From the depths of the sea (or the shelves of the bookstore, as the case may be) comes Quirk Classics’ newest addition to the Jane Austen bookshelf: Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters. Following in the blood-strewn footsteps of Seth Grahame-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, author Ben H. Winters joins forces with Jane Austen to produce a “tale of romance, heartbreak, and tentacled mayhem,” as the back cover informs us. As the narratives of these two authors join together readers find themselves immersed in a world in which the mysterious Alteration has caused all manner of sea critters to fight against man, the ocean one big steaming soup pot of ill-tempered bouillabaisse.
Significantly more extended from the original Austen text than Zombies, Sea Monsters achieves a type of Gilligan’s Island-meets-the-English-countryside, as Norton Park, estate of Sir John Middleton, is transformed into a windswept archipelago off the Devonshire coast, with Norton Cottage situated on the charmingly named Pestilent Isle. The rolling English hills, woody forests, and pastoral views of the original text are replaced with a smoldering steam-venting mountain, hostile plantlife, mysterious chanting Island natives, and tiki torches. Oh, and let’s not forget the chowder of sea life waiting in the softly lapping waves to sting, maim, and eat their corseted enemies.
Sir John Middleton gets a boost of interest as a middle-aged adventurer, a daring world traveller with a collection of sea treasures, which includes his wife Lady Middleton, her coldness and aloofness quite logically explained by the fact that John Middleton stole her away from her native island in a sack. Likewise her mother, Mrs. Jennings, and sister, Mrs. Palmer, were taken back to England like so many souvenirs. One could, if one were inclined to analyze Sea Monsters in a literary way, interpret this as a dig against the English way of colonizing. Just saying.
At the invitation of John Middleton comes the family Dashwood — mother and three sisters — to live at Barton Cottage, where they are soon swept up in a sea of social activities, games, pirate-themed parties, and romantic confusion. Staid Elinor hides her feelings from the proper Edward Ferrars when the news of his engagement to Lucy Steele hits her like a rogue wave, while passionate Marianne finds herself between the gold-digging Willoughby (his insignia in Sea Monsters is comprised of shovels in the formation of a “W”) and the fish-faced Colonel Brandon, who, by a sea witch curse, seems to have found himself sporting a full beard of tentacles. Which only plays up that “judging by appearances” thing. And Margaret? Well, she’s gone a bit cocoloco in the jungle of Pestilent Isle.
Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters employs a similar formula to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. But instead of zombies, ninjas, and katana swords, Sea Monsters is liberally watered with sea monsters, pirates, and driftwood sculptures. And all those social dinners and good eating of the original text become an all-you-can-eat seafood buffet, as the Dashwoods and their friends attempt to eat their enemies whole, filleted, and with a dab of butter.
But why sea monsters? Well, why not? There’s a fair bit of gloomy English rain in the original novel anyways, so it’s not that much of stretch to have Marianne saved by the dashing Willoughby from a malevolent octopus instead of saved from the rain and a bit of a turned ankle. And it’s all in good fun when a jellyfish of ogre proportions suddenly launches itself out of the ocean and puts a bit of a damper on the beach party by swallowing and dissolving one of the party guests.
Furthermore, the cantankerous sea serves as one big aquatic metaphor for the delicate social fabric of Jane Austen’s England. When Elinor and Marianne go to town, they go not to some mundane English city, but to an Atlantis-type world known as Sub-Marine Station Beta. Here, as the action of the novel heats up, our heroines are literally trapped by social convention; not just surrounded by gaping mouths as on Pestilent Isle, but fully and completely submersed into the stew of social stings and bites in a glass-domed underwater city. Floundering to keep the gossips and the vengeful circus lobsters at bay, Elinor and Marianne are nevertheless swept into a tidal pool of deceit and misunderstandings.
The army of ire-filled water beasts are also a perfect foil for the unmentionable aspects of English society. It is no accident that aquatic attacks occur at the most socially awkward moments. While Lucy Steele blethers on in her typical ignorantly blissful fashion of her secret engagement to Edward Ferrars, the lovesick and mortified Elinor fights off the two-headed Devonshire Fang-Beast. And when Elinor, Lucy, and Edward are later trapped together in the same room, forced to make pleasantries in a most awkward way, their writhing emotions are mirrored by the death thrashes of a servant outside the glass dome who is eaten by a particularly toothsome anglerfish while trying to fix a filtration unit. While Lucy prattles and Edward and Elinor blush, the servant’s pleas for help become “a rather embarrassing violation of decorum; Elinor and her guests studiously ignored him, and his increasingly insistent thrashing became the background to the ensuing uncomfortable exchange.”
As the visit to Sub-Marine Station Beta lengthens into weeks, the flurry of intricately hidden truths slowly comes undone, just as the dome itself is undone by the persistent tappings of a posse of swordfish. The spiderweb of cracks spreads throughout the dome like the whispery echoes of repeated gossip, the dome glass finally shattering in one spectacular explosion of truth by a particularly mythic narwhal and a gruesome bull walrus.
But the adventure isn’t over yet! Escaping from the dome, our heroines and their party must sail across the dangerous seas, outrunning the Pirate Dreadbeard and his cronies. And then there is the big catalyst of the story: the part where Marianne sits in wet grass, gets sick, and finally has a change of heart towards Colonel Brandon. Only it’s so much better when she goes to a swamp to ruminate, gets eaten alive by malarial mosquitoes, and is left in a delirium of pecking parakeets… oh, and finally has a change of heart towards Colonel Brandon.
In fact, everyone’s happiness is much grander with sea monsters. Elinor’s standoff with Willoughby is at gun point when she mistakes him for the Pirate Dreadbeard, Colonel Brandon retrieves Mrs. Dashwood for the ailing Marianne and slays the pirate, Edward is released from his engagement to Lucy, who is actually a sea witch, and Pestilent Isle is actually one giant, cranky sea monster!
Like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters concludes with a Reader’s Discussion Guide, meant to make one ponder the deeper meaning of Sea Monsters as well as snort with laughter. In fact, these questions really emphasize what this literary marriage of Austen and crotchety tunas is all about. One can take the novel to a new level, as outlined in question 2, and ponder the metaphorical link between monster attacks and painful personal setbacks, or one can, as outlined in question 10, try to name other works of Western literature that feature orangutan valets who are slain by pirates. Really, it’s all in how you read the book.