibility

Sense and Sensibility by Joanna Trollope that is. An updated version. I signed up for this project because I genuinely thought it would be interesting. I didn’t subscribe to the view that this would be a dumbing down exercise. There have been fabulous modern day adaptations of Austen and I enjoyed them as much (and sometimes more) than the originals. I wanted to like this.

So this is awkward. Because I didn’t really like it at all.

Trollope has taken the brief very literally. She has, in essence, planted the entire plot of Sense and Sensibility into the modern world without really appearing to have given thought to how it comes across. The main point of Austen’s Sense and Sensibility is the powerlessness of the main characters to influence their circumstances. Marriage really was their only option – there were no jobs for women of their class, very few choices in how to supplement their income. They had to rely in charity of their relatives, of John Middleton and his family, to look after them. And within that wider world, Austen placed the love stories of two girls led by their respective characteristics of common sense and sensitivity.
In the modern world, where women can go out and get jobs, I’m afraid this just doesn’t work. The Dashwoods have been asked to move from their childhood home at Norland because it’s been inherited by their brother John. First anachronism. I’m sure it still happens but it doesn’t really help prompt our sympathy. There is some wailing and gnashing that they only have £200,000 and Elinor will have to leave her university course.
Really? I mean, really? £200,000 between the four of them is plenty to buy a house, let alone rent one. Their mother could get a job, Elinor could get a student loan and continue her architecture course. So could Marianne. This is what people do these days! 
Instead, they plead hardship and live cheaply off a house their cousin in the west country. And so we go on. And soon we come to the next anachronism. Does it matter these days that Edward has been secretly engaged to Lucy Steele? Enough to not break off the engagement and keep her honour intact? Enough to be disinherited? Does this actually happen these days? I wasn’t convinced. Especially with Marianne running off to sleep with Willoughby (or “Wills” as he’s known throughout the book. Other characters are referred to by their initials only. Is this what people do in the modern world? I know I don’t. But I don’t cry hardship when inheriting £200,000 either so who knows.)
In The Rector’s Wife, Trollope explored the actions of a woman who was trapped by her circumstances. Financially and emotionally, the novel’s achievement lies in how she grows and develops to kick off the traces of a previous stilted life. She gets a job. She gets a lover. She grows. She learns things. I had great hopes that this was the kind of thing Trollope was going to discuss in this adaptation. Instead we get a very narrow account of a lifestyle that means nothing to the vast majority of us. Reading about people born to privilege when they had no choices and when Austen was trying to point something out about the kind of life for women of a certain class is one thing; reading about that in these post-feminist days, when women can do so much more, when there is all kinds of help, is quite another.

Fantastic classics

Joanna Trollope has said something a bit daft this week.  The gist of it was that she was concerned that young people read too much fantasy fiction and that they should be reading the classics instead. The classics will equip them better for the big bad wide world. It’s similar to the statement made recently by Michael Gove, who said “would you rather find your 17 year old daughter reading The Hunger Games or Middlemarch?” There appears to be a general horror of modern fantasy novels, for no reason that I can think of, except that perhaps neither Gove nor Trollope has read them.
Nothing matches my pride when I watch my daughter (currently 17 months old) take a book from her shelf and go through it all by herself. Do I want to censor her reading? Of course not. Will I want to do that when she’s a teenager? No. Will I be able to even if I wanted to? Probably not. 
But back to Joanna Trollope. There are a number of things that upset me about her statement. First up, it’s reductive. Classics are better than fantasy fiction? OK. But what are you calling classics? Trollope mentions Eliot and Austen. That’s it. Well, without wishing to be sexist, you’ve just lost the boys. And probably half the girls.
Let’s assume she knows there are more than two authors of 19th century literature. But this still leaves her in a pickle. Shakespeare had all kinds of fairies and monsters – isn’t that fantasy fiction? And then there’s classics such as Beowulf, Lord of the Rings, the Iliad and of course, Dracula, you know, that vampire book.
Both fantasy fiction and science fiction have suffered from statements like this. Some writers, like Kurt Vonnegut took great pains to try not to have their work pigeonholed in this way. It doesn’t really benefit anyone. Can you remember being a teenager, being told to read more books, finding some of them dull – and here’s a word of advice, don’t get 13 year olds to read Great Expectations, they won’t enjoy it – and finally finding something you enjoy reading, only to be told that isn’t right either?
I’ll be honest here. I’m not a great reader of fantasy fiction. Nor of sci fi. I have very little interest in vampire books (I make an exception for Dracula as it’s brilliant) I struggled halfway through the Hobbit when I was 13 and gave up. Ditto those respected children’s classics and fantasy novels by CS Lewis. It’s never done much for me. When I took my A levels I read quite a few classics, English, French and Russian. I may  not read many of those these days but there are some I cherish. So wouldn’t you expect me to agree with Trollope?
The joy of literature is that all the diverse people in this world can find value, entertainment, knowledge and life lessons from all kinds of books. Most of the knowledge I carry around with me came from a book. While I’ve read a few classics, I wouldn’t say I’m a scholar. I’ve read a wide range of books including some of Joanna Trollope’s. This is the legacy I want to pass onto my girl. If she finds something to recognise in the stories behind the Hunger Games then great. If she just reads them to entertain herself, then that’s also great. And if she finds Middlemarch wonderful then also great. But it doesn’t have to be one or the other.
This kind of statement is part of the nostalgia mindset that’s with us so much these days. Things were better back in the day, you know before women started working outside the home, before the war, before the internet or whatever plague of modern living scares you the most. So the classics, books you regard as cosy, from a rosy time, are held up as being more relevant than something modern and popular and scary. I remember when I worked in a bookshop, serving a customer the day one of the Harry Potter novels came out, snorting that AA Milne didn’t need all this fuss to sell Winnie the Pooh. Well so what? Does that matter? Shouldn’t we be celebrating the fuss? A mania for a book, in this digital age. how wonderful. Rowling did wonders for children’s literature – she shook it up, improved literacy and enthralled adults and children alike. I celebrate that in the same way that I celebrate the final lines of Winnie the Pooh that make me cry every time I read them.
We’re more connected now. So let’s make the most of that by telling each other how great stuff is, including telling young people that they might like some classics. Let’s not slag young people off because they’re making their own choices about how they spend their time.