Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Having Children Was Less Bother for Lizzie Bennet

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Having Children Was Less Bother for Lizzie Bennet

Article excerpt

Byline: Melanie McDonagh

THE most celebrated line in Pride and Prejudice, and possibly the most quoted opening line in literature, that "a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife", has the merit of summing up both the book and the condition of women in Jane Austen's day. It was matched in terseness if not quotability by her observation that "single women have a dreadful propensity to be poor".

It's fair to say that it's not quite going to be matched by the opening line of Eligible, the latest modern take on Pride and Prejudice which is set in Cincinnati, by American author Curtis Sittenfeld. It is one of those books destined for best-sellerdom and to be read, unlike P&P, almost entirely by women. (Funny how much more gendered literature is by comparison with 1813.) It is yet to be published, which is why I haven't read it. But I think we can assume that she's no more likely than any other of Austen's would-be successor's to capture what the critic Lord David Cecil called "its gay astringent buoyancy, its silvery commonsense".

But you get the gist: Ma Bennet is a shopaholic, Lydia and Kitty are gym bunnies, Jane a yoga teacher (already, one yearns for the genteel domesticity of the Bennets' home life), Liz a journalist. But the killer element is that Sittenfeld has identified the critical vulnerability of women in the 21st century, and it's not money, it's babies.

Back in Austen's time, women's chief asset apart from, then as now, fortune was their youth to a far lesser extent this was true of men (think how Marianne feels about Colonel Brandon, ancient at 35, in Sense and Sensibility). As John Sutherland points out in a devastating essay in his book What Matters in Austen, 20 was the critical age; before it, a woman was hot, after she was a bit more lukewarm. Indeed, it's dispiriting to read a letter written by Austen herself at 27 describing her stay in London, in which she writes herself off as far too old for suitors on account of her age. …

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