“In vain have I struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.” – Fitzwilliam Darcy, in Pride and Prejudice
“I’m in love with you. It’s probably an illusion caused by the release of oxytocin during sex, but I feel as if I’m in love with you.” Fitzwilliam Darcy, in Eligible
Just to be clear, I know that Curtis Sittenfeld’s “modern retelling” of Pride and Prejudice isn’t actually called Ineligible. It’s called Eligible, which is also the name of the reality TV show (closely modeled on The Bachelor) on which her updated Mr. Bingley has recently been a contestant.
I read Eligible with the sincere intention of reviewing it for the June issue of Open Letters. It turns out, however, that I have reached my limit for the number of mediocre-to-terrible novels based on, inspired by, or in any way re-imagining great 19th-century fiction that I can stand to write about in thoughtful detail. There may yet be exceptions, books that promise the rare kind of brilliance shown in, say, Sarah Waters’s Fingersmith, books that just look so inviting that after swearing I’m out, they pull me back in. But for now, I’m done. I don’t set out to dislike these books, honest! It’s just that over and over they disappoint me at best (as you’ll see in my forthcoming review of Dinitia Smith’s The Honeymoon) and at worst they infuriate me (remember Gwendolen?). And at least Eliot (and Brontë) spin-offs, which are uninspiring enough, are happily relatively infrequent. The endless, unstoppable, unbearable parade of zombie versions (literal and figurative) of Austen’s novels, however, shows no sign of ever, ever, ever ending, and at this point it all just seems crass — an embarrassing reflection on both the publishing industry and the readers who keep buying such derivative, second-rate, opportunistic substitutions for authentic creativity and genuine insight.
OK, now that I’ve got that rant out of my system, let me be more temperate. I’ve enjoyed some Austen pastiches in my time: Jane Austen in Boca is fun enough, for instance, and so is Bridget Jones’s Diary (though Mad About the Boy was just awful). Clueless is both smart and entertaining. And other people can of course read as much sub-Austen fiction as they want, and if they enjoy it, more power to them and they can rest easy knowing they will apparently never (ever!) run out of options. But as far as I’m concerned, the two best rewritings of Pride and Prejudice are North and South and Daniel Deronda (I have an essay about Deronda as a response to Austen’s happy endings, in fact, that I hope to place somewhere eventually), and Eligible is not in their class at all — or even in Fielding’s. It’s not a horrible novel — in its own way, it’s even diverting. It just doesn’t rethink Pride and Prejudice in any interesting way: it’s like a weirdly literal attempt at translation in which every element of the original novel has been replaced with what Sittenfeld came up with as its modern equivalent (Mr. Darcy is a brain surgeon! Bingley is a reality TV heart throb! Lydia destroys her mother’s peace of mind by marrying someone who’s transgender! Lady Catherine de Bourgh is Kathy de Bourgh, feminist icon — wait, what?!) — and in the conversion process, the magic is utterly lost.
There are some clever things about Eligible, and some funny bits in it. That’s as much as I can really say in its favor, though — which isn’t much, but is just enough to make it not deserving of a hatchet job. So what could a longer review really say about it? My overwhelming feeling, reading it, was indifference: why write it? why read it? when you could write — or read — something else? It offers so very little, not just but especially in comparison to Pride and Prejudice itself. Beneath Austen’s deft social comedy we feel the earth moving — emotionally and politically. There are elements of social change in Eligible too, but the novel reads as if Sittenfeld had a checklist of ways to demonstrate that the times are a’changing. Austen’s prose may seem old-fashioned to some readers today, but its subtlety and wit make it well worth attuning our ear to its cadences. Sittenfeld’s prose is serviceable, but so what? And sometimes it isn’t even that — but since I’m not writing that hatchet job, I’ll stop there.
The thing is, I know that having some expertise in the original 19th-century materials in a way makes me perfectly suited to examine contemporary reworkings of them, which is one reason I have stepped up to do it so often. At the same time, that’s exactly what turns out to make the process so tedious: ironically, my “qualifications” make this exactly the wrong niche for me as a reviewer — they make me ineligible for it. I don’t shy away from writing negative reviews: I hope I always have the courage to say quite honestly what I think about what I’ve read, as well as the integrity to give as full an explanation as I can of why I think it. Dwelling in negativity isn’t the most rewarding kind of reviewing, though — and specializing in books that get our attention by being parasitic on greatness isn’t a niche anybody really wants to inhabit, is it? It’s one I want to move out of, at any rate.
And when the inevitable film adaptation of Eligible is released, I won’t go see it, either. Enough! I’ve had enough.
Elizabeth, feeling all the more than common awkwardness and anxiety of his situation, now forced herself to speak; and immediately, though not very fluently, gave him to understand that her sentiments had undergone so material a change since the period to which he alluded, as to make her receive with gratitude and pleasure his present assurances. — Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
Hate sex, she thought gleefully. Hate sex! Except without the hate! — Curtis Sittenfeld, Eligible
Interesting post! I enjoyed Sittenfeld’s “American Wife” so it’s sad to see something so lazy – I think you’e right on about the publishing aspect here; it’s almost like the way movies are marketed as “X other popular movie but with zombies!” – the sense you have to have these gimmicks to make your thing stand out in a crowded field. Jo had a piece about the similar trend of “wife of famous person” novels.
I remember being really underwhelmed by “The Hours” and how striking it was to read it side by side with Mrs. Dalloway, and a friend said that was unfair. But they’re inviting the comparison! You’d think that would instill a little caution or modesty . ..
I think our relationship with the ‘primary’ source makes a difference. I remember liking The Hours quite a lot, for instance — finding it very moving — but when I read it, I hadn’t yet read Mrs Dalloway. Although I haven’t reread it since, at least as far as I remember The Hours is at least a genuine attempt to engage on new literary terms with Woolf’s novel, and (again, IIRC) it is very artfully written. But the comparisons to great geniuses of the form are bound to make successors / imitators come off badly. I’ve recently reviewed two somewhat more generic “neo-Victorian” novels and I couldn’t stop thinking how much less imaginative and meaningful they were than Dickens (who was clearly a strong influence in both cases). Well, of course, right? And there’s something to be said for ambition, even if it falls short. Eligible seemed to be really unambitious: it reads like someone going through the (commercially viable) motions.
That opening is a wee bit mean, but also hilarious 🙂
I’m skeptical of a lot of these adaptations, but every now and then one of them works. I can’t quite put my finger on why, though. My favorites often depart quite a lot from the source material, but a departure isn’t a guarantee of success. The way this project was framed as making Austen accessible lessened its appeal for me, so I haven’t checked out any of the books that are part of it, and none of the reviews I’ve seen have caused me to waver.
“a wee bit mean”
In the immortal words of George Eliot (channeling her own mean girl), “Be not a baker if thy head be made of butter.” Or, as Laura more temperately puts it, “they’re inviting the comparison”!
On Twitter the connection was made to fan fiction. Though I can’t imagine seeking out Austen fan fiction myself (though this too may be something that changes for me), I think what I take to be the authenticity of actual fan fiction makes a difference. This whole “rewrite Austen for today’s readers” is all about marketing, and I think here at least that shows: I got no sense that Sittenfeld was inspired, that she had something she really wanted to say and found in Pride and Prejudice a model for saying it. North and South, for instance, has the same structure, but its story of mutual reeducation and/as romance has its own genuine motivation.