Jane for Moderns (Curtis Sittenfeld’s “Eligible”)

Originally published in The Weekly Standard, June 6 (http://www.weeklystandard.com/jane-for-moderns/article/2002567)

Jane for Moderns
In translating ‘Pride and Prejudice’ it helps to understand it.

Jun 06, 2016 | By Ann Marlowe

Eligible is one of more than a hundred reworkings of Pride and Prejudice listed on Goodreads and it’s part of a recent publishing enterprise, The Austen Project, which has paired six Austen novels with six contemporary novelists. (None of the four released so far has been a critical success.) When a novel is fair game for retelling, it’s entered a special domain, where the bar is both higher and lower than other fiction. On the one hand, no one can cavil with the basic premise; on the other, you had better be able to add something fresh.

In some respects, Curtis Sittenfeld had an easy task: Pride and Prejudice (1813) is the most mythic of Austen’s novels, echoing Cinderella (the sisters and the high-born suitor who chooses the hidden gem) and Much Ado About Nothing (the witty, bickering lovers). In a poll a dozen years ago it was chosen the second-best-loved novel in Great Britain, after The Lord of the Rings. But the problems with Eligible are the author’s lack of passion for the story and the quality of her prose, which are surely related. Jane Austen’s novel is structured in 61 short chapters and tallies just 99,000 words. Eligible takes 181 chapters to retell the story, and all too many are the writerly equivalent of those cardboard-like rice cakes some well-meaning parents feed their toddlers.

Maybe Curtis Sittenfeld wasn’t a natural choice for this task. Prep, the only one of her four previous novels I’ve read, is a big, thumping, maximalist book whose strength is its immediacy and devastating social detail. Still, a voluble, underedited take on Pride and Prejudice could have worked if it were as heartfelt and energetic as Prep. But something has gone very wrong here. Perhaps Sittenfeld believed she was echoing Austen’s formality and precision, but there is a lot of clumsy, unlovable exposition in Eligible. She misunderstands the cadence of Austen’s sentences, which were Latinate, and the art of using long clauses gracefully eludes her:

The eldest and second eldest of the five Bennet sisters had lived in New York for the last decade and a half; it was due to their father’s health scare that they had abruptly, if temporarily, returned to Cincinnati.

.  .  . Almost immediately, a maelstrom of activity was swirling. The following evening, while it was still afternoon in Los Angeles, Liz, Jane, and Chip participated via speakerphone from Liz’s apartment in a conversation with both Chip’s agent, whose name was David Scanlon, and the Eligible producer with whom Chip had discussed Jane, whose name was Anne Lee.

The dialogue is a little better, but the author doesn’t seem sufficiently engaged with her characters, who in Pride and Prejudice are mainly revealed through speech. Sittenfeld does good, if not particularly imaginative, work with Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, and is best at reimagining the sullen, studious sister Mary—though she stops short of the kind of sympathy that would have opened up the novel in a new way. Jane remains the lovely cipher she is in the original. Lizzie is the big problem here: literal and rude without being funny, pedestrian without the original’s refreshing, down-to-earth sensibility. When the original Lizzie Bennet banters with Fitzwilliam Darcy, she’s like a good psychoanalyst speaking with a patient. She takes up and makes him hear the absurdities and neuroses in his speech.

Changing, or eliminating, minor characters in a rewrite or adaptation for film can be like randomly yanking a part out of a car engine. More than you’d guess goes wrong when Sittenfeld transforms Darcy’s aunt (Lady Catherine de Bourgh) into a celebrated feminist thinker, modeled on Gloria Steinem, who plays no role in the Liz/Darcy romance and has nothing to do with Mister Collins. Indeed, we lose the dark humor of Mister Collins’s flattery of his patroness and the sense of misery in Charlotte Lucas’s marriage. We also lose an articulation of the opposition to the Liz/Darcy union, which scarcely exists in Sittenfeld’s version.

There’s something else. Lady Catherine de Bourgh functions in the original as a counterweight to Lizzie, an example of a brave, intelligent woman, prohibited from a career, who turns her considerable abilities to trivial targets and contemptible ends. In the incendiary final confrontation between Lady Catherine and Elizabeth Bennet, where Lizzie trounces the older woman’s insistence on aristocratic order and arranged marriages with ruthless, lawyerly logic, Jane Austen forces her heroine’s hand and creates an extraordinary moment in cultural history: “I have not been used to submit to any person’s whims. I have not been in the habit of brooking disappointment. .  .  . That will make your ladyship’s situation at present more pitiable; but it will have no effect on me.”

When Lizzie concludes—”I am only resolved to act in that manner, which will, in my own opinion, constitute my happiness, without reference to you, or to any person so wholly unconnected with me”—we hear the spirit that runs through the Declaration of Independence, which was just 37 years old when Austen published. Curtis Sittenfeld may feel we live in degraded times, and her use of the culture of reality TV to frame her retelling is doubtless meant by way of criticism. But Pride and Prejudice is not a cynical book; it’s a revolutionary book, and a rewrite that doesn’t capture, and renew, its earnestness isn’t worthy of the name.

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