Deborah Yaffe

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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, Aug 9 2018 01:00PM

Jane Austen’s paternal aunt Philadelphia Austen Hancock (1730-92) is one of the most fascinating and understudied characters in the extended Austen clan.


Like her younger brother, the Rev. George Austen, father of our beloved novelist, Philadelphia was orphaned in early childhood; unlike him, she had no male patron interested in sponsoring her education and smoothing her path to respectable middle-class status.


Instead, she was apprenticed to a milliner at fifteen, and seven years later, she set sail for India, where a young Englishwoman with no fortune beyond her pretty face had a chance of finding a husband among the expatriate employees of the East India Company. Her gamble succeeded: five months after arriving, she married Tysoe Saul Hancock, a company surgeon some nineteen years her senior.


It was nearly nine years into their marriage that the Hancocks welcomed their first and only child, Elizabeth – known as Betsy in childhood and, to generations of Janeites, as Jane Austen’s glamorous older cousin (and eventual sister-in-law) Eliza de Feuillide. Even before Eliza’s birth, spiteful rumors circulated that her biological father was not Philadelphia’s husband but the powerful, charismatic and recently widowed Warren Hastings, a top official of the East India Company.


Was it true? Who knows? As my mother likes to say, I wasn’t under the bed. What we do know is that all three Hancocks remained on good terms with Hastings, who became Eliza’s godfather and the namesake of her only child.* Eventually, the Hancocks sailed back to London, where Philadelphia and Eliza remained even after Tysoe Saul returned to India three years later.


Sometime during their London sojourn, however, it appears that the Hancocks engaged the illustrious Joshua Reynolds to paint a portrait of their little family, along with their much-loved nanny, Clarinda, whom they had brought with them from India.


Or so argue English literature scholar Charlotte Mitchell and her collaborator, Gwendolen Mitchell, in a compelling Times Literary Supplement article published last year but only now coming to my attention. Sleuthing through East India company archives, Austen family letters and Reynolds papers, the Mitchells convincingly deduce that the subjects depicted in a 1760s-vintage painting now hanging in a Berlin museum have been misidentified as “George Clive and his family.” In fact, they claim, the painting really shows the Hancock household.


We still don’t have a definitive portrait of Jane Austen herself. But this discovery helps us put new life in the story of her resourceful and complicated family.



* Hastings de Feuillide -- Eliza’s son by her first husband, a French count who was guillotined during the Revolution – died at the age of fifteen, after a lifetime shadowed by illness and, possibly, by mental or physical disability.


By Deborah Yaffe, Apr 27 2015 01:00PM

Fourth in a series of excerpts from Jane Austen’s letters


The letter-like document that Jane Austen addressed to her sister, Cassandra, on April 27 of 1817 – exactly 198 years ago today – is especially poignant. Ailing for months, Austen must have known that her death was imminent, and so she penned a brief “last Will & Testament” (#158 in Deirde Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s letters).


The will bears witness to the paucity of Jane Austen’s material wealth. Only three people are named as legatees.


Fifty pounds apiece go to Austen’s fourth-oldest brother, Henry, her sometime literary agent, whose banking business had failed a year earlier, taking his fortune with it; and to Françoise Bigeon, a Frenchwoman who, according to Claire Tomalin’s Austen biography, worked for Austen’s cousin, Eliza de Feuillide, both before and after Eliza’s marriage to Henry and then continued in Henry’s employ after Eliza’s death.


To Cassandra, “my dearest Sister,” Austen left the rest of her worldly goods: “every thing of which I may die possessed, or which may be hereafter due to me.”


At the time of Austen’s death, this amounted to a modest sum, and the long-ago expiration of her copywrights ensures that no surviving descendants of the Austen clan can profit from her posthumous celebrity.


Still, it’s an evocative phrase, “every thing. . . which may be hereafter due to me.” Take it metaphorically, as encompassing a fair return for all the joy, insight and wisdom that Jane Austen has given those of us who love her works, and it amounts to quite a lot.



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