The Real Historic Places Behind Curtis Sittenfeld's "Eligible"
As a longtime Jane Austen fan, I was already looking forward to reading Eligible, a new novel by award-winning writer Curtis Sittenfeld based on Austen’s classic Pride and Prejudice. I was even more excited to read Eligible after a friend told me that my employer, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, makes a cameo appearance [light spoilers ahead] as the potential future steward for Pemberley, the fabled Darcy family home.
As expected, I loved the book. What I didn’t expect was how the places where Sittenfeld chose to set her story would capture my imagination; her vivid descriptions of the various Cincinnati neighborhoods and the lush expanse of the grounds of the Bay Area-adjacent Pemberley captivated me almost as much as the characters did. (I mean, it is pretty hard to compete with Mr. Darcy, after all.)
I had the opportunity to ask Sittenfeld a few questions about why she chose these locations as the setting for her book and what historic places are important to her. Here’s what she shared.
The English countryside is an iconic setting for Jane Austen’s stories. Why did you choose to set Eligible in the United States? How did you select Cincinnati in particular?
I wrote Eligible after I was invited by two British editors to be part of what they were calling The Austen Project—assigning six contemporary novelists to tell present-day versions of each of Austen's six novels. As an American, I think they always assumed I'd set mine in the United States. And I actually grew up in Cincinnati, though I've never lived there as an adult. But I thought what it shared with a small nineteenth-century English village was that outsiders might imagine it as dull, while inhabitants would know that juicy, complicated events were always under way there, as they are everywhere.
Each of your characters associates themselves with a particular place—Lizzie and Jane identify in some ways as New Yorkers, Lizzie in particular has an appreciation for Cincinnati, and Darcy has strong ties to the Bay Area. How did you leverage that connection to place in building and updating their characters?
I've lived on both coasts and in different parts of the Midwest, so I was especially interested in exploring coastal-Midwestern tensions (or, you might say, coastal-Midwestern pride and prejudice). I feel that I understand both fondness and snobbiness toward the Midwest, and it was fun to inhabit my characters' various viewpoints.
You mentioned the National Trust for Historic Preservation specifically as a potential steward for the Darcy family home of Pemberley, and even modeled it on Filoli, one of the National Trust’s Historic Sites. How did you hear about the National Trust? What made you choose us to be a part of Pemberley’s future?
Well, I wanted Pemberley to be in good hands! I had heard of the National Trust in passing—if you're a novelist, it helps to be generally conversant in a range of subjects—and I think I worked backwards since, as you note, I based Pemberley on Filoli. I've never been to Filoli, but I loved the details on its website. If I go someday, I hope to catch a glimpse of Darcy.
What historic places are special to you?
I grew up going regularly with my family to Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill in Harrodsburg, Kentucky. My siblings and I would sleep in trundle beds, climb the separate staircases for men and women, and eat things like stewed apples. Now I live in St. Louis, and I think the Gateway Arch is truly amazing. It's incredibly striking and beautiful, and it has a complex (not entirely positive), fascinating backstory.
By purchasing Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible on Amazon using this link, you'll be supporting the National Trust as well with a small portion of the proceeds. Looking for other ways to support preservation? Consider giving a gift membership to the place-lover in your life.