Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Eligible: A Modern Retelling of Pride and Prejudice

Remember when Jane Austen’s Emma met contemporary high school culture in the 1995 film Clueless?  Then there was Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (book 2009, film 2016), featuring the Bennet sisters as masters of martial arts.  Now there is Eligible: A Modern Retelling of Pride and Prejudice, in which the Bennet sisters meet Yoga, Crossfit, and reality TV. 

There is also a pregnancy by artificial insemination, non-marital sex, a lesbian couple, a transgender character, and an interracial relationship.  The Bennet family is nothing if not up-to-date in Cincinnati.  At least the sisters are; the parents still need some convincing, especially when it comes to a transgender son-in-law. 

I saw a PBS interview with author Curtis Sittenfeld, and was immediately hooked.

Bingley and Darcy are medical doctors, as well as wealthy eligible bachelors, and Elizabeth writes for a fashionable and feminist New York magazine called Mascara. 

But, never fear, Mrs. Bennet is still firmly focused on traditional marriage to unattached men of means for her five daughters; Mr Bennet is his curmudgeonly self; the younger sisters are as superficial and silly as in the original; and there is the same irresistible combination of biting Austenesque snarkiness, romantic misadventures and misunderstandings, lovers’ quarrels, pathos, heartbreak, sidesplitting one-liners, comic absurdity, and, of course, all that ends well.

Jane Austen is well known for taking the popular courtship plot of the 18th century and transforming it into her own unique brand of incisive social satire combined with the enduring appeal of a romantic love story.  But what is it about Austen that inspires these ongoing adaptations and updates?

In the PBS interview Curtis Sittenfeld said it is the way Austen’s plots create sexual tension by throwing obstacles, misunderstandings, and bad timing in the path of powerful attraction.  You have these two characters who are obviously drawn to each other but who either resist that attraction or manage to miss every opportunity for any kind of consummation, even if it’s just that first confession of romantic feeling or that first kiss. 

As Shakespeare said, “the course of true love never did run smooth,” and Austen was a genius for dramatizing, not only that proverb, but also the sheer foolishness and comic absurdity that seems to accompany the human experience of either looking for love, stumbling over it, or missing it entirely.  At the same time, she could capture the authentic pathos of human longing and the joy of fulfillment.

In Pride and Prejudice, we have two characters, both determined to preserve their dignity while in the throes of a strong attraction; both caught in a web of circumstance, gossip, and misunderstanding; leading to a kind of love-hate relationship that raises the sexual tension to an extreme level, until neither the characters nor the reader can stand it no more.

This love-hate relationship is manifested in a martial arts duel between Elizabeth and Darcy in the Zombie version, and if anyone doubts the sub-text, it is fully revealed when Darcy’s sword slices off the buttons off Elizabeth’s bodice.  In Eligible Darcy and Elizabeth have what she calls “hate sex” because their mutual attraction is always masked by their constant conversational sniping.

But for all the humor in these romantic situations, Austen does not ignore the tears that lie just below the surface when human longing is frustrated or denied.  Indeed it is that depiction of genuine human suffering in romance that is a major part of her enduring appeal.

Similarly, for all the outlandish comedy in Eligible, like Austen, Curtis Sittenfeld recognizes the emotional pain that often accompanies the human drama of love and romance.  At one point Elizabeth, having finally admitted to herself her attraction to and longing for Darcy, is certain that Darcy is actually dating Bingley’s sister, Caroline.  She goes for her usual run, shedding tears most of the way, then collapses on a park bench, puts her face in her hands, and sobs.  A black woman passing by stops to check on her, and the normally reserved Elizabeth, exclaims to this stranger, “I am heartbroken!”  The woman responds, “Oh, honey, aren’t we all?”  I include the detail about the stranger’s race because it underscores part of the appeal of Jane Austen that Sittenfeld captures, namely her representation of human experience that transcends, not only race, but all the other social categories we use to divide ourselves from one another. 

And for all the spoofs, parodies, updates, and adaptations of Jane Austen, it is that universal human experience, whether it be comic, romantic, or tragic, at the heart of her novels that ensures her reputation and standing as, not only a perennial favorite, but as a classic writer of literature.