Is This What Equality Looks Like? (Thoughts on Curtis Sittenfeld’s Modern Take on Jane Austen)

PP and Eligible

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.”

 

 

15 thoughts on “Is This What Equality Looks Like? (Thoughts on Curtis Sittenfeld’s Modern Take on Jane Austen)

  1. So much has changed for women through the years. It is not surprising to read of the “updating” of classic literature that kept women in stifling situations in life. It is funny that current authors are infusing powerful women in their stories, even ones set in Medieval times. The fantasy Game of Thrones series has women climbing to the top of that world. While it has all the atrocities to women of the age, it has them becoming leaders of this world in spite of the hardships.

  2. I’m generally a little wary of modern-day retellings of classics, but I feel cautiously optimistic about this one. Thanks for your thoughtful take on it 🙂

  3. I was wondering about this book. So often Austen re-dos are terrible but this one sounds like it is pretty good and has something to say. Still not sure if I will read it but I enjoyed your review!

    1. I’m not sure how well the final half of Sittenfeld’s novel sits with me, but I’m glad I read it. I’m wary of retellings, especially when they’re expensive while the public domain original is free, but it’s interesting to see what a modern author does with Austen’s blueprint.

  4. There will never be equality as long as women have most of the responsibility of bearing and raising children. What surprises me is that function has not put women on top and men in the subservient position. Women create life! They are the keepers of our species future, yet they are treated like second-class citizens. How did this unequal status come about? More importantly, how can it be changed?

    A dismissive attitude toward females is even built into our language, which is another reason inequality remains. “Stop running like a girl.” “Crying is for girls.” People don’t even hear this, but it’s absorbed and woven into the fabric of a little girl’s being as she grows up. This makes me furious and sad by turns.

    1. “There will never be equality as long as women have most of the responsibility of bearing and raising children.”

      I agree. We need to stop seeing the domestic sphere as the “woman’s space.” Far too many women experience discrimination in the workplace–being looked over for promotions, paid less, not hired–because employers think they’re going to have children and be less committed to the job. Women’s reproductive capacity shouldn’t limit their future opportunities.

      We have some legal remedies under Title VII and related state and local laws, but it doesn’t go far enough. I do see hope in the so-called millennial generation, though. Younger men and women want family-friendly policies in the workplace (and not just on paper). I don’t know how long it will be before it spreads throughout the workforce, though.

    2. I agree with you on attitudes towards gender being “built into our language”. Language and gender is such a fascinating area of research, and it’s one of the topics I enjoyed most when I studied undergraduate linguistics. A memorable example that one of my professors pointed out is that there are so many more pejorative terms aimed at women than there are at men.

      I think women will still have the responsibility of bearing children, as that’s the way we are made, but as for raising them? That’s another matter. 🙂

  5. Interesting take! I enjoyed this novel for what it was worth, but it definitely wasn’t my favorite of Curtis Sittenfeld’s books and I tried not to think about it too hard.

    1. I enjoyed the first half of the novel more than the second half. I’m not sure Sittenfeld’s treatment of the so-called “scandal” sits well with me. I still think it’s worth reading for Austen fans. It’s interesting to see what a popular author does with Jane Austen’s blueprint.
      Thanks for stopping by!

  6. I haven’t read or been interested in any of the Austen Project books, but this one sounds pretty good. Have you read any of the others? Any recommendations?

    1. Eligible was an enjoyable read, though I’m still thinking through the second half of it. I’m not sure it entirely sits well with me (for some of the same reasons Literary Treats raises in the post linked above–just a warning, there are “spoilers” in that post). I haven’t read the other Austen Project novels yet, but will. I didn’t want to be influenced by any of them while I was working on Amelia Elkins Elkins (which is Persuasion-inspired). I’ve heard the Northanger Abbey one is pretty good. Have you read any of them?

  7. This post has just made me even more excited to read Eligible. I’d preordered it so I got it on the 21st but I might save it for reading on holiday, I just can’t decide! Have you read the other Austen Project books?

    1. I hope you enjoy it! I thought it was a fun read, though I’m not sure the second half entirely sits well with me. I haven’t read any of the other Austen Project novels because I was trying to avoid being influenced by them while I was working on Amelia Elkins Elkins (inspired by Persuasion). Now, I’m getting to enjoy them. I’ve heard the Northanger Abbey one is pretty good. I’m planning to start that one next. Have you read the other Austen Project books?

      Thanks for stopping by!

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