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Curtis Sittenfeld: Pride and Prejudice Then & Now

Daniela Petrova interviews Curtis Sittenfeld on her latest book, Eligible, a modern retelling of Jane Austen’s classic novel.

https://www.guernicamag.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/curtis-sittenfeld-high-res-josephine-sittenfeld-e1461215525397.jpg
Photograph taken by Josephine Sittenfeld.

“Welcome to the 21st Century!” Kitty tells her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, in Curtis Sittenfeld’s new novel, Eligible. But she might as well be addressing us, the readers. The book is a contemporary retelling of Jane Austen’s, Pride and Prejudice, and while the cast of characters retain—for the most part—their names and essential personalities, they are unmistakably and unapologetically modern in their thoughts and actions. They text each other and use social media, participate in a reality TV show, follow diet and workout fads, seek fertility treatments, suffer from eating disorders and engage in “hate sex.”

Sittenfeld, 40, is the author of the bestselling novels Prep and American Wife. She was commissioned to re-imagine Austen’s timeless plot in a contemporary setting by HarperCollins U.K. as part of the Austen Project, a series that pairs contemporary writers with Austen’s six complete works.

Sittenfeld’s story unfolds in modern-day Cincinnati. Jane is a yoga instructor about to turn 40 and Liz is a magazine writer in her late 30’s. They have returned home from New York to help care for their father after his heart attack. Mary is pursuing her third online master’s degree, and Kitty and Lydia are obsessed with the Paleo diet and working out at a CrossFit gym. Darcy is a handsome neurosurgeon while Bingley is a doctor and a star of “The Bachelor” style reality show, “Eligible.” Lady Catherine de Bourg is now the prominent feminist, Kathy de Bourg.

While social rules have changed dramatically in the 200 years since the publication of Pride and Prejudice, Austen’s themes of love, wealth and class are still relevant. Women today can secure financial independence and enjoy intimate relationships without a marriage certificate. Yet societal pressures to marry and bear children persist. And so does the allure of “a single man in possession of a good fortune.” A quick scan of the list of bachelors on “The Bachelor” dating reality show confirms the desirability of lucrative occupations. There are no poets, librarians or waiters, no plumbers, electricians or car mechanics. And while the rank and class system of the Regency period has become obsolete, a celebrity status today seems to carry as much weight as a title did back then.

In her novel, Sittenfeld channels Austen’s sharp wit and astute observations about gender, money and class; she also touches on issues of racism, homophobia, gender identity, and adultery. Most notably, Eligible provides an understated but decidedly feminist spin on the original. “Do you really want to rely on a man to support you?” Lizzy pointedly asks her younger sister, Lydia. While readers might find fault with aspects of the characters or their actions, nobody can criticize the women in Eligible for being meek. Sittenfeld’s Bennet girls are not afraid of being single or childless. They take charge instead of waiting on men to decide their future for them. One tries for a baby on her own via donor sperm, another initiates sexual relations with the man she lusts after, yet another urges her boyfriend to elope.

What hasn’t changed in Sittenfeld’s update is the power of love to overcome seemingly insurmountable circumstances. And it shines perhaps even more brightly without the necessity of marriage to provide financial security and make physical intimacy possible.

I talked to Sittenfeld over the phone on a cool April afternoon a week before the publication of Eligible. She spoke slowly and clearly with great enthusiasm for the characters, story and the art of writing.

–Daniela Petrova for Guernica Daily.

Guernica: This is the fourth book in the Austen Project. Did you pick Pride and Prejudice or was it assigned to you?

Curtis Sittenfeld: The editors approached me in 2011 and, at that point, the only book that had been assigned was Sense and Sensibility to Joanna Trollope. They said to me, 1) “Would you be interested in being part of this project?” and 2) “Would you be interested in Pride and Prejudice? And if you’re not, is there another one that you’re interested in?” But of course Pride and Prejudice has always been my favorite Austen novel. How could I possibly say no when they offered me that opportunity? Although, it is not like there is a copyright around Pride and Prejudice because it was written so long ago. Any human being who wants to write an update of Pride and Prejudice legally can. It’s not like I had some special literary blessing.

Guernica: When did you first read it?

Curtis Sittenfeld: I was 16 years old (attending boarding school) and I loved it. From the opening pages, I loved it. And I will say… [she laughs] in my class, not one but two boys told me that I reminded them of Lizzy Bennet. I didn’t realize it at the time but this was the nicest thing that any male would ever say to me. This was as good as it got.

Guernica: Did you re-read the novel before you began writing your contemporary version?

Curtis Sittenfeld: The whole time I was writing, I kept a copy of Pride and Prejudice on my desk and I would often dig into it while writing a particular scene. The editors from HarperCollins in the U.K. approached me in December 2011 and, before I accepted, I said, “I should reread the book and see if it is something I think I could pull off.” I started reading it and right away I thought this would be so much fun. But I didn’t want to be cavalier about the project. I only wanted to do it if I thought that I had something to say or if I thought that I had ideas.

Guernica: Did your appreciation of Pride and Prejudice change after you started writing your own version of the Bennets’ story?

Curtis Sittenfeld: It’s different to read a book for pleasure than to read it analytically. In the past, I’d read Pride and Prejudice for pleasure. This time, I was really looking at the structure, the order of events, how the characters interact with each other and how the book is paced. The scene where Darcy proposes for the first time, which surprises Lizzy, I almost diagramed, looking closely at: What does he say? What are the sentiments that he expresses? What are the sentiments that she expresses? What gets said in dialogue? What gets summarized? What’s the tone? It was like really breaking apart that scene, which, in some ways, is one of the most romantic scenes of all times. Most people get caught up in the swoon of it, but for me it was like being clinical about it and thinking: Where does the emphasis fall? or What’s the tone? Because it’s a relatively brief scene and [Austen] really makes everything count. I feel that [Pride and Prejudice] is an incredibly well constructed novel on every level. The dialogue is great. The character development is great. The plotting is great. The pacing is great. The language is great.

Guernica: What were the challenges of giving the story a contemporary twist?

Curtis Sittenfeld: I had to figure out the balance of what I borrowed from Austen and what I made up. I was trying to think of the structure of her novel and the structure of my own novel; they overlapped but couldn’t overlap too much. One specific challenge that I realized when I first got to the scene when Darcy declares his affection and Lizzy is caught off guard and doesn’t reciprocate, or at least doesn’t consciously reciprocate—and this is a few hundred pages in—was that I had written every scene between the two of them in the wrong tone. Essentially, I had written it as if they both knew they were attracted to each other but they weren’t admitting it. But I actually realized that Lizzy has to be in the dark about her own attraction to Darcy. She thinks he is attractive physically but pretty unappealing. That makes the progression of her feelings much more satisfying. I had to go back into every scene and re-imagine or tweak them.

Guernica: How about in terms of the contemporary setting? Were there specific aspects of Austen’s characters or storyline that were difficult to “translate” to a modern world?

Curtis Sittenfeld: In Pride and Prejudice, Kitty and Lydia Bennet are very preoccupied (romantically) with various militia officers, but the military in the context of the U.S. today has very specific connotations, and I didn’t want to use it as a plot point in a mostly light-hearted novel. It seemed like I’d stand a high chance of getting it somehow wrong. I’m not afraid of writing about sensitive subjects, but I want to be careful how I do so (and I know not all readers will think I have been, of course).

Guernica: Why did you choose Cincinnati for the location?

Curtis Sittenfeld: It’s my hometown and I had never set fiction there so, in a way, it was a resource that I hadn’t taken advantage of. Another part of it was that I thought there were parallels between an English village in the 1800s and a medium size Mid-Western city in the present day. I think one of the parallels is that outsiders would not imagine those places to be very interesting but if you live there, you know that there is intrigue and drama and romance. It was more fun and more challenging (in a good way) to set the story in a place that readers might not consider inherently interesting or sexy.

Guernica: In a previous interview, you compared writing a book to building a nest, borrowing people and locations from different places and situations. What was it like to throw into the mix the plot of a classic beloved novel?

Curtis Sittenfeld: It’s funny because, in a way, it was unlike anything that I had done before. The thing that appealed to me the most was that I felt I would borrow Austen’s tone. I wouldn’t really borrow her language very much but would borrow the tone—it would be sort of romantic and amusing but there would be class commentary under the surface. Also, [SPOILER ALERT] it would basically have a happy ending. I feel like my other novels don’t really have happy endings. So it changed the flavor to know that I was writing toward that. It almost allowed me to be more fun (for the sake of being fun) than I am in my regular books. At the same time, there was a parallel between writing Eligible and writing American Wife. In American Wife, I was borrowing the structure of Laura Bush’s life and in Eligible, I was borrowing the structure of Jane Austen’s novel. Picking and choosing what to use from an existing structure is a different experience than just inventing it wholly out of your head. I think it’s easier in most ways, but harder in others. It can be confusing at times.

Guernica: Did you feel any pressure given how beloved this story is?

Curtis Sittenfeld: The short answer is not that much. When I was invited to do this, my husband said to me: “You have to be prepared to be severely, severely criticized.” But the funny thing is you stand a decent chance of being severely criticized no matter what you write about. So I thought, if I write a book that is not a retelling of Pride and Prejudice, it’s not going to mean that I will not get any criticism. I might as well write the book that I want to write. I ran into a guy I know at the grocery store a year ago (around the time I was turning in Eligible to my publisher) and I was describing the book to him and he said, “It’s fun to try new things,” and I said, “Yes.” And he said, “Especially if they might be lucrative.” And I was like, “Yes.” In some ways, I think, a criticism could be almost like, ‘You just want it to be very commercial; you just want to ride the wave of Austen fandom.’ Certainly, I could understand that point of view, but I would not have written this book if I hadn’t felt a personal connection to Pride and Prejudice. I wouldn’t write it just because it could have commercial prospects. But I wouldn’t not write it for that reason. I guess that in terms of being criticized… I know enough to know (this is my fifth book) that you can’t control the way people react to your work.

Guernica: What did you find most satisfying in retelling Pride and Prejudice in a contemporary setting?

Curtis Sittenfeld: The part you might guess was the most fun, which is writing the scenes between Darcy and Liz, especially as the sexual tension increases, was in fact the most fun. I always try to write a book that I would want to read so, sometimes, with those scenes, I would think, I would enjoy this scene if I hadn’t written it. I would think this is a juicy scene. I don’t know what it is about human beings but most of us really like reading about or observing (like in a movie) sexual tension and romance. It’s just so much fun. I don’t know if there is some Darwinian thing in us that really responds to that, but I think the most memorable scenes to me in books and movies are the ones where a couple is about to kiss.

Guernica: Pride and Prejudice depicts a highly stratified world laden with class struggle and pretension. Since then, as Liz tells her father, “The world has changed a lot.” Or has it?

Curtis Sittenfeld: I think there is still pressure to marry. I think there is still pressure to have children. If you’re middle or upper class, those pressures exist at a later age now. That’s why I made Liz and Jane 20 years older. People still would wonder about a woman in her late 30s. It’s not that it’s required or her wellbeing relies on it, but people still wonder. “Why isn’t she married? Is it by choice? Did she never want to get married? Is she going to have children?” I think it has sort of changed; but it hasn’t changed. People having complicated relationships with their family members—simultaneously loving and hating them—is eternal.

Guernica: In Austen’s world, women had few opportunities to support themselves and marriage was particularly important. Today women don’t necessarily need men. Outside of the pressures you just talked about, women don’t even really need men to have children. How did you manage to replicate the intensity of the story without that urgency to marry?

Curtis Sittenfeld: That’s a good question. I don’t know if I did. The Bennet family in Eligible has had money in the past, appears to still have money, but doesn’t. They are in a financially peculiar state, so there is financial urgency for them. But I actually think most of the urgency in Eligible falls on the romance and the question of whether or not the heroines will find love. Even in Pride and Prejudice, if it were only about economics, the story wouldn’t be as beloved.

Guernica: You tackle issues of gender, family, class, friendship, and, of course, love. How have these changed since Austen’s time? Or not?

Curtis Sittenfeld: I’m not sure how much they have. The feelings often stay the same over time even though the way people interact plays out differently. Obviously the bar is much higher now for a behavior to be scandalous. Social media has really changed the way people live but even that seems to be a version of town gossip. It’s not a new impulse; it’s just being enacted in a new way.

Guernica: Speaking of social media, I read that you had enlisted readers via Twitter to help you with research. What would you say is the biggest difference between being a writer today and during Austen’s time?

Curtis Sittenfeld: Austen’s books weren’t even attributed to her. People didn’t know who had written them when they were published. Obviously there is bottomless self-promotion on the part of writers today—me included. I feel like people who criticize authors for being self-promotional fail to recognize that a lot of times their ability to continue writing hinges on sales and recognition. Some of it is for fun, some of it is for ego, but a lot of it is just writers trying to ensure longevity to their career.

Guernica: How about the connection to readers facilitated by social media? Is it helpful? Distracting?

Curtis Sittenfeld: Even more than getting compliments on social media, what I love is when some random stranger says something very funny or insightful about my books (often in 140 characters or less!). It’s a very casual, low-stakes, non-burdensome way of connecting that I think is fun for both the writer and the reader. And there are a lot of clever people out there who have no connection to publishing.

Guernica: It sounds like authors today need to do a lot more than simply write—promoting their books, responding to readers. How do you feel about it?

Curtis Sittenfeld: I don’t mind it. I think writers need to figure out their own comfort level with all that stuff, both in terms of personal exposure and how much time they want to or can invest, and learning those answers is a gradual process. It took me years to embrace Facebook (Twitter felt more natural), and I still literally have difficulty navigating Facebook, which I realize makes me sound like a moron. The best part of being a writer for me is immersing myself in a fictional world, which is the opposite of being on social media. At the same time, if no one ever read my work, if I was writing solely for myself, I bet it would be lonely and a lot less fun.

Guernica: How about the differences in terms of being a female writer? Do female writers today face similar/different challenges?

Curtis Sittenfeld: I think it’s significantly easier to be a female writer today than in the early 1800’s. That said, it’s hard to imagine almost anyone who knows anything about publishing disagreeing with the statement that women writers today are often taken much less seriously than men writers. But it’s hard to quantify, and even define, what being taken seriously means. I’ve had people say very dismissive things about my books, but I also feel like I probably have more readers because I’m a woman. I mean, more readers are women and more people who buy books are women, so I don’t feel like it’s a total disadvantage to be a female writer. But that a category of women’s fiction should exist… It seems absurd to me that that’s a category. What does that mean?

Guernica: I found it interesting that the one celebrity Liz interviews in Eligible happens to be the leader of second wave feminism, Kathy de Bourgh. Is that by chance? Or did you mean something by it?

Curtis Sittenfeld: I liked the idea of giving Eligible a feminist flavor. While I do think that in Pride and Prejudice, Liz Bennet is very bold, she is also very restricted in terms of what’s appropriate for her to do and the ways it’s appropriate for her to behave. One of the differences between Pride and Prejudice and Eligible is that my female characters take more initiative in their romantic lives. Therefore, I see my version of Lady Catherine de Bourg as giving this kind of feminist spirit to the whole novel, which is very different from her role in Pride and Prejudice, obviously.

Guernica: What was the most rewarding part of writing the book?

Curtis Sittenfeld: I have a good friend named Sam, who has been my friend since college, and the book is actually dedicated to him. He has always been a big Austen fan and a big fan of mine, before I had any other fans. So, at times, I felt like I was writing the book for his pleasure. And in fact, he loved it. He quite devoured it. I know, of course, that not everyone would like it and the reason people won’t like it would vary, including some would think that it’s sort of improper or it doesn’t hold a candle to the original. But I think that certain people will get exactly what it’s trying to do and will really enjoy it. And that’s a very satisfying experience. Partly because I love loving a book, I love writing a book that other people love.

Curtis Sittenfeld is the bestselling author of the novels Prep, The Man of My Dreams, American Wife, and Sisterland, which have been translated into twenty-five languages. Her nonfiction has been published widely, including in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Time, and Glamour, and broadcast on public radio’s This American Life. A native of Cincinnati, she currently lives with her family in St. Louis.

Daniela Petrova is a New York-based freelance writer. Her work has been published in The Washington Post, Women in the World, Salon, Marie Claire and the anthology, Best New Writing 2008 among others.

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