True enough, Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld proved to be a good, reliable read that I was not tempted to give up on. This novel is part of a project in which modern authors recycle the plots from the novels of Jane Austen – Sittenfeld got the fan favourite Pride and Prejudice. When I first heard about this project, I thought it was a great idea, as was the related project to let modern authors re-imagine the plays by Shakespeare. Now, after having read two of the Austen-inspired books – Eligible and Val McDermid’s Northanger Abbey – as well as plenty of reviews about the other novels in the Austen and Shakespeare projects, I’m no longer that sure.
I did like Eligible, and greatly preferred it to the McDermid Northanger Abbey, but I found myself liking it the most when it didn’t follow Austen’s template. There were some welcome plot surprises which kept the story interesting. In the exposition-heavy first chapters, I was afraid that here would be another author attempting a somewhat Austenesque style – I think Lydia once accuses Liz (the Elizabeth character) of using long words to make her seem cleverer, and the same accusation can sometimes be levelled at the third-person narrator. Soon, though, the style loosens up, and the dialogue between the Bennet sisters is lively and modern (even grumpy Mary is funny). But if I enjoyed the parts of the novel that were the least like Austen best, then how important is the whole Austen conceit?
My argument for approving, in theory, of retellings of the works of famous authors is that their readers are often as familiar with these plots and characters as they are with myths, legends and fairy tales. If these classic stories can be retold to interesting effect – as they so often are – why shouldn’t the same be true of the equally classic stories we find in novels and plays by authors like Austen and Shakespeare? The problem is that tightly plotted, realistic novels like Austen’s leave less room for manoeuvre than a myth/legend/fairy tale. The characters don’t need to be fleshed out – they are already – and there are few blanks to fill in as regards the plot. What’s more, while it’s par for the course to change things around anyway you like in a story that is part of an oral tradition, in Austen’s case there is a “true” story that the modern adapter has to take account of. You can depict King Arthur in a hundred different ways: the same can’t really be said for Mrs Bennet. Authors in the Austen project are further hampered by the fact that they to a large extent keep the same names as in the original, so there can be no question of “filing off the serial numbers” and keeping the readers guessing as to which character is supposed to correspond to which in the original.
In Shakespeare’s case – and I’m reluctant to admit this as I grew up with and loved the Lamb siblings’ Tales from Shakespeare in a Swedish translation – the plots of his plays, which he mostly filched from elsewhere anyway, are rarely the issue. From what I gather from the reviews, the authors of the Shakespeare-inspired novels have had more leeway than the ones involved in the Austen project, but they don’t seem to have come up with that many fresh ideas for all that. What, Leontes in The Winter’s Tale acts like a jerk? Shylock in The Merchant of Venice is hard done by? You astound me.
Having said that, I do think there is room for entertaining and even thoughtprovoking retellings of the classics. But it’s a tricky balancing act to provide variations on a well-loved author’s themes while in some sense staying true to the spirit of the original. In the “set in modern days” retelling subgenre, Sittenfeld fares better than most, but though I liked it, it reinforced my impression that prequels, sequels and retellings from other characters’ point of view do – at least in theory – provide more scope for the author and more fun for the reader. That is, as long as they are done well.