Browsing with a bookish friend in Type Books the other day, I literally gasped when she gestured to Eligible; I had missed the news that Curtis Sittenfeld had something new on the shelves.
There aren’t that many authors who’ll make me gasp (but it also happened when I saw the new Alissa York, which I’d thought was a fall book), and it’s a good feeling. One which was extended unexpectedly when I discovered that the author would be at the Appel Salon a few days later.
The audience was predominantly female, which seemed to suit Eligible, a contemporary retelling of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. And there was quite a range of ages in attendance, on a temperate May evening, which I would also have guessed. (There is no single ‘type’ of person who appreciates Jane Austen, Sittenfeld would later observe.)
What I did not anticipate was the catty comment made by the 60-something woman to my left, her cherry-red handbag perfectly matched to her thick-heeled pumps, when she saw the slide for that evening’s event slip past on the screen, which also advertised other upcoming literary events in the salon.
The photo of Curtis Sittenfeld was drawn from the jacket of Eligible and the woman asks her friend, staring intently at her image: “Could she look any more unattractive?”
She pauses for a moment, but not to soften her judgement. “I mean,” the woman continues to look straight at the screen, “she must have worked at it.”
More to the point, Curtis Sittenfeld worked very hard at writing Eligible, the fourth book in the Austen Project (with Joanne Trollope’s retelling of Sense and Sensibility, Alexander McCall Smith’s retelling of Emma, and Val McDermid’s retelling of Northanger Abbey).
Ironically, the novel reads effortlessly (more about that tomorrow), but that’s exactly how one can tell that there’s a lot of work behind it. The author considers it an act of admiration, and believes that this approach is part of what gave her the confidence to write Eligible.
One might say that the work began when Curtis Sittenfeld was sixteen years old, at a Massachusetts boarding school, when she first read Pride and Prejudice, and she thought “I can’t believe this counts as homework.” Later, a male classmate compared her to Lizzie Bennett, and that was memorable as well; she always identified with and aspired to be Lizzie Bennett.
There was no hesitation on her part in accepting her role in the project, as outlined to her in December 2011. After rereading Pride and Prejudice over the winter holidays, she had plenty of ideas right off and accepted the offer. Once her work on Sisterland was finished in 2013, she began to work on Eligible.
The themes of the novel are still relevant today: financial stability, true love, and one’s oh-so-annoying family. But she certainly is not seeking to improve the original, which is “perfect”.
Nonetheless, the project offered an enticing combination of restraint and freedom, and the process of reverse engineering provoked a new respect for Jane Austen’s crafting.
To ensure that the retelling would resonate with readers, she focussed on the emotions behind the plot points rather than the circumstances of the novel.
It’s a “light-hearted feminist retelling”, she agrees with the interviewer (Chatelaine’s Lianne George, who seems slightly nervous but enthusiastic and sincerely interested in the author’s answers).
“Feminism is having such an interesting moment,” Curtis Sittenfeld observes. But, women have a lot more choices now than they did two hundred years ago, so she did want to allow some of the female characters to enjoy themselves a little bit more.
Her mother expressed reservations that the uber-detail-oriented Curtis Sittenfeld might be too explicit about the sexuality which smoulders beneath the surface of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice — “She’s subtle, Curtis.” And saying it once wasn’t enough. Nonetheless, she had already determined to handle these scenes with discretion and a light-touch. “There are a few sentences that I coudl have written, and I didn’t.”
When asked what she looks for in a female protagonist, the author replies that she is smart and observant, with some mistaken beliefs about her own life. She might be conflicted, even self-sabotaging. Fiction allows scope for how complex people’s lives are, more so than non-fiction (this, in relationship to her third novel, based on the life of Laura Bush, American Wife).
“It’s very possible to be an intelligent person acting against your own best interests in life,” she states. And, in that statement, I realize that is exactly what I have so admired about her characterization in Prep, The Man of My Dreams, American Wife, and Sisterland.
On the surface, some of these stories seem simple but, in fact, they are deeply complex. (In the case of Sisterland, one doesn’t even realize until the final couple of chapters, exactly what has been building throughout.) I don’t know what exactly inspired the editors to approach Curtis Sittenfeld for this project (she suggests that it was her treatment of some similar themes in other novels along with their desire to include an American writer in their efforts), but surely this quality is also evident in Jane Austen’s writing.
It’s all very ordinary. But not.
-Notes taken from the interview in the Bram and Bluma Appel Salon on the evening of May 18, 2016