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A modern retelling of Jane Austen’s ‘Pride and Prejudice’

May 11, 2016 at 6:25 PM EDT
Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” is one of the most celebrated novels in the English language, but time may have diluted its impact for modern audiences. Author Curtis Sittenfeld set out to update the classic work to 21st century Cincinnati in her new book “Eligible,” and joins Jeffrey Brown to discuss the universal themes of the story and her admiration for the original.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now the latest addition to the “NewsHour” Bookshelf.

Jeffrey Brown explores a new take on a classic novel.

JEFFREY BROWN: There’s a well-off bachelor, a Mr. Bingley, moving to town, and Mrs. Bennett would just love to marry off one of her five daughters, preferably the eldest, Jane.

Oh, and Bingley has a friend named Darcy. Maybe you have heard this story. Jane Austen’s novel of manners, “Pride and Prejudice,” was first published in 1813. It has been read and played with in many forms, including films, ever since.

And now comes “Eligible,” part of the Austen Project, which asks six contemporary novelists to rewrite six of Austen’s books.

Author Curtis Sittenfeld’s previous bestsellers include “Prep” and “American Wife.”

And welcome to you.

CURTIS SITTENFELD, Author, “Eligible”: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: Was this scary or fun to take on? Because you’re inevitably going to be compared to Jane Austen and to a beloved book.

CURTIS SITTENFELD: I would say it was scary and fun.

It was — I mean, I always knew that I was writing this as an act of admiration and not as an attempt to improve upon “Pride and Prejudice,” which, of course, we all know is perfect.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, what was the mission? What did you set yourself?

CURTIS SITTENFELD: Well, it was just supposed to be fun. I wanted it to sort of show this admiration for “Pride and Prejudice,” but also update it, and not be so similar that you would know at every twist and turn what would happen.

It’s supposed to be entertaining and sizzy and engaging and kind of — it can make you think about “Pride and Prejudice” or go back to the original. And, honestly, some people have said, you know, Jane Austen would love this, or Jane Austen would be rolling in her grave, which I feel like probably neither. But it’s OK that it’s for some people. It’s not for everyone.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so you set your novel in Cincinnati, first of all. Why?

CURTIS SITTENFELD: Well, it’s my hometown.

JEFFREY BROWN: OK.

CURTIS SITTENFELD: So, it was tempting. And I had never set fiction there, even though I had written four previous novels.

But it also — I feel like Cincinnati and a small English village in the early 1800s have certain things in common, in that outsiders might not think they’re very interesting, but, if you live there, you know that there’s drama and…

JEFFREY BROWN: There’s a lot going on.

CURTIS SITTENFELD: Yes. People’s lives are always exciting to them, and people always have crushes and intrigue.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so here, Jane Bennet is a yoga instructor. Lizzie is a magazine writer. The two silly younger sisters are — they spend a lot of their day doing cross-fit workouts.

I mean, I can go on and on, right? Darcy is a haughty neurosurgeon now. Did you have great fun looking for comparisons to our time?

CURTIS SITTENFELD: Yes, I did have great fun. I felt like, sitting at my desk, I was basically enjoying myself quite a lot.

And from the beginning, when these editors approached me and asked me if I would be interested in this, I said let me reread “Pride and Prejudice” and see if I can come up with ideas for modern parallels. And almost right away, from the first page, I thought this would be fun. I could do this. I have many ideas.

And so, yes, it was — I thought in terms of structure or plot or things that happened. It wasn’t — it was more like trying to find the parallels and trying to borrow the architecture of “Pride and Prejudice,” and as opposed to just almost thinking, what are modern things that I can insert this old book?

JEFFREY BROWN: But what are — I’m curious, what are the similarities or differences that you found in her time and ours? Because so much of that period and those books are about the class society, right, gender relationships? Is it similar or different?

CURTIS SITTENFELD: Yes. Don’t you think, in 2016, like, class is still…

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

CURTIS SITTENFELD: It’s always sort of unspoken, but always relevant.

Like, I think some of it — to me, I think maybe the biggest questions in “Pride and Prejudice” are, will I find my soul mate? Will my soul mate recognize that we’re soul mates? Why is my family so annoying? That’s always like an eternal question. Do I have a financially secure future? Those are eternal, timeless questions.

JEFFREY BROWN: Except, nowadays, in relationships, there would be — well, in your book, there’s sex, for example, right?

(CROSSTALK)

CURTIS SITTENFELD: I know, I know, I know.

So, here’s the thing. I tried to be respectful of Jane Austen and her legacy and not be kind of over the top in that category. But I do think — the book is set in 2013. “Eligible” is set in 2013. And it seemed like — I have aged Jane and Lizzie about 20 years. They’re both approaching 40.

It seemed rather unlikely that these almost-40-year-old women would have totally chaste relationships. So, to me, it seemed relevant to the plot and not provocative for the sake of being provocative.

JEFFREY BROWN: When you first read Jane Austen, when you went back as a writer, what makes Austen, Austen?

CURTIS SITTENFELD: Well, it’s interesting, because I think a related question is, why do people love “Pride and Prejudice” above all her books?

She’s written so many — six wonderful novels, and people love all of them, but there’s really a special place in people’s heart for “Pride and Prejudice.” And I think she’s — in “Pride and Prejudice,” she’s kind of addressing a lot of themes that she addresses in the other books, but she just — she achieves this incredible, seamlessness and this balance.

And she’s just at the top of her game in terms of character development and language and insights about the human condition, and the romance is so romantic. So, it’s almost like everything comes together so beautifully.

JEFFREY BROWN: And have you thought about why the endless remakes and twists? We were talking before we started about the famous Colin Firth on television, right, which a lot of people remember. Zombie movies get made. All kind of films get made out of this, right?

CURTIS SITTENFELD: Yes. Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: “Bridget Jones.” I mean, you can go on and on and on.

CURTIS SITTENFELD: Yes. Yes.

No, I have thought about this and wondered, is there something almost Darwinian in us that loves to watch a romance? Like, I feel like to me, as a reader or as a viewer of television, if there’s a couple, and there’s such palpable, romantic tension or sexual tension between them that I’m thinking to myself, kiss, kiss, like, I love that. That’s my favorite experience as a sort of consumer of a book or a TV show.

And so I think that she does that just magnificently, where you think, like, Darcy, Lizzie, you’re meant to be together. And don’t you know it? Can’t you recognize it?

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, “Eligible” is part of the Austen Project.

Curtis Sittenfeld, thanks so much.

CURTIS SITTENFELD: Thank you.

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