I must admit that I enter this bewildering adult world with some trepidation. After two years of watching the confusion, intrigues, and intense emotions of my sisters’ paths to true love, I cannot help but feel apprehensive about what the next few years might hold in store for me.
Two months ago, when all the heartbreak ended and my second happily married sister left home, I wasn’t sure how to fill my time. Now, however, I have decided upon a project. I am going to write it all down, just as I saw it unfold.” (pp. 7-8)
This Real Read version of Sense and Sensibility is a retelling of Jane Austen’s novel for children. It is retold by Gill Tavner and illustrated by Ann Kronheimer. The story is told from the point of view of fifteen year old Margaret Dashwood, written after her sisters are married. Since this retelling is for children, I thought that it was a clever idea to make Margaret the narrator. It does, however, necessitate her overhearing and knowing things that she is unaware of in the novel. Notably, she overhears Lucy telling Elinor about her engagement to Edward, and she accompanies Mrs. Jennings to London along with her sisters. Amazon recommends this book for ages 9-12. I think that it would be rather below the reading level of most twelve year olds that I know, so I’d recommend it more for the younger end of that range. A twelve year old would still probably enjoy it, it just wouldn’t challenge them.
Told by Margaret, the story portrays her as initially more in tune with her romantic sister Marianne. When leaving Norland, the two of them are shown hugging trees together. “We pressed our cheeks against their trunks, the rain running down then mingling with our tears.” (p. 8) Elinor exhorts them, “Marianne, Margaret, we must control our emotions for Mama’s sake.” (p. 9) Marianne replies, “Oh, unfeeling Elinor … you have not our strength of feeling, or you could not be so calm.” (p. 9) Throughout the story, Margaret comes to understand and admire Elinor’s courage and self-control, observing how Marianne’s self-absorbed grief keeps her from noticing the sorrow of others. “I was gradually learning that it is sometimes necessary to control our emotions for the sake of others.” (p. 34)
I like how the characters and choices of the persons in the story are the focus of this retelling. It would be easy to simplify the story into just a love story, but the novel is so much more. (Not that I want to downplay the romance.) Naturally, much of the original events have been abbreviated, condensed, and combined to fit the shorter format. As a result, the story becomes very fast paced. (The book is only 64 pages long, and only pages 7-54 of those are the actual story, large print and generously illustrated.) Some things are just left out. Though she does fall down on a hill, there is no mention of Marianne’s ankle being sprained, and we never learn why Willoughby left Marianne, though Margaret surmises, “Even if this dissipated, selfish man had truly loved Marianne, he had always intended to marry for money rather than for love” (p. 44).
Some interesting choices were made. For example, instead of cutting Lucy Steele’s sister Anne out of the story, she was combined with Lucy, making her both conniving and vulgar. It works well, however, keeping Lucy’s meanness without sacrificing the humor provided by Anne. Colonel Brandon’s story is much curtailed. His ward, Eliza, was “the daughter of a dear friend” (p. 43). Her story is reduced to Colonel Brandon telling Elinor, “I found Eliza in great distress. Her innocence had been seduced, false promises made, a child born, and she completely abandoned and disgraced.” (p. 44) All in all, I think that the condensing was done tastefully, though I was bothered by one departure from a character’s personality. To condense Marianne’s writing to Willoughby, she is presented as lying about who she is writing to, telling her sisters, “I must write to Mama” (p. 35). This, I thought, was grossly out of character. In general, however, I thought the characters, though simplified, were much the same. Elinor is self-controlled, Marianne is passionate, Edward is gentle, Willoughby is enthusiastic, Colonel Brandon is grave, and Sir John and Mrs. Jennings are cheerful match-makers.
Some of the language in the story seemed odd and out of place, even laughable. Such as when Marianne learns of Edward’s engagement and marriage (she learns of his marriage and his engagement at the same time in this book) to Lucy. Marianne asks Elinor, “You mean you have known for four months? … How have you coped?” (p. 45) When Edward tells the Dashwoods that Lucy married his brother Robert, “Elinor squeaked, ran from the room, and burst into tears. Edward followed her.” (p. 50) Squeaked‽ [Edit: ‘Squeaked’ is actually a printer’s error.*] Some of it was quite funny and clever, though. For example, the account of Lucy’s marriage to Robert: “When news of their [Edward and Lucy’s] secret engagement had finally reached his mother’s ears, she was furious. She immediately cut him out of her will, leaving him nothing. She would now leave all her money to Edward’s younger brother, Robert, who had always been her favorite. Being wealthy, he soon became Lucy’s favorite too.” (p. 52)
I was pleased, too, with how many of the phrases used reflected Jane Austen’s original, and how little details from the novel, like Margaret losing her dinner, were incorporated. Compare these quotes, one from the novel and the other from the retelling:
This only need be said;—that when they all sat down to table at four o’clock, about three hours after his arrival, he had secured his lady, engaged her mother’s consent, and was not only in the rapturous profession of the lover, but, in the reality of reason and truth, one of the happiest of men. (Sense and Sensibility, Chapter 49)
When we all sat down to a very pleasant afternoon tea only three hours after Edward’s arrival, he had secured his lady, engaged Mama’s consent, and declared himself the happiest of men. (p.51)
And when telling of Marianne and Colonel Brandon’s engagement, Margaret writes, “Unable to do anything by halves, she has grown to love passionately a man on the wrong side of thirty-five who occasionally wears a flannel waistcoat.” (p. 53)
The ending is cute (spoiler ahead): “Now they [Edward & Elinor and Colonel Brandon & Marianne] all live close together, a short distance from Barton. As I said at the beginning, we spend a great deal of time there. We will be traveling again tomorrow. Before that, tonight, Sir John Middleton is throwing a party. He is eager to introduce me to a distant cousin of his. Mrs. Jennings is sure that I’ll like him.” (p. 54)
The illustrations are cartoon style, which is not my favorite. They are pretty, however. Despite the picture on the cover resembling the 1995 movie version of Sense and Sensibility, the illustrations inside are in no way copies of the movie. I was particularly amused by the depiction of Miss Grey (pp. 38-39) and of Marianne’s sorrow after receiving Willoughby’s letter (p. 40). I don’t think that Marianne was being so melodramatic at that point, but the illustration is cute.
In the back of the book, there is a section “For Further Information”. (It includes information about the original novel, background information about Jane Austen’s times and the subjects she was writing about, a list of “Food for thought” with “Critical thinking questions”, “Themes”, and “Style”, as well as a recommended reading list.) It details most of the changes made from the original story, giving details from the novel. “The loss of so many of Jane Austen’s original words is a sad but necessary part of the shortening process. We have had to make some difficult decisions, omitting subplots and details, some important, some less so, but all interesting. … The points below will fill in some of the gaps, but nothing can beat the original.” Of course I whole-heartedly agree, but this book does a good job of what it sets out to do.
All quotes with their page numbers are taken from Sense and Sensibility (Real Reads), retold by Gill Tavner, illustrated by Ann Kronheimer (New York: Windmill Books, 2009. ISBN: 1607541432).
*The author, Gill Tavner, has informed me that ‘squeaked’ is a printer’s error. The word should be ‘squealed’.