Series: What They Read / Writers

Joanna Trollope: Re-Writing Jane Austen

What would Jane Austen say? Long after she stopped writing them, her novels continue to have a life of their own – in 2009, ‘Pride and Prejudice’ was even overrun by zombies. Now, bestselling British author Joanna Trollope has undertaken to produce a 2013 “update” of ‘Sense and Sensibility’ for HarperFiction. While we couldn’t reasonably expect Jane to have been wildly enthusiastic about the idea, perhaps she would have at least appreciated Joanna’s respect for her subject. “I must emphasise that I know what an unspeakable privilege it is to be asked to take on such an iconic novel, and it’s a task I take on with respect and humility, but I must also say firmly that my version will be a tribute to Jane Austen, and in no way an attempt at an emulation, which would be both improper and impossible,” Joanna tells me.

Unsurprisingly, ‘Sense and Sensibility’ and Joanna are a perfect fit. The author, who has made a career in writing out of exploring the complexities of interpersonal relationships, says the books is about much more than just two approaches to romantic love. “It looks, very penetratingly, at money and class, at the plight of women unable to work and dependent on men or relations for the roof over their heads and the bread in their mouths, at depression (Marianne and Edward Ferrars), at the sabotage of women by women, at parenting, at the effects of an enforced superfluity of leisure….I could go on!”

The book should follow on ‘Daughters-in-Law’ – Joanna’s most recent publication. Avid fans will remember it as belonging on the bookshelf with her other novels like ‘The Choir’ (Joanna’s first contemporary novel), ‘Men and the Girls’, ‘Friday Nights’, ‘The Other Family’ and of course ‘The Rector’s Wife.’ She’ll be autographing copies when she visits Sri Lanka for the first time to attend the 2012 Galle Literary Festival, an event which she describes as “a treat in itself.” While she’s here, Joanna also intends to be involved in some of the festival’s outreach programs: “The young are of course the future of any country, so it will be a privilege as well as fascinating to learn something of what children and the under 25’s in Sri Lanka think and hope for – and I’m afraid that once a teacher (I taught for twenty years in the UK, long ago…) always a teacher, in some sense! So that will be a wonderful add-on to the literary aspect of the visit.”

1. What are you reading now?

Reading looms wonderfully large in my life at the moment, as I’m chairing the Orange prize for 2012  and there will be something north of 135 novels to read over this winter, of which there already is a considerable tower waiting…..I am so pleased to be chairing this particular prize, which has not only rightfully earned its place in the ranks of literary prizes by coming up with some truly excellent winners, but also because it’s open to women writers all over the world, and I thoroughly approve of that! So, apart from the Orange books, I have three of my own choice on the go – Adam Gopnick’s “Paris To The Moon”, Shyam Selvadurai’s “Funny Boy” (I meant to read that while I was actually in Sri Lanka, but I couldn’t wait!) and David Brooks’ intriguing “The Social Animal”.

2. Where do you most like to read?

I like reading in bed, I like reading in a particular chair by the window in my study, but my favourite place of all for reading now is travelling – on buses round London, on trains to Europe, on aeroplanes anywhere else. I dread the day when people can phone from aeroplanes – at the moment, planes provide the best reading environment I can think of, especially long haul, so when most people think, oh groan, twelve hours to Singapore, I think, goody goody, half a Dickens….

3. If you were to give Jane Austen a present of a few books by modern authors – which ones would you wrap up?

Jane Austen would have been quite dangerous to give any present to, I think. I imagine she had specific and precise tastes, and would have instantly spotted anything designed to impress her. When it came to books, she would probably not have cared for anything remotely sentimental ( a lot of Dickens, then, even if she admired his craft…) so a few of  the modern authors I might nervously suggest might include Anne Tyler, Carol Shields, Kate Atkinson, Julian Barnes (she’d love his “The Pedant in the Kitchen”) and Jane Gardam.

4. You’ve been praised for the insight and depth you bring to your descriptions of human relationships. Are there any authors you enjoy for the same qualities?

I’m the kind of reader that really can only manage novels about the human race – I never could manage “Gormenghast”, or any fantasy of any kind – so the novelists I relish most are those of the nineteenth century – George Eliot, Thackeray, the real Trollope, the Brontes – who were so psychologically insightful, as well as all the modern ones who have the same fundamental empathy for their fellow men. And I’d cite all the ones I’d give to Jane Austen, plus Hilary Mantel, Georgina Harding, Ann Patchett, William Boyd, J.G.Farrell – I could go on and on….

5. If you were asked to introduce the work of your ancestor, the Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope, to a new reader, which book would you recommend as his finest work?

Those Victorian novels which were published in serial form first – Dickens was, as well as Trollope – often look dauntingly enormous to a modern reader. And Trollope – although he was better than Dickens at a lot of things – didn’t have Dickens’s extraordinary gift with the opening paragraphs of a book. So if you are going to tackle a Trollope for the first time, I think it’s best to start with something that has a subject that will hook you anyway, and isn’t the length of “The Last Chronicle of Barset”. So for a woman, I’d suggest “The Small House at Allington” and for a man “The Warden”. That having been said, I’m not sure that “The Last Chronicle…” isn’t the finest thing he ever wrote!”

Published in The Sunday Times, Sri Lanka on November 6, 2011. Words by Smriti Daniel. Pix Courtesy Joanna Trollope.

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