Austenhead, Austenite, or Austener—I don’t know if Jane Austen groupies have a name but here are three for your consideration. Whatever you choose, I am it.
It’s been 30 years since I read my first Austen. I was just about 13 and, obviously, I started with Pride and Prejudice (P&P). I’ve probably read it 30 times since. My other favourite, which I only got to a few years later, when I was admittedly better equipped to appreciate it, is Emma (which turned 200 this year to P&P’s 203). Mansfield Park, Persuasion and Northanger Abbey followed in quick succession. And, unusually, Sense and Sensibility, up there with P&P for many, made it last to my Austen reading list.
Then, a few years ago, I started to branch out my Austen fixation through multi-media outlets. I began by scouring the net to discover every filmed version of her books. Then those television shows and movies were binge-watched—when nothing was left, there was always Colin Firth. My preoccupation also found recourse in fan fiction—you can only call it that; sequels, retellings, offshoots were bought. I then recalled how back home in India too, a delightful little Doordarshan show called Trishna in the late ’80s had done some justice to the Bennett-Darcy saga. I looked for it online, but to no avail.
In short, after chancing upon a plethora of variants in a few weeks, I learnt that Austen’s most beloved story was not hers to tell alone. Pride and Prejudice belonged to all of us, and we were allowed to walk the characters wherever we chose.
The latest reaffirmation of that fact is American author Curtis Sittenfeld's Eligible
. She has transformed Longbourn into Cincinnati, Pemberley into San Francisco and the Darcy-Bennett friction into hate sex in her book that released a couple of months ago. It is set in the 2010s—not the early 1800s—and smudged ink on letters has given way to long pauses in between texts. Eligible
is no P&P
, but it is a couple of hours worth of quasi-entertainment, if you don’t turn your nose up at chick lit.
This isn’t high literature—nor does it claim to be—but it does achieve what it has set out to: Pay homage to the ultimate chick lit of all time. So, more power to Sittenfeld and her courage at impregnating Jane Bennett through artificial insemination even as she and Bingley get googly-eyed over each other. Balking already? Then let me warn you, this isn’t for the faint-hearted.
Let’s start at the very beginning. This book too acknowledges the truth that any guy with money and confidence issues, which Bingley clearly has as a failed suitor of a reality TV show called—no prizes for guessing—‘Eligible
’, will be easy pickings for any attractive woman. Jane, the older yoga-loving Bennett, is clearly that. As are her—surprise, surprise—four sisters of which one is a nerd, two are superficial and the last is, well, Lizzie Bennett.
Here’s the plot in a nutshell. The leading man and lady, Mr Fitzwilliam Darcy and Ms Eliza Bennett, get together in the end; the path to true love is rocky, tempestuous and full of misunderstandings. Also, he’s rich and handsome; she’s poorish and tolerable. Plus, both have rotten relatives. Also, there’s a cool transgender in the mix. That’s all. I hope I haven’t given away too much.
Now, all comfort readers will tell you this—we do look forward to new ways of reading old books. So when I learnt that a smart writer was going to repackage P&P
for me, I was excited. Someone—probably an enthusiastic marketing person—termed it the ‘book of the summer’ even. (It has a 3.7 on Goodreads
, not that I trust the book lovers since Pride and Prejudice
only has a 4.1.)
I anticipated a cosy weekend, spent sipping on Oolong and savouring each word. Instead, I swept left faster than usual on my Kindle, and finished it in two hours, pausing for at least 20-30 WhatsApp and Twitter breaks.
Having read another of her five novels, the coming-of-age story Prep
, and found it funny, poignant and real, I can’t begrudge Sittenfeld the attempt. The uninitiated into Austendom may still enjoy it. I, on the other hand, have decided to let Austen be Austen; pace out the re-reads of her books—six novels, that’s all she left us—so that they’re still fresh but stop seeking her essence in others’ attempts at recreating her. Disappointment is inevitable.