The Jane Austen party on her 200th death anniversary
The decorously subversive chronicler of England’s drawing rooms died in July 1817. As we enter a timeline that marks 200 years without Aunt Jane, here’s a celebration by many Janeites (one writer tells us why he does not read her and another pretends she is reading her for the first time)
‘Jane Austen— you mean that BBC series?’
The writer who doesn’t read Jane Austen, and why
I am not indifferent to Jane Austen. I don’t dislike her writing. I read her when I was younger. Just that I don’t read her now.
As a boy I ploughed through reams of 19th century fiction, first in the abridged version, then entire novels. The feudal world portrayed in them—the world of landlords, class hierarchies, arranged marriages and oppressive social customs was very close to what I saw around me, growing up in Allahabad.
Why don’t I read Austen now? As one grows older one has a sense of time being finite. The cultural choices we have now are so many—there’s so much to keep up with. One often doesn’t go back to what one has previously read.
I think what’s also happened is that Jane Austen’s been appropriated by television and cinema. So even though we don’t read Jane Austen, we now watch her. In this sense, there’s no escaping. Her novels are made into an Ang Lee film or a new BBC series. What we remember now are not the sentences but her stories, and that Colin Firth took off his shirt in one scene. Another instance of the movies and TV gobbling up literature. Or, if you want to take a generous view: giving literature a new lease of life.
By Palash Krishna Mehrotra
And the best Jane Austen heroine award goes to...
Top publishers pick their favourites
Diya Kar Hazra of Pan Macmillan India
“Depending on the time of year and my frame of mind, my favourites are Elizabeth Bennet and Emma Woodhouse. Elizabeth is sharp, resilient, robust and opinionated. She’s inherited her father’s intolerance of silliness and dim wit, and is quick to judge people. She’s all about possibilities; she gives me hope...Emma, though less complex, less endearing, is, to me, perhaps, more human. Her judgement is flawed and her perceptions wrong—she doesn’t know her heart because she’s so sure of her mind. Her flaws make you impatient, at times even irritated with her, but they also make you empathize.”
Chiki Sarkar of Juggernaut Books
“I don’t have a favourite. There are novels of hers that I love—just read Persuasion again which is possibly my favourite. Anne (Elliot) is a bit wet, I think. I like Elizabeth (Bennet) fine but she is no patch on Natasha Rostov (of War And Peace). I rather loved Emma (Woodhouse) but it might have been teenage posturing.”
Karthika V.K., formerly of HarperCollins India
“I shall be boring and predictable and tell you it’s Elizabeth Bennet. She is way ahead of her times, isn’t she? Fiercely independent, eloquent, witty, warm and unselfish, and when it came to marriage and men, it’s like she rewrote the rules for herself. I see a bit of her in most other female protagonists I’ve connected to strongly and enjoyed getting to know, from Scarlett O’Hara (Gone With The Wind) to Bridget Jones to our own Zoya (The Zoya Factor).”
Meru Gokhale of Penguin Random House India
It turns out Gokhale seems to have no strong feelings for any Jane Austen women. She says, “But my favourite character is Mr Darcy! Because he is a misunderstood curmudgeon.”
The perfect Pakistani Darcy
The founder of the Jane Austen Society of Pakistan on the search for Darcy in Lahore
What makes Mr Darcy of Pride And Prejudice impossibly alluring and maddeningly unattainable is the fact that he is the product of a brilliant author’s imagination. However, we continue to torture ourselves by yearning for him. Sigh!
1. He must be well read, excellently educated, accomplished, intelligent, eloquent and a thoughtful letter writer. Issues with spelling and grammar—even in WhatsApp messages—are simply unacceptable (for instance, “Ur hot!” *cringe). He ought to be capable of holding his own in a conversation without the need for copious amounts of Black Label, Grey Goose or Mary Jane. Mr Darcy is all that…and more.
2. He ought to cut a fine figure: at least half a foot taller than all the Khan actors. Classy but not ostentatious, he has nothing to prove and exudes a careless charm (think Henry Cavill meets 1990s Colin Firth meets 1980s Imran Khan), so his wardrobe doesn’t include flashy aspirational accessories like Hermès belts and Gucci loafers (Mr Darcy is not amused by logo-rific jaunts to Dubai Mall and Knightsbridge).
3. He really must possess his own Pemberley. It isn’t necessary that it’s an estate as magnificent as Blenheim or Chatsworth (though that would be a BIG plus), as long as it’s his own and not a mere “annex” in his parents’ house. No matter how privileged and affluent a family is in Pakistan and how many “plots” they can afford, the practice of adding extensions to their Defence-area mansions for their sons’ wives and families remains persistent. It can be a townhouse, heck—it can be a small flat, as long as there’s actual privacy and restricted interference from one’s outlaws. Mr Darcy likes his space.
4. He ought to be romantic, ardent, considerate and caring. Once his feelings are engaged, his brooding intensity must remain well below creepy stalker-ish levels. He must also accept rejection, however shocking, with grace. And we know that Mr Darcy can even make bitterness look hot.
5. When it comes to love interests, he mustn’t be a hypocritical manwhore looking to marry a shareef ladki (virtuous girl) after sowing his wild oats in every nook and cranny (or even continuing to do so after marrying said virtuous girl). He must maintain high standards when it comes to women while spurning the haraami (evil) Wickham-esque lure of bits o’muslin and bits o’cocaine. Mr Darcy, we know, prefers a pair of fine eyes accompanied by vivacity, wit and charm.
6. He oughtn’t be an entitled narcissist and should reflect the more admirable side of mardaangi (manliness): not a tyrannical demeanour, but the ethics to honour and respect his Mrs Darcy, to stand up to his khandaan (family), to spurn overt flattery from chalak (clever) Miss Bingley types and gold diggers, and to see through sycophants of the Mr Collins variety. And of course, he really must treat domestic staff and socioeconomic inferiors with respect.
Mr Darcy is a true gentleman and he’s our gentleman—but can his equivalent be found beyond the pages of Pride And Prejudice or its screen adaptations?
By Laaleen Sukhera
Is Shakespeare hotter than Austen?
The president of The Shakespeare Society of India weighs in
Who is the better writer—William Shakespeare or Jane Austen? You might expect a Shakespearean like me to unflinchingly back the former. And if we subject both to the most undeniably objective touchstone of literary quality—the Bollywood adaptation—there really is no comparison. (Vishal Bhardwaj’s much feted Shakespearean trilogy versus Aisha or Bride And Prejudice, anyone?) Yet the Shakespearean in me cannot help but worship at the altar of Austen, because there is so much she does that is “Shakespearean”. The two writers share a seemingly gentle yet socially conscious comic sensibility, a flair for reinventing and transforming older popular genres, and a fascination with complex women characters. But what most unites them, and arguably makes them so enduringly compelling, is the keen ear each has for inner thought processes: Hamlet’s or Macbeth’s soliloquies, in their scattered twists and turns, exude the buzz of a mind at work in much the same way as Elizabeth Bennet’s famed free indirect speech (such cascades of pithy unconnected ruminations!—such characterful judgements!—each separated by exclamation marks and dashes!). So: Shakespeare or Austen? As Osric, one of Shakespeare’s most Austenian characters, says when arbitrating between Hamlet and Laertes: “Nothing neither way.”
By Jonathan Gil Harris
Aunt Jane’s awful matchmaking legacy
A Janeite’s attempts at dodging half a dozen aunts who tried to get her married
The First Lady of Romance—fans of Barbara Cartland needn’t even bother looking up—died in the early 19th century. The world that she observed and fictionalized with such finesse ended perhaps a few decades later. Within a hundred years of Jane Austen’s death in 1817, British women got ancillary but important roles in World War I; this was a far cry from their preoccupation with trying to snare the men in red coats, as seen in the Austen universe. Another hundred years, and women in Western societies have moved on even further, so much so that potential Mr Darcys and Mr Bingleys could get short shrift in just 3 minutes at speed-dating events. The Janes and Lizzys no longer need to wait for a Netherfield ball to meet men, and while husbands aren’t extinct—yet—they aren’t exactly necessities either.
For the West, Jane Austen is part of a rich literary heritage—hers is a name from the past that conjures up images of quaint times. For the East, especially for those of us in India, Jane Austen still lives, and she does so in the characters that she created—all around us, we can see mothers in distress over daughters who’re still mystifyingly single despite their many charms; the preposterously dull young men who tick all the “good boy” boxes and must be accepted as a catch; the older women within the circle of acquaintances who have “views” on the suitability of eligible young girls. To find a Mrs Bennet, a Mr Collins, or a Lady Catherine, one just needs to attend a family wedding. This is the Indian equivalent of a ball, where men and women size each other up, and so do their parents.
Not many Indian women in their 20s and 30s can boast of having survived a family wedding or a similar occasion without being subjected to a matchmaking aunt’s attentions. Years ago, at a community picnic, one of my aunts bluntly asked a complete stranger to find a “good boy” for me—and this was before my aunt had even introduced me to the other woman. The stranger looked perfectly comfortable with the request; this was evidently a reasonable thing in her circle.
Some of us have shunned the tried-and-tested Indian route of school-college-marriage-children-mortgage-death. And our aunts are severely displeased. These tenacious ladies tell us that “there’s still time”. They brush aside our protest that there’s no inclination. Jane Austen would have been pleased to meet them.
By Sanchita Guha
When Austen is passed down from mother to daughter to daughter’s daughter
How three generations of women got spoiled by a gift of ‘Pride And Prejudice’
Elizabeth Bennet spoiled me for life; she showed me, early on and that too at a time when young girls were expected to be made of sugar ’n spice and all things nice, that one didn’t really have to be “nice” and that life was not a popularity contest. I was introduced to the world of Jane Austen by my mother, Mehjabeen Jalil, who apart from being my mother and an avid and eclectic reader, was also our school librarian. I am not entirely sure that she introduced me to the delightful Pride And Prejudice because she saw in Elizabeth Bennet a suitable role model for a young girl; her intention may have been no more than to open a window into a world of elegant prose.
Life came full circle when I gifted my daughter her first Jane Austen novel but I wanted my daughter to look beyond the refined writing and see a world of possibilities. I wanted Aaliya to know that it was all right to be not really very nice and that it’s more important to be true to oneself. I wanted Aaliya to know why my favourite quote from Pride And Prejudice has always been: “There are few people whom I really love, and still fewer of whom I think well. The more I see of the world, the more am I dissatisfied with it; and every day confirms my belief of the inconsistency of all human characters, and of the little dependence that can be placed on the appearance of merit or sense.”
When it came to my own writing, especially my fiction, it seemed natural somehow to write about the small and the everyday; I was writing about middle-class Muslim men and women, and again, it was Jane Austen who was showing me the way. As a literary historian, and working between languages as disparate as English and Urdu, I was struck by the resonance of a Jane Austen-ish quality in a great deal of recent Urdu prose; it could be in the delineation of character, as in Qurratulain Hyder, or in the recreation of a social setting, as in Ismat Chughtai. In bilingual authors such as Hyder or Attia Hosain, it could well have been a deliberate or conscious influence but in writers such as Chughtai or Hajra Masroor, perhaps the Austen-like quality is more organic, more “native” to Urdu. That an 18th century English writer should cast such a long shadow and find echoes in such a disparate literary culture 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.
By Rakhshanda Jalil
Visiting her at Bath
A Janeite who lives in Bath, the home of the Jane Austen Centre in the UK
No trip to Bath is complete without paying homage at the Jane Austen Centre, where a waxwork by forensic artist Melissa Dring brings the author hauntingly to life in the city that forms a backdrop to some of her novels. A costumed guide gives an overview of Austen’s family life, before one takes a self-guided tour of the small but comprehensive exhibition.
Interactive elements enliven the visit. Watch a fanciful video of “Jane” taking a walk through present-day Bath. Dress up in a Regency costume and pose for a selfie next to Mr Darcy. Try writing with a quill pen.
Among the memorabilia is a witty letter to the Centre from actor Emma Thompson, who scripted Ang Lee’s Sense And Sensibility and played Elinor Dashwood in the film.
To end your visit, make your way to the Regency Tea Room for a lavish cream tea, and finally stop at the gift shop for an “I’m the real Mr Darcy” T-shirt, a reimagined variation on one of Austen’s books, or a Jane-shaped cookie cutter.
By Polly Williams
If Austen wrote famous novels
A Janeite who changed his middle name for love of the author, imagines
Even diehard Jane Austen devotees admit that she was obsessed with drawing-room heartbreaks, never mind the Napoleonic wars. Ever wonder what other famous novels would have been like if she had written them?
‘War And Peace’
Chronicles the history of French fashion in Russian society and its impact on five St Petersburg drawing rooms. Jane Austen’s slimmest novel, it is seen as the first prototype for the emerging e-books app trend.
A comedy on India’s transition from Mughal rule to the British Raj, through harmless break-ups suffered by girlfriends of the British officers in the East India Company. The only Austen novel with a male protagonist called William Dalrymple—this character has gained unprecedented popularity in Delhi’s postcolonial society.
Rumoured to be totally incomprehensible, nobody has been able to finish it. Jane Austen scholars believe she was casually alluding to this novel in a letter to her sister, Cassandra, in which she mentioned working “… on a silly long story merely to trick the readers who believe that members of our sex cannot write coherently”.
By Mayank Austen Soofi
On ‘A Lady’s’ newest novel
A Janeite reviews ‘Pride And Prejudice’ as if it just entered the world
It is a truth universally acknowledged that men are monsters. They scheme, entrap and exercise their power over women at every opportunity; the more intimate their relations, the more they oppress. A woman’s way out is to die, or to submit to her fate, and seek salvation through love with the rare hero who has room in his life both for the world, and for her. It must be true, since the Russians and the French have long thought so.
What breathtaking audacity, then, to propose this markedly different view of human relations, and in an English comedy about a family of sweet village girls compelled to marry above their station, at that. Written by the anonymous author of the hit Sense And Sensibility, Pride And Prejudice is a story of crafty compromise woven in with the radical notion that a man and woman, different from each other in upbringing, class and ambition, may like and learn to trust one another for the people they are.
The unnamed novelist blew hot and cold in her debut, also a book about sisters in search of stability. None of the unevenness of Sense And Sensibility mars Pride And Prejudice, a beast near-totally controlled by its rider. The story opens in early 19th century Longbourn, where an anxious woman married to an entertainingly gruff deadbeat is trying to have her five daughters—none of whom are entitled to a share of their father’s property—married off.
Jane is kind, Mary is bookish, Kitty is foolish and Lydia is wicked. Then there is Miss Elizabeth Bennet. Soft-hearted, sharp-eyed, and thoroughly unusual, this extraordinary young person expresses her (decidedly strong) opinions to other characters in the book, instead of to God or the reader. She is not, however, shrill or shrewish: Her author loves her too much for that.
In a book filled with anxiety about inheritances tangible and intangible, it’s never evident where Lizzy and her elder sister Jane get their level heads from. The author chooses to neutralize the poison of family life by suggesting that some of us—the lucky ones—can be more than who we were born to be; not by exchanging the bonds of family life for the security of labour, as we’ve learnt from the Victorians, but by simple virtue of being more alive to our surroundings than others.
Into the chaos of Longbourn life comes a handsome rake and two wealthy bachelors. Of these, two play more or less to type. So does the third, to begin with. Fitzwilliam Darcy, with whom Elizabeth will soon be thrown into battle, is a rude boor who breaks up his best friend’s budding romance and cheats orphans out of their rightful legacy, seemingly wilfully. The book’s comedy and drama both use him as an engine, as Elizabeth sleuths her way through his motives, only to discover that she ends up knowing more about herself than about him in doing so.
What happens to Darcy himself is too good for me to spoil—reader, I will only say that in all your history of reading about rich, badly behaved men, you have never met one such as this. Indeed, the character of Darcy, and his mercurial relationship with Lizzy, strains the boundaries of literary credibility, the more because their setting is otherwise so sensitive to real social dysfunction. Good thing that they’re so much fun: This author throws zingers around like they’re going out of fashion.
The novelist’s wit is shot through with palpable anger, and the biggest lightning bolt in her arsenal is reserved for the idea of marrying without love and respect for your partner. All the energies of Pride And Prejudice are concentrated in convincing us that this is the true goal of partnership. Alas, nearly every character, including Lizzy’s best friend, a spinster who marries in desperation, is sacrificed to this larger aim. Still, compassion is not the book’s primary aim. It is scorn—scorn for the chains that bind women into making impossible choices; scorn for the lies that both men and women tell themselves in pursuit of each other; and scorn for society’s cynicism.
It would be thrilling to see this clearly gifted author pay more attention to the women she has sacrificed to the sidelines in this novel. If she can do high comedy with a reasonably intelligent and attractive woman at its centre, what can’t she do with silly airheads, hesitant spinsters, or bossy snobs trying to control the lives of those they love? But let me not get ahead of myself. With Pride And Prejudice, this author has already written a book unusual for the world we live in. It will be a miracle if another airy, witty, unapologetically girlish romance novel comes along in our lifetimes.
By Supriya Nair
Thank you, Jane
Some of the many novels that Jane Austen inspired
‘Death Comes To Pemberley’
This is a sinister sequel to Pride And Prejudice. The smoothly flowing married life of Mr Darcy and the pregnant Elizabeth Bennet (oops, Darcy!)—who have two sons—is jolted by a murder and the suspect is Wickham, the bad guy of the original. By mystery writer P.D. James.
This reinterpretation of Pride And Prejudice focuses not on the famous Bennet family but on their servants, barely mentioned in the original. By Jo Baker.
‘Jane Austen In Boca’
A bold, amusing retelling of Pride And Prejudice in a Florida retirement community. The Bennet sisters are re-imagined as elderly Jewish widows. The novel’s heroine, inspired by the brainy Elizabeth Bennet, happens to be a former librarian. By Paula Marantz Cohen.
An Austen fan obsessed with Mr Darcy visits a resort in the UK where everybody speaks, dresses, thinks and acts like Jane Austen characters. It was adapted into a movie. By Shannon Hale.
‘A Suitable Boy’
Yes, this is stretching the point. But Austen is the biggest elephant in the novel—even beyond the title. One major character called Amit Chatterji, a representation of the author himself, has “Jane Austen (as) the only woman in his life”. The heroine, Lata Mehra, purchases an Austen over a P.G. Wodehouse but pages later, while on a train, she yawns and keeps the novel (Emma) aside. By Vikram Seth.
By Mayank Austen Soofi
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