For Pride and Prejudice to Make Sense Today, Jane Has to Be 40

While the novel remains a classic because of its timeless characters, one thing doesn't translate: its heroines' ages.
"Elizabeth and Mr Darcy," 1894 (Hugh Thomson/Wikimedia Commons)

ASPEN, Colo.—Curtis Sittenfeld is writing Pride and Prejudice. Sort of. The novelist (Prep, American Wife, etc.) is participating in The Austen Project, which pairs six contemporary authors with Jane Austen’s six complete works, asking them to re-tell the stories, often in contemporary settings. "Taking these well-loved stories as their base," the project explains, "each author will write their own unique take on Jane Austen’s novels." 

So Sittenfeld got assigned to Pride and Prejudice. Which is a challenge from a personal-pressure perspective—Pride and Prejudice is the most well-known, and probably the most beloved, of Austen's novels—but also from a logistical one. The plot centers around the politics of the entail, the system of inheritance that passed property down only along the male lines—a problem for the Bennet family of Pride and Prejudice, given its five daughters. Marriage, in Austen's novel, is fraught with competing incentives: financial security, family welfare, social status, love.

Which is why Mrs. Bennet is obsessed with getting her daughters married off—and married well. And one of her many sub-anxieties concerns the age of the eldest Bennet daughters—an alarmingly advanced age, in Austen's telling of things.

Here's the problem for someone trying to give Pride and Prejudice a contemporary twist—a problem Sittenfeld mentioned during a talk at the Aspen Ideas Festival, hosted by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic: Jane and Lizzy Bennet are 22 and 20 years old, respectively. This means that, in the novel's world, the two are pretty much teetering on the edge of spinsterhood.

The whole 23-year-old-spinster idea will not resonate, of course, with contemporary readers. So Sittenfeld, to bring 1813 to 2014, simply changed the ages of her heroines. And significantly so: Sittenfeld took Jane and Lizzy, and pretty much doubled their ages. In her contemporary version of Pride and Prejudice, Sittenfeld explained, "Jane is about to turn 40—which is the age people pressure women, in the most extreme form, to be married." 

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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