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Thursday, April 21, 2016

Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible as Mainstream Modern Midrash on Pride & Prejudice



Ellen Moody wrote:  “Reviewed by a polite reviewer in the Washington Post, by the time you get to the end you realize this is an awful concoction, calculated trash like pop substitutions which jar with imitations of Austen's language that make the prose style stilted:

Ellen, I also would call Ron Charles’s review of Eligible (which actually consists of both a video clip and a text review, both of them excellent) polite, but I want to explain how. I see Charles as adopting an amusedly tolerant stance, via his zany Andy-Rooney-like stylings combined with astute literary insight. In this way, he politely and wittily gets across, in a gentlemanly way, that Sittenfeld doesn’t really succeed in channeling Austen. What Charles also demonstrates, is that he channels Austen very well, as he seems to capture the inspired juveniliac wackiness which never left Austen’s fiction, but she just tucked neatly just under the surface.

But, in fairness to Sittenfeld, she deserves considerable benefit of the doubt, because she has bravely and voluntarily put herself in the middle of the crosshairs of a few million wary rifles aimed at her novel by Janeites (like myself). We’re naturally skeptical of any other writer with the stones to adapt the most popular Austen novel—indeed, in 2016, arguably the most popular novel ever written. So I quickly read a few of the short opening chapters in Eligible, and I found Sittenfeld’s writing style to be reasonably light, bright and sparkling in its own right---nowhere near Austen’s, of course, in any of those categories, but it did not strike me as a jarring imitation, nor did it have the look of calculated trash.

More substantively, what became clear (and was not at all surprising) was that Sittenfeld (who is not a Janeite herself--more on that below) was not ambitious enough to attempt to capture the complex irony that oozes off every page of Austen’s fiction, especially P&P. Sittenfeld’s handling of point of view seems, at first blush, fairly conventional, and in particular it does not seem to derive anything from the deliberate blurring of the subjective reality of the heroine and the objective reality of the narrator, the free indirect discourse of which Austen was an ultimate master.

In short, then, upon very first impression, Eligible seems to be a good effort at a modern romcom novel which just happens to closely hew to the plot structure and characters of P&P.

Nor, apparently, did she seem to expose any subtextual insights into P&P, other than…..


 [SPOILERS AS TO ONE CHARACTER, ALREADY DISCUSSED IN REVIEWS I’VE READ]


….turning Wickham into a transgendered person. My guess is that this twist might have been inspired by Lydia’s vivid description of the transvestitism (which of course is not the same as transgender) of the militiaman Chamberlayne:

“…We dressed up Chamberlayne in woman's clothes on purpose to pass for a lady, only think what fun! Not a soul knew of it, but Colonel and Mrs. Forster, and Kitty and me, except my aunt, for we were forced to borrow one of her gowns; and you cannot imagine how well he looked! When Denny, and Wickham, and Pratt, and two or three more of the men came in, they did not know him in the least. Lord! how I laughed! and so did Mrs. Forster. I thought I should have died. And that made the men suspect something, and then they soon found out what was the matter."

I fear we’ll never know whether “they soon found out what was the matter” was JA’s way of referring to anything more than cross-dressing, but maybe Sittenfeld saw something in the text of P&P that I haven’t so far?

I base these (admittedly) snap judgments, not only on my browsing in Sittenfeld’s novel and Charles’s review, but also upon the following as well:

I read a sampling of online reviews, including this withering, savage pan, courtesy of Ursula LeGuin (who seems to be spot-on in her condemnation, but who adopts a curmudgeonly, censorious tone which sounds unnervingly--and surely unintentionally--similar to the tone of Lady Catherine de Bourgh!):

Here’s the heart of LeGuin’s complaint with Eligible:     “The five Bennet sisters and their parents speak to one another only in this style: peevish and self-assertive, relentlessly striving for wit through mere insult. Any differentiation of character is hard to perceive through the artificiality and monotony of the dialogue. Lydia and Kitty can be shown as more disagreeable than Liz and Jane only by the slightly greater coarseness of their language. If I were tempted to feel any sympathy for any of them – for Mary, perhaps, the plain, bookish, feminist one – I would be forestalled by the author…”

That will be one point I will focus on, if I do wind up reading Eligible – I would have no problem with Sittenfeld having the Bennet girls speak saltily like many women in 2013, if she otherwise succeeds in differentiating their characters.

Then I read Sittenfeld’s recent article in support of her novel’s release here:

Here’s one comment Sittenfeld made that stood out for me: “That Austen herself never married (despite a proposal she accepted before turning it down a day later) is treated as such a noteworthy fact that it seems to be the exception that proves the rule.”

I think it was a missed opportunity for Sittenfeld not to have dug into Austen’s bio more deeply, and to have realized that Jane Austen, at least after her early twenties if not all along, really did not want to be married to a man. Sittenfeld also clearly had no idea that Austen alluded to Wollstonecraft’s writings in all her novels, and that (as I see it) Austen was more radical in her feminism than Wollstonecraft!


Then I listened to the interview of Sittenfeld by NPR’s Diane Rehm that aired this morning:
The interview will seem thin in Austenian substance to Janeites, but was still fun to listen to. As you will gather from it, Sittenfeld speaks of Janeites as a group she herself does not belong to, nor did she give any sign of having read intensively on Jane Austen’s biography.

And there I will close for now, but will probably followup at some point in the future.

[Added 5:09 pm PST]

This is a good, thorough interview with Sittenfeld that covers a lot of bases:

 

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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