Deborah Yaffe

Blog

By Deborah Yaffe, Jul 18 2019 01:00PM

South Asians never seem to tire of Jane Austen. We’ve had an Indian TV show based on Sense and Sensibility. We’ve screened cinematic updates of three different Austen novels, all set in contemporary times on the Indian subcontinent. We’ve seen a new Jane Austen Society taking root in Pakistan.


Last week, my Google alert brought two reminders of this Subcontinental Austen phenomenon: an account of three new Pride and Prejudice updates by authors of Indian or Pakistani descent now living in North America, and a real-life story about Austen’s powerful impact on a young Indian Muslim woman struggling against religious patriarchy.


The fanfics are Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors, by Sonali Dev, set among wealthy Indian immigrants in San Francisco; Ayesha At Last, by Uzma Jalaluddin, which takes place among the Muslim diaspora in Toronto; and Unmarriageable, by Soniah Kamal, set in contemporary Pakistan (not unlike the recent short-story collection Austenistan, another example of this trend).


All three of the new books have recently been released in the United States by major publishers (Penguin Random House, Harper Collins), rather than consigned, like so much Jane Austen fanfic, to the frequently unremunerative world of self-publishing. Rightly or wrongly, the money people seem to think that transplanting the ever-popular Austen into a newly diverse context could be a profitable move.


Time will tell how successful this bet proves to be. But it’s surely not coincidental that these books are arriving in the midst of an ongoing debate over diversity – or, more precisely, the lack thereof – in romance writing and publishing.


Although Jane Austen probably never met an Indian, a Hindu, or a Muslim, her life in a rural English rectory was not as distant from the subcontinent as it might seem: Years before Austen’s birth, her paternal aunt Philadelphia Austen traveled to India in search of a husband, and gossip had it that Philadelphia’s daughter, Eliza Hancock, was the offspring of an adulterous liaison with Warren Hastings, the first governor-general of India.


More significant for the new fanfic, in countries where generations grew up under British colonial rule, the classics of English literature form a vexed but very real part of the cultural heritage. Fanfic can be seen as a response to this dilemma, Jalaluddin suggests – “a way for writers of color to reclaim the colonial literature we have grown up with and make it truly our own.”


Which Austen already is for the Indian-born Zeba Talkhani, who grew up in Saudi Arabia, now lives in England, and recently published a memoir of her life under an oppressive religious regime. As a young girl dreaming of escape, “she connected with Jane Austen, whose heroines had to strategize their way out of arranged marriages,” Talkhani told an interviewer for the London Times.


“Austen was relatable fiction for me, and how amazing is that when you look back at how different my existence was from hers,” Talkhani said. “I felt like I saw myself. She described a world where even if the woman has to give consent to marriage, the consent is pressurized or they are made to feel there won’t be any other option for them.”


Often, we Janeites spend a lot of energy trying to explain why Austen's stories still resonate, even in a society so different from hers. For many South Asian women, it seems, no such explanation is necessary: For them, stories about young women pushed into marriage in order to satisfy family expectations or mitigate economic strains don’t seem like period pieces.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jul 15 2019 01:00PM

Forty-sixth in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen's letters.


Jane Austen’s brothers were a reproductively prolific lot, at least the four who reproduced at all. With the help of six wives, three of whom perished in the process, they produced thirty-three sons and daughters, most of whom survived to adulthood.


Twenty-five of those little girls and boys arrived during Jane Austen’s lifetime, and three dozen of her surviving letters -- more than twenty percent of the total -- were written to five of them. On the evidence of those letters, and of their recipients’ later reminiscences, Austen seems to have been an excellent aunt, proficient at both friendly teasing and kind encouragement and happily devoid of condescension or sentimentality.


The letter that Austen wrote to her 11-year-old niece, Caroline, exactly 203 years ago today (#143 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence) is a case in point. Apparently, Caroline, like her older siblings Anna and James Edward, had recently turned her hand to fiction and wanted to know the reaction of the family’s published author.


“I have been very much entertained by your story of Carolina & her aged Father, it made me laugh heartily, & I am particularly glad to find you so much alive upon any topic of such absurdity, as the usual description of a Heroine’s father,” Austen writes. “You have done it full justice—or if anything be wanting, it is the information of the venerable old Man’s having married when only Twenty one, & being a father at Twenty two.”


At this distance, it’s impossible to know what Caroline’s story was about, although the telltale name of the heroine suggests it must have been autobiographical. (Except better! Because what eleven-year-old Caroline wouldn’t prefer to be known as Carolina?) And surely Austen was indirectly teasing her own oldest brother, Caroline’s father James, with her references to Carolina’s “aged” and “venerable” father: In 1816, James was a not-precisely-ancient fifty-one.


Still, teasingly or not, advancing age seems to be on Austen’s mind in this letter: Reporting on the recent visit of Caroline’s big brother, James Edward, Austen describes him as “only altered in being improved by being some months older than when we saw him last. He is getting very near our own age, for we do not grow older of course.”


It’s a commonplace middle-aged joke, rueful but light-hearted. But for us, it’s made poignant by hindsight: We know that Jane Austen would grow only one year older before her untimely death. And Caroline’s father, the venerable James, outlived his sister by only two and a half years, leaving Caroline fatherless at fourteen.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jul 11 2019 01:00PM

It’s always encouraging when excellent contemporary writers turn out to have great taste in literature (i.e., taste that agrees with my own). Reassuring. Suggests a well-ordered universe. That kind of thing.


So two weeks ago, I was delighted to read this interview with the wonderful British novelist Kate Atkinson. (If you haven’t read Behind the Scenes at the Museum, Case Histories, or Life After Life, you should repair those omissions immediately.)


Asked which book she would take to a desert island, Atkinson couldn't quite decide: “Just William or Persuasion (don’t make me choose!). Both are equally brilliant in their own very, very different ways.”


Just William, better known in Britain than in the US, is the first in an extraordinarily long series of comic short-story collections for children. The books, which appeared from the 1920s to the 1960s, were written by Richmal Crompton, a clergyman’s daughter from the north of England who spent a decade as a schoolteacher, worked for women’s suffrage, and was partially disabled by polio.


Persuasion and its author, of course, need no introduction here. As someone who always finds it hard to decide which Austen novel to enlist for desert island duty, however, I was glad to see that Atkinson is also a bit torn. “It’s always a difficult hypothetical choice between Jane Austen’s Persuasion and Pride and Prejudice,” she told the Daily Mail. “The latter is the more brilliant of the two, but Persuasion speaks to the heart more.”


The rest of the interview offers further proof of Atkinson’s fine taste, at least in children’s literature: She’s a fan of books I treasure -- The Wind in the Willows and the works of the great E. Nesbit – and dislikes a writer I can’t stand, the dreadful Enid Blyton. Obviously, Atkinson is brilliant. Can’t wait to read her latest novel.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jul 8 2019 01:00PM

The success of the screen adaptations of Jane Austen’s novels has been attributed to many factors: romantic plots, attractive stars, witty dialogue, stately mansions. And, of course, great-looking clothes.


No surprise, then, that Austen tourist venues frequently display costumes from the movies, even though, as modern reproductions worn by contemporary actors playing fictional characters, these outfits fall at least three degrees of separation short of historical reality.


Now Janeite costume fans can look forward to another opportunity to wallow in Regency fashion: The Exhibits Development Group, a Minnesota-based company that assembles traveling shows on art, science, history, and pop culture, has put together “Jane Austen: Fashion and Sensibility.” Thus far, no venues have been announced for the exhibition, although EDG’s projected schedule seems to imagine a tour of eighteen sites over six years, starting in the fall of 2020.


The show features forty-nine costumes from eight different filmed adaptations of four Austen novels, but the lion’s share of the items – thirty-five of the forty-nine – come from just two of those adaptations: the iconic 1995 BBC mini-series of Pride and Prejudice, written by Andrew Davies and starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle; and the 1995 Ang Lee movie of Sense and Sensibility, written by Emma Thompson and starring Thompson and Kate Winslet.


While more than two-thirds of the featured costumes were worn by women – because let’s face it: who usually gets the more interesting clothes in these movies? – the exhibitors clearly have a savvy eye on their market: Among the smaller number of male garments on display will be the so fetchingly moistened white shirt that Firth wore in the BBC P&P, and the long gray coat and halfway-unbuttoned shirt in which a super-hot Matthew Macfadyen met Keira Knightley at the end of Joe Wright’s 2005 movie of P&P.


Cue swooning.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jul 4 2019 01:00PM

On this holiday of freedom from tyranny, including the tyranny of conventional expectations, it seems appropriate to spend a moment admiring the calm, unembarrassed self-assurance of Zack MacLeod Pinsent, a twenty-five-year-old Brit who dresses in Georgian clothing every minute of every day, without so much as a JASNA meeting for excuse.


Most of us were introduced to Pinsent last week, when the BBC posted a two-and-a-half-minute story that included footage of him boarding the New York City subway attired in a cream-colored top hat, cravat, flowered waistcoat, linen jacket and trousers, and black slippers.


Apparently, Pinsent’s unruffled aplomb – or perhaps his elegant dishiness and Downtown Abbey accent – has widespread appeal. As of a few days ago, the piece had been viewed 2.6 million times on Twitter, and Pinsent’s count of Instagram followers had ballooned from 35,400 to 231,000.


“Wearing what I wear, it makes you feel ten feet high,” Pinsent told the BBC. “It’s a huge confidence-builder.”


Pinsent, who says he taught himself to sew and burned his last pair of jeans at the age of fourteen, runs a tailoring business making bespoke period clothing for men and women using historically accurate materials and techniques. He specializes in the Georgian and Regency eras, and although the BBC story doesn’t mention a Jane Austen link, his Instagram seems to include photos taken during the annual Austen festivals in both Bath and Louisville, as well as at events with the Jane Austen Pineapple Appreciation Society.


Pinsent’s website does not list prices (money: so common!), but it’s pretty clear that they are high. (“If you want cheap, go elsewhere. If you want correct and well-tailored, then come here,” reads one testimonial from a satisfied customer.) Still, it’s not hard to imagine that attending the next JASNA ball in an original Pinsent will become a marker of Janeite status.


Quill pen -- transparent BookTheWriter transparent facebook twitter