Austen in August – Review: Eligible, Curtis Sittenfeld

Remember the Austen Project? The Borough Press announced a plan to update Jane Austen for her 200th birthday and they kicked off full of excitement about two years ago with Joanna Trollope’s limp Sense and Sensibility, then there was Val McDermid’s high-kicking Twi-hard interpretation of Northanger Abbey before quietening down with Alexander McCall Smith’s reportedly lack-lustre Emma but then … nothing.  Nada.  With three books left un-retold (re-untold? Who knows …) it rather seemed as if the project had hit the skids.  The glaring problem was that although Austen’s works do contain insights into human nature that hold true today, much of the circumstances of her plot fail to translate to the modern day.  These days, if Edward Ferrars truly loved Elinor, he would have just had to take a deep breath and break up with Lucy.  She would have probably kept the ring to spite him but otherwise, nobody would have batted an eyelid.  There is still something a bit ‘odd’ about the seventeen year-old Catherine Morland ending up with the much older Henry Tilney.  So, after a series of lukewarm reviews, it was hardly surprising that the Borough Press had to hunt around a little to find someone willing to take on Pride and Prejudice – not only has the Austen Project rather lost its sparkle but this is ‘the Big One’, Jane Austen’s most popular novel, the most quotable, the most fiercely protected.  So I went into it with every intention of giving up if the read became too painful – but no, instead I absolutely loved it.

curtis in character
Curtis Sittenfeld in character via Twitter

For me, Eligible is the most successful of the project thus far – and I say this having heartily enjoyed Northanger Abbey à la McDermid.  I think that the secret to Sittenfeld’s success where Trollope so spectacularly failed is that she clings less preciously to the original source material.  It seems unlikely for a twenty-first century Lady Catherine to hunt down Elizabeth and order her not to marry Darcy – so Sittenfeld wisely skips that part.  Rather than a shot-for-shot remake, this is more of a re-imagining, a re-construction featuring the characters but only selected plot points.  It’s still a bold move – we only had The Lizzie Bennet Diaries a few years ago and that was hard to beat but I think in daring to take a step back and try to catch whatever point it was that Austen was originally trying to make, Sittenfeld creates something a good deal more interesting than certain of her fellow-participants in the project.

Unlike the LBD, Sittenfeld retains all five Bennet sisters, making them an unusually large family but there is still the lingering suspicion that Mr Bennet kept on going in the hopes of producing a son.  Rather than setting the action in Hampshire, Sittenfeld pitches up in her own hometown of Cincinnati – apparently it’s a hick town, but I am no expert.  The Bennets are a family of fading blue-bloods, the girls have all gone through private school and college and Mr Bennet once managed the family’s investments but his recent crippling medical bills following a heart attack coupled with the fact that none of the girls aside from Lizzie have ever managed to hold down a job means that the family is approaching bankruptcy.  Small wonder that Mrs Bennet is keen to get them married off.

This is where the big difference comes between Pride and Prejudice and this its descendant – the Bennet girls are not girls but fully-grown women.  Jane is approaching forty, Liz scarely two years younger, then the youngest is still Lydia at a youthful twenty-three.  Sittenfeld has argued that Jane has to be forty in order for her mother’s desperation to marry her to Bingley to make any sense.  In The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, Lizzie’s mother is eccentric in her desire to drive her daughters out of the house and into the arms of anyone willing to have them.  In Eligible, it is not just Mrs Bennet but also the biological clock ticking and societal pressure.   It does mean that when Bingley leaves town, Mrs Bennet throws up her hands in horror since this is not just a break-up, but also what she sees as the end of Jane’s last ever chance of motherhood.  Jane has had one failed engagement fresh out of college (the guy turned out to be gay) and then a long-term relationship with a French guy who failed to commit.  It could happen to anyone.  Accepting the situation, Jane has resorted to a sperm donor and invitro-fertilisation.  When she finally does meet Chip Bingley, she is hesitant to experiment with a relationship since its probable failure will only waste more of her remaining years of fertility.  With this, Sittenfeld has captured the predicament of the broody woman in her late thirties – do you try the dating game and cross your fingers or just find a nice gay friend with a turkey baster?

The problem with this plot change though is that while it makes sense of Jane, it does rather ruin Liz.  Jane may ‘need’ to be forty to make her mother’s outspoken excitement over the match with Bingley credible, but Elizabeth Bennet really has to be twenty.  At no other age is one ever quite so convinced that one’s opinions are correct.  A thirty-eight year-old would have seen through Wickham’s charming insincerity – as indeed does Lizzie’s father Mr Bennet, and even Mrs Gardiner had her suspicions.  In the original, when Lizzie receives Darcy’s letter, she realises that she, who took such pride in her clear-thinking, was completely taken in.  She sees herself for the first time.  It’s a key moment for the character and a pivotal moment within the novel – but it’s also a moment that comes to a lot of us in our early twenties.  A thirty-eight year-old having the same epiphany seems like someone a little late to self-actualisation.  Sittenfeld’s Liz met Jasper Wick in her first job and then bore a fourteen year long unrequited love until he finally made a move after separating from his wife.  I could feel only pity – and Elizabeth Bennet is not a character for whom one ought to have pity.  She’s too cool.

That being said, Jasper Wick is a fantastically weaselish character.  The way he artfully kept Liz on the hook for all those years, telling her that he loved her ‘in his life’, that he could not open up to anyone the way he did to her, including whichever girl he happened to be seeing at the time.  He’s so awful though that when his past skullduggery is unmasked, nobody but Liz is surprised.  He does remind me of someone who I went on a blind date with though, who chatted on about his boarding school past and diplomatic background, but as the conversation wore on, I found myself looking at him with a feeling of utter detachment – family advantages had meant that a lot of shine had be put on that young man but it could not change the fact that he had very little substance.  There was no date number two.  In a similar fashion, step-cousin Willie Collins has a high opinion of himself given his incredible success as a web designer – but he remains socially awkward and unable to meet women.  He has no unctuous relationship with a wealthy patroness, but he remains loathsome thanks to his confession to Liz of having had a sexual encounter with a prostitute as well as rudely telling her after she refuses his advances that she is nearer to forty than she thinks and should have counted herself lucky.  Just as shudder-inducing two hundred years later.

Interestingly, Chip Bingley barely gets off any more lightly than Wick or Willie – rather than a rich young landowner, he is a recently-qualified doctor and an alum of the well-known reality television show ‘Eligible’, where he found fame as ‘the one who cried’, having bawled his eyes out while having to turn down the two finalists in the last episode since he did not love either of them.  It’s a clever move to use the reality television plot device – it is an obvious rip-off of The Bachelor but in appropriating a show which uses pseudo-eighteenth-century courtship rituals in a twenty-first century setting, Sittenfeld is able to masterfully update an eighteenth-century story.  Ultimately, Bingley bails on medicine and on Jane, but even on his return, Liz inwardly refers to him as a ‘lightweight’ with a certain author-approved viciousness.  It is harsh, but it also unfortunately true even of the original model.  I certainly wouldn’t want him marrying my sister.

That being said, in Eligible, it is hard to avoid that impression of almost any of the characters.  Jane is a yoga instructor who is taking a year off work which has been funded by her father.  As the family’s penniless state is revealed, she is able to go and live with some good friends (a lesbian couple and their son).  Mary is completing her third online master degree and Liz judges her as an example of how one can be plain and still unpleasant.  Kitty and Lydia remain semi-interchangeable but in this incarnation they are gym-bunnies and Cross-Fit addicts, with Lydia taking up with the frankly wonderful Ham.  While Ham does have a ‘dark secret’ (it’s not that dark), my only real question upon finishing the novel was why someone that nice would ever put up with Lydia.  Kitty and Lydia are bawdy and vulgar and crude – their vile jokes at a party naturally earn the disgust of Darcy and Bingley’s sister Caroline.

Times are a-changin’ …

Returning home after her father’s heart attack, Liz takes offence at neurosurgeon Darcy’s negative opinion of Cincinnati (and the fact she overheard him remarking that he wasn’t surprised that she was single) – it reminded me of how I am happy to slag off my own hometown of Wigan (although I actually grew up in a village outside it) but was extremely offended when a girl at university remarked that everyone from there were a load of shoplifters.  Darcy’s snobbery and apparent past with Wick (Darcy was on the review panel that kicked Wick out of college) put him squarely on Liz’s hate list but after a few accidental meetings while jogging, and after several weeks of enforced celibacy while staying with her parents, the two end of having what Liz declares to be ‘hate sex’.  Except, inevitably, it really isn’t that for at least one of them.  This is a bit that I confess I do find hard to relate to – I am aware that my dating codes are probably a lot closer to Austen’s than they are to the twenty-first century – the concept of friends with benefits has always been a bit ‘modern’ for me.  Yet I guess that a declaration of love is unlikely to come as a bolt from the blue in this day and age, and it is clear that despite the physical intimacy, the emotional confession is no less shocking to Liz when it comes.

Mrs Bennet gets an odd treatment in Eligible – she is not just unsympathetic as in the 1995 adaptation, but she is also borderline mentally unbalanced.  Her hoarding and shopping addiction become a real issue as Liz attempts to sell the family home to restabilise her parents’ finances.  Sittenfeld also gives her interpretation of Mrs Bennet as having racist, homophobic and transphobic views which are played for laughs but which still give the book an odd feel.  Lydia’s scandal was another odd element since although it caused upset, it really wasn’t that big of a deal.  This is the perennial problem with modernisations – Bride and Prejudice had Wickham taking Lydia on a tour of London including a trip on the London Eye.  Hardly headline grabbing.  Again, The Lizzie Bennet Diaries managed to shock through teasing with the notion that Lydia would elope to Vegas, but what actually happened was that she was the victim of revenge porn via Wickham.  This was traumatic, but it would not have really fitted with the overall tone of Eligible.  So Lydia gets to remain fairly happy, completely unrepentant and with no obvious plans to ever find a job.

Ultimately, I still feel that The Lizzie Bennet Diaries was a livelier adaptation, perhaps more fun to watch.  Yet still, I felt that Eligible captured something in its depiction of how fragile human relationships can be and how very easily they can pass us by.  It is so easy for misunderstanding or insecurity to hold us back, then one turns around and finds oneself having spent fourteen years having been in love with a creep with Jasper Wick, someone who only ever really existed in Liz’s mind.  As an ironist, Jane Austen has nobody but herself to blame for the fact that she is so misunderstood – for all that so many of her books feature advantageous marriages, her books are not about love, but more often about the strange way we relate to each other.  One of the changes that truly fascinated me was the way in which Sittenfeld altered Lady Catherine de Bourgh – instead she became diehard feminist lionheart Kathy de Bourgh, who Liz got to interview as part of her work for her magazine.  What was Sittenfeld trying to show here?  Positive female power role models?  Kathy de Bourgh explains to Liz that when she did marry, she did so because she had finally met somebody with whom she could be her true self, where there was no performance – is this Sittenfeld’s message?  That this is the man who is truly eligible?  The one you can be yourself around?  I just have so many questions.

Of course, the downside of this plot change was that Liz does not get her confrontation with Lady Catherine which is one of the high points of the book.  Claire Tomalin noted that Elizabeth Bennet is at her best when she is refusing someone, be it Mr Collins or Mr Darcy so that this third refusal to Darcy’s aunt which signals her upcoming acceptance of Darcy’s second proposal is a fantastic set piece.  There is a good deal less drama in Eligible, which is ironic given that the climax comes via a family appearance on a special wedding episode of ‘Eligible’.  The show helpfully (and largely inaccurately) breaks the characters down as types, with Liz mortified afterwards to see herself labelled ‘The Party Girl’, but it did make me wonder how best we can label a character like Lizzie.

For me, the big thing about Elizabeth Bennet was her steadfast refusal to conform to what society expected of her.  She would not marry Mr Collins even though it did make financial sense.  She would not marry Darcy even though he loved her and it made even more financial sense.  She was not a husband-hunter – she was only ever looking for a mutually-respectful partnership and even with that she never seemed to be looking terribly seriously.  Elizabeth was twenty years old and determined to act in a way best suited to finding her own happiness, not that of anybody else.  In that respect, Sittenfeld has managed to capture her – Liz is a feminist working for a beauty magazine, a sister who dislikes most of her family, a woman headed for forty who has no interest in becoming a mother.  Elizabeth Bennet is updated but still breaking the rules and the expectations that her mother has for her – it’s true that this is not as good as the original, but living up to it was never the point.

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I received this book for free in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld
Published by Random House on April 18th 2017
Genres: Fiction, Literary, Women, Family Life, General
Pages: 492
ISBN: 9780812980349

This post contains affiliate links which you can use to purchase the book. If you buy the book using that link, I will receive a small commission from the sale.

One thought on “Austen in August – Review: Eligible, Curtis Sittenfeld

  1. Great review! I’ve been sitting on the fence about giving the Austen Project a go – frankly, considering how many adaptations and retellings of Austen there are, the whole project struck me as a little pointless. Pride and Prejudice in particular is popular when it comes to retellings. I definitely agree that the character of Lizzie is key, and that one of the things that really defines her character is her youth. It seems clear from your review that it’s never going to be possible to create the ‘perfect’ modern version of a Jane Austen novel. I guess for me the basic criterion is: is it enjoyable? Does it do something clever with the source material? I guess that’s why I liked Lizzie Bennet Diaries, Bride and Prejudice, and Clueless, despite my general suspicion of Austen retellings.

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