Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible

EligibleMary Bennet and the Difficulties of Narrating Spinsterhood

by Shannon Draucker, Boston University

Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible is the latest retelling of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. It takes place in present-day Cincinnati and features Mrs. Bennet as a Women’s League busybody, Kitty and Lydia as CrossFit devotees, and Chip Bingley as a reality television star. Jane is a forty-year-old yoga instructor trying to get pregnant via IVF, and Liz engages in a ten-year affair with the married Jasper Wick (the counterpart to Austen’s Mr. Wickham). Eligible has already elicited impassioned responses from Michiko Kakutani, Ursula K. Le Guin, and other critics, and I focus here on a minor yet puzzling character from both novels: the plain, withdrawn, and bookish Bennet sister, Mary.

In Pride and Prejudice, Mary does little but study, read, and futilely attempt to impress unwitting audiences with her mediocre piano skills. As Alex Woloch has argued, Mary serves largely as a foil to Elizabeth in Austen’s novel (71). In Sittenfeld’s novel, on the other hand, Mary occupies an expanded role that exposes the enduring difficulties of narrating those who refuse traditional marriage plots. Sittenfeld’s Mary is a thirty-year-old misanthrope who lives at home and chronically pursues online master’s degrees. While her sisters all marry or enter serious relationships, Mary bitterly refuses to pursue marriage. Her rejection of the marriage plot is consistent with her feminist rhetoric about the sexism of reality television shows such as “Eligible” (a thinly-veiled reference to “The Bachelor”) and the silliness of her sisters’ “elaborate fitness rituals and fakely scented lotions,” but this resistance grants her an awkward presence in the novel (487). While Jane deals with a surprise pregnancy and Liz enjoys “hate sex” with Darcy, the narrative explicitly refuses Mary any such dramatic storyline. Her family members speculate about her sexual orientation (Kitty and Lydia repeatedly tease her about being a lesbian), but we soon learn that Mary prefers to avoid all relationships. Though readers are briefly enticed by the prospect that Mary has a “secret,” this plotline ends with a flagrantly mundane resolution: she’s merely participating in a weekly bowling league.

Yet, the very awkwardness of Mary’s storyline in Eligible renders it worthy of attention. The minor role of the spinster sister–relegated to the piano bench and destined to remain at home after her sisters marry–likely sits more comfortably with readers of Austen’s novel, which offers a bitter critique of the limited options available to unwedded women in the nineteenth century. Mary’s uncomfortable presence in Eligible is more jarring. Surely we could imagine a more robust storyline for an unmarried, intellectual woman in the twenty-first century? But the end of the novel—in which Sittenfeld surprises readers with an entire chapter devoted to Mary—leaves us with a frustratingly brief glimpse into the story of a woman with distinctive feminist views, sexual desires, and approaches to personal fulfillment. We learn that Mary cares little for relationships, prefers her own company, and is “capable of satisfying her own [sexual] desires” (487).  The final sentences of the novel depict Mary as she scores a strike in her bowling league: “All the pins fell.  And when they did it was so, so satisfying… Her sisters, she thought, could have their crushes and courtships, their histrionics and reconciliations. For Mary, this was heaven” (487). What Eligible ultimately reminds us, then, is that women like Mary exist and often have the most exciting subjectivities of all – but we must learn how to narrate them.

Questions for Discussion

How does Sittenfeld “modernize” the other relationships in the novel?  What can these changes tell us about our present cultural moment?  For example, students might consider Lydia’s marriage to the transgender CrossFit trainer Ham in conversation with contemporary debates about transgender rights

How does Sittenfeld absorb and adapt Austen’s tone?  How might we reconcile her simultaneous use of terms like “suitor” and “courtship” with her inclusion of modern-day colloquial language from text messages and emails (such as Liz’s SMS exclamation to Charlotte, “Cousin Willie just kissed me eek!!!!!!” (127)).

How do Sittenfeld’s frank discussions of sexuality in Eligible alter Austen’s storyline?  How does Austen, in comparison, figure passion and desire?

Can you think of other books, films, or shows that imagine a more robust storyline for an unmarried, intellectual woman in the twenty-first century?

Further Reading

Brown, Julia Prewitt. “Review: The Feminist Depreciation of Austen: A Polemical Reading.” NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction 23:3 (Spring 1990): 303-313.

Burgan, Mary. “Heroines at the Piano: Women and Music in Nineteenth-Century Fiction.” Victorian Studies 30:1 (Autumn 1986): 51-76.

Corbett, Mary Jean. Family Likeness: Sex, Marriage, and Incest from Jane Austen to Virginia Woolf. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2010.

Dow, Gillian and Clare Hanson, eds. Uses of Austen: Jane’s Afterlives. New York: Palgrave, 2012.

Horwitz, Barbara Jane. Jane Austen and the Question of Women’s Education. New York: Peter Lang, 1991.

Sadoff, Dianne F. Victorian Vogue: British Novels on Screen. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. “Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl.” Critical Inquiry 17 (Summer 1991): 818-837.

Troost, Linda and Sayre Greenfield, eds. Jane Austen in Hollywood. 1998. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2001.

Wells, Juliette. Everybody’s Jane: Austen in the Popular Imagination. London: Continuum, 2011.

Woloch, Alex. The One vs. the Many: Minor Characters and the Space of the Protagonist in the Novel. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003.