For all the apparent simplicity of her work, Jane Austen makes a very hard act for a writer to follow. Charlotte Bronte might have labelled Austen’s work as “a carefully fenced, highly cultivated garden, with neat borders and delicate flowers; but no glance of bright physiognomy” but, for something apparently so structured, capturing the essence of Austen’s light and playful writing is an extremely difficult task. So it was with some trepidation that I decided to read Curtis Sittenfeld’s ‘Eligible’, her take on arguably Austen’s best known novel ‘Prideand Prejudice’ – a book that happens to be one of my personal favourites. Sittenfeld is an admirable writer – I enjoyed her novel ‘Prep’ immensely and have heard only good things about ‘American Wife’ – but I’ve been burned by Austen rewrites before.
‘Eligible’ is the fourth book in The Austen Project, a HarperCollins published pairing of six bestselling modern writers with six of Austen’s classic works. So far, Joanna Trollope has tackled ‘Sense and Sensibility’ to modest reviews, Val McDermid’s ‘Northanger Abbey’ received a somewhat controversial reception and Alexander McCall Smith’s ‘Emma’ was warmly received but flew a little under the radar. I read Trollope’s ‘Sense and Sensibility’ and, for what it was worth, enjoyed it in spite of the fact that it changed very little of the original – which works absolutely fine in Austen’s nineteenth-century but arguably less so when transposed to the twenty-first. McDermid’s ‘Northanger Abbey’ was, alas, a DNF as soon as I realised I was supposed to buy the idea that a modern teenager with a smartphone would genuinely believe vampires existed. As for McCall Smith’s ‘Emma’? Whilst I like his writing well enough (especially his warm and gently Mma Ramotswe detective series), there is an element of McCall Smith’s writing that leaves everything feeling well…. a bit like another Alexander McCall Smith novel. So I gave his take on Austen a miss.
‘Eligible’ though is the first of the re-imaginings within the Austen project to break with tradition and ditch the original title. Which is great. It’s like Sittenfeld said, “Hey, you know what? This might be Pride and Prejudice but I’m going to do it my way.” Which is also why you’ll find that Meryton has become Cincinnati (which means that, yes, all of the characters are supposed to be American - Austen aficionados, if you need to go away and have a lie down then I’ll still be here when you get back), everyone has had about twenty years added to their ages (meaning Jane, Liz, Darcy and Bingley are all approaching forty) and, as with most adult relationships in the twenty-first century, pre-marital sex is a thing.
And you know what? ‘Eligible’ one of the most refreshing rewritings of Austen I’ve read and one of the few that has captured Austen’s wry sense of humour and her acerbic social wit. I’m keeping this review spoiler-free so I won’t go into particulars with the plot but Sittenfeld has managed to keep the classic events of the original (including a very clever take on Lizzy Bennet’s walk through muddy fields) whilst updating them in a plausible way. Her characters feel very much like twenty-first century women but, at the same time, they still feel like Austen’s characters too. And her social satire is laugh out loud funny – from exercise crazes to the pressure placed on women to have children, via doctor-clichés (Sittenfeld’s Darcy is a neurosurgeon) and fad diets – ‘Eligible’ is as observant and biting as Austen’s original.
Of course, there are a few minor niggles. Whilst it makes for a nice framing device, and a nice opportunity for satire, I enjoyed the sections relating to the TV show ‘Eligible’ (think ‘The Batchelor’ but…worse somehow) the least – but that’s probably because I’m really not a fan of reality TV. I did also find Sittenfeld’s Liz less likeable than Austen’s Lizzy. Austen somehow manages to keep her Lizzy on the witty side of bitchy whereas Sittenfeld’s…well, let’s just say she occasionally dips a toe over the line for a chapter or two! That said though, Sittenfeld’s Liz does have considerably more to put up with – the Bennet family, for all that they have been gloriously reimagined, are a nightmarish collection of the vain and the selfish in ‘Eligible’, with character traits that seemed merely amusing or embarrassing in Austen’s original now shown as being truly dangerous or spiteful in the ‘real life’ of Sittenfeld’s twenty-first century Cincinnati. Again, it’s hard to give examples without spoilers but I’ll just say that never before had I considered what terrible examples of parents Mr & Mrs Bennet truly were.
Overall, I enjoyed ‘Eligible’ immensely. It made me laugh, I sped through it and it updated Austen’s work without insulting the original but also without straining to laboriously re-create every detail. Like ‘Bridget Jones’ Diary’, ‘Eligible’ has taken the essence of Austen and worked it in a new way. Now, that might not be for everyone and I daresay some Austen fans won’t welcome many of Sittenfeld’s changes to their beloved Elizabeth and Darcy. But, for me, ‘Eligible’ worked in the same way that P D James’ ‘Death Comes to Pemberley’ or the TV series ‘Lost in Austen’ worked – it’s not trying to BE Austen, it’s just borrowing from her for a while and doing its own thing. Plus, it made me want to go back to the original ‘Pride and Prejudice’ and read that for the millionth time. Which can only ever be a good thing.
My thanks go to HarperCollins UK and to NetGalley for providing an advanced copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review. ‘Eligible’ is published by HarperCollins(The Borough Press) and is available in hardback now from all good book retailers.