Jane is my Co-Pilot: The Fine Art of Making Sense and Sensibility Totally Ridiculous
By Ben H. Winters
Since writing Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, I've gotten a ton of feedback about how nice it is that I've made Jane Austen appealing to certain readers -- meaning readers who previously suffered a persistent allergy to The Classics. I am complimented for taking the prim and decorous Jane Austen and making her, A) really violent, and B) really funny.
The first compliment I will gladly accept. Over the decades since Sense and Sensibility first appeared, it has been noted by scholars and casual readers alike that the book is sorely lacking in shipwrecks, shark attacks, and vividly described decapitations. I believe it was the poet and critic Thomas Chatterton who admired the novel's careful plotting and social critique, but lamented the total absence of vengeful ghost pirates.
But I can't take credit for making Jane Austen funny. As is well known by passionate fans of Austen -- I have yet to meet any other kind -- the old girl has always been funny. Take for example Mr. and Mrs. Palmer, a set of secondary characters in Sense and Sensibility. The periodic appearances of the Palmers comprise what any comedy writer will recognize as a running gag. Mrs. Palmer is chatty and trivial, while Mr. Palmer (a delightful Hugh Laurie in the Ang Lee version) is gruff and unaffectionate. What Mrs. Palmer labels "droll," the reader -- along with Elinor, our sensible heroine -- recognizes as plain distaste for his wife, her friends, and everybody else in the universe. Every time those Palmers show up, we know we're in for the next variation on the same great gag.
Note that Austen doesn't do to the Palmers what Charles Dickens would: Exaggerate their core traits to the point of absurdity. (Also, she doesn't name them something like Mr. and Mrs. Featherwit). The Palmers are funny, but they're plausible, and their primary function in the book is to provide not laughs, but a corrective to Marianne's rosy ideal of married life. So Austen makes them funny, but not ridiculous.
Making them ridiculous was my job. When the Palmers appear in my monsterfied Sensibility, I give Mr. Palmer's drollery a murky, weird-tales back story, part of the preposterously elaborate foreshadowing of my H.P. Lovecraft-inspired denouement.
I play the same game, of comically amplifying what's already there, in varying ways throughout the book. Colonel Brandon, stiff and formal and middle-aged, becomes a stiff and formal and middle-aged man-monster. Genial Sir John becomes genial adventurer/explorer Sir John. Had Austen made all her characters ridiculous in that Dickensian way, if she had been the kind of writer who is forever winking at her readers, my book would be (as they say in improv comedy) a hat on a hat. But because Sense and Sensibility is so eloquent and restrained, Sea Monsters gets to go way over the top.
This is true even on the simple level of vocabulary. Austen's precise early-19th century diction is the textual equivalent of Eustace Tilly, the top-hatted, monocled figure from the cover of the New Yorker: Her writing simply oozes good taste. The trick was to appropriate that ever-so-tasteful and old-timey Austenian style to describe things she never would have:
In the profound silence that followed, their ears were filled with a low thrashing sound, as the corpse of the bosun's mate was noisily consumed by devil fish. At length the captain drew upon his pipe, and spoke again. "Let us only pray that this is the worst such abomination you encounter in this benighted land; for such is but a minnow, when compared to the Devonshire Fang-Beast."
"The . . . what?"
Even more fun to play with than Austen's eloquent vocabulary is her universe of enforced emotional rectitude. The Dashwood sisters live in a world where one's feelings are not blurted out -- or, at least, they're not meant to be, as sensible Elinor is continually reminding sensitive Marianne. It's a constant struggle to keep one's emotions hidden beneath the surface; all I did was literalize that metaphor in the most preposterous way, by adding deadly and dangerous monsters which appear literally from beneath the surface.
There was one factor above all that made Sense and Sensibility such a fun comic foil, and that is the place the book holds in the cultural firmament. One question I've heard a lot (or read a lot, as it's the sort of thing that comes up on blog comment-threads), is "Why didn't you do Persuasion? That's the Austen book that actually takes place on the water!"
The answer is simply that Persuasion, unlike Sense and Sensibility or Pride and Prejudice, may be a great book, but it is not a Great Book. It has not gathered around itself the unmistakable stink of importance.
Sense and Sensibility, on the other hand, stands in the literary tradition as Margaret Dumont stands before Groucho Marx, as the Chairman of the Reception Committee in Duck Soup: Prim and proper and radiating worthiness -- just waiting, in other words, for someone to hit it with a pie.
©2009 Jane Austen and Ben H. Winters, authors of Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters
Ben H. Winters, coauthor of Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, is a writer based in Brooklyn.
For more information please visit http://www.benhwinters.com/ and http://www.quirkclassics.com/index.php?q=senseandsensibilityandseamonsters