By Laaleen Khan
Regardless of vast differences in time and place, there are certain parallels that can be drawn from Jane austenâ€™s Regency england and contemporary pakistani society. There are also universalities that have made austenâ€™s work resonate through the ages and transcend the confinement of her society. A leading authority of all things Austen, Â and the founder of the Jane Austen Society of Islamabad, Laaleen Khan has written a thesis on the subject, literally. she chats with fellow janeites caroline jane knight, moni mohsin and jane odiwe about their mutual love for the authorâ€™s enduring legacyÂ
Jane Austen is the perennial rock star of the literary worldâ€”two centuries later, she refuses to go out of style. This past December marked Emmaâ€™s bicentennial publishing anniversary, along with Ms Austenâ€™s 240th birthday. Next year, sheâ€™ll replace Charles Darwin on a new Â£10 note to mark her 200th death anniversary. BBC Cultureâ€™s list of 100 greatest British novels of all time named four of Austenâ€™s titles (only six were published in completion)â€” Pride and Prejudice at #11, Emma at #19, Persuasion at #20 and Sense and Sensibility at #66. Austen is even related to the future Queen of the United Kingdomâ€”she is 11th cousin, six times removed, to the Duchess of Cambridge via Kateâ€™s paternal ancestor Henry Percy, 2nd Earl of Northumberland. Austen transcended fashionable readership circles of her lifetime by earning the respect of scholars and academia long after her death, dipping in popularity during the Bronte-led Victorian era and resurging during the 1940s (also a popular choice in the war trenches for home-sick soldiers). Her novels have long held international acclaim beyond the English-speaking world, translated into various languages (including an Urdu version of Pride and Prejudice, Takabbur aur Taassub by Prof. Shahid Hameed).
Over the preceding two decades, Jane Austen has been a part of mainstream popular culture and quite a force to be reckoned with in Hollywood. In 2013, British viewers voted Mr Darcyâ€™s lake scene as the top dramatic moment in British television historyâ€”Darcy emerging drenched from the lake at Pemberley to greet Elizabeth Bennet in Andrew Daviesâ€™ adaptation of the BBCâ€™s celebrated 1995 Pride and Prejudice series. This catapulted actor Colin Firth and an outbreak of â€˜Darcy Feverâ€™ broke out. Henceforth, a relentless stream of postmodern homage to Austen ensued, including Clueless, Bridget Jonesâ€™s Diary, Aisha, Lost In Austen, Austenland, Death Comes To Pemberley and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Austen has since inspired multigenre tribute fiction, stage, musical, film, TV and digital adaptations; entire merchandise collections from tea and porcelain to jewellery and gowns; cultural festivals including balls, picnics and promenades; and travel and tours to settings depicted in her novels and adaptations and within her lifetime. Annual Jane Austen Festivals in Bath, England and Kentucky, U.S. rival one another in sheer size. Enthusiasts don custom-made apparel and authentic accessories as they attend picnics and assembly balls, indulging in historic recreation in the guise as Regency-era ladies and gentlemen.
The British Raj ensured that the subcontinentâ€™s influence upon Regency England was felt, so fashions at the time included Indian muslin, kundan and polki jewellery and Kashmiri shawlsÂ
Global Jane Austen fans from Brazil to South Korea enjoy her work and often celebrate her legacy through â€˜Jane Austen Societies.â€™ One such literary group, the Jane Austen Society of Islamabad (JASI), founded in 2014, is the first known Austen group in Pakistan. The groupâ€™s first themed Regency Tea took place last autumn. Members dressed in empire-waist gowns with whimsical touches, enjoying afternoon tea inspired by Georgette Heyerâ€™s London references as they discussed pertinent literary topics and played a game of Jane Austen Matchmaker.Â Â Â Â Â Â Dressing up as a Regency lady in Pakistan is a little easier than one might imagine; the British Raj ensured that the subcontinentâ€™s influence upon Regency England was felt, so fashions at the time included Indian muslin, kundan and polki jewellery and Kashmiri shawls.
In December, JASI celebrated Janeâ€™s 240th birthday with a Pride and Prejudice-centric literary session that included members Skype-ing in from Paris and Lahore to take part in the discussion. Itâ€™s certainly not all bonnets and scones for the members, who explore topics such as gender disparity and social mores in Austenâ€™s work within the context of contemporary Pakistan.
As JASIâ€™s founder, Iâ€™d say that our community is a haven for like-minded literary buffs and Regency aficionados. Like many of my contemporaries in South Asia, I grew up in a literary household in Lahore with a wealth of books, mostly by classic British authors. My English aunt gave me a box set of Jane Austen novels on my twelfth birthdayâ€”and there was no looking back. At university, prior to working on my honours thesis on postmodern Austen screen adaptations, I wrote a paper comparing social elements between contemporary Pakistani â€˜drawing room societyâ€™ with the Regency era, referencing the marriage mart, eligibility, reputation, feudal families and class-consciousness. For not only do we grow up with classic literature as part of our postcolonial heritage, we relate to it as well. Filmmaker Mira Nair (of Monsoon Wedding fame) once joked in an interview with AboutFilm during the promotion of her adaptation of Thackerayâ€™s Vanity Fair (replete with Indian touches such as Reese Witherspoon in Banarasi with Bollywood dance moves), â€œIf thereâ€™s anyone who understands class better than the English, itâ€™s the Indians!â€ She continued, â€œWe are real colonial hangoversâ€¦Really steeped in Dickens, and Shakespeare, and Blake, and Dylan Thomas. I can reciteâ€”my father used to make me memorize Portia every summerâ€”crazy things like thatâ€¦Iâ€™ve not shot in England before, but I love England, and in many ways Iâ€™m very familiar with it. So it was a great joy.â€
Calling in at the BBC World Book Clubâ€™s 200th celebration of Pride and Prejudice, Karachi-raised British novelist Kamila Shamsi described Pakistani and Regency social similarities, â€œYour relatives play a role in your wedding, the economic side of it, where itâ€™s not assumed in any way that a woman will earn a living, and, therefore, her income is tied to who she marries.â€ Sahar Habib Ghazi of Global Voices made an astute gender observation in a critique of a viral video depicting shopping-frenzied possibly middle class Pakistani womenâ€”which, in retrospect may well describe Austenâ€™s Regency ladies, who were similarly judged by appearances and lived in a status-conscious, restrictive era: â€œPakistanâ€™s social system systematically rewards women and girls dressed in privilege and shuns those who donâ€™t. That (Sapphire) sale offered some families a short-cut to privilege that they normally couldnâ€™t afford for their daughters. They werenâ€™t fighting for an outfit, they were fighting for perceived privilege. Perhaps some of these women are seemingly â€˜privileged women from wealthy familiesâ€™ made to live on tight budgetsâ€¦an outcome of the massive imbalance of power and privilege between genders within families. Some men control all the moneyâ€¦some women are discouraged from working by their familiesâ€¦For many women, their outings and socialization is limited to family or social gatherings, where they are expected to look their best.â€
JASIâ€™s online community is 94% female and 55% are aged between 25 and 44. 40% are from Pakistan (approximately a third are from Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi respectively). 23% are from the USA, with 9% from Britain and 7% from Brazil. Remaining members come from the Americas (Argentina, Canada, Mexico, Peru), Europe (Albania, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland Italy, Malta, the Netherlands, Romania, Slovenia, Spain, Turkey), Africa (Algeria, Egypt, Uganda), the Middle East (Iran, Israel, Palestine, the UAE), Asia (Bangladesh, Hong Kong, India) and Australia.
Islamabad-based members are an eclectic yet compatible group of journalists, academics and professionals in the arts and sciences. Architect Zarminae â€˜Niniâ€™ Ansari lived in Islamabad before moving to Paris. â€œThis group is everything I love about Islamabad: a group of smart, qualified people getting together because of their common interests, rather than the fact that their grandfathers were business partners or mothers were committee or coffee-party friends!â€ she reveals. â€œMy favourite city in Pakistan is Islamabad. Itâ€™s where I found â€˜my tribeâ€™â€¦The transient social nature of Islamabad and its high turnover of residentsâ€”diplomats, expats, multinational HQâ€”people are more open and less cliquish than in places with entrenched social groups and â€˜acceptableâ€™ social practices and activities.â€
Itâ€™s certainly not all bonnets and scones for the members, who explore topics such as gender disparity and social mores in Austenâ€™s work within the context of contemporary Pakistan
Basia Heath is a PR executive who relocated from London. â€œKnowing Islamabad now, it comes as no surprise (for JASI to exist here),â€ she confides. â€œThere is a real depth of interest in art, music and literature. There are vibrant cafes and an artisan culture, and there are all sorts of activities catering to special interests with a real sense of community. If a person bases their perception of Pakistan on episodes of Homeland and the (popularized) image of Pakistan, then I suspect this would come as quite a shock!â€ A qualified dentist, Shirin Saifullah Khan shares, â€œPride and Prejudice was the first Austen novel I read, and naturally, there was no looking back. Austen makes the characters evolve in such a way that one becomes uncertain about their own feelings towards them. The happy endings are theÂ cherry on top!â€
Social practices in Austenâ€™s time that seem quaint or outdated in western societies today are still flourishing in Pakistan. â€œThere is still so much focus on what makes people â€˜eligibleâ€™ here when people consider marriage that was also done in Jane Austenâ€™s day,â€ comments broadcast journalist Sophia Sultana Saifi. Gayathri Warnasuriya, a health scientist from Sri Lanka, remarks, â€œWhen I first really immersed myself in Pride and Prejudice I was 15 years old and it was of course with Elizabeth and her sisters that I most identified. Now, more than 25 years later, I am quite possibly older than Mrs Bennet yet I find myself unable to walk in her shoes!Maybe it’s because I am an older mum and my daughter is only four years old. I am out of sync with Regency and indeed Pakistani society, where I sometimes meet mothers my age whose daughters are already â€˜out in societyâ€™.â€ Remarks barrister Saniyya Gauhar, â€œMiss Bingley was unanimously voted by our group as most disliked,â€ referring to an opinion poll that JASI created for its members. â€œMost of us know or have known a Miss Bingleyâ€”that sugary sweet friend who subtly puts you down without you being aware of it until much later! Pure old-fashioned jealousy is usually the motive. It doesnâ€™t necessarily have to be competition over a man!â€
The Jane Austen Society of Islamabad has plans for future meets and themed occasions. The group is to be featured in the spring issue of Jane Austenâ€™s Regency World Magazine, the official publication of the Jane Austen Centre, Bath. It also has plans to work with the Jane Austen Literacy Foundation, a registered not-for-profit charity, to raise funds towards worthy causes including UNICEFâ€™s school-in-a-box program for Syrian refugee children.
Enthusiasts of Austen, classic literature and period drama are invited to view the JASI facebook page at: Facebook.com/Janeites
Founder of the Jane Austen Literacy Foundation (JALF) and Ms Austenâ€™s fifth great-niece (a descendent of Janeâ€™s brother, Edward Austen Knight, Squire of Chawton), the Melbourne-based marketing executive grew up at Chawton House, which is now a libraryâ€”The Centre for The Study of Early Womenâ€™s Writing, 1600-1830. Incidentally, Chawton village in Hampshire is where Jane lived and wrote for the last eight years of her life. The cottage has been preserved as Jane Austenâ€™s House Museum. The JALF is a charitable organization that hopes to tap into Austenâ€™s global popularity for the benefit of literacy programs, such as UNICEFâ€™s school-in-a-box programs as part of Janeâ€™s legacy. Current ambassadors include Simon Langton, Director of the BBCâ€™s acclaimed 1995 Pride and Prejudice TV series that Caroline credits for Austenâ€™s continued cultural and commercial popularity: â€œAs well as talent and determination, there has also been a healthy dose of luckâ€”the casting of Colin Firth, for example. Rarely have two people born 185 years apart had such a profound and lasting effect on each otherâ€™s careers!â€
Caroline Jane Knight
Laaleen: In what way do you plan to work with the Jane Austen Society of Islamabad and other Austen societies around the world on literacy projects?
Caroline: â€œJALF is all about harnessing the passion for Jane Austen to raise
money for literacy.Â We will work with JASI and other societies to raise funds and select the right communities to support with literacy resources.Â We are a registered not-for-profit organisation run by volunteers with no wages or commission paid to anyone, created to extend Great Aunt Janeâ€™s legacy. Janeites are united in their love of Austen, books and literacy and together we have the power to really make a difference.â€
The Bathonian/Londoner author of tributes (i.e. prequels and sequels to Austenâ€™s original novels) speculates how Austenâ€™s charactersâ€™ lives might have continued after the last page of the novels. â€œJaneâ€™s voice is very strong, speaking through her characters to tell us what she thinks about men, society, and womenâ€™s position within its confines, but sweetening her outrage with a little romance,â€ she says. â€œWe all enjoy glimpsing back into the past, becoming absorbed in and inhabiting Jane Austenâ€™s worlds, which were created with genius.â€ Her latest novel is Jane Austen Lives Again (literally; Ms Austen winds up in 1925).
Laaleen: What is it about the Jane Austen Society of Islamabad that interests you as a member?
Jane: â€œJane Austenâ€™s work seems to be able to connect us on many levels, and meeting like-minded people who share a love of her work is always wonderful. I think itâ€™s fantastic that an author who lived 200 years ago still has the power to unite us through her novels, and to know that her books are loved on the other side of the world is amazing. I love meeting people from other countries who feel the same way as I do about Jane Austen, and I am fascinated by the life and culture in Pakistanâ€¦I only wish that Jane could have known how much her work was to be loved by so many people worldwide, and can only imagine sheâ€™d have been thrilled to learn her work is still read by millions of people and translated into so many languages.â€
London-based author, satirist and columnist (the â€˜Social Butterflyâ€™ series, The End Of Innocence and various periodicals) is a Janeite herself and participated in the BBC World Serviceâ€™s broadcast celebrating Pride and Prejudiceâ€™s bicentennial.
Laaleen: What’s your personal interest in Austen? Has she ever inspired you in your work?
Moni: As a writer, I have learnt on so many different levels from Austen. Stylistically, she’s in a class of her own. The elegance of her language, the crispness of her sentences, the sharpness of her dialogue and the acuity of her observations hit me anew every time I read her. She’s an extraordinary early (perhaps the earliest) practitioner of the now much talked about ‘free indirect style’ whereby the story is neither in the voice of the first person nor is it an omniscient third person’s narration. Instead, it is told entirely from the point of view of the protagonist. As such we inhabit the very consciousness of her heroines. It is a delicate and nuanced form of story telling, fiendishly difficult to pull off convincingly. Yet she does it flawlessly, time and time again.
I also love her sly, irreverent humour. She doesn’t have the broad comedy of, say, Dickens but she has wit in abundance and she uses it to great satirical effect. Austen is a stickler for manners and tact and yet she is not in the least sanctimonious, or heaven forbid, sentimental. In fact, she’s quite the opposite. She pinpoints the vanities, hypocrisies and snobberies of her characters with devastating accuracy. As Mr Bennet says, ‘For what do we live if not to make sport for our neighbours, and to laugh at them in our turn?’ For me, Austenâ€™s the undisputed queen of social satire.
Lastly, her heroines are perfectly realized characters. They possess a lively, independent intelligence and, like their creator, they are not afraid to speak their minds. Yet, they are by no means saintly. In fact, they frequently make gross errors of judgement. But they learn from their mistakes and it is through their struggles to better understand themselves and others that they eventually find happiness. Austen, then, is a believer in second chances. There is something inspiring about an author who holds that hope out to you.
Laaleen: Why do you think so many Pakistani women are fond of Jane Austen and her legacy?
Moni: â€œI canâ€™t answer for all Pakistani women who are fond of Jane Austen but I can tell you why she resonated with me as a reader. Though written in Georgian (Regency) England, many of the themes she raises are still pertinent to present day Pakistani society. So the importance of family; the significance of social rank; the need for a secure marriage and the preoccupation with appearances and reputations were familiar territory for me. So too was the smallness of the canvas. In each of her books, Austen writes about small groups of people, all intensely interested and involved in each otherâ€™s personal livesâ€”just like Lahori society! And, finally, all her books have the deep satisfactions of a morality tale. The good are rewarded and the bad punished. The hero and heroine face their trials but finally get to marry and live happily ever after. Whatâ€™s not to love?â€
Laaleen: At the BBC World Serviceâ€™s World Book Club broadcast, youâ€™d said that you sympathized most with Mrs Bennet. Can you elaborate?
Moni: â€œMrs Bennet is a crass, foolish, tactless woman. With her loud, vulgar manners and blatant attempts to ensnare wealthy suitors for her daughters, she is a truly cringe-making mother. That said, her fears for her daughters are grounded in real concerns. Mr Bennet is not well off. His estate, such as it is, is entailed and will be inherited not by his daughters but by Mr Collins, his unctuous male cousin. Should Mr Bennet die before his daughters are married, they will be destitute. The girls have no inheritance, no brothers who will protect them and no wealthy relatives to bail them out. When Lizzie rejects Mr Collinsâ€™ marriage proposal, Mrs Bennet fearsâ€”quite rightlyâ€”that Mr Collins will turf them out of their home on Mr Bennetâ€™s death.
In Georgian England penniless, single genteel women did not have many options: they either became companions to wealthy difficult old women or they became governesses to spoilt, rich young girls. In both cases, they were little better than servants, forced to endure a life of genteel poverty and petty humiliations. The only other option was prostitution. There really wasnâ€™t much else by way of career choices. Mrs Bennet, for all her foolishness, is acutely aware of the threat of real impoverishment and disgrace that hangs over her daughters and herself. Yes, her attempts to throw her girls at rich young suitors are blatantly vulgar but what choice does she have? She canâ€™t count on her educated, erudite husbandâ€™s input. Spending all his time closeted in his study among his precious books, he seems totally unaware of her concerns. When he does emerge, it is only to mock her opinions and undermine her authority in front of her daughters. So it falls on the shoulders of this stupid, vulgar woman to protect her girls. That she rises to the challenge is in no doubt. Which is why I canâ€™t help but sympathize with her.â€