I’ll tell you up front: here be spoilers. On the other hand, Eligible is a modern-day retelling of Pride and Prejudice, so there won’t be many major surprises for a Janeite.
Let me start by saying Eligible is really funny, and compulsively readable. It hews very closely to the original, which is itself no small feat. I love Curtis Sittenfeld’s dryly funny observations, and particularly her Sisterland, so as an Austen devotee, I’ve been eagerly awaiting this adaptation for months.
Some characters’ updates are spot-on. Mr. Bennet, who I find both amusing and upsetting in the original, retains the same slightly cruel hilarity in Eligible — as when, in the face of downsizing, he quips, “If your mother and I lived somewhere smaller, we might have to actually see each other.” Of Liz’s “wastrel sisters,” the younger ones work better than do Jane and Liz, I think. Mary, who could easily be valorized as an intellectual in an update, mooches off her parents and racks up online master’s degrees, remaining “proof, Liz had concluded, of how easy it was to be unattractive and unpleasant.”
As with most modern takes on Pride and Prejudice, however, Sittenfeld neglects to address the moral framework that informs Austen’s original. While she cleverly imports and updates the humor and romance of Pride and Prejudice, she loses sight of its integral justice, in which brave and good characters like Elizabeth are rewarded with their moral equals, like Mr. Darcy, and self-centered, headstrong, immoral characters like Lydia suffer their just desserts with an unhappy match to the villainous Mr. Wickham. Here, for instance, Lydia is much more sympathetic, and her actions approved of by Liz: “Lydia and Ham are living their truth. […] More power to them.”
In Eligible‘s world, the central place of marriage in Pride and Prejudice is more or less deposed in favor of the pursuit of parenthood. The most striking and uncomfortable aspect of this retelling is how divorced child-bearing is from marriage and even love — and no one cares.
In this story, nearly-40-year-old Jane undergoes an IUI with donor sperm to become a single mother, and when the pregnancy is revealed, she and Chip Bingley break up (temporarily, of course). Social climbing Mrs. Bennet, hearing the news of the breakup but unaware of the pregnancy, “sounded so bereft. ‘Now you’ll never have children.'” By making ridiculous Mrs. Bennet the champion of traditional families in the novel, Sittenfeld throws into doubt the desirability of such a goal. (Indeed, the Bennets are the only intact family in the story, and they are, as in Pride and Prejudice, kind of a train wreck.)
Charlotte, practical as ever in Eligible, muses, when facing dissatisfaction over her rash decision to move in with Willie (Mr. Collins), “Maybe instead of taking the job, I should get pregnant now, and that way, even if Willie and I break up, I’ll still be a mom.” It’s a shocking proposal, and yet Liz offers no censure, even mentally. Men are a means to an end here, and that end is usually, but not always, motherhood on the woman’s own terms. (I was reminded here again of Simcha Fisher’s excellent piece, “The Earth Is a Nursery” about our contemporary longing for children.)
Liz, and presumably the novel itself, suggest that biological children are just one among any equally acceptable options, not the natural consequence of marriage. When Mrs. Bennet complains that Lydia, having chosen a transgender husband, will never give birth, Liz points to alternate means. By placing the argument in snobbish, racist Mrs. Bennet’s mouth, we are meant to see any sense of the fitness of biological children to be as silly and behind the times as she is. (She is, after all, the same woman who says, “Liz, I don’t know if Kitty and Shane are serious, but life can be very hard for mulatto children.”)
“Lydia will never be able to have babies.” Mrs. Bennet scowled at Liz. “And at the rate you’re going, neither will you.”
“Lydia and Ham can adopt. Or”—it was impossible not to think of Jane—”there are other options.”
Mrs. Bennet shook her head. “When people adopt, God only knows what’s in those genes.”
“God only knows what’s in any of our genes,” Liz said, and Mrs. Bennet drew herself up into a haughty posture.
“I beg your pardon,” she said. “Your father and I both come from very distinguished families.”
At 38 years old, Liz, who strongly wishes to avoid motherhood, nonetheless confronts its specter everywhere in her “rapidly approaching expiration date,” much as an old maid might be constantly reminded of her unmarried state in Jane Austen’s era. She initially bonds with Darcy, in part, because in a discussion following hate sex (!!!), it is revealed neither wants to be a parent: “When I went into neurosurgery, I was making a choice that either I’d be the kind of person who lets his partner do ninety-five percent of the parenting or I wouldn’t be a parent, period. […] Any man with a viable sperm count can become a dad, whereas only some people can perform a decompressive craniectomy.” This Darcy is articulate and honorable as ever, but the prospect of a intentionally sterile marriage for Elizabeth Bennet and her Mr. Darcy is nonetheless depressing to contemplate.
There is no indication that either shifts position upon falling in love and getting engaged; on the contrary, when Liz finally meets her new niece, she finds her, “a miraculous and tiny human whom Liz felt immediate devotion toward and was relieved not to be the mother of.” While this attitude toward motherhood may be designed by Sittenfeld to demonstrate that Liz, like Elizabeth in P&P, is not interested in the ruthless pursuit of goals, it reads somehow off to me.
Maybe I need to say that I believe strongly in adoption, and sympathize with infertility, and appreciate when people recognize they shouldn’t be parents. Still, the modern landscape presented by Eligible suggests a wasteland of desperate people (women, mainly): desperate to become parents at all costs or else desperate to avoid the consequences of love and marriage.
Jane Austen’s masterpiece argues compellingly for a marriage of equals, founded in love. In Pride and Prejudice, we are not meant to approve of Charlotte marrying for financial security, or Lydia marrying for lust. In the same way, an update of Austen, if it is to substitute motherhood for marriage, should not approve all paths to parenthood no matter how flippantly or selfishly followed. In Austen’s world, virtue leads to flourishing, and there are no shortcuts; otherwise Elizabeth might have married Mr. Collins, or Lydia would have ended up happily married after her irresponsible elopement. Though Charlotte’s resigned pragmatism might translate from mercenary marriage to, in this version, contemplating intentional single motherhood, and Lydia in this case might seek motherhood flippantly (“If Jane’s baby turns out cute […] maybe Ham and I will use the same sperm donor she did”), we cannot be meant to cheer on Jane Bennet settling for motherhood without the loving support of a father, or Liz choosing an intentionally barren marriage just so she can keep having fun. (Her reasons are fuzzier and less heroic than Darcy’s.) That we are meant to laugh fondly in the epilogue at self-centered, masturbating Mary, determinedly single, left unchanged by the events of the novel, is the final insult to Austen’s legacy — none of the characters grow (with possibly the exception of Liz and Darcy), yet they all end up happily ever after.
We all of us want to claim Austen as a card-carrying member of our pet causes, but I can’t think she’d approve of the ruthlessness so richly rewarded in Eligible. In Eligible, as in our world, love and reproduction have been severed and the results aren’t pretty. Then again — it’s possible that I’m on a fool’s errand, forever on the search for a modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice, unaware that I’m not modern enough myself to appreciate one.