Ben Winters talks about his take on Jane Austen

Thursday, January 07, 2010

The New York Times and international best seller Pride and Prejudice and Zombies captured the imaginations and braaaaains of readers worldwide and has been translated into 20 languages.

Now, comes a new tale of romance, heartbreak, and tentacled mayhem! Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters (Quirk Books; September 15, 2009) by Jane Austen and Ben H. Winters expands the original text of Austen’s beloved novel with all-new scenes of giant lobsters, rampaging octopi, two-headed sea serpents, swashbuckling pirates, and other seaworthy creatures.


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

Author Bio

Ben H. Winters, coauthor of Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, is a writer based in Brooklyn.

For more information please visit and
I'm late to Ben's funny outlook on Jane Austen's classic books, and as such am still reading the first book, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. But it sure is a doozy and I'm still smiling at the odd mix of classic Austen and Ben's mayhem. Can't wait to finish that and get reading Sea Monsters. What about you?


The Prize

A copy of this book as well as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies will go to one lucky reader.

To Enter
  • Tell me why you want to win - simple!
  • Please list your email address within your comment so that you can be notified should you be chosen as a winner.
For Extra Entries

Please leave a NEW comment for each extra entry you do.

Deadline   Midnight CST of February 7, 2010.

Eligibility  US only.

Please read the Disclaimer. Good luck!
Note - This book was received for review/feature consideration.
If you like this post, then please consider subscribing to my Full Feed RSS.
You can also Subscribe by Email and have new posts sent directly to your inbox.

You Might Also Like

19 People said

  1. This has got to be a funny book. The title is funny, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. I can't see this but would like to try.LOL.. Thanks for the giveaway. Not sure I would buy this book but would love to read.

    misskallie2000 at

  2. 1 ENTRY -I Subscribe to A Book Blogger's Diary feed

    I am still laughing about this crazy book. LOL

    misskallie2000 at yahoo dot com

  3. 1 ENTRY -I Subscribe to A Book Blogger's Diary Email Updates
    How could anyone come up with this idea.? So funny, and crazy.

    misskallie2000 at yahoo dot com

  4. 1 ENTRY -I Follow this blog

    I hope I win because I will get my dose of laughter for sure when I read. LOL,

    misskallie2000 at yahoo dot com

  5. I'm a huge Jane Austen fan and I'm so intrigued by these titles... Thanks for the giveaway.

    s.mickelson at gmail dot com

  6. First, I want to win because I've never had a chance to read Jane Austen, and this sounds much more interesting than the originals. :)


  7. already do both of these:

    •1 ENTRY - Subscribe to A Book Blogger's Diary feed
    •1 ENTRY - Subscribe to A Book Blogger's Diary Email Updates

    subscribe via google reader - heather(at)

  8. i'm curious about this book


  9. i'm a subscriber :)


  10. I love Jane Austen and would love to read a different take on it. Sounds like fun!

    lauragiveaways at gmail dot com
    (email also available in profile)

  11. I subscribe to your email updates.

  12. I follow you on Twitter and tweeted:

  13. 1/22 tweet:

  14. 1/27 tweet:

  15. 1/28 tweet:

  16. I'd really like to win this because it sounds fun!

    tradingaddress at gmail dot com

  17. I subscribe to your email too.

    tradingaddress at gmail dot com


Thanks for reading! Don't forget to like, subscribe and comment...