Hello, friends. I’ve already mentioned this on Twitter and Facebook but my big news this week is that I received a Writers’ Works-in-Progress Grant from the Ontario Arts Council! I would be deeply grateful for the OAC’s support at any time, but their letter and cheque came at the end of a fortnight when I’d been side-eyeing my ungainly WIP and generally feeling that I’d lost all momentum. As Steph Burgis pointed out to me, the combination of artistic validation plus financial support is about as good as it gets. Thank you, jurors and administrators and taxpayers. I’m so thankful.
My other news is that Nick just surprised me with a copy of Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible, “a modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice” and I am here to report that it is NOTE-PERFECT.
Don’t let the cover put you off; to me, it feels like the designer was channelling Mrs. Bennet. However, the novel itself is a triumph. Sittenfeld transposes the Bennet family to Cincinnati in the year 2013. Jane is a yoga instructor. Chip Bingley first turns up wearing seersucker shorts. Jasper Wick is every bit as shallow and slimy as you could hope, and yet you understand (kind of) why Liz Bennet finds him attractive. And Austen’s plot maps perfectly onto reality television, queerphobia, casual racism, Silicon Valley and how Lydia Bennet would text.
I love that Sittenfeld is unafraid of tampering with Austen – especially the parts that so many find sacrosanct. Here’s her revision of the novel’s first line: “Well before his arrival in Cincinnati, everyone knew that Chip Bingley was looking for a wife.” As for Austen’s famous elisions, Sittenfeld fills them in with enthusiasm. I know I’m not the only reader outraged and frustrated that we never hear Elizabeth Bennet’s exact words as she accepts Darcy’s second proposal. (I also hate the passage from Emma in which the narrator reports Emma accepting Knightley’s proposal: “What did she say? Just what she ought, of course. A lady always does”. It’s too coy, too smug, entirely too intent on sorting Those Who Know from Those Who Don’t.) Towards the end of Eligible, Sittenfeld really goes for it, and it works beautifully for me.
So! I’m planning to spend the rest of this week working on Monsoon Season and ordering up more Curtis Sittenfeld from the library. What are you up to?
After publishing this post, I had a really illuminating Facebook conversation with author and Austenphile Sayantani DasGupta. With her permission, here’s a lightly edited version of our discussion. Sayantani’s insights substantially changed my assessment of Eligible and I hope you’ll find them as useful and challenging as I do.
WARNING: SPOILERS GALORE. Then again, we all know what happens in P&P, don’t we?
SD: I wanted to love Eligible and did in many ways (I’m an Austen fanatic) but the handling of race and the “oh, isn’t it shocking” transgender story line really bothered me. I just felt like the author was playing into stereotypes and harmful tropes rather than undercutting them (as was I suppose the intention).
YSL: I found Mrs Bennet’s racism only too realistic and while it’s revolting, she’s such an unequivocal object of satire that I thought it worked. As for the transgender storyline, I thought Liz’s evolution from smirky prurience to acceptance also reflected the sensibilities of 2013. My main concern with Ham was how he could possibly tolerate Lydia, let alone love her. Maybe he was too much of a saint?
SD: I agree! And the storyline played into the “Othering” of Ham in such an insidious way — or like the author was patting herself on the back for addressing transgender issues. And all that “birth defect” stuff – I know it was being brought up as a bad example of how to address transgenderism – a way that idiotic Mrs. Bennett could wrap her head around having a transgender son-in-law – but I thought it reinforced that idea – that being transgender is a birth defect – rather than debunked it. And the thing that bothered me the most is that Wickham is essentially a rapist/assaulter/seducer. To substitute Ham’s transgender identity for the Wickham scandal was just very uncomfortable and, honestly, enraging for me.
YSL: Your point about Ham standing in for Wickham: ABSOLUTELY. I hadn’t thought of it that way and I’m really glad you pointed it out. I’m now replotting that thread in my head and wondering how Wickham’s crimes could translate to Sittenfeld’s novel and I can’t see a clear way forward. It’s an interesting writerly conundrum but you’re right: mapping transgender politics onto abduction/predation is appalling.
You’re also right about the “birth defect” analogy: Darcy half-apologizes for using it to explain “what is a transgender person” to Mrs B, but it’s not right. And he certainly shouldn’t get away with that as the 2013 equivalent of rescuing the Bennet family.
SD: To be fair, I think that Wickham is split into two characters – that of Ham and that of Jasper, Liz’s married boyfriend whose secret past includes being kicked out of Stanford for… wait for it… peeing on an African-American writing instructor’s desk… um, yea, so uncomfortable things all over this book…
YSL: Jasper’s racism also rings true for me. As Darcy points out, Jasper is ignorant (willfully or otherwise) of the implicit racism of his actions and continues to refuse to consider them. The racial element that nags at me is the smug whiteness of the Bennets’ world. Admittedly, I know nothing about Cincinnati, and I loved other aspects of the novel so much that I tried to ignore my discomfort and justify that smug whiteness as realism. And it is. But you’ve reminded me that it could – and should – have been better handled.
SD: I LOVE Austen so I read/listen to every remake EVER so I’m undoubtedly putting my high hopes/standards to this book too! 🙂 I also grew up in Columbus Ohio in the 1970’s so somewhat get what she’s talking about but even Ohio’s changed in 40+ years!
YSL: I love Austen, too, although not as much as you do! Thank you so much for taking the time to engage with me about this, Sayantani. I really appreciate your perspective.