Can Austen Survive Casual Sex, Reality TV and the American Midwest?

I’m a self-professed Austen devotee, which I owe largely to a first year English professor who, besides being a staunch feminist, is also a man of excellent literary tastes, his speciality being British Romanticism (the best era for literature ever, if you ask me). I also owe to him my lifelong love affair with John Keats. Thank you for forever jeopardizing any relationship I could have with a living, breathing man because I, go figure, am hung up on a dead one (but c’mon, have you ever read Endymion or “Ode to a Nightingale” or any of his letters?!).

The professor in question first introduced me not to the quintessentially ‘Austen’ Austen novels, like Pride and Prejudice or Emma, but to a short little Gothic parody, Northanger Abbey, which is both hilarious and still romantic despite its very deliberate and completely self-aware campiness. I worked my way from Northanger Abbey to Sense and Sensibility and Persuasion to Pride and Prejudice then to Emma (my second least favourite) to the outright miserable Mansfield Park, which I was forced to read in a seminar on 19th-century transatlantic slave narratives due to its brief references to Sir Thomas’ slave ownership and his travel to the West Indies (my least favourite).

In the minds of many Austen fans and book lovers in general, Pride and Prejudice reigns supreme as both the ultimate romcom and her crowning literary achievement. This brings me to my titular question: can Austen survive casual sex, reality TV and the American midwest?

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Curtis Sittenfeld’s newest novel, Eligible, is a retelling of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice which largely takes place in Cincinnati, Ohio. As you would expect of a modern day interpretation, the plot has been necessarily updated to reflect social mores of the time including, among other things, casual sex, reality TV, working women (though a surprising number who don’t), gender and sexuality, race, reproduction, bachelor and bachelorette parties, CrossFit and more.

If you haven’t read the novel, turn back now! Spoilers ahead. You’ve been warned. Unless, of course, you have no intention of reading Eligible, then by all means continue. That being said, you’re missing out!

Almost everyone knows the plot of Pride and Prejudice, even if they think they don’t, even if they’ve never read it. The particulars may elude audiences, but thanks to films like Bridget Jones’s Diary (classic), the miniseries Lost in Austen, and other literary interpretations like Seth Grahame-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (recently made into a movie with a wonderfully violent opening scene which involves the deliciously sullen Sam Riley as Darcy in a black leather trench coat), people get the general gist.

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I thought it would be best, then, to review Eligible with a list, or three. One for the aspects of the novel I liked, I’m unsure of, and those I did not enjoy.

Things I fervently disliked

  • Mrs. Bennett. You know how irritating but endearing she is in Pride and Prejudice? There is something about her nervous anxiety about her daughters that is maddening, albeit understandable, given that all five of them are unmarried and they will be entirely reliant on the odious Mr. Collins (who, coincidentally, is nowhere to be seen in this rendition) if they do not marry before Mr. Bennett’s death. This gossipy ‘high-society’ version of Mrs. Bennett is a borderline racist and bigot with a shopping addition whose ideas on basically everything are not endearing in the slightest.

Beyond that, though, I can think of nothing else I disliked about the novel!

Things I was ambivalent about

  • Spinsterhood. Mrs. Bennett’s insistence on her daughters’ age and their marriageability made sense in a time where women were largely, if not wholly, dependent on men for financial security, status, you name it. I don’t know how well this would translate to the 21st century,where gender equality is not perfect, but women can and do work, support themselves, and maintain financial independence. Spinsterhood, to the extent it is talked about and emphasized in Eligible, seems a bit ahistorical.
  • Eligible, the reality TV show. Reality television is awful and even a great writer like Sittenfeld cannot make me enjoy it on paper.
  • Liz’s love affair with a total idiot. Mr. Wickham was a cad, but the married Jasper Wick is just straight up awful, and Liz has been in love with him for YEARS. I think the reason that bothered me so much was that Liz dedicated over a decade to this loser, whereas Pride and Prejudice‘s Liz Bennett saw the error of her ways much sooner. Curtis Sittenfeld has forever instilled in me an unshakeable fear of being trapped in relationship purgatory with a dingleberry like Jasper Wick.

Things I loved

  • The easter eggs throughout the novel. I kid you not, the Darcy estate is located at 1813 Pemberley Lane. If you live under a rock and/or are have denied yourself the pleasure of reading Pride and Prejudice, Pemberley is actually the name of the estate Mr. Darcy owns (and lets not forget that half of Derbyshire) and Pride and Prejudice was first published in 1813. If I was wearing a hat, I would tip it to Ms. Sittenfeld.
  • The bachelors. All of them are perfectly flawed in their own way, and most of them still wonderfully appealing (if only for their love of the badass Bennett sisters who, despite their differences, stand by one another when it counts most).
  • The relationship between Liz and Jane. I have a younger sister, and though we are close now, we did not have the greatest relationship when we were younger. There’s a six year age difference between us which, when I was a teenager, was not small enough for us to have any shared interests and was not large enough for us to stay out of each other’s hair. It was the goddamn goldilocks of sibling rivalry; the conditions were just right and it created the perfect storm. We fought all the time. Doors were slammed, punches were thrown, clothing was stolen with resounding denial. I always envied the close and caring relationship Liz and Jane shared. Though we’re nothing like the Bennett sisters, and our relationship now involves a freakish number of inside jokes and a mutual love of sci-fi and British television, we’re closer to having that kind of sisterly bond now.
  • Hamilton Ryan. I was pleasantly surprised by this character. Instead of running away with Wickham (who is here the wholly separate and wholly miserable character of Jasper), Lydia runs away to Chicago to elope with Ham, the owner of the CrossFit gym (or ‘box’) that Kitty and Lydia frequent and, much to the horror of Mrs. Bennett, he turns out to be transgender. This was one aspect of the novel that I thoroughly enjoyed, partly because Ham is one of the kindest characters in the novel and partly because Curtis Sittenfeld gave his story the requisite attention and accuracy that many writers can miss in portrayals of the LGBT community.

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All in all, and this should come as no surprise, I don’t think Austen can be directly translated in a modern-day retelling. A lot has happened since 1813, and I don’t think there’s a way to capture the particular pressure women felt to marry in today’s day and age (see the aforementioned Lost in Austen). That being said, there are certainly other issues women continue to content with, including reproductive rights, work/life balance, the wage gap and many other gender inequalities that still exist. I will say that women I know over a certain age who happen to be single feel, to some extent, a societal pressure to get married and start a family, but this is no longer the singular role a woman has to play in society.

I think Curtis Sittenfeld has done a wonderful job of addressing these concerns, even if Mrs. Bennett’s insistence that her daughters will end up spinsters is a little heavy handed throughout. I will also admit the reality TV bit was a hard pill to swallow, though this could be largely due to my abhorrence of reality television.

The best way to think of Eligible is not necessarily as a ‘modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice,’ as is advertised on the dust jacket, but as a reinterpretation. It’s like when people confuse reboot with remake. Two very different things, people. And don’t even get me started on retcon.

Eligible is a very entertaining and, at times, frighteningly realistic literary reboot of Pride and Prejudice. It is my belief that Austen can not survive casual sex, reality TV and the American midwest, but that something else entirely can come out of such a literary experiment that is both an homage to Austen and something uniquely original.

It’s a must-read in my books!

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