ADAPTING AUSTEN: Jessica Swale’s Masterful Sense and Sensibility takes the PSF Stage
by Jessica Bedford
Many moons ago, in a college class on the literature of the Western Canon, my professor said that we wouldn’t be reading any “marriage plot” material for the course. Seemingly to address an unspoken question, he continued, “So that’s Jane Austen. Things like that.” And then, I’m certain, he gave a dismissive chuckle before battering on about the glories of his selected reading list. It’s possible that he may have also twisted his mustache as he chuckled but there I fear that my emotional experience of this moment may be coloring what actually happened.
If we’re looking to popular culture (read: TV and Hollywood films), I can somewhat see his point: Colin Firth emerging from a pond, Emma Thompson just making it into the next room as she finally cries, and any number of beautiful starlets stuck in a field or garden emoting through rain and thunderclaps.
Don’t leave me, dear reader, I love those films and performances as much as you do. (Who knew a scummy pond could be so…sexy?) But it must be said that those pieces are adaptations of Austen’s work, not Austen’s work. So while this comment from my professor hit me as misogynistic, it also made me wonder if this man, a professor of Western literature, had ever sat down and read an Austen novel—a writer so important in her home country that her face graces their money. The ten-pound note to be exact. She’s the UK’s Alexander Hamilton.
It cannot be denied that romance is a part of all of Austen’s stories, but I would counter that she wasn’t writing about marriage, she was writing about women.
Writer Helena Kelly in her book Jane Austen: the Secret Radical, puts it succinctly, “Marriage mattered because it was the defining action of a woman’s life; to accept or refuse a proposal was almost the only decision that a woman could make for herself.”
In Regency England, when a woman married, everything became the legal property of her husband. As Kelly puts it, “her money, her body, her very existence as a legal adult.” For a woman, marriage wasn’t romance—it was a highstakes bet. And her ability to thrive and survive hinged on that bet.
Unmarried women had three options: destitution, dependence on male relatives, or a convent; a fact that Austen herself knew all too well as an unmarried woman who relied on the financial kindness of her brothers her entire adult life despite earning some income as a published writer.
If we’re talking genre, Austen’s stories aren’t Romance, they are Naturalism, right up there with the works of Ibsen—for me—in that they examine the consequences of society’s systems, rules, and laws on the individual. But, Jane, bless her, had the audacity to be optimistic about her characters’ fates in the face of their hardships and perhaps that’s because she bolstered them with more than just a rugged sense of individualism.
If romantic love is one strand of the DNA of Austen’s works, its intertwining twin is family, both biological and chosen. While Ibsen’s Nora stands alone against society in A Doll’s House, famously declaring, “I must decide who is right—society or I,” in Sense and Sensibility, Austen’s Elinor Dashwood has two sisters, a devoted mother, an avuncular and generous family friend, a jolly if gossipy neighbor, a loyal servant…I could go on but I think you take the point.
So when a vicious and patriarchal land entail comes smashing down on the Dashwoods’ heads, depriving them of their home just as they are plunged into vibrant grief, we wonder not if they will be okay, but how.
Add to this finely crafted and deeply human characters, a few villains (both intentional and unintentional), a few clowns (both intentional and unintentional), a military hero, a handsome cad (who sword fights!), and two heroines on a collision course with not just husbands, but well-matched partners, and the longevity of Sense and Sensibility crystallizes: it’s just a damn good story.
And it is here that I must acknowledge that the art of stage adaptation is a difficult one. I can tell you from experience that a novel one might deem “beach read” in length can easily make for a four and a half hour play if cuts aren’t made. Who could fault those previous adaptors if they cut right to the romance? If they go right to what is scintillating and sexy, even if it deprives the story of some richness?
Well, adaptor Jessica Swale can, that’s who. It’s her adaptation of Sense and Sensibility you’ll see onstage this summer and what she achieves in her pages is masterful. True to her source material, Swale embraces the search for soul-mates of Elinor and her sister Marianne with big open arms, but she retains romantic love as a part of life, an important part but just a part; as a way to grow and generate familial love and community. It isn’t a marriage plot, it’s a love story and I can’t wait to bring it to life for you.