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.”