It is a truth universally acknowledged, that if a writer makes reference to Jane Austen in her works, she could likely incur what we’re calling “the wrath of the Janeites.” Or, at least, that’s some of what author Curtis Sittenfeld has experienced since the release of her novel “Eligible,” which is a modern retelling of Austen’s most famous book “Pride and Prejudice.”
“You have to have a pretty thick skin,” Sittenfeld told St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh. “There’s a lot of love for Jane Austen. That translates as some people thinking: ‘Any derivation of her stories, I would love to read … any fan fiction, anything that’s inspired by Austen, I love.’ That can also translate into people thinking: ‘Those novels should not be touched, they should be left alone.’”
Interestingly enough, the Janeites haven’t been Sittenfeld’s biggest source of criticism for the now-best-selling novel:
“The kind of person who is most resistant to ‘Eligible,’ my suspicion, is someone who hasn’t read ‘Pride and Prejudice’ for 40 years and thinks they remember but they actually don’t,” Sittenfeld said. “They don’t remember the content, it is lots of parties and gossip and romance, and think it is like the Bible. ‘Pride and Prejudice’ is magnificent but I would not say it is the Bible.”
Sittenfeld, the St. Louis-based author of best-sellers such as “Prep” and “American Wife,” was chosen as one of six contemporary novelists tasked with retelling Austen’s classic stories as part of London-based The Austen Project.
In “Eligible,” Sittenfeld has Liz and Jane Bennet return home from New York City to Cincinnati in order to care for their aging parents and, in the process, fall back into the hands of their matchmaking mother. Mrs. Bennet is intent on setting up Jane, nearing 40, with a former contestant on the Bachelor-like reality show ‘Eligible,’ Chip Bingley. Of course, his neurosurgeon friend, Fitzwilliam Darcy, disapproves. You know how it goes.
When writing her version, Sittenfeld said she had a copy of "Pride and Prejudice" open on her lap and that close followers of Jane Austen have picked up on the amount of parallels between the two books.
Among positive reviews that have looked on the novel with a fun-loving eye, the book has also received a few high-profile reviews that have been critical of the retelling. Luckily, when it comes to reviews and would-be purist Janeites, Sittenfeld has been prepared since childhood.
“I’m one of four siblings,” Sittenfeld said. “When I was growing up, in my late teens, sometimes at Christmas, my family would try to find a movie we could all go to see. It was very difficult to find anything we could all agree on seeing and never was there a time that we all thought ‘that was great.’ It was a success if 2 out of 6 people thought it was good. I’ve always known you cannot please everyone. If you are a novelist, you learn that lesson repeatedly. It’s not as if my previous four books have been met with universal love. … You can’t write a criticism-less book.”
Listen to the full, broad-ranging interview, in which Sittenfeld discusses bringing sex to the Jane Austen universe, her childhood in Cincinnati, her life in suburban St. Louis, speed dating, working with her husband and the internal Midwestern debate of leaving vs. staying:
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