Review of Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters by Ben H. Winters
Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters
by Ben H. Winters
Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.
Jane Austen and I have had a rocky relationship. I respect her as a writer and believe she deserves a place in the canon of great English authors, but I sometimes wonder if she is overhyped. When it comes to Sense and Sensibility, it has a lot of Austen's trademark wit, but as a first novel it also has the immaturity and inexperience of a writer learning the craft. So with Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, Ben H. Winters has an opportunity to take a promising tale of two sisters and ameliorate it with his marine menaces. Indeed, this is probably the intention, but as I'm going to emphasize over and over again, it did not work out that way.
Before I launch into my main criticism, I want to note two errors that jumped out at me while I read. The first is excusable, or at least explainable. The second, not so much. Both are good examples of the carelessness that plagues this book.
The first error is in the first paragraph of Chapter 9. The Dashwoods have arrived at Pestilence Isle and are settling into their new home. As part of these activities, "they had strung the encircling fence with garlands of dried kelp and lamb's blood, which Sir John Middleton had proscribed as the surest method to ward off" sea monsters. Rather than proscribed, which means forbidden, I think the word Winters intends is prescribed. The two words are antonyms in meaning but only one letter apart. Hence, this is probably just a rather unfortunate typo. Copy editors are human too. (Well, most of them.)
I cannot quite as easily dismiss the second error. Later in the book (Chapter 46), Marianne is planning her new life without Willoughby: "I shall learn engineering; I shall study hydrology and biology and aeronautics; I shall endeavour to understand Mendel's principles and comparative zoology." Managing that last resolution would be quite an accomplishment, because Gregor Mendel, an Austrian monk known for his experiments with heredity and generally credited for discovering genetics, won't be born until five years after Austen dies. So the Marianne of Sense and Sensibility wouldn't know about Mendel. To be fair, Winters never specifies when this book takes place. Maybe it takes place in a later part of the nineteenth century, after Mendel starts his experiments. Yet this explanation is unsatisfactory for two reasons: firstly, Mendel's work didn't garner much attention until the early twentieth century; secondly, even if the Alteration changed that and led to an earlier realization of genetics, moving the time period forward even by fifty years would place Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters into the Victorian era. And I think that would make for a different tone of book. No, the easiest explanation seems to be that Mendel's mention is an anachronism. It only took me a few seconds to check Mendel's birth date on Wikipedia. What is Winters' excuse?
That question, while pertinent, probably will not bear much fruit. Instead, let's consider two complementary questions. Does the sea monsters story need Sense and Sensibility or could it have worked on its own? Conversely, is Sense and Sensibility helped or improved in any way by the addition of sea monsters? Spoiler alert: the answer to both questions is "no."
Prior to reading this book, I was under the impression that the eponymous sea monsters were anomalies. They are actually much more than that. Some time prior to the story's start, the Earth's oceans experienced an "Alteration," and all marine life became hostile toward humankind. Ocean voyages now hold great peril; even living near a lake is dangerous. Forget Sense and Sensibility for a moment: the Alteration is a great starting point for an alternate history novel set in Regency England! Considering Britain's status as a naval power, a far-flung empire, and an island, there would be plenty of interesting developments as a result of the Alteration. So many questions to explore, characters to create . . .
. . . and it's all wasted on Jane Austen. No offense meant to Austen, of course. But in trying—and I do emphasize that word, trying—to graft the plot and characters of Sense and Sensibility onto his Altered England, Winters misses the mark. Instead of creating a story truly worthy of such a fantastic setting, he tries to stretch a story that wasn't made to fit this canvas—and oh, how it shows.
Take, for example, the cause of the Alteration. Winters throws out some half-hearted speculation. Henry Dashwood dies pursuing the source of a poison stream he believes the cause. Sir John Middleton believes the Alteration is a curse upon England by one of the victims of British imperialism; he has devoted his life to finding the primitive tribe responsible, with no success. Edward Ferrars favours a theory that blames Henry VIII's split with Catholicism. All these sound interesting, but under scrutiny they all fall apart. The Alteration's name (indeed, the very fact that it has a Name) suggests that the oceans were not always like this. So there should be a simple way to test, say, Edward's theory about Henry VIII: what do written records say about ocean voyages prior to Henry's reign? Surely a calamity as great as the Alteration would be recorded: "June 7, waters calm. June 8, the dolphins killed my first mate. God help us all!" I find it very difficult to believe no one knows when the Alteration began. The poison stream and tribal curse theories are also rather silly, but slightly less so, and I suppose the latter works well as a background for Sir John. It just galls me that Winters takes such an off-handed approach to what may be the most important question in his universe.
There's also something suspect about the number of people who spend their time near or on the ocean, considering its dangers. Let's start with Pestilence Isle. Sir John lives on an archipelago off of Devonshire, specifically on Deadwind Island, and he lets a cottage on Pestilence Isle to the Dashwood women. It makes sense that Sir John would live on a tiny island. He's an adventurer, and he likes danger. But why would he put women needlessly in danger by giving them a cottage on a smaller island where he doesn't live? Why would the Dashwoods ever agree to live there? As the frequent sea monster attacks show, the decision is practically suicidal. And don't get me started—yet—about what happens to Margaret.
Moving on: Sub-Marine Station Beta. Actually, I kind of see how this one makes sense. It may be—nay, it is—stupid to build a gigantic dome habitation at the bottom of the ocean off the British coast and then invite all the upper class people to spend the winter there. If this were a James Bond movie, Sub-Marine Station Beta would be part of a trap by the villain. (It would also feature an awesome underwater fight scene, in which Bond dispatches several baddies and a couple of sharks. But I digress.) However, Sub-Marine Station Beta is consistent with the British attitude of stalwart arrogance in the face of adversity. In a time of war, which this is, the British keep those upper lips stiff and like to show that they remain steadfast. How better to show that you do not fear the enemy than building a stronghold in the middle of his or her territory? Sub-Marine Station Beta is an exercise in nationalism and a display of bravado. It's also rather stupid.
The icing on the implausibility cake, however, are the pirates. Are we supposed to believe that there are outlaws who subsist by taking some of the few ships that survive sea monster attacks? And that these ships themselves somehow avoid succumbing to those same attacks? I love reading about pirates, but they are the most obvious example of something included in this book because it's cool instead of its potential contributions to the plot.
No, when I look at it this way, it is a shame that Winters had even to try to follow an outline of Sense and Sensibility in writing this book. It is a waste of a world that could have been so much more. And all of these flaws read like they are the result of carelessness, of unintentional neglect caused by starting with the idea of "it's Sense and Sensibility, but with sea monsters" and then throwing everything at the book to see what sticks. I kind of feel sorry for the setting.
Having determined that the sea monsters suffer at the hands of Sense and Sensibility, can we say the same in reverse? Yes, indubitably. Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters does not merely besmirch its source material's good name; it follows Sense and Sensibility down a dark alleyway, beats it senseless, and then slinks away to commit more crimes against Austen's oeuvre.
Harsh much? I thought so too, at first. I wanted to find this book amusing. I wanted to chuckle at how Winters cleverly transposes the class humour and familial squabbles of Austen's characters into this Altered England. The more I read, however, the more I realized that Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters does not just fail to live up to its source. I could handle that. But no, it's much worse. This book actively dismantles everything that makes Sense and Sensibility great English literature.
Nineteenth-century English society holds our interest in part because its class system is very different from the way contemporary society is stratified. But it's not enough merely to mock or to belittle this difference. To successfully satirize Regency England, one must deconstruct its customs and culture and examine why our contemporary society finds it humorous. Otherwise, all you're doing is pointing and laughing; on a scale of sophistication, that is barely above toilet humour.
As its title specifies, Sense and Sensibility is about the balance between reason and emotionalism. Elinor, with her calculating and practical ways, embodies sense; Marianne, the emotional and impulsive one, sensibility. Winters pays lip service to these differences as he develops the plot along the same lines as the original novel. While the developments in relations between characters, sea monster attacks aside, are the same, the emotional and thematic significance of these relationships are mangled in translation. For instance, I never feel the angst of Elinor's realization that Edward, whatever their feelings for one another, is unavailable. Winters develops this, cashes in on the irony, and even makes Lucy Steele a sea-witch. But all the window dressing gets in the way of the nuances at play among Elinor, Edward, and Lucy. Similarly, Marianne's obsession with Colonel Brandon's face adds nothing to the character's obsession in the original novel with his age.
The revelation of Lucy's identity as a sea-witch also bothered me. Specifically, Sir John explains why sea-witches must take human form:
. . . the only certain way for a sea witch to prolong its foul existence is by consuming human bone marrow, which is therefore, to them, the most precious of elixirs. Hence their occasional appearance, in the guise of attractive human women, among the terrestrial world—where they make love to an unknowing man, marry him unawares, and then, when the opportunity presents itself, kill him and suck out his marrow.
It is the last sentence that presents a problem: why bother marrying the man before feeding upon him? Surely it would be more effective to jump his bones (literally) and skip the tiresome courtship. In fact, why bother with a man at all? Why not just subdue some children and feed off of them? It might seem like I'm nitpicking, but I think these are reasonable questions about something that involves the motivations and actions of an important character.
At about the point where the situation at Sub-Marine Station Beta becomes dire, it dawned on me that the scope of Winters' narrative is entirely unsuited to Austen's original story. Sense and Sensibility is, like all of Austen's work, an intimate novel that uses a few families to portray all of English society in microcosm. Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters is about a couple of girls crying about guys, kicking sea monster ass, escaping a doomed underwater city, and then witnessing the rise of an apocalyptic Leviathan. The plot has suddenly become much bigger than the original story, dwarfing the characters and their problems, which are supposed to be centre stage.
And . . . Margaret. What the hell? I have no idea what Winters was trying to do with Margaret's—I can only call it a "seduction" by the island. The whole subplot of Margaret discovering an entire species of subhumans who have existed "since the dawn of time" and worship the Leviathan is unnecessary and, frankly, uninteresting. Once again, like Lucy the sea-witch and the cause of the Alteration, Winters has included something that probably seemed like a good idea but, taken together with the entire work, just adds clutter and confusion.
Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters promises that it "blends Jane Austen's biting social commentary with ultraviolent depictions of sea monsters biting." An examination of this very blend belies this claim. I do not doubt the sincerity of the claim; it's clear that Winters and Quirks Classics have tried very hard to do justice to Austen's novel. In some ways, it would be better for everyone if this were some pernicious attempt to mock the source material—as it is, I feel a little pity for Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters. Its mistakes are made in a labour of love, but they are born from carelessness that could easily have been avoided.