By Deborah Yaffe, May 9 2016 01:00PM
In the 1940 film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, played by the great comic actress Edna May Oliver, turns out to be an old softie. Just as in Jane Austen’s novel, her combative confrontation with Elizabeth Bennet ends up bringing the young lovers together, but in the movie version, Lady Catherine planned it that way -- because she’s super-fond of Elizabeth. “People flatter her so much. She enjoys an occasional change,” a smiley Mr. Darcy explains to his lady-love.
When I was a kid, the movie was shown on our local college campus (yes, boys and girls: before God created streaming video, we could only see movies when they were screened in public), and my father, the person who gave me my first copy of P&P, took me along. Afterwards, he commented on Lady Catherine’s personality transplant. “It turns out that that spinster in rural England was a lot less sentimental than all those hard-boiled Hollywood types,” he said.
I was reminded of that moment last month, as I was reading Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible, which updates P&P to Cincinnati in 2013, a world of reality TV, Skyline chili and frequent texting. Sittenfeld’s book is the latest installment in the HarperCollins-initiated Austen Project, which assigns a modern update of each Austen novel to a popular yet critically acclaimed contemporary writer.
Regular blog readers will recall that I hated the first three Austen Project outings, so I’m happy to report that Eligible is much, much better. It’s a cheerful, light-hearted reimagining with some laugh-out-loud-funny dialogue, and its playful attitude towards Austen’s original makes it a lot more enjoyable than the slavishly faithful earlier installments.