Monday, 28 July 2014

Updating The Classics

When I was studying A Level English Literature, Emma was one of our set texts. Our lecturer raved about Jane Austen’s prose, but for the life of me I didn’t get it.  Although I was an avid reader, I remember spending half term forcing myself to read a set number of chapters each day, just so I could get to the end of it.

Of course, with the benefit of age and experience, I can now agree with my lecturer regarding the quality of her writing.

Of all her novels, Sense and Sensibility is my favourite and a few years ago I toyed with the idea of updating the plot into a modern setting.

So much has been written about Pride and Prejudice that I thought the lesser-known Sense & Sensibility might be suitable gap in the market.  I didn’t get any further than my initial musings though and then I heard that The Austen Project had commissioned well-known writers to pen their own modern versions 

Joanna Trollope was asked to re-write Sense and Sensibility and whilst I was a little miffed that my own version would be null and void – if I’d ever got round to writing it that is – I couldn’t think of a better person to write it.

I received a copy for Christmas and decided to re-read the original before I began to read the new version.

And now I’ve read them both and I have to say, frankly, I was disappointed.

Joanna Trollope’s version is easy to read and is well-written, and at first I was fascinated by how she had transformed the plot of old into a modern day setting.  But as the story progressed I began to get rather frustrated with the characters themselves.

In Jane Austen’s day, unless they had an independent fortune, women really only had one option and that was to marry well.  If they could both marry well and be in love then that was the ideal outcome, but being in love definitely wasn’t a pre-requisite to marriage for many. And really, the men weren’t much better off. If they too didn’t have their own fortune or living, they would have to marry for money.  And then if they did have money they had to choose someone who would be fitting for their status.

But I don’t feel that a plotline based on this premise can be believably translated into the modern day.  In Joanna Trollope’s version, I found myself wanting to shout at the young single women to go out and get a job, and for the men whose relatives manipulated them by the threat of disinheritance, I wanted to shout for them to grow a backbone and follow their hearts.

So for me, unfortunately, this version of Sense and Sensibility didn’t really work.  I’m glad Joanna Trollope did it though because I think she did a much better job than I could ever have done

Val McDermid’s version of Northanger Abbey was published at the end of March and Curtis Sittenfield will be rewriting Pride and Prejudice, due out this autumn.

Despite my disappointment with the first book in the series, I would still be interested to read the rest, particularly Val McDermid’s version. Part of me still wonders though if you can’t actually better the originals. 

Has anyone else read these two, if so I’d be interested to hear what you think. 

Old or new?  What works best for you?


  1. What a shame you were disappointed when you were looking forward to it. It is frustrating when you've had an idea and someone else does it. Perhaps you should still write your own version :-) I haven't read any updated versions, so I couldn't say which I'd prefer x

  2. Hi Teresa

    I really don't think I could do it any better than Joanna Trollope so I might give this one a miss. Hope your hand is better.