Beyond the Matrimonial Horizon
By Anna E. ClarkMay 18, 2016
Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld
In its attentiveness to both class and romantic fantasy, Eligible shows Austen’s marriage plot all the reverence and ambivalence 21st-century America bestows on the institution itself. We regard it as outdated and superfluous; we indulge in it as romantic spectacle; we celebrate it as an expression of our best tendencies; we interpret it as a form that reflects certain historical truths. Sittenfeld, author of Prep and American Wife, has long been attuned to both the overt and the unspoken effects of American wealth. She aptly sets her Pride and Prejudice among characters who can support themselves without marrying. And yet, given their age and income bracket, they are still statistically likely to pair off. The choices they make are often motivated by love, but they are choices that exist only because of economic circumstance. The result is an adaptation that feels at once deeply faithful and far more impious than any of the Austen updates that have come before.
Austen in 2016 means Austen filtered through an over two-decade-long extravaganza of adaptation. At times, the actual novels seem redundant: Amy Heckerling’s Clueless (1995), Andrew Davies’s BBC Pride and Prejudice (1995), and Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary (1996) have become adaptation fodder in their own right. Countless variations now build on these standard-bearers: horror stories, vampire novels, detective series, children’s books, bodice-rippers, sequels, prequels, prequel sequels — name a contemporary genre and you’ll likely find it includes more than one Austen-ish specimen.
Beyond their invocation of Austen’s stories, the common denominator in these adaptations is the marriage plot-lite: more romance, less institutionalized patriarchy. Take one of the first and best: Clueless, a note-perfect staging of Emma in a 1990s Beverly Hills high school. In its penultimate scene, Alicia Silverstone’s Cher is finally united with her ex-stepbrother, a flannel-wearing idealist played by Paul Rudd. The two share a kiss while Cher speaks in voiceover: “Well, you can guess what happens next.” We cut to a wedding ceremony, seen at a distance. Cher again: “As if!” The wedding turns out to be that of Cher’s frumpy teachers, early beneficiaries of her matchmaking. She is there as a bridesmaid, accompanied by her boyfriend, a newly de-scruffed Rudd. The joke, of course, is on us. Conditioned by the conventions of Austen’s plots, the film teases our willingness to assume that even a high school heroine is destined for marriage. As Cher herself reminds us, “I’m only 16. And this is California, not Kentucky.”
Though Clueless passes off its matrimonial snub on its setting, its emphasis on eros over marriage is typical of Gen-X Austen. Here, ignoring or downplaying actual wedlock signals contemporaneity: matrimony is dated when divorce is easy and girls choose college over a walk down the aisle. Even Davies’s studiously accurate Pride and Prejudice downplays marriage’s inevitability. Without the disinterested statements of economic fact delivered by Austen’s narrator (the Bennet women will be left with close to nothing when Mr. Bennet dies), the vapid, matchmaking-obsessed Mrs. Bennet becomes wedlock’s loudest champion, rendering the necessity of marriage puerile rather than brutally true.
Eligible is both of this history and distinct from it. If Clueless is Austen for the decade that birthed both “Take Your Daughter to Work Day” and the Lewinsky scandal, then Eligible is Austen for the age of economic inequality. It never mistakes marriage’s dissolubility for inconsequentiality. The novel has its roots in The Austen Project, a well-intentioned but ultimately disappointing publishing venture that sought to offer 21st-century readers “reimagined” versions of Austen’s six major works. The fun in these books comes largely from tracing their analogies: social media is to ballroom gossip as destination music festivals are to the Pump Rooms in Bath. But this game quickly becomes old, and — worse — makes Austen’s novels seem like little more than a series of muslin-draped set pieces (indeed, unless Sittenfeld revives it, The Austen Project may be defunct — its web presence, at least, seems to have been suspended). Commissioned as the fourth of this series, Eligible certainly performs its own share of self-conscious analogizing (balls are to fourth of July barbecues as the local militia is to CrossFit). The novel’s characters, however, contend with an array of issues that feel distinctly of-the-moment American: racism, misogyny, gender fluidity, rising health care costs, coastal disdain for the Midwest, economic privilege, and educational segregation.
In this context, marriage promises to diminish certain inequalities — particularly those linked to sexual preference — but it also entrenches others. Eligible’s opening pages read like a “Sunday Styles” précis: Chip Bingley, a trust-funded Harvard-educated ER doctor, has settled in Cincinnati after a failed attempt to find love on the titular reality TV show, a barely fictionalized version of The Bachelor. Assuming he is still in want of a wife, Mrs. Bennet, a country-club matriarch with a shopping addiction, determines to pair him off with one of her five single daughters. Liz and Jane, almost-40-year-old New Yorkers who are home helping their father recover from emergency heart surgery, are the most age-appropriate candidates. Liz, contentedly childless and caught in a not-quite-relationship with a married man, thrives in her competitive career as a women’s magazine columnist. Jane, a beatific yoga instructor, has reconciled herself to single life and is seeking to get pregnant through artificial insemination.
Regency England this is not. Eligible’s clamorous topicality underscores the often-contradictory ends of contemporary marriage. Chip and Jane, the failed dating show contestant and his bride, have the most faith in marriage as an act of love; tellingly, they’re also the only ones who never actually watch reality TV’s matrimonial spectacles. In Chip and Jane’s relationship and elsewhere, Eligible cannily balances depictions of pop culture wedding porn with nuanced portrayals of the characters’ individual reasons for marrying — love, respect, emotional security, social acceptance. At the same time, the novel keeps in mind the mechanisms of what sociologists like to call “assortative mating,” or our tendency to choose spouses whose educational and economic backgrounds look pretty much like our own. Chip is unable to find his soulmate among reality TV’s hordes of dental hygienists and ex-cheerleaders, but back in Cincinnati, in the kind of suburb for people “who enjoyed owning horses or at least purebred dogs,” his ideal wife magically appears.
The subtlety of such insights is largely due to Sittenfeld’s creation of a narrator who combines Austen’s deadpan detachment with an exhaustive knowledge of the moneyed Midwest. In prior novels like Prep and American Wife, Sittenfeld chronicles the American elite from the perspectives of first-person narrators new to its strange proclivities. For Prep particularly, this voice feels necessary, conveying the protagonist’s alienation while rendering East Coast boarding school life in ethnographic specificity. In Eligible, however, Sittenfeld’s version of Austen’s omniscience — more reserved, less inclined toward identification — allows her to detail characters’ desires while highlighting a particularly unapologetic version of Midwestern WASP provincialism: “While not an overt anti-Semite, Mrs. Bennet was prone to making declarations about almost all religious and ethnic minorities that were often uncomfortable for her listeners. ‘Jews are very fond of dried fruit,’ she’d told Liz on more than one occasion.”
Here, it’s not only Mrs. Bennet’s statement but the narrator’s understated report of her listeners’ response that carries the sting. In this milieu, silent discomfort passes for tolerance. Such takedowns are especially satisfying (and funny) when they target the silliness of a certain kind of one-percent sophistication: Darcy wears “high-quality flip-flops”; a party host offers artisanal toppings for make-your-own pizzas but neglects to consider the logistics of baking them; everyone is obsessed with their workout regimes.
The heart of Eligible’s critique is in the detour its marriage plot takes through apparent financial crisis. The Bennets have lived obliviously on Mr. Bennet’s sizable trust fund, but Eligible finds their money running out. Their home, called simply “the Tudor,” is in desperate need of renovation. Medical bills have piled up. The Bennet daughters, accustomed to occupations that look suspiciously like hobbies, are being forced to consider actual jobs. All this sounds like a setup for a matrimonial windfall, but instead it becomes fodder for character development. Liz, the only Bennet with the wherewithal to right this sinking stucco ship, must remedy her family’s collapse before she too is allowed to consider the possibility of marriage.
This sounds like rom-com cliché: first become an autonomous adult, then get Mr. Right. But Sittenfeld has something else in mind. We quickly realize that the Bennets are never in danger of true financial ruin. They own the Tudor; Liz has a pretty formidable savings account; and, in the kind of coincidence that seems to happen when you go to college at Barnard, Jane’s wealthy Hudson Valley friends hire her as their private yoga instructor just as she becomes unable to afford her Upper West Side apartment. If anything, the Bennets’ financial troubles only confirm how easily privilege can look like autonomy, luck, and hard work. At one point, Liz, unburdening herself to Darcy, calls her family a “trashy mess.” We know what she means: the Bennets’ money troubles threaten to become uncomfortably public, and her younger sisters act like Amy Schumer parodies. But we also know that in the world the Bennets inhabit, the ability to ironically proclaim one’s own trashiness is itself kind of privilege. Liz isn’t telling Darcy that her family is beneath him — she’s confirming that, in the ways that count, she’s exactly like him. We root for Liz as she works to untangle her various troubles, but we’re never in doubt about how things will end.
As in Eligible, marriage in Austen is, at least in part, about the fantasy of choice. The world of Pride and Prejudice is intentionally circumscribed — “3 or 4 Families in a Country Village is the very thing to work on,” wrote Austen — and its heroines’ options are essentially two: live at home, dependent upon family, or become a wife, dependent upon a husband. In a well-known reading of the novel, literary critic Nancy Armstrong describes Pride and Prejudice’s structure as a kind of game in which women in want of wealthy husbands compete to see whose female virtues and qualities of mind “are the most advantageous.” This is absolutely true, and yet, when reading the novel, it feels absolutely inaccurate. Engrossed in Elizabeth Bennet’s perspective, her decision to finally accept Darcy seems as radically autonomous as Liz Bennet’s decision to forego motherhood. Within confines she never disguises, Austen creates what seems like a universe of outcomes. We believe that Elizabeth chooses Darcy not because she must marry, or because he’s the best of a small bunch, but because he’s the one she wants, full stop. Ironically, once made, a decision that has largely been determined by circumstances beyond the heroine’s control comes to elide their very existence. Likewise, in Eligible, the highly controlled confines of both reality TV and posh suburbia generate a sense of flourishing choice while delimiting its likely results. This is the neat trick Austen so expertly performs and Eligible so cannily reveals: marriage, an institution long tied to strictures and limits of all kinds, comes, through the stories we tell about it, to appear an exercise in individualism and freedom.
There’s another story to tell about marriage and choice, though. We trumpet wedlock’s significance and register its economic consequences, but, for many women (Austen included), it is also simply a path not taken. Sittenfeld’s novel follows closely on the heels of Rebecca Traister’s excellent All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation, and the timing feels prescient. Both Sittenfeld and Traister are interested, albeit in different ways, in what it means to choose marriage in an era when it’s less of a necessity than ever. In Eligible, we see a vivid alternative to marriage in a kind of counterfactual coda. As if stepping back from the matrimonial fate it has only just promised, the novel briefly speculates about a woman’s life wholly untethered from marriage or romance of any kind. This reality feels like it exists outside the world of the Bennet sisters’ matrimonial affairs, but in fact it has been running alongside them the whole time. The life this final chapter imagines is, in its own way, fulfilling, but it also seems static and tentative — it’s not coincidental that it appears in an endnote rather than a plot thread. By closing in this way, Eligible leaves us with the sense we don’t yet have satisfying narratives for women’s lives as they exist apart from marriage. Perhaps, then, we should look beyond the horizon of matrimonial choice. Once you say no to the marriage plot, what new strictures — what new possibilities — appear?
Anna E. Clark is an assistant professor of 19th-century literature at Iona College in New Rochelle, New York. Her essays and reviews have recently appeared in Public Books and the Chicago Tribune.
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