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Joanna Trollope on Sense and Sensibility

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Bestselling novelist Joanna Trollope discusses her new adaption of the Jane Austen classic.

What was it about the idea of a modern re-telling of Jane Austen’s novel, Sense and Sensibility, that caught your imagination?

My first – and I have to say, last – reaction when the idea of updating those novels was put to me, was: how brilliant! Jane Austen’s pre-occupations – romance, money and class – are timeless, which is one of the main reasons that puts her at the head of the much beloved, as well as classic, category. She is also completely serious about any character or emotion that requires respect, while at the same time displaying a wonderful capacity for mockery and spot on censure for folly and unkindness in any form. And so, while determined that any novel I wrote would be unquestionably a tribute to her genius, and in no way an imitation, I could immediately see that her characters and her narrative would translate absolutely seamlessly to 2013 – which, indeed, they have.

The characters that Austen creates are timeless but still, transferring them to current times must have been an enthralling task. Did you find the presence of an existing plot and characters liberating or limiting?

The whole process was a liberation. The characters almost felt that they were transferring themselves to recognisable modern people with very little help from me, so vivid are they. And being freed from the need to invent a theme, a narrative or a cast list for myself, I felt little short of exhilarated the whole time. Of course there were elements that had to be modernised since the characters in the original, a lot of them living on the proceeds of the slave trade, although that is never mentioned as it would have been such a contemporary commonplace, have the kind of leisure that is absolutely unthinkable nowadays. And the outrages – Willoughby’s impregnating of Eliza, say – have to be updated to convey the same level of shock. But these changes were really details in what was an extraordinarily engaging project.

In Chapter 5 Belle says: ‘Then he’d be at complete odds with my Marianne. And me for that matter. We believe in the love of a life, you see.’ Marianne really is the living embodiment of the sensibility that was so fashionable in the eighteenth century. How did you manage to update her romantic fervour and make her so likeable?

The thing is – that Marianne is likeable, as well as close to impossible, in the original … We know that by the time Jane Austen came to write Sense and Sensibility, her own appreciation of the qualities of level headedness that Elinor displays far outweighed the current philosophical vogue for sensibility. But Marianne is as much a child of her times – 1809 – as she is, with a slightly different modern interpretation, of ours. It’s just that we have a different way of describing, and of seeing, the same utter belief in emotional self-indulgence and the prioritising of individualism, as she does. What she would call sensibility, we recognise as entitlement. Her belief in finding the love of her life equates to our desire for a soul mate. She may exhibit an exasperating level of self-involvement which is very recognisable today, but she is also warm and welcoming and sincere in her attachments. And she loves her sister, Elinor, she really does. We can all look round our circles of friends and see people in it who are Mariannes – maddeningly self-absorbed, and emotional, but also sweet and responsive and sympathetic. Jane Austen’s Marianne is a very modern girl, with all the plusses and minuses that that entails.

Do you tend to read when you are writing a novel and if so, what?

I read all the time … And what I read is not particularly deliberate, but more often than not, whatever is next on the pile of books waiting to be read because I have been asked to read them or am longing to, anyway! This year, one of my huge reading joys was the entire shortlist for the Womens’ Prize for Fiction – six dazzling books. I can’t think when there has been a stronger shortlist – every one a winner in my view!

Did you re-read Austen’s Sense and Sensibility and if so, did you refer to it as you wrote or did you prefer to keep a distance between you and the text?

I read and re-read it exhaustively, to the point of cannibalising several paperbacks of it to work out the scenes I was going to use, and where I would have to add scenes to bring the narrative circumstances up to date. So I ended up with a tattered re-configured sequence of the original, heavily highlighted. I have left one line of the original in the updated version – I wonder if you can find it?

As a hugely successful, bestselling novelist, would you have any guidance or advice for young writers starting out today?

The first thing I would say is that there is plenty of time. You can be too young to write – simply because you haven’t had time to live enough – but you can hardly be too old. Think of the wonderful P.D. James, in the bestseller lists at 94! I remain of the opinion that most people write better after 35 than before, for that very reason. So, don’t be in a hurry! And while you are waiting, train your powers of observation, because that is the hallmark of all successful novelists. Maybe even keep a notebook – not a diary, but a notebook you have with you in which you can record ideas or observations, or snatches of a conversation you overhear, or scraps of dialogue. No amount of noticing of other people is ever, ever wasted, for a writer…

Good luck!

Joanna Trollope is talking about Sense and Sensibility in the Town Hall on Saturday 12 October at 12pm

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