Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Updating Austen

Trollope heroines have iPads, laptops smartphones and -- better yet -- jobs

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It is a truth universally acknowledged that Jane Austen is one of the greatest novelists in the language.

Who then would dare to rewrite, or modernize, Sense and Sensibility, one of the early 19th-century English author's most beloved titles?

Joanna Trollope has dared such a literary blasphemy. And the results are delightful.

Trollope is a British writer of popular novels and a distant relative of famed Victorian writer Anthony Trollope. She is perhaps best known for her 1991 novel The Rector's Wife, which was adapted for television by Masterpiece Theatre.

Sense and Sensibility is the first in HarperCollins' new Austen Project, for which six contemporary novelists will each rework one of Austen's six completed novels. Other authors in the series include Val McDermid (Northanger Abbey in spring 2014) and Curtis Sittenfeld (Pride and Prejudice in fall 2014).

Originally published in 1811 under the pseudonym of "A Lady," Sense and Sensibility is a comedy of manners, full of rich social satire. The story follows the romantic misadventures of the Dashwood sisters, Elinor and Marianne, one deeply sensible, the other much more emotional.

Trollope updates the setting by 200 years to England in 2013. But, surprisingly, there is something very satisfying about a world where Austenian heroines have smartphones, iPads and -- best yet -- jobs.

In Trollope's novel, Elinor is an aspiring architect and Marianne is a talented musician who suffers from an extreme from of asthma, an inherited disease that also killed their father.

The Dashwood family lose their country home, not because of antiquated concepts of male primogeniture, but because their bohemian mother Belle never quite got around to marrying their father. These updates work well; the modern Dashwoods are believable and engaging.

The key to this update is that Trollope, like Austen, has a keen eye for social observation. This short scene involving youngest sister Margaret is a good example: "She and Elinor were seated either side of the kitchen table in Barton College with their laptops open," Trollope writes.

"Margaret was supposed to be doing a biology project on hers -- the digestive system, complete with diagrams and analyses of all the chemical interactions of the various digestive fluids, but was in fact having a Facebook conversation with a girl in her class who had a cool -- and coolly remote -- older brother."

Trollope's heroines also have sex. In this story, Marianne's obsession with the roguish Willoughby does not remain chaste. But Sense and Sensibility is most definitely not a bodice ripper and readers should not expect anything explicit.

Even those who have read Austen's original countless times will find themselves engrossed by Trollope's retelling. This is a novel that pulls you in quickly and can be gobbled up in one or two sittings.

All of Austen's novels explore themes of social class and the idea that people should be judged and valued for their inner worth rather than their wealth, beauty, status or charm.

In this age of Kardashians, where vanity and shallowness is celebrated in every reality TV program, Austen's message that we should value intelligence and kindness has never been more timely or important.

Danishka Esterhazy is a Winnipeg screenwriter and film director.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 16, 2013 A1

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