Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible is more than a romance, much like the novel on which it is based: Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. As I said in Why Jane Austen Appeals to Girls (and Boys) Who Don’t Just “Want a Boyfriend,”
Yes, [Pride and Prejudice] is a love story at its core, but its historical context, multi-dimensional characters, and commentary on social hierarchy and human nature add weight to the ‘girl meets boy’ plot.
In Eligible, Sittenfeld gives us the romance we expect (though not necessarily in the way we expect!), as well as a perspective on how far women have come in the two centuries since Pride and Prejudice made its debut. We see progress in how most of the Bennet sisters react to Mrs. Bennet’s adherence to bigoted values and stereotypes. We also hear it in what Kathy de Bourgh, a Gloria Steinem-like feminist who is quite different from her counterpart in the original, has to say when Liz finally gets ahold of her.
I enjoyed this novel, though I am still processing how I feel about the latter half of it. [A minor spoiler ahead] Liz disappointed me by inadvertently outing someone to Darcy — and Elizabeth Bennet isn’t a character I expect to disappoint me — but I appreciated seeing her growth by the end of the novel.
Eligible takes place in 2013, when women are able to inherit wealth and are no longer confined to the domestic sphere as they were in Austen’s time. There’s no doubt that we’ve come a long way in the last 200 years, but questions remain about the meaning of the “equality” we’ve achieved in comparison to men.
Eligible touches on this issue, if only briefly, when the updated Bennet sisters discuss the Bachelor-like reality television show that stars modern Mr. Bingley.
“Eligible is degrading to women,” Mary said, and Lydia said, “Of course that’s what you think.”
“But every other season is one woman and twenty-five guys,” Kitty said. “That’s equality.”
“The women humiliate themselves in a way the men don’t,” Mary said. “They’re so desperate.”
Today, when women get the opportunity to do what men get to do, is it truly an equivalent experience?
For the women on Eligible, and the shows on which Eligible is based, maybe not. Do the producers cast them because they seem “desperate”? Do they direct them to be that way? That behavior comports with stereotypes about women, keeping viewers happy by giving them what they expect.
Mary’s description of this reality TV show made me think of other examples of dubious “equality.”
The first example that came to mind was women in sports, where even our most powerful female athletes are reduced to sexual objects in tiny shorts (i.e. women’s volleyball) and don’t receive equal pay even for superior athletic performance (i.e. women’s soccer). Then, of course, we have the lingerie football league, where women are tools for male sexual gratification under the guise of “sexual freedom.” None of these female “opportunities” threaten the gender hierarchy Jane Austen would’ve recognized (as scandalous as scantily clad women in a public venue would likely seem to her).
Meanwhile, in the workplace — where we’ve made great gains since Austen’s Anne Elliot lamented how women “live at home, quiet, confined [where] our feelings prey upon us” in Persuasion — sexual harassment and unequal pay are so ubiquitous and difficult to challenge that many women simply accept it. It’s “just part of the job.”
In the 21st Century, women have far more opportunities than they did in Austen’s time, but so much of our success still depends on pleasing men and keeping quiet. That’s not equality.
For more on Sittenfeld’s Eligible, see these reviews:
- Austenprose — A Jane Austen Blog: “Within the limitations of the Austen Project, Eligible delivers engaging characters and witty dialog, along with the pleasure of comparing favorite original scenes with new ones.”
- Literary Treats: “I’m not completely sure I’m comfortable with how race and gender identity are treated in the story, though Sittenfeld is very careful to voice disapproval (via Liz’s thoughts) of the offensive views (usually Mrs Bennet’s). […] All that being said, I still really enjoyed this book. It’s certainly one of my favourite Austen adaptations by far, and one of the few I that I think actually succeed at updating Austen’s story for contemporary times.”