As a devoted Janeite, I am also known to indulge in the occasional novel based on our Jane’s tidy output. I have engaged in several discussions, some more cheerful than others, about these attempts at updating and revising. Generally, I find them wanting – in voice, or understanding, or grace in writing. And while I understand that the zombies and sea monsters have their fans, I do not count among them.
That being said, I was intrigued by a New York Times review of the Three Weissmanns of Westport. Cathleen Schine, the author, writes in that somewhat undervalued category known as the domestic comedy. She is a graceful, elegant writer, very much of New York. And, said the review, she based this latest book on Sense and Sensibility. Further, the review stated, she did it well.
And I would agree. First of all, this is definitely a 21st Century take. Betty Weissmann is a 75 year old whose husband of close to 50 years is divorcing her for ‘irreconcilable differences.’ That difference is named Felicity and she works in his firm. She is as eager to have the domicile – a wonderful Upper West Side apartment – as Mrs. John Dashwood ever was, and that scene of breathtaking greed plays out just as sparklingly satiric as our Jane’s ever did:
“Naturally I’ll give her the apartment,” Joe said. It seems only right….She’s put so much work into it. It’s her baby.”
Felicity had seen the apartment. In a magazine. It sparkled and gleamed with a comforting Old World charm. Or so the magazine said. To Felicity, it just looked big and luscious…She would like to live in such an apartment…
“It really is a burden, that big old place,” Felicity said. “Poor Betty. I don’t envy her. At her age.”
“She ought to downsize,” Joe said. “We should sell the place, and she can take her share and buy something a little more realistic.”
“Joe, you really are a generous man,” Felicity said. “And self-sacrificing, too.”
He looked at her blankly. He knew he was generous and self-sacrificing, but just for a moment he could not quite make out how this act of taking half the proceeds rather than none fit that description. Then Felicity said, with some alarm, “But what about the taxes? There will be hardly anything left from the sale after taxes. Poor Betty. It will really be a burden on her, much more than on you…At her age,” Felicity murmured again.
And so it was decided. Joe would be generous and keep the apartment.
The Weissmann women – Betty and her daughters: Annie, a librarian and divorced mother of two boys now young men and longer at home; and Miranda, a literary agent who never married, and whose business collapsed in an Oprah-inspired scandal of created memories, leave the City and move into a little beach cottage in Westport, Connecticut, that an old friend and connection makes available to them. The entire collection of characters from Sense and Sensibility appears, each with a new and very contemporary sensibility. This version of Willoughby is a younger man, an aspiring actor who leaves for the Coast with more speed than is flattering when a chance of a TV role comes his way. However, his ex-wife and son play important roles in Miranda’s story. Annie, the sensible librarian has been interested in Felicity’s brother, Frederick, but he cools off, and appears to have been involved with his house sitter, one of a pair of sisters definitely looking for the Big Score. Frederick’s problem is not lack of money like Edward Ferrars, but lack of inner conviction.
The final disposition of the characters is different from Jane’s version, which serves to keep the book fresh. Schine takes the framework of two devoted sisters and their charming, if somewhat flighty mother – neither Betty nor Miranda understands the first thing about money matters including the bankruptcy of Miranda’s business, and Annie handles far more than her fair share of the family burdens. But she does end up with the lovely man at the end – even if he seemed throughout the book to be Col. Brandon. And since I liked him better than I liked Frederick, I was glad. Annie had, just like Elinor did, a lot to put up with, given family, mother, and sister, and she deserves a happy ending.
Much better written than most modern versions of Jane’s books I have read, The Three Weissmanns is an excellent update: not trying to force Jane into modern times, but seeing how the modern times would modify a Jane plot. It works well.
Which is what we would expect.
Gentle readers: Lady Anne is my well-shod and well-clad friend and co-founder of The Janites on the James, a group of opinionated Austenites. We are passionate about Jane Austen, and have agreed to disagree about our interpretation of her novels. Our discussions are lively and laced with drinks from her era: Port, syllabub, fine wine, and, yes, beer. Anything to stave off dysentery and typhoid fever.