It’s clear we’re headed for a banner Jane Austen year. On Tuesday, Random House will publish best-selling novelist Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible, an updating of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. This May, Whit Stillman, the director of Metropolitan and The Last Days of Disco, will release his newest film, Love & Friendship, an adaptation of Austen’s posthumously published Lady Susan, to which Stillman also has a tie-in novel, and in August, the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington will begin an exhibition, “Will & Jane: Shakespeare, Austen, and the Cult of Celebrity,” that runs until early November.
Those behind the Austen celebration are pulling out all the stops to publicize it. At the moment, the item that has drawn the most media attention in the Austen revival is the white shirt that British actor Colin Firth wore when he played Mr. Darcy in the 1995 BBC mini-series of Pride and Prejudice. What made the shirt memorable was that Firth wore it when he dove into a pond, and when he emerged from the pond, the clingy shirt gave viewers a good look at his hunky physique. It was Firth’s equivalent of Jacqueline Bisset’s wet T-shirt moment in The Deep.
There is no such wet-shirt moment in Austen’s novel. The BBC simply used Firth’s rugged, good looks to hype its series. But as Firth’s shirt travels to Washington, D.C., where it will be part of the Folger Shakespeare Library exhibit, it’s important to bear in mind that the BBC wasn’t being misleading in playing up Firth’s sex appeal.
At the core of Pride and Prejudice is a sexual seriousness that helps explain why, for all its Regency-era restraint, Austen’s novel appeals to us today. At stake in the novel’s central love story is whether Austen’s heroine, Elizabeth Bennet, one of five sisters in a family that is far from wealthy, will finally marry Mr. Darcy, a thoughtful, well-to-do landowner whose character matches hers—or whether she will end up living alone.
The marriage plot around which the novel revolves is made clear in Austen’s famous opening sentence: “It is a truth, universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” What that sentence omits with its generalization—but Pride and Prejudice reveals—are the dire consequences for someone like Elizabeth if she fails to land a husband. Having an affair, getting an education, finding a job that can support her aren’t options.
When Elizabeth refuses an offer of marriage from Mr. Collins, an insipid, social-climbing minister and quarrels with Mr. Darcy, she is taking enormous risks. Her mother, angry at her daughter’s acting on the basis of her feelings, warns her, “Miss Lizzy, if you take it into your head to go on refusing every offer in this way, you will never get a husband at all—and I am sure I do not know who is to maintain you when your father is dead.”
When Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy do marry, it is not only a rebuke to Mrs. Bennet; it is a validation of Elizabeth’s refusal to compromise her ideals. Small wonder that such later 19th-century novelists as Charlotte Bronte in Jane Eyre, George Eliot in Middlemarch, and Henry James in The Portrait of a Lady made a point of putting their own stamp on the marriage plot Austen had developed so richly.
Today, the world of Pride and Prejudice seems suffocating by comparison with our own. In updating Austen’s masterpiece by placing it in 2013 Cincinnati, Ohio, Sittenfeld, the author of Prep and American Wife, has turned Elizabeth into a sophisticated, 38-year-old journalist for a women’s magazine, who has not hesitated to sleep with Darcy without being married to him.
In this choice, Sittenfeld has bowed to reality rather than fight it. The personal restraints Elizabeth Bennet felt bound by in 1813 England would be weaknesses nowadays. As Rebecca Traister points out in her much acclaimed new study, All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation, the growing willingness of young women to delay marriage or not get married at all has transformed American society and given women new power that adds up to an “expansion of options.”
The median age for an American woman’s first marriage has risen to 27, and since 2009 the proportion of American women who are married has dropped below 50 percent. In 1960 nearly 60 percent of American women were married by the age of 29. Now, that figure is 20 percent.
And yet with good reason Jane Austen continues to seem relevant. Her novels remind us, as at moments did the just-concluded ITV and PBS series Downton Abbey, how appealing it is to think of marriage as an irrevocable union that completes us and allows children to grow up feeling secure. It’s especially comforting to realize we can’t imagine Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth ever divorcing.
Nicolaus Mills is professor of American studies at Sarah Lawrence College. He is currently at work on a book about Ernest Hemingway and his World War II circle.