How the Sea Monsters Got into "Sense and Sensibility"

Illustration for article titled How the Sea Monsters Got into Sense and Sensibility

Injecting submarines and man-eating jellyfish into Jane Austen may sound like a simple, gimmicky feat, but Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters author Ben H. Winters claims writing the book required a great deal of ingenuity, research, and Jules Verne.


In today's edition of Slate, Winters outlines his writing process for Quirk Books' followup to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Unlike P&P&Z, which contained only 15% new text, Winters explains that Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters is a rather different book from the original, containing 60% of the original Austen, and 40% of his own original writing. Part of this stems from his less than watery choice of original text:

As I began writing, it was immediately clear that the original settings would need to be reconsidered. Devonshire is lovely and all, but this isn't Sense and Sensibility and Lake Monsters. (And yes, I know, there is a great Austen novel set on the water, but Persuasion isn't as ripe a target for satire as Sense and Sensibility. Also, Persuasion and Sea Monsters doesn't quite have the right ring to it.) In Austen's original, the Dashwoods, upon their disinheritance, are invited to live in what is essentially the guest house of a wealthy relation, Sir John Middleton. In my version, their move is to Pestilent Isle, part of a vast archipelago controlled by Sir John-now an elusive explorer/collector with a beard "as white as the snows of Kilimanjaro" and a necklace of human ears.


Winters also found that describing sea monsters within the context of Austen's world required a good deal of research into the scientific language of the period, as well as a bit of mashing up her tone with that of the Victorian era's own science fiction writers:

One of the most consistent creative challenges of writing the book was on the basic level of vocabulary. For the conceit to work, the new material would need to sound as much like Austen's marvelous and precise early-19th century diction as possible. So how to find the right vocab words to describe stuff that Austen never would have described in a million years? I borrowed a lot from my sources. From Verne, I got great fish-describing words like cartilaginous and bioluminescence. From Stevenson, great deserted-island words like miry and marish, not to mention nautical words like cockleshell and flying jib. I also turned frequently to the thesaurus. Poring through my Roget's, I arrived at the appropriately eloquent and disgusting phrase to describe the slimy stomach of an oversize hermit crab just before it smothers someone to death: mucocutaneous undercarriage.

How I wrote Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters [Slate]

Share This Story

Get our newsletter


So okay, P&P&Z sold disgustingly well. There's always the hardcore Janeites and zombie fans, they were a given. Lots of casual readers bought it just for the novelty. Does anyone think sea monsters are a big enough draw to ensure the same success for this thing?