Austen Upside Down
***This article contains major spoilers for Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible.***
What are Jane Austen’s novels about?
Before you answer “romance” or “marriage” or “true love” or “tall dark inscrutable men in wet shirts,” hang on just a minute. That’s not what I mean. Of course those things are all an integral part of Austen’s work (minus the wet shirt, which is an integral part of Andrew Davies’s). But I would argue that they’re not what her work is about.
Perhaps the best way to understand what it really is about is to consider it in a radically different context—that is, by examining updates of it. The Austen Project, in which six contemporary novelists give us their takes on Austen’s six major novels, offers the perfect opportunity to do this. Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible is the latest entry in the series—the latest and the most buzzed about, since it’s based on Austen’s most widely beloved novel, Pride and Prejudice.[pullquote align=right]The takeover of post-Sexual Revolution values is complete; the counterculture has submitted to the culture; and Jane Austen has been stood on her head.[/pullquote]
Sittenfeld relocates the story to present-day Cincinnati and sets it in a household that has long supported itself on a “large but dwindling inheritance.” The two oldest daughters, Jane and Liz, are currently back home helping out during their father’s illness. But they both have jobs in New York (Liz is a magazine editor, Jane a yoga teacher). The two youngest daughters spend all their time on CrossFit and fashion, and no one can actually figure out what middle daughter Mary does.
So far, so good. Then we run into some very un-Austen-like problems—such as Liz’s romance with the married Jasper Wick.
Sittenfeld sets up this situation with great care, evidently aware that many readers will be thrown by the idea of Elizabeth Bennet sleeping with a married man. Liz has known and loved Jasper for years; Jasper and his wife have an understanding (or so he tells Liz); this relationship is clearly not right for Liz but she hasn’t yet been able to admit it to herself. As TV writers say, Liz and Jasper are not endgame; her story arc is meant to take her away from him and toward someone else—and, presumably, away from immaturity toward maturity.
But many Austen aficionados will still be stuck back on Elizabeth Bennet is sleeping with a married man! It’s hard to get past this first indication that, in this portion of the Austen Project at least, Austen’s value system has been flipped on its head.
This will become more and more glaringly apparent in the pages that follow. By the time Jane and Bingley have slept together on their first date and Liz is having “hate sex” with Darcy, readers will be pretty sure we’re not in Longbourn anymore. And we haven’t even yet discussed the Bachelor-like reality show that Bingley has been appearing on, from which the book takes its title—a reality show that will end up hosting Bingley and Jane’s wedding, in a lengthy, cringeworthy sequence that has all the major characters parading their lives and relationships before the cameras, being manipulated as only reality shows can do.
“For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbors, and laugh at them in our turn?” Mr. Bennet famously asks Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice. But even he could hardly have dreamed of such cheap, tacky “sport” as this one.
How did we get from Pride and Prejudice to this? The changes may catch the typical Austen reader off guard, may even shock him or her. But perhaps they shouldn’t. When one examines the very different beliefs and assumptions underlying the two books and the eras in which they were written, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that something like Eligible was inevitable.
Think about the basic structure of Pride and Prejudice: Its very plot is intricately tied to values that were simultaneously traditional and countercultural in Austen’s day. (As Lori Smith reminds us in The Jane Austen Guide to Life, “In a world in which the ephemera of wealth and status could consume one’s life, Austen was concerned with being substantive: thoughtful, honest, kind, wise.”) It’s no “message book,” of course; few other novelists have communicated their values as organically, even delightfully, as Jane Austen did. But communicate them she does, and the reader of her most celebrated novel comes away having seen the superiority of virtue over vice. Thinking about her sister Lydia’s marriage, Elizabeth reflects on “how little of permanent happiness could belong to a couple who were only brought together because their passions were stronger than their virtue.”
The fact that this sort of thing now comes across to many as old-fashioned, even judgmental, obviously hasn’t kept modern women away from Austen. But many of them tend to cherry-pick what they want from her books—and what they want is not virtue, wit, or countercultural ideas, but simply and solely romance . . . romance divested of all the qualities Austen believed romance needed in order to flourish. As Talia Schaffer recently wrote at Oxford University Press’s OUPblog,
Our ideas of love have changed profoundly since Austen’s time. Austen depicts Lydia as a self-indulgent fool, but in a modern rom-com, Lydia would be the heroine, the girl who risks everything to follow her heart, and Lizzie would be the stuffy conventional elder sister who tries to keep her down. Today, erotic attraction has become the basis for marriage, so we designate Darcy as ultra-marriageable through a different set of markers than Austen used.
Eligible bears all this out. It is the logical end result of a culture that has rejected Austen’s most cherished values but still wants to wallow in the the romantic feelings her work inspires. So in this update, we can’t have Lydia doing something wrong, Darcy setting out to put things right, and Elizabeth finally coming to appreciate and love him for his selfless kindness—the sequence of events on which the whole plot of Pride and Prejudice turned. There are very few sexual acts that we are even supposed to consider wrong anymore, as dutiful citizens of a post-Sexual Revolution culture.
Instead, we have Lydia eloping with a transgender gym owner, Ham, and the problem this raises is simply the need to convince the stunned Bennet parents that, in Darcy’s words, “[neither] Lydia [nor] her boyfriend did anything wrong.” The good guys now are the characters who are quickest to accept the situation and welcome Ham into the family, and Darcy’s good deed is talking Mrs. Bennet around. Virtue-signaling is the new virtue.
The lesson Liz must learn is simply to stop catering to others—like her fussy parents and her demanding married boyfriend—and to put her own desires first . . . or in other words, to follow her heart. The takeover of post-Sexual Revolution values is complete; the counterculture has submitted to the culture; and Jane Austen has been stood on her head. We’ve witnessed what Schaffer might call the triumph of Lydia.
Is it fair to criticize Sittenfeld for the nature and magnitude of these changes? Is it even possible to translate a pre-Sexual Revolution romance to our very different world successfully? It’s not easy, at the very least. But it’s worth noting that Joanna Trollope did a competent job of it in her Sense and Sensibility update for the Austen Project. Trollope effectively transplanted the Dashwoods into the 21st century by allowing them their extramarital sexual relationships, but acknowledging that such relationships are not always advisable and often come with consequences.
Trollope also understood and respected the nature of Austen’s characters. In the original novel, Marianne was considered to be going too far, too fast, by the standards of her time, simply by openly showing favor to Willoughby. Having her modern-day counterpart sneak off for sex with Willoughby’s modern-day counterpart before she really knows him well is a plausible equivalent. But it would not be plausible for Elinor and Edward to do this, so Trollope refrained from going in that direction, and her book is stronger for it.
Writer/director Whit Stillman—probably best known nowadays for his critically acclaimed Austen adaptation Love and Friendship—also did a creditable job back in 1990 of bringing her work into the modern era, with his film Metropolitan. Unlike Trollope, who made judicious concessions to post-Sexual Revolution mores, Stillman took the countercultural route and struck a blow against them. His Mansfield Park-loving heroine, like Austen’s own Fanny Price, emerges from a morally dangerous situation with old-fashioned virtue intact—and it is a testament to Stillman’s admiration of Austen, his own ideals, and his skill as a storyteller that this ending feels wholly realistic.
So this difficult job can be done, in a number of different ways—but it requires, at the very least, a genuine understanding of what Austen’s work is about, a true appreciation of that work, and a modicum of her courage, skill, and insight. Austen satirized her culture, from the perspective of one with a wiser moral vision rooted in a strong faith; Sittenfeld embraces her culture, fully satisfied with its morals and manners, and concerned only with justifying them to the few who still might be unenlightened. Therein lies the difference between the two. And therein lies the failure of Eligible.