The purists will call it sacrilege, but Joanna Trollope discovered a kindred spirit when she rewrote the debut of her bestselling 19th-century counterpart
JOANNA Trollope lowers her voice and leans across the table conspiratorially. “Did you know there is a reference to buggery in Mansfield Park?” This is so marvellously incongruous that I’m momentarily stopped in my tracks. No, I venture, eventually, I can’t say I do.
“Oh, do look it up, Susan,” she entreats. “It’s Mary Crawford, you know, who’s rather mischievous? I can’t quote it exactly, but she talks in a very throwaway and bold way that ‘We have many Admirals and Rears among our acquaintance’ and the ‘Rears’ is a play on words: Rear-Admirals, and also what sailors got up to marooned on ships with only other men for months on end.” She raises her eyebrows as if to say: “So, now you know.”
Trollope has the strong, sensible voice of a schoolmarm, but she can also sound like a mischievous fourth former. Of course, she isn’t the first to suggest there is more to Jane Austen than bonnets and quadrilles, and it’s hard to prove a double entendre after 200 years. On the other hand, she should know. She has spent much of the past two years rewriting Austen for the 21st century.
Trollope’s Sense & Sensibility, out now, is the first book in the Austen Project, an ambitious idea by publisher HarperCollins to invite contemporary novelists (Val McDermid and Alexander McCall Smith are among the others) to rewrite Jane Austen’s six novels for the present day. It’s either an ingenious notion to bring timeless classics to a wider audience or an act of sacrilege, depending on which side you’re on.
It will put a gust up the crinolines of the Janeites, the worldwide body of passionate Austen followers. “She arouses an extraordinary possessiveness in people,” says Trollope thoughtfully. “There are devotees who feel that every single semicolon is sacred. And to them I would say don’t distress yourselves by reading this. This is definitely a tribute to Jane, it’s not an imitation, it’s not a sequel. It’s a re-imagining of a novel published in 1811 for the audience of 2013. And there are an enormous number of young women and girls out there who think they are Jane Austen fans because they’ve seen the movies and the TV adaptations, but they struggle a bit with the formality of early 19th-century writing.”
It’s easy to see why Trollope would be a safe pair of hands to begin the project; some reviewers are already describing the pairing as “a natural marriage”. A bestselling novelist for more than 20 years, since The Rector’s Wife knocked Jeffrey Archer off the top spot in 1991, she has attracted comparisons to Jane Austen for her astute observations of village life.
She wrinkles her nose eloquently. “It’s lèse-majesté. I know the difference between being good and being great, and she is definitely great.”
She has also forcefully rejected the “Queen of the Aga saga” label which has rather unfairly dogged her work. She rightly describes her novels as bleak rather than cosy, and has an eye for exploring the dilemmas of modern life and relationships – affairs, divorce, remarriage – in a way that is both compelling and believable. Her latest novel, The Soldier’s Wife, is about the difficulties which arise when a modern woman is expected to follow her husband’s profession.
Whatever else is certain, there is no Aga in her life now. After her second marriage – to television writer Ian Curteis – ended in the late 1990s, she began to spend more time in the city, eventually leaving the Cotswolds for a pad in West London. When I met her around that time, she was an elegant lady-of-a-certain-age, in long skirts and stylish cardigans. But with her move to the city she swapped Country Casuals for Alexander McQueen.
Always tall and willowy, she arrives at our meeting in pencil-thin skinny jeans and two-tone kitten heels, urban chic which she wears with an easy grace few other ladies of 69 could hope to emulate.
Approaching Sense & Sensibility (the cover shows two regency-style cameo figures sharing an iPod) she has retained Austen’s original three-part structure and all of her characters: “They might talk in a contemporary way and slightly in my style – one can’t help that – but I wanted everyone to be terribly aware that this is Jane Austen’s novel.” The original novel was Austen’s first, and showed her getting to grips with her craft. Trollope has simply made a few “tweaks”, skipping the tedious explanations in the first chapter about the intricacies of inheritance law, going directly to the scene – “a superb scene, one of the best she ever wrote” – where the grasping sister-in-law, Fanny gets her hands on the Dashwood inheritance. “I brought that up to be the first dramatic narrative episode that gets the plot going, because that is to modern tastes. It’s not betraying Jane in any way, it’s just slightly rearranging Jane.”
If you can cope with the fact that Willoughby has swapped his chariot for an Aston Martin, and exchanges passionate texts with Marianne, and that younger sister Margaret is a proper teenager, wedded to Facebook and given to saying “Whatever!”, you might be surprised how little tweaking the plot needs to work in the 21st century. Trollope’s minor adjustments “to give it veracity for today” seem entirely natural. Marianne is asthmatic, giving her the air of necessary fragility, and handing Willoughby a reason to rescue her from her ill-fated walk. The issue of the Dashwood women being disinherited is covered neatly by the fact that, in Trollope’s version, the parents were never married, so their home, Norland Park, falls to John, Henry’s son from his first marriage.
In Austen’s novel, poverty is a dark, unspoken threat. “In 1811, if you fell from gentility and adequacy of income, you didn’t fall to poverty, you fell to destitution. You really went from the drawing room to the gutter, and it was hideous. It was rags and starving.
“It was a harsh century, the 18th century. We admire it for the grace and elegance of its architecture and its manners and its language and its clothes, but there was something absolutely relentless. And the fact that marriage for a gently-born girl, an educated girl, would have been the only career option. Which accounts for the enormous sabotage of women by women in Jane Austen – how beastly they are to each other.”
Of course, now we have the welfare state, but the Dashwoods still seem precarious: they wouldn’t fare well in a council flat. And while marriage is no longer the only way for a woman to better herself, women are just as concerned as they ever were about relationships.
“Austen’s three great preoccupying topics – money, class and romantic love – are alive and well today. She wrote about the three things that concern most people in the first world, whatever they think. Almost everything we do in life is related to money, class and love. And if you extend love to family and friendship, it’s all there.”
She says this explains the extraordinary number of reworkings of Austen, prequels and sequels, the Bollywood version, the vampire version, contemporary reworkings from Clueless to Bridget Jones’s Diary. “The thing about re-imagining Jane Austen is that her novels are like a perfectly wonderful melody. If you get a melody, say something everybody knows, like Summertime out of Porgy And Bess, you can do whatever you like to that tune, you can jazz it up, you can transpose it, you can syncopate it. It doesn’t matter what you do, you know you’re listening to Summertime, the essence is always there.
“When I was doing it, I kept thinking, ‘Jane, you are a genius’ because here’s this person who works, is credible, in 1811 just as well as they do in 2013, they just leap off the page and into everyday now with not a backward look.” So, practical Elinor Dashwood has a touch of Saffy from Ab Fab. Nancy Steele – with hair extensions and plastic surgery – is “straight out of TOWIE” (“Totes amazeballs!”). Robert Ferrars is a gay party planner with echoes of Mark-Francis from Made In Chelsea (“I think Jane hints that he’s gay, all that mincing around choosing a toothpick case”). The women’s benefactor, Sir John Middleton, is a country clothing entrepreneur in the mode of Johnny Boden, while Colonel Brandon’s unfortunate ward, Eliza, meets with a very modern end: “The horrible fate of poor little Amy Winehouse was very instructive.”
Glamorous scoundrel Willoughby (“Wills”) is a trustafarian, blessed with looks, charm and a wallet full of maxed-out credit cards. “Do you remember when he carries Marianne into the cottage? Mrs Dashwood can’t really speak because he’s so gorgeous. When you’re re-imagining Willoughby, you start with somebody who has always found life rather easy because of being so beautiful, and he’s been indulged. I only realised when I was researching Aston Martins – that’s the really cool car, the City boy’s flaming Ferrari, a Porsche is seen as a bit vulgar – that you can lease them. So that suited my very shady Willoughby: he doesn’t even own this car.”
However, the central dilemma of the book, as represented by Elinor and Marianne – sense versus sensibility, head versus heart – is as relevant today as ever. Trollope believes the character of Marianne, who will settle for nothing less than passionate romance, will be entirely recognisable to young women today. “There is that modern belief in emotional entitlement, where you’re not looking for Mr Right, you’re either looking for Mr Perfect or else you’re looking for a soulmate, not just somebody you kind of like and admire, but somebody to whom you can hand yourself over. You can say, ‘Well I don’t like myself terribly, but you obviously do, so you deal with me’. And how could he fail to carry you? That’s very modern.”
But Marianne, of course, has picked the wrong man. And when he rejects her publicly – in Trollope’s version the scene is filmed on a mobile phone and posted on YouTube – she is devastated. “She’s mistaken fancying a really hot boy for the soulmate stuff. And he knows exactly how to get her into bed – obviously I’ve got to have him seducing her because in modern times it would be too prissy for words.”
Trollope speaks a great deal of sense about relationships. Having had two marriages, she now lives alone, making no secret of the fact that she enjoys her freedom, and wonders if young women expect too much from relationships. Does this mean that, even after a century of feminism, we’re apt to make the same mistakes as Marianne?
“Well, you need emotional fulfilment but you need self-fulfilment as well, that’s what feminism has tried, and is still, thank goodness, trying to encourage, this belief in yourself. Because you are the only person you’re stuck with, so you might as well exploit that and fulfil that person to the top of your bent. But of course, the other side – the modern message, which Jane would surely approve of – is that running in tandem to your obligation to yourself in terms of your own talents and capacities is your fulfilment of yourself as an emotional and sexual being, in whatever form that takes. I think she would have said that it is entirely justifiable to run those two concurrently. Neither should be at the expense of the other.”
She refers to Jane by her first name several times in our conversation, as if she might be waiting for us in another room. In her research for the project – she always researches her books meticulously and at length – she has delved into Austen’s life, and believes she was on the cusp of bestsellerdom when she died in 1817 at the age of 41. She published just four novels in her lifetime, and two more were published posthumously.
“I tell you something which may sound a little fanciful, a little woo-oo. I’ve been very conscious of her, all the time that I’ve been writing this. People talk about her as if she was just the quiet second daughter of an obscure Hampshire parson. She was none of those things; she loved family life, she was thoroughly engaged, she was busy all the time, she was keen on modern life, loved parties, loved society, was hugely observant of other people. The woman who comes across in her letters is not just clever and funny, she’s very sure of herself and very mischievous, and she’s obsessed with clothes. The letters that are left are mostly to her sister Cassandra, and they are all about a new length of cherry-coloured ribbon to trim a bonnet, and how pleased she is with her new gloves.
“And my feeling is that she would have been thrilled to find all these millions of adorers now, and she would have been highly amused by this project. Because the aim of the project is to be a Jane-enhancer, it’s not a profiting by Jane, it’s a kind of extension of Jane.”
• Sense & Sensibility, by Joanna Trollope, is out now in hardback, priced £18.99