Rosie Rushton has written 38 books for children and young adults, and has suddenly discovered that she is at an age when it takes longer to research how her heroine's iPod works than it does to write 50,000 words of gripping prose. Exhausting as this may be, she still feels an irresistible urge to address the issues facing today's young people and is rather more proud of titles such as Last Seen Wearing Trainers, Waving Not Drowning and Tell Me I'm OK Really, than of her earlier, more light-hearted fiction. However, taking the novels of Jane Austen and setting them in the 21st century has been a new challenge and (most of the time) an exciting one - apart from those days when she screamed, kicked the computer, ate too much butterscotch chocolate and applied for jobs as a checkout girl at Tesco. Northanger Abbey became Summer of Secrets, Sense and Sensibility is The Secrets of Love, and Secret Schemes and Daring Dreams is her updated take on Emma, to be published early in 2008. Rosie's publishers are pleading with her to attempt Pride and Prejudice next, an invitation she has flatly refused. There's no way it can be done - it won't translate. And that's her final decision. Unless of course, Elizabeth could... and then if Jane was... and we could always put Darcy into a... Sorry. Rosie's got to go. Her creative juices are flowing. Please send her butterscotch chocolate. Here she writes about Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility.
Rosie Rushton on Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen
I was 11 years old when I discovered Jane Austen. Northanger Abbey entranced me, being a child of wild imagination and, even then, burgeoning tendencies to exaggeration and over-egged responses. Emma followed; Jane Austen might have declared that she was likely to be the only person who liked the heroine, but I adored her, if only because I recognized the sheer reasonableness of wanting to organize the entire universe.
And then, one day, I found Sense and Sensibility. And that was it really - I had found something that would, although I didn't realize it at the time, influence all my writing for teenagers in the years ahead. A novel with two heroines, both likeable at times and insufferably tedious at others; both so human that the author had only to write 'Marianne entered the room' and the passion, emotion in overdrive and the unspoken angst were there, washing over the reader and dismissing Elinor to the edges of consciousness - only, of course, to have her make some fearfully sensible comment and regain all that lost loyalty in half a paragraph.
Two heroines - and as I turned the pages I jumped from decrying Elinor's common sense and cheering Marianne on her impetuous way, to shouting at Marianne for her mood swings and tantrums and nodding sagely at Elinor's logical approach to everything.
To say Elinor represents sense and reason, and Marianne represents emotion is to oversimplify. In fact, both girls represent different aspects of both characteristics. This is quite clearly shown in the ending (which at age 11 I found deeply unsatisfactory, having wanted Marianne to leap into the future on the arm of the attractive if unreliable Willoughby): sensible Elinor marries her true love after overcoming numerous obstacles; emotional Marianne finds happiness with the eminently sensible Colonel Brandon.
What is fascinating - and what stands the test of time superbly - is that the whole issue of downsizing, to use a modern term, is the perfect tool for highlighting the individual responses of the two main characters. Changes in material circumstance were familiar to Jane Austen; after her father's death, she, her mother and her sister were forced to rely on the kindness of relatives for financial support. For the modern reader, and even more for an author transposing the characters into 2007, as I did when I chose to update Sense and Sensibility and write Secrets of Love, the challenge is to observe and understand that impact, not only on each individual character, but on the relationship between them - and indeed the more minor characters in the book. Sense and Sensibility was Austen's first novel, and one cannot help but feel that as she progressed with the writing, it was the whole issue of loyalty, as much as sense, emotion and love, that drove the interaction between the sisters and the objects of their affection.
One of the great frustrations for me at 11 - and I believe for modern teenagers - is the triumph of 'sense' over 'sensibility'. It may well have satisfied the readers of Austen's day, but there is this emphasis on conventional feminine virtues being the vehicle to happiness that doesn't sit well with today's 15-year-old reader. In Secrets of Love, Ellie (Elinor) and Abby (Marianne) and little sister Georgie lose their home and have to change lifestyles very dramatically; but they only reach the point where 'sense' triumphs after they have gone on a journey of self-exploration which involves a lot more than a sprained ankle and a few days' feverish illness. And in my version, sense and sensibility can go hand in hand, for what in life can be approached in an evenly balanced way without both characteristics being employed in one's response?
Austen's male characters have, I fear, been done no service by television and film adaptations. I mean, tell me, who in their right mind would see any attractive quality whatever in Mr Elton (Emma) as portrayed in the Gwyneth Paltrow movie? Likewise Mr Collins in TV's Pride and Prejudice. And as for Colonel Brandon in the Sense and Sensibility movie - too old, too squarely built, too dull. For this reason, I had to search my soul (well, all right, my creative imagination) and work hard on the Willoughby and Brandon characters in my version. Young people today have the same characteristics as humans have always had: love, hate, jealousy, caution, abandon... but in the 21st century they have far more risky and challenging ways of testing their emotions. Interaction between boy and girl starts in kindergarten these days; both sexes are educated together, talk, play, love and hate together and thus both genders are aware of the emotional responses (or lack of them) of one another. They start, if you like, from a very different base point than Austen's young men and women. Of course, education doesn't change the basic emotions, but it opens up scope for self-analysis and discussion which it seems men didn't think about in Jane Austen's day. And yet - and this is where her true brilliance lies - pick any of her characters, put them down in 2007, and if you've read the book well and lost yourself in it, you will find those same characters telling you quite plainly how they would act today.
That is the hallmark of a genius. Her characters are so finely drawn, so minutely observed, that in reality the period in which they are set is irrelevant. We know them so well that, whether we put them in the modern day and give them the benefit of co-educational schooling, internet access and alcopops, or send them back to the Civil War and plonk them in a draughty castle surrounded by marauding troops, we know what they will say and do. We know them inside out - their pain felt by us so we ache with them, even while wanting to give them a good shake, and their joy so apparent that we laugh out loud with them.
Emma was a little minx and Catherine Morland clearly had the makings of a Whitbread winner; but the Dashwood sisters had that secret ingredient - the unspoken awareness that, while one found the other infuriating, she knew all along that her sister was the counterpoint and counterbalance to her own shortcomings.
In that, Sense and Sensibility is unsurpassed. On the other hand, in Pride and Prejudice... no, don't get me started on Pride and Prejudice. They want me to update that one too and I've said no. Am I the only person on the planet who doesn't think P&P is Austen's finest novel?