Deborah Yaffe


By Deborah Yaffe, Jul 10 2020 01:00PM

Just a reminder that this weekend will be an exciting one for Janeites: the online version of the popular Jane Austen Festival–held, in virus-free years, in Louisville, Kentucky--runs from tonight through Sunday.

I’ve got a dog in this fight, since I will be on the program twice:

--Tonight at 7 pm (Eastern), I’ll be speaking on the history and contemporary significance of Jane Austen fanfiction, with a live Q&A session to follow the pre-recorded talk.

--Tomorrow at noon (Eastern), I’ll be appearing on a panel with Soniah Kamal, author of the 2019 Pride and Prejudice update Unmarriageable, moderated by Anne Bogel, creator of the Modern Mrs. Darcy blog. A live Q&A will follow the panel, as well.

Registration for the Q&As has closed, but you can watch the talk and the panel on the festival's YouTube channel.

By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 18 2020 01:00PM

Among the many long-scheduled events that have fallen victim to our coronavirus moment, the annual Jane Austen Festival in Louisville, Kentucky, is surely among the most beloved. Since 2008, the local chapter of the Jane Austen Society of North America has hosted the festival on the grounds of the eighteenth-century Locust Grove estate.

Over time, the festival has grown into a summer weekend extravaganza of lectures, food, crafts, vendor booths, and demonstrations of everything Regency, from dancing to dueling to bare-knuckle boxing. Thousands attend, and so many come in costume that in 2014 the festival briefly set the record for the largest-ever gathering of Regency-clad revelers, before the competing Austen festival in Bath, England, snatched the title back two months later.

Saddled with this year’s coronavirus lemons, the festival organizers decided to make lemonade: They’ve transformed the now-canceled July 10-12 gathering into a mostly free online event that they are billing as a chance to introduce the festival to Janeites across the globe.

Registration opened last weekend for six days of events (theme: “In the Library with Jane”) that will include talks on everything from Regency jewelry and sports to the relationship between Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey and Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. Festival vendors will offer online shopping for Regency clothing and accessories, and registrants can sign up for ten online craft workshops costing $40 to $103.50.

On a personal note: I’ll be giving one of the featured talks, on the history and contemporary relevance of Jane Austen fanfiction, from 7 to 8 pm on Friday, July 10. I’ll also be joining the other featured speaker -- Soniah Kamal, author of the 2019 Pride and Prejudice update Unmarriageable -- for a roundtable discussion from noon to 1 pm on Saturday, July 11. The conversation will be moderated by Anne Bogel, creator of the Modern Mrs. Darcy blog.

Although the talks will be pre-recorded, Q&A will be live – I hope to see you there!

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, Dec 10 2018 02:00PM

Jane Austen’s mature work features only one character of color: the teenaged West Indian heiress Miss Lambe, “half mulatto, chilly and tender,” who receives a passing mention near the end of Sanditon, the novel Austen left unfinished at her death.

The lily-white nature of Austen’s cast of characters isn’t surprising, given the racial makeup of the rural English world she knew best. What is intriguing is a recent spate – I think we can call it a trend! -- of Austen fanfic, in both book and screen form, featuring characters of color.

The latest example is Unmarriageable, by the journalist and novelist Soniah Kamal, which updates the story of Pride and Prejudice to contemporary Pakistan, much as did the short stories in last year’s Austenistan.

But although the Indian subcontinent, as I’ve noted before, is a longtime hotbed of Austen adapters, the current characters-of-color trend is broader.

Late last summer, a production company acquired the movie rights to Ayesha At Last, a Pride and Prejudice update set among young Muslims in modern-day Toronto, and HarperCollins published Pride, a P&P update set among young Latinos and African-Americans in Brooklyn.

Then, last month, Lifetime TV announced plans for Pride and Prejudice: Atlanta – yes, a P&P update set against the backdrop of a black church in Georgia. (The producers may have a good idea here: it might be easier to keep these versions straight if the titles of all P&P spinoffs were required to identify the adaptation’s location, CSI-style.)

The impulse to adapt Austen’s stories -- or at least her most famous one -- to characters whose life experiences diverge significantly from those of the people she knew is yet more proof, were any needed, of the universality of her incisive portraits of families, relationships, and comings-of-age. I haven’t yet read the latest offerings, but with luck the writers will use Austen’s narrative template as a vehicle for reflecting on the issues of class and gender that we still wrestle with, two centuries after Austen’s time – as well as the issues of race that she mostly ignored.

No idea how Unmarriageable will stack up against all these other products of the ever-churning Fanfic Factory. But one thing is for sure: Her publisher, Penguin Books, is just a little bit off when it calls Kamal’s novel a “one-of-a-kind retelling of Pride and Prejudice.”

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