Welcome to the Austen Project, a British scheme to update Jane Austen’s sacred lifework — again. This time, well-known authors have been employed to hustle her characters into the 21st century. The Janeites, as her followers are known, may well chain themselves to the publishing house door, but perhaps Jane is smiling from her corner of heaven’s drawing room.
Joanna Trollope, the author of many wonderfully readable novels focusing on the ups and downs of British middle-class lives, drew the “Sense and Sensibility” card, and has produced the debut volume in this new series. (Curtis Sittenfeld will bring “Pride & Prejudice” into the present in fall 2014, and Alexander McCall Smith is at work on “Emma.”)
Trollope sticks closely to the “Sense and Sensibility” plot: Austen’s horse-drawn coaches become Aston Martins, uncle Sir John Middleton runs an outdoor clothing company that sounds a lot like L.L. Bean, and Marianne sends passionate notes to her heartless lover via e-mail. Like Austen’s Elinor (“sense”), this modern Elinor is still a responsible older sister, who carefully hides her love for the do-good Edward Ferrars. Meanwhile, Marianne (“sensibility”) falls for a caddish John Willoughby — just like the originals.
But there comes a moment, hard to pin down, when Trollope’s characters leave their predecessors behind and become players in their own lives. Even though you may know Austen’s novels well enough to predict exactly what will happen next, you’ll care about finding your way to the happy ending of Trollope’s version.
If we allow the basic question — should this happen at all? — the next question is simple: Is the new “S&S” worth reading? The answer is unequivocally yes. Trollope — a descendant of the prolific Victorian writer Anthony Trollope — has immersed herself in Austen’s novels, finding at the core of each three drivers: “romantic love, money and class.” She manages to make her characters contemporary without letting them drift from these fundamental concerns. Elinor really does worry about money and is glad to have a job; Marianne certainly becomes enmeshed in romantic love no matter how unworthy her choice; and belonging to a particular class is as fueled by birth and finance in 2013 as it was in 1811.
The Austen Project is a breathtaking tribute to Jane Austen. Profit-driven 21st-century publishers have faith in her iconic name and immaculate plots. I can’t wait to read the other five “updates” while being reminded to reread, joyfully, the originals.
Weeks is a former editor of Book World.
Sense & Sensibility
Harper. 362 pp.