Eligible is the fourth instalment of the Austen Project, a HarperCollins series in which six major novelists rewrite Jane Austen’s six major novels, giving each a modern setting. We now have Sense & Sensibility by Joanna Trollope, Northanger Abbey by Val McDermid and Emma by Alexander McCall Smith, all published since 2013. These updates replace letters with Facebook, and Regency Bath with the Edinburgh Festival, but, with a couple of exceptions, they match character for character and plot point for plot point with tedious faithfulness. So far the result has been an oddly rural 21st century in which governesses still exist, questions of inheritance weigh heavily on mothers and daughters, and young women straight out of school or university get engaged on the basis of scarcely more than a kiss.
In Eligible, Curtis Sittenfeld takes on Pride and Prejudice, surely the most daunting novel of the six, not so much because of any inherent incompatibility with the 21st century but because of its status as the best known and best loved of all of Austen’s works. The decision to give Sittenfeld’s retelling a different title, which marks it out from the previous Austen Project novels (pace the ampersand in Trollope’s contribution), might be an acknowledgement of this – or an indication that Sittenfeld feels less shackled to the original than the other writers in the series.
In the first few chapters, Sittenfeld seems torn between the old and the new. On the one hand, her laborious introduction of the Bennet parents and younger sisters does little more than remind us we’re in familiar territory. We learn that Mr Bennet has a ‘typically sardonic affect’. We learn