It is a truth universally acknowledged that a much-loved classic must be in want of a modern makeover. Or so it would appear from the succession of contemporary screen and literary reworkings of Jane Austen’s novels, from the 1995 film Clueless, which transplanted Emma to a Beverly Hills high school, to the glorious gyrations of the Bollywood update, Bride and Prejudice (2004). This year alone we’ve seen Unleashing Mr Darcy (based on the 2013 novel by Teri Wilson), which relocated the action to a New York dog show, and the wholly irreverent Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, based on the 2009 novel by Seth Grahame-Smith, which got to number three on the New York Times bestseller list.
The seemingly insatiable appetite for Austen updates is not so hard to explain. The explosion of fan fiction has made extending the lives of imaginary characters routine fare. Austen remains a blueprint for romcom and her characters are like old friends whom we are happy to meet again. American author Curtis Sittenfeld acknowledges as much in explaining her decision to rework Pride and Prejudice for The Borough Press’ Jane Austen Project, which matches six contemporary novelists with Austen’s best-known works. Having fallen in love with Lizzy Bennet as a 16-year-old, Sittenfeld says, it appealed to her “inner English major”.
The result is Eligible, in which genteel Meryton is replaced by the affluent suburbs of modern-day Cincinnati, where Sittenfeld was raised. While Austen’s young heroines were under pressure to tie the knot, Sittenfeld has made them considerably older and the tick of the biological clock considerably louder.
Elizabeth is now a 38-year-old freelance journalist for Mascara magazine, involved in a desultory affair with the faithless (and married) Jasper Wick, aka Mr Wickham. Jane is nearly 40, a yoga teacher in New York, undergoing artificial insemination from anonymous sperm donors, having given up on more traditional routes to motherhood.
Back in Cincinnati for the summer to help care for their father after heart surgery, the sisters rejoin their feckless younger siblings and peevishly self-centered mother in the family home. Romantic diversion soon comes calling in the shape of two eligible bachelors: Chip Bingley, a reluctant doctor and reality TV show pin-up, and his handsome friend, Fitzwilliam Darcy, a neurosurgeon in possession of a west-coast mansion worth upwards of $50m.
There are some creaky moments as Sittenfeld refurbishes the characters with their new identities and backstories, but as far as personality goes, Sittenfeld remains loyal to Austen. Liz is feisty and independent, Jane angelic, Lydia vulgar, Bingley sweet, and Darcy arrogantly standoffish. The plot, too, trundles along its usual course, with Liz and Darcy putting each other’s backs up, and Jane and Bingley falling head over heels. But then Jane finds out she is pregnant and Bingley abruptly calls the whole thing off. At the same time, Liz discovers her parents’ finances are on the verge of collapse. With no funds to pay her father’s $240,000 medical bills, she has little choice but to sell the family house and try to secure gainful employment for her younger sisters.
It’s all plausible enough, if not terribly compelling. Instead of balls, characters go jogging or attend barbecues. Instead of writing letters, they text and email. Kitty spends a lot of time painting her nails and working out at the CrossFit gym. Everyone is relentlessly money-minded, even the saintly Jane, who rues having to forgo “elegantly tailored $400 pencil skirts and luxurious $300 sweaters” to pay for her fertility treatment at $1,000 a pop. Elevated thoughts in Eligible don’t go much further than booking a table at the Skyline restaurant.
Sittenfeld has a solid reputation for social satire and thoughtful portrayals of women. In Eligible, she’s opted for comedy over literary depth. Certainly she succeeds in exposing the rampant materialism of modern American suburban life, just as Austen satirised the snobbery of Regency England. But whereas in the original, money and social standing are major obstacles to love and happiness, here they are merely the baleful indicators of basic values. Materialism is not satirised, it’s just depicted.
Overall, Eligible struggles with a more fundamental problem: how to stay true to the original plot line yet give the story contemporary thrust, now that marriage is no longer a woman’s sole route to financial independence, and premarital sex is not a social catastrophe but the norm. Take out the material necessity of wedlock, and the physical bars to intimacy, and what are you left with as credible drivers for marriage?
Sittenfeld tries valiantly to overcome this, but the fact remains that there’s not much at stake for any of the characters in Eligible, whether or however they do or don’t get married. Even the ticking clock can be muffled if necessary, for Jane will have her baby regardless of Bingley’s affections, or lack of them.
True, Sittenfeld’s makeover touches on racism, homophobia, anorexia, but the register remains frothily comic, with none of the genuine tensions that give Pride and Prejudice its more serious undertow. Eligible is an enjoyably light-hearted romp, but it’s no substitute for Miss Austen’s original.
Rebecca Abrams is author of ‘Touching Distance’ (Picador)
Eligible, by Curtis Sittenfeld, The Borough Press, RRP£14.99 / Random House, RRP$28, 528 pages
Illustration by Clare Mallison