Deborah Yaffe

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Jane Austen, citizen of the world (Part II)

By Deborah Yaffe, Jan 12 2017 02:00PM

These days, the quintessentially English Jane Austen is, as I recently found occasion to note, a citizen of the world. And she seems to have a special affinity for one particular part of that world: the Indian subcontinent, where some of her recurrent themes -- family pressure, gender inequity, and the tension between love and economics -- have especially strong contemporary resonance.


As far as I’m aware, India is the only country outside the Anglo-American sphere whose film industry has adapted three different Austen novels for the screen: Sense and Sensibility (reborn as 2000’s interesting and moving Kandukondain Kandukondain, or I Have Found It); Pride and Prejudice (2004’s slight but fun Bride and Prejudice); and Emma (2010’s execrable Aisha).


A blog called The Ladies Finger recently reported on the growth of the Jane Austen Society of Pakistan. (And I’m not calling your attention to this post merely because it includes a complimentary shout-out to Among the Janeites. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)


The latest evidence of the southeast Asian Austen affinity is a roundup earlier this month, in the online version of the Indian business newspaper Mint, pegged to this year’s commemoration of the bicentenary of Austen’s death.


The piece strings together an array of short-ish responses to Austen’s work, some clever and some less so, contributed by various literary types: authors, journalists, publishers, the founder of the Jane Austen Society of Pakistan. My favorite is the account by writer, critic and translator Rakhshanda Jalil of first reading Pride and Prejudice at the urging of her mother and then, years later, giving her daughter the same book.


Along the way, Jalil found Austenian resonances in the Urdu literature she read, despite the differences of language, culture and context.


“That an 18th century English writer should cast such a long shadow and find echoes in such a disparate literary culture,” Jalil writes, “is a reminder that fine writing rises above its time and circumstance and has the enduring ability to merge the small and the personal with the larger and the universal.”


Jalil’s words go a long way toward explaining why Austen has fans across the globe. Indeed, her formulation could serve as a definition of what it means to call a work of literature a classic.


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