For anyone who’s had any experience with shidduchim or plans to. And definitely all frum Austen fans!
Book: Pride and Preference
Author: Barbara Bensoussan
Publisher: Menucha Publishers
How it all began
The idea for this book hit me when my children were in shidduchim. There were so many discussions about expectations for support and whether or not it made sense to pursue shidduchim with families much wealthier than ours. I kept hearing how hard it is for your children, especially daughters, to marry if you’re not rich. The original Pride and Prejudice, which I read and loved as a teen, before I became frum, is about a genteel but poor family with five girls to marry, and I thought, “Sounds so familiar, it could fit perfectly into a frum setting!” The challenge was irresistible.
The hardest part to write
In the original, the young men and women meet at parties and chat freely, which doesn’t work in our world. So I had to figure out how the shidduchim could come about indirectly, with a shadchan in between. I included some meetings, but they had to be brief, accidental, and chaperoned. It was also hard to write the sad or stressful parts, because inevitably, I felt sad while writing them.
Austen’s world: perfect fit or stretch?
The furthest stretch was keeping the young people’s meetings within the bounds of frum propriety. But the themes and concerns of Pride and Prejudice are as relevant today as they were then: anxiety about finding the right mate (or not finding one at all, or needing to “settle”), anxiety about being unable to afford to marry off one’s children, heartbreak when shidduchim are broken off, the damages caused by lashon hara and being too quick to judge others instead of judging l’chaf zechus.
Harder or easier?
Spinning of a classic is different from writing a novel from scratch. I found it easier not to have to create a plot. I don’t have one of those strategic minds that easily invents clever plot twists!
Who the book is for
Anyone who’s had any experience with shidduchim or plans to. And definitely all frum Austen fans!
Why this title
I wanted my title to reflect that the book was an Austen spin-off, so I kept close to the original. I chose Pride & Preference because there are so many discussions of preferences in shidduchim: Learning or working? Tall or short? Lively or quiet? Rich or of modest means?
The most enjoyable part to write
I enjoyed the whole thing, but I think I had the most fun with Zelig’s appearance, the Rothman wedding scene, and lunch with Mrs. Brog. I had lots of fun playing with names, too, looking for Jewish equivalents to the original: Shaina for Jane, Aliza for Elizabeth, Miri for Mary, Liora for Lydia, Kaylie for Katy, etc.
I originally gave Mrs. Brog the name Mrs. Burg, since the Austen character’s name is De Bourgh, and it seemed to fit so nicely. But the editors felt Burg was too close to Bergman, the last name of another character, so I changed it to Brog. Fiction tip: Don’t give your characters names that are too similar, or you’ll confuse them.
Writings that have been an integral part of my writing journey
In the early dawn of frum literature, I remember admiring Varda Branfman’s poetic prose, Ruchama Feuerman’s stories, and the essays in both volumes of Our Lives. Those created a conversation I wanted to join! There are too many other writers who I loved to mention all of them here.
My own books were inspired by secular writers. The germ for my first novel, A New Song, which will soon be re-released by Menucha Publishers, came when one of my children suggested writing “a frum Harry Potter” (the book was not about magic). My food memoir, The Well Spiced Life, was inspired by Laurie Colwin’s Home Cooking, which is a humorous collection of essays about adventures in the kitchen, with recipes included. And now, of course, Austen.
An early experience when I learned the power of writing
As a child, I learned I could make relatives and friends very happy with a nice letter. In school, I learned I could get away with not knowing all the material for essay exams, because I wrote well enough to cover for my lapses! As an adult, I still believe that some of my most important writing isn’t public, such as letters of love and appreciation to family and friends, helping people write cover letters to get jobs or get into school, writing to an uncle to discourage him from cremation.
The best money I spent as a writer
Investing in some good writing books and magazines to learn the craft. I realized early on that fiction is more of an art than I’d originally anticipated.
Advice to my younger writing self
Don’t sell yourself short in terms of confidence or compensation. And pay close attention to how novels are constructed before starting to write one!
Making it all worthwhile
All the effort of writing the book becomes worthwhile when people reach out to say they loved it or got a good laugh out of it! One woman told me her husband brought it to her when she was very depressed over a personal loss, and it changed her mood completely. Most writers try to write books they’d like to read themselves, and I like a novel that’s witty, insightful, and has a happy ending.
Jane Austen’s novel is set in 19th century rural England. While some frum fiction deliberately obscures the location of the story, I feel that often takes away color. I set my version in Brooklyn, which is gritty, a hodgepodge of rich and poor, attractive and ugly, kind and callous. At one point, my snobby character Yael says of the Bennetts, “They live in one of those ugly little attached houses.” Unfortunately, that’s based on a real comment I once heard from a privileged young woman much like Yael.
I cranked out the first draft of Pride & Preference four years ago during “NaNoWriMo” National Novel Writing Month challenge (write a novel in a month). Esther Kurtz was my partner! After that, my daughter a”h got sick, and the manuscript languished in a drawer for a couple of years, but I finally picked it up again at the urging of family and friends.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 740)
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