Well before his arrival in Cincinnati, everyone knew that Chip Bingley was looking for a wife. Two years earlier, Chip – graduate of Dartmouth College and Harvard Medical School, scion of the Pennsylvania Bingleys, who in the twentieth century had made their fortune in plumbing fixtures – had, ostensibly with some reluctance, appeared on the juggernaut reality television show Eligible. Over the course of eight weeks in the fall of 2011, twenty-five single women had lived together in a mansion in Rancho Cucamonga, California, and vied for Chip’s heart…In the final episode, with only two women remaining – Kara, a wide-eyed, blond-ringletted twenty-three-year-old former college cheerleader turned second-grade teacher from Jackson, Mississippi, and Marcy, a duplicitous yet alluring brunette twenty-eight-year-old dental hygienist from Morristown, New Jersey – Chip wept profusely and declined to propose marriage to either. They were both extraordinary, he declared, stunning and intelligent and sophisticated, but toward neither did he feel what he termed “a soul connection”.— Curtis Sittenfeld, Chapter 1, "Eligible" (2016)
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered the rightful property of some one or the other of their daughters.
“My dear Mr Bennet,” said his lady to him one day, “have you heard that Netherfield Park is let at last?”
Mr Bennet replied that he had not.— Jane Austen, Chapter 1, "Pride and Prejudice" (1813)
Of all the afterlives of Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy (counting novels, knitting projects, cookbooks, self-help guides, zombie mashups, films, sewing kits, television and stage adaptations, comics, erotica, clothing lines and ginormous quantities of fan fiction online), this latest offering, American writer Curtis Sittenfeld’s novel Eligible, published under the auspices of “The Austen Project”, has perhaps been the most eagerly anticipated.
The Austen Project
The Austen Project was announced as one of the flagship ventures of HarperCollins’ smart new imprint, The Borough Press, launched in January 2014. It would pair contemporary writers with their favourite Jane Austen titles, and six modern-day reworkings would result.
Purists might have frowned upon this. (“Lazy”, “self-serving”, “gimmicky” and “pointless” are some of the accusations routinely hurled at the Austenalia industry.) But a whole bunch of Jane Austen lovers were caught up in a frenzy of excitement. After all, the writers chosen were well-loved. And it was not as if there wasn’t a self-aware streak animating the whole shebang on the part of the publishers.
Louisa Joyner, editorial director of HarperFiction in the UK, had conceived of the project as a series of “conversations” with Austen's works, rather than knockoffs or sequels, plenty of which had already been attempted over the years. This was going to be, really, a tribute.
The first three
Joanna Trollope’s Sense and Sensibility and Val McDermid’s Northanger Abbey were both published in 2014, and on the whole, readers were underwhelmed by the “conversations”. Alexander McCall Smith’s Emma (2015) was not exactly a roaring success either, what with Emma’s father hogging a whole chunk of the book, though McCall Smith’s signature charm was comforting to plenty.
But Janeites were waiting for the new Pride and Prejudice, the most popular – and arguably the most perfect – of the Austen novels, to revitalise the Austen Project. After all, in a welcome experiment courtesy bestselling writer Curtis Sittenfeld, the action was headed to America.
The heroes: (hot) doctors
It is 2013. Two hundred and odd years after the original Charles Bingley moved to Netherfield Park and set the hearts of the ladies of Longbourn and Meryton aflutter, Chip Bingley, of the Pennsylvania plumbing moguls, moves to Cincinnati after a somewhat distinguished career in brand-name institutions and reality television. His friend and classmate Fitzwilliam Darcy is a neurosurgeon, formerly of Stanford and native of California, at the Cincinnati Stroke Centre, and just as arrogant as his literary forbear. While the original was an aristocrat (to Bingley’s upwardly mobile tradespeople), this one is a double doctor – bearing both an MD and a PhD. I suppose in matchmaking circles doctors in America represent what IIT-IIM does in India. So far so good.
As in the original, the Bennets appear comfortably off and live in a charming eight-bedroom Tudor in a leafy parts of town. Mrs Bennet, between her shopping addiction and her Country Club duties, worries vaguely about the biological clocks of her two eldest daughters. Jane is about to turn forty, while Elizabeth is thirty-eight; and purportedly single.
This is a significant – and entirely rational change – from the original. (Quick contextualisation: in the original Elizabeth was just shy of twenty-one, and Jane was twenty-two. Jane Austen died around the age of forty, leaving behind six completed novels.)
The elder Bennets have been living in New York for a couple of decades or so. The younger three, Mary (30), Kitty (26) and Lydia (23), live at home and entertain no thoughts of gainful employment. While Mary is academic and annoying, and pursues online degrees one after the other, super-brats Kitty and Lydia have little else to occupy them besides fitness regimes – CrossFit and Paleo diet – and smartphones.
The heroines: New York singletons?
While it was technically accurate that both Liz and Jane were single, this fact did not, for either women, convey the full story.
Jane has transmuted her characteristic mellowness into a suitable career: she is a Yoga instructor. Since her father pays the rent directly on her Upper West Side apartment, she can live out a fairly smart existence on her tiny earnings. But after a string of relationships, that were happy enough but did not lead to matrimony, Jane has embarked upon a curious new path, a secret that only Liz knows of.
Meanwhile, Liz, keeper of the family’s secrets and the most successful Bennet, the only one who can actually support herself, is a writer-at-large for Mascara, one of the trendiest magazines in the country. In her very first job, straight out of Barnard, she met the boy she thought was the love of her life: Jasper Wicks. Fifteen years later, he finally reciprocates her feelings. But it is complicated.
The flexibility of their careers help Liz and Jane move to Cincinnati for a few months when Mr Bennet has a heart attack. It is during their acerbic father’s convalescence, when Jane and Liz are cooking the family cardio-friendly meals every night and going out for runs every morning that Bingley and Darcy appear on the scene. Sparks fly.
Soon enough, though, Liz discovers that her family is in deep financial trouble and her mother’s solution to this is predictably matrimonial. Liz must marry step-cousin Willie, who has some sort of a successful IT start-up in California.
Without throwing in spoilers, this is the broad canvas.
Why Cincinnati? You might wonder. Of course, Sittenfeld grew up there and channels the has-been vibe of the once glorious city with great nuance. (Proctor and Gamble still maintain their headquarters in Cincinnati, and employ more than 15,000 people. Charlotte Lucas works for P&G and Liz hopes that Mary too can find a job there after she completes her third online master’s degree!) But what really underpins the author’s decision – do remember we are dealing with central tropes that were popular a couple of centuries ago – is an epigraph from Mark Twain:
When the end of the world comes, I want to be in Cincinnati because it is always twenty years behind the times.
Wickham – and other complications
For any modern-day rendition to work, the intent of the source text must be transmuted into a new work of art, without holding characters and plot points hostage. If overt fidelity weakened Trollope’s Sense and Sensibility, Eligible walks the fine line rather well.
Elizabeth’s it’s-complicated lover is Jasper Wicks while Lydia’s boyfriend is Ham. This splicing of the charming rogue Wickham into two people naturally impacts the shape of the narrative, given how important Wickham was to the structural unity of Austen’s version. There are also important ways in which the text has been updated to reflect our current political correctness.
Austen has been accused of treating her servants as invisibles. Here, Sittenfeld corrects that through a very minor but important memory: Mervetta.
Mr and Mrs Bennet’s slightly conservative Republican views and their impatience with “bicoastal affectations” are the perfect foil to the changes that have crept into the vocabulary of desire in their daughters’ generation. Without giving away the who and the what, here are certain elements of updating from Ms Austen’s time that you will encounter in Eligible: hate sex, transgender love, a hot African-American suitor, pregnancy by sperm donors, anorexia and campus hate crime, to name a few.
Some of her changes might seem a little audacious to card-carrying Janeites, but there is a nice organic zing to the final text. It is a perfect summer read.
However, a problem
Jane Austen’s was a curious genius. She belonged squarely in the Romantic Period (not only were Scott, Wordsworth and Southey her contemporaries, they were also her readers). She was deeply aware of the ideas that revolutionised her age (not only did she read Scott, Wordsworth and Southey, but also Goethe and Godwin), and yet, with artistic deliberation and not womanly limitation as has been often assumed, she chose to focus on her two-inches of ivory, her “3 or 4 Families in a Country Village to work on” (from a letter to her niece) that could tell of much larger themes, through both commission and omission.
Her minutely drawn portrayals of the gentry – and their associations with other allied classes, the clergy, the military, tradespeople who had climbed up the social ladder and the aristocracy – not only exemplify her grasp on an ironic domestic realism, but also establish her awareness – and critique – of the economics of her time. Especially how this economics played out in the lives of women. David Daiches, the literary historian had half-joked that Jane Austen was “in a sense a Marxist before Marx.”
Austen’s England was a deeply class-ridden entity (in 1810, the nominal annual income of agricultural workers was £42 and of clergymen was £283. Compare this to Mr Darcy, who has about £10,000 a year). It was embroiled in wars with its neighbours and colonising “barbarians” in other parts of the world. The French Revolution and the War of American Independence had interrupted history, as it were. Austen was well aware of all this – two of her brothers were in the Royal Navy and she had close family links with Warren Hastings. But what she chose to respond to was her reality.
At home, England kept Austen’s women powerless, and only the working classes – between earning slave wages or dying young – were legitimately allowed to feel a spot of passion. Thus, Jane Austen, by refusing to get swept away by the concerns of the Romantic poets or novelists – her lionised contemporaries – and choosing to write about the business of marriage and love, was also demonstrating, in defiance, a sort of practical feminism.
What did it matter if England was conquering the world – and its poets were dreaming of “imagination” and “revolution” when its women had not been invited to the party. Therefore, what Austen chose not to write about is also as important in our readings of her.
And this is where Sittenfeld’s rewriting, understandably, falls short. The circumstances that forced the hand of Austen’s women – and made women like Elizabeth Bennet who chose to defy those circumstances sparkle more in contrast – are just not as compelling in the context of contemporary America.
Mr and Mrs Bennet in 1813 are the victims of an entailment, which will rob the family of its home and income. Mr and Mrs Bennet in 2013 are just typical Americans – living way beyond their means. The very British class boundaries of 1813 cut deep and low in a manner that is impossible to convey in contemporary America, without going into far greater nuances.
The smooth irony that shimmers just below the silk of Austen’s prose is uniquely of her time and place in history. Everything she portrays is simultaneously critiqued and allowed to breathe. The America of Eligible, too, is rife with problems and wars as Austen’s England was. But Sittenfeld’s engagement with these ideas – whether Willie’s start-up or Mr Bennet’s monetary woes – remains on the surface. In a way, therefore, Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding and Confessions of a Shopaholic by Sophie Kinsella, both firmly in the territory of chick lit, reflect the peculiar anxieties of young women in our day and age somewhat better than Eligible does.
What does work splendidly in Eligible, is the banter. Sittenfeld is clever at conversations. Her writing is contemporary and smart. There is also good strategizing. Since Mr Collins and Lady Catherine de Bourgh are two of Austen’s finest creations, Sittenfeld does not try to imitate them at all. They are, therefore, completely different people in Eligible. You are, of course, both relieved and disappointed.
Ultimately, Eligible is the sort of flirty witty conversation you might have with an ex in an upscale pub, two drinks down. It might lead to a bonus night, even a memorable one. But then, it’ll be coffee next morning and moving on. You’ll hardly think of it afterwards.
An unwanted suggestion to the Austen Project editors: the debacle called Bride and Prejudice aside, perhaps writers of colour ought to be roped in. They might be able to translate the nuanced hierarchies of Austen’s England and matchmaking as sport into an Indian or Pakistani or Nigerian context – and give us a rollicking read in the event? Maybe that should be their next port of call.
Devapriya Roy is the author of two novels, one doctoral dissertation and most recently, of The Heat and Dust Project: the Broke Couple’s Guide to Bharat with Saurav Jha.