Brow Beat

Curtis Sittenfeld’s Deft, Feminist Eligible Has Been Unfairly Slammed by Critics. Here’s Why They’re Wrong.

Inevitably a lady in need of defense is succored by her friends, or they are not true friends. As Curtis Sittenfeld’s new novel Eligible has been amiable and witty in my company, and graciously given me hours of pleasure, I find my affections so awakened as to defend her good nature.

One cannot be insensible of the insult hurled at Sittenfeld’s contemporary reimagining of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice—most notably, from Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times and Ursula K. Le Guin in the Guardian. Yet one can hope these critics, like Darcy reappraising Elizabeth Bennet, might regard again the countenance graced in their view by “hardly a good feature” and find it “rendered uncommonly intelligent by the beautiful expression of her dark eyes.”   

What are the lady Eligible’s faults? “Ms. Sittenfeld struggles to update the plot of Pride and Prejudice,” Kakutani says, “failing to find the effortless sorts of analogies Ms. Heckerling deftly used in Clueless.” Here I must disagree, as Sittenfeld’s analogies could not be more delightfully apt. What vocation could a 21st-century Mr. Darcy hold but neurosurgeon? Would modern-day Lydia be anything other than a gorgeous, foul-mouthed, Crossfit-obsessed party girl who sneers at Liz, a writer, “Do you ever pass up a chance to use a big word? Or do you find that circumlocution always magnifies life’s conviviality?” A subtly competitive ball becomes an overtly combative game night. A droning suitor morphs into an awkward tech bro. These are wonderful, sly makeovers. Sittenfeld “also fails,” Kakutani writes, “to work the sort of entertaining improvisations on her material that Ms. Fielding did in Bridget Jones.” Again, I protest. For Eligible features such dexterous twists as turning officious Catherine de Bourgh into a wise doyenne of second-wave feminism and thus repositioning the original’s attitude toward powerful women. It makes the tender Georgiana Darcy anorexic, as if to gently illumine the costs of characters’ focus on looks or to hint at the wide range of difficulties that grieve families.  

But Ms. Kakutani’s censure does not stop there. The Times reviewer finds Eligible lame” and coarse, trading Austenian delicacy for riotousness. In Sittenfeld’s hands, she says, fine-tuned irony becomes broad caricature. She deplores Kitty and Lydia’s “vulgar bathroom humor,” seemingly unaware that their sophomoric sensibilities are designed to offend. Condemning the novel’s “high decibel mockery,” she overlooks its exquisite attention to minute social impressions, subtly bent norms. Master-observer Sittenfeld is in fact the perfect inheritor of Austen’s mantle, at once sympathetic toward and derisive of her characters. They speak in elaborate concatenations of inanity, or they are witty; they try, or don’t; they size each other up with astonishing inaccuracy. The spirit of Austen is duly (and reverently) channeled.

And yet, as a different Times reviewer, Sarah Lyall, points out, “No one writes with Austen’s particular sensibility, and no one would really want to; she was perfectly of her time.” Eligible’s language may be cruder and more casual than the decorous, corseted prose of the 19th-century female novelist, but surely the alternative would strike today’s readers as both coy and overwrought.

Ms. Le Guin’s argument with the book takes a different shape—she objects to its “disagreeable,” “hateful,” or “spiteful” disposition, writing that few “could survive long amid the incessant sneers of the characters of Eligible, with the author hovering over them, pitiless as a horsefly, to deliver judgment.” By way of example, Le Guin cites Sittenfeld’s portrayal of Mary, who “was proof, Liz had concluded, of how easy it was to be unattractive and unpleasant.” But Le Guin might as well deliver her plaint straight to Austen, a writer of amused discrimination and occasional cruelty. “Mary,” noted Pride and Prejudice’s author in 1813, “had neither genius nor taste; and though vanity had given her application, it had given her likewise a pedantic air and conceited manner, which would have injured a higher degree of excellence than she had reached.” This judgment proves no less devastating for its detached formality, its ironic remove. In fact, Sittenfeld grants the third Bennet girl a kindness that Austen denied her: Eligible (spoiler alert) ends with a section from Mary’s perspective, in which this sidelined young woman reframes the action of the previous 500-some pages as a brief, frivolous melodrama.

Darcy’s appraisal of Lizzie in the 2016 novel feels pertinent here: “I’ve never met anyone with your interest in other people. Even when you’re judging them, you do it with such care and attention. I can never predict who you’ll like or dislike, but I always know your reasons will be very specific and you’ll express them with great passion.” This was true of Austen, and it is true of Sittenfeld.

Le Guin also has a more curious reproach for Eligible. Using Emma Woodhouse’s moment of audacity with Miss Bates as a foil for the novel’s treatment of Pride and Prejudice, she argues that Sittenfeld should have expressed her love of Austen by leaving her alone. “Sittenfeld,” she scolds, “risks the humiliation that awaits presumption.” Surely this is ridiculous. Revisiting and refreshing classic stories is how literature works. The canon flowers by drawing forth nourishment from its roots.

We have particular reason to turn to Austen now, in 2016. Long before “dark” interpretations of Disney stories came into vogue, Jane, the spinster second daughter of a country priest, was ironizing fairy tales, delivering happy endings in measured and somewhat skeptical tones. Her vision of partnership, though it sweeps readers off their feet, entails no mysterious spiritual fusions. Rather, she is interested in the equable marriage of minds. (Consider Lizzie carefully and dispassionately enumerating her reasons for granting Darcy a second chance: “the respect created by the conviction of his valuable qualities … the testimony so highly in his favor … his disposition in so amiable a light which yesterday had produced …”)

Austen’s bothness—the paradoxes she sustains of fervency and coolness, sharp criticism and demure propriety—make her a natural fit for our feminist moment. Women, told ad infinitum that they are “freer than ever before,” are so free, in fact, that certain members of the fairer sex can come off as dismissive or maybe just wary of second-wave earnestness, preferring instead a mocking, ironic approach. It’s why the droll and gracious term lady has reemerged in feminist circles. Why Trainwreck, the first movie by a comic who is best known for making sashimi out of traditional gender norms, permitted itself a gauzy Cinderella ending. Elizabeth Bennet did not arrive at the Netherfield ball with hand grenades sewn into her skirts; Sittenfeld’s heroines would rather poke fun at reality dating shows than cease watching them altogether. Satire, of the kind both Austen and contemporary gentlewomen seem to favor, would appear to require a degree of engagement with the norms under attack.

Austen, then, practices sonnet feminism, not free-verse feminism. And just as her protagonists must succeed within and not outside of the marriage plot, Sittenfeld is likewise experimenting inside an inherited form. (That form being, of course, the Austen novel itself.) If to do so is presumption, it is presumption that Austen would wish for us all, including the outspoken lady writers Ursula K. Le Guin and Michiko Kakutani.