In 2011, The Austen Project approached best-selling author Curtis Sittenfeld to write a modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice, which she entitled Eligible (out in bookstores now). On Thursday, April 21, 2016, Diane Rehm, one of my favorite radio hosts, interviewed Sittenfeld regarding her new novel. As the interview wore on it became obvious to me that 1) this author, who had not read Pride and Prejudice since she was a teenager, should have done more research about the economic and social situation of the Bennets, Darcys, and Bingleys in Regency England, and how this impacted their actions, and that 2) Diane Rehm and Sittenfeld had little understanding of the economic impact that Austenesque films, television shows, book adaptations, blogs, online forums, and fan fiction have on today’s book and entertainment industry.
After listening (impatiently) to the interview, I wrote this comment on Ms. Rehm’s website, which also features a link to the interview and a 4-page excerpt of the novel.
I author the Jane Austen’s World blog, which examines the Regency era during Jane Austen’s time. I looked forward to this interview, since I listen to the Diane Rehm Show and am a Jane Austen fan. I am no fan of Jane Austen fan fiction, however. Reading the excerpt of “Eligible” and listening to Ms. Sittenfeld read from her book left me strangely cold. Austen’s fans are drawn to her novels because of her enormous talent in describing her characters with humor, or satire, or barbed arrows in her swift, spare, and witty style. Her words fairly sparkle off the page and her main protagonists seem like living creatures. In this instance, the dialogue seems strangely flat, I recognize the names of the characters, but not their essence.
I don’t care how many best sellers a novelist has written, most (many, all) are unable to adapt Austen’s works and write something better or wittier. I am thinking of P.D. James and her awful “Death Comes to Pemberley” and Colleen McCullough’s appallingly bad “The Independence of Mary Bennet,” both of which became best sellers because of their authors’ fame, not because of the excellence of the adaptations. In fact, I was able to purchase both books online for $1.00. Both were in remarkably fresh condition, as if they had been warehoused for a while.
Another sense I got from the interview was Ms. Sittenfeld’s inability to understand her audience – the Jane Austen fan. Chip Bingley participated in the novel’s version of “The Bachelor.” Really? Sittenfeld and Rehm devoted a good portion of the interview to this topic. I felt my mind drifting and my interest in the novel vanishing. I suppose Cincinnati is as good a place as any to fill in for Meryton, but I am not convinced.
I will review [the book] on my blog and withhold judgment for the time being. I am not optimistic that I will change my mind.
In my opinion, only Emma Thompson has channeled Jane Austen successfully in recent years. Much of the script of 1995’s Sense and Sensibility, while staying true to Austen’s intent, are really Emma’s words as the film’s script writer. Some scenes and details are added, since films are a visual medium, yet I left the theater feeling as if I had watched a movie whose script was written by Jane Austen.
This review in The Guardian by Ursula K. LeGuin (an author I admire enormously) starts out by saying:
It was badly done’ – to quote Mr Knightley – an ill-judged rendering of Jane Austen’s most famous work…
Those words are kind compared to the rest of LeGuin’s review, which includes this interesting statement:
I wondered what could possess a writer to tie her novel so blatantly and rigidly to a very well-known one – taking the general plot and the name of every character, so that comparison with the original becomes as unavoidable as it is crushing…We are in a period of copycatting, coat-tail-riding, updating and mashup; rip-off is chic, character theft from famous predecessors is as common as identity theft via credit cards…
In her interview with Rehm, Sittenfeld explains her modus operandi,
when I started rereading “Pride And Prejudice,” I did think, oh, I have so many ideas. This would be such a delightful way to spend a few years.” ….My approach was to basically keep the plot or keep the architecture of the novel and also to keep the names because I didn’t want readers to be distracted, thinking, well, who’s who?…
Sittenfeld enjoyed her years of writing the novel, contacted only occasionally (with no pressure) from the publisher, and writing according to a strict outline and timeline, often with Pride and Prejudice propped on her lap for quick reference to remind her of major plot lines that described both character and setting.
In another recent review, Jim Higgins of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinal, describes the same situation that Sittenfeld and Rehm had gone over during their interview – how Chip Bingley, a physician and bachelor on the reality show “Eligible,” found fame courting 24 women on national television. Lizzie is now 38 and her sister Jane is 40 – today’s versions of single women about to enter that twilight world of spinsterhood.
Eligible is supposed to be an act of homage, an act of admiration. It’s not supposed to be an improvement upon ‘Pride and Prejudice.’ I don’t think ‘Pride and Prejudice’ needs to be improved on. I think it’s a wonderful, perfect novel.”- Sittenfeld, Milwaukee Journal Sentinal.
In this respect, Sittenfeld recognizes Jane Austen’s unmatched talent as an author completely, but does she? Really? Higgins calls Sittenfeld’s verbal exchanges among the Bennets “sharp;” Ursula LeGuin describes them as mean-spirited.
As for me, I shall purchase the novel way after its sell date, read it, and write a review based on my reaction to Sittenfeld’s adaptation of my favorite novel of my favorite author. Meanwhile, I can only go by the interview I heard and the short excerpt I read.
As for Diane Rehm and my total love for her show – one disappointing interview in hundreds, well, that gives her a great track record IMO.
Inquiring readers: Frequent contributor, Tony Grant, would like to add his thoughts to the discussion in this comment:
I have only ever read one so called spin off novel and that was The Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys. Her book adds to the world of great literature dealing with important and deep issues. Whether it is a true spin off, mash up, is questionable. It is such a rich and important book. If the so called spin off genre could achieve what she achieved in adding to our experience of the human condition I would read those sort of books but until then they are not for me. Jane Austen engages us with the world within the strictures of her time but also in a way that is relevant to all times.She really doesn’t need to be messed with. I wonder what she would think.The book you describe sounds like a sad attempt at making money on the coat tails of a popular author. I am not one to burn books but we could have quite a conflagration if all the mash ups, spin offs, fan fictions etc were piled up and set light to… ha!Ha!
( I must admit a secret regret, I did read one fan fiction take on Pride and Prejudice a few years ago because it was written by an acquaintance . But I try to forget that experience.)