Bustle: Inspiring The Internet Generation To Try Austen?
Bustle is a website well known for its popular culture and fashion articles (how to do your hair like Beyonce; what to wear to the office party; five reasons we love Jennifer Lawrence etc). More recently however we at the Jane Austen News have been pleased to see a series of articles popping up on the site which are dedicated to championing Jane Austen. These have included:
Book Review: Should You Read Unmarriageable by Soniah Kamal?…(Yes, Probably)
by Katharine Coldiron
It is a truth universally acknowledged that Pride and Prejudice will be rewritten, recontextualised, imitated, and adapted to the needs of the zeitgeist until the practice of reading books passes out of existence altogether. Assessing Austen adaptations is a lopsided, subjective undertaking. That is, whether Pride and Prejudice and Zombies stacks up to the original in literary quality isn’t really the point, and a book like Mr. Darcy’s Daughters likely gave one Austen fan exactly what she wanted, while dissatisfying another such that she vowed never again to read a third-party Austen sequel. Ahem.
Thus, Unmarriageable by Soniah Kamal, is assessable from multiple perspectives. The book is an adaptation of P&P set in Pakistan in the present moment, and as a spin-off, it’s enormous fun. It’s also an excellent gateway book for people who’ve never read Austen and feel intimidated about trying her—even more so than Heyer—and a welcome injection of diversity into the world of Austen fandom. But it hews so closely to the source material that the result is a bit daffy, and it works so hard to be itself that Kamal’s shining wit and tenderness only sometimes bubble to the surface of her heavy intentions.
Too-close names. Jane and Lizzie Bennet are Jena and Alys Binat. Mary, Kitty, and Lydia are Mari, Qitty, and Lady. Darcy is Darsee, Bingley is Bungles, Charlotte is Sherry, Wickham is Wickaam…you get the idea. This starts to feel parodic instead of useful or delightful.
Too-close plot. The plot is exactlythe same as the plot of P&P, moved into the modern era and the setting of Pakistan (more on that later), like a song transposed into another key without a single note of difference in the melody. The precision of this transposition gives the book a feeling of going through the motions, rather than a joyful exploration of a plot’s twists and turns.
Confusion about the existence of Austen. The characters in Unmarriageableare clearly aware of P&P, because they talk about the book several times, but all the coincidences between P&Pand the characters’ actual lives—the way every character and event in P&Phas a corresponding character and event in Alys Binat’s life—is somehow never seized upon. That’s a difficult balance to strike in a book that adapts another, but acknowledging the existence of the inspiration without acknowledging similarities makes the characters seem oblivious.
And now for the positives:
Shifts in the characters. Kamal has remolded many of the characters in P&P usefully or interestingly. For example, Mary is a little better in this adaptation. Her religious fervor points toward Islam instead of Christianity, and Mari’s selective application of the religion’s strict (often contradictory) rules makes for a lot of humor. She’s a total pill, and it’s great. Lydia, meanwhile, is a little worse, as Lady is childish, bullying, scheming, and self-centered. Lydia Bennet is all those things, too, but Lady is a viper, not a blunderer. The best shifts are in the smallest characters: Annie dey Bagh (Anne de Bourgh) has an autoimmune disorder, actual dialogue, and a Nigerian boyfriend, while Jujeena Darsee has much more direction and voice than Georgiana. Raghav Kumar (Colonel Fitzwilliam) is gay, which of course he is, that’s been obvious for decades. The older generation, Mr. and Mrs. Binat and their siblings and friends, have richer backstories and better definition.
It’s a shorter book. In a mortal lifespan, this is an underrated quality in books.
Added scenes. Multiple scenes that exist only in letters or later conversations in P&P are laid out in full glory in Unmarriageable, which is great fun. Mr. Kaleen’s proposal to Sherry is both hilarious and moving, while Bungles’s proposal to Jena is as sweet and romantic as anyone could want.
The present day in Pakistan is a perfect context for the two-century-old story of P&P, and I would not have known this if Kamal hadn’t written the book. Moreover, Regency-era white Europeans’ marriage and money problems being transposed into modern Pakistan is not just a gimmick. It’s a necessary recontextualization, in a time when publishing cannot ignore the extraordinary diversity of the English-speaking (and -reading) population. Readers of color can feel more representationally present in Austen, with Kamal as an interpreter, and white readers can reexperience Austen in fascinating, unfamiliar surroundings. Everyone wins.
Plenty of quick minds have reworked Austen in modern idiom (Daniel Mallory Ortberg’s “Texts” from Sense and Sensibility and Emma, and Twitter’s own Drunk Austen, for instance), but this book is an entire compendium of it. From the big proposal scene:
“Will you marry me?”
Alys stared at him.
“I love you.”
This was so preposterous, Alys let out a hearty laugh.
“My admission is a joke to you?”
“Is this a prank?” Alys looked around. “Is there a hidden camera somewhere?”
General delight. When the book is able to get out of its own way, to stop holding itself in such a meticulous posture against Austen’s most famous work, it’s a wonderful experience. The details are the best part; Bungles’s sisters (whose names rhyme) call everyone “babes,” Kaleen is a physiatrist who is constantly mistaken for a psychiatrist, and Darsee and Alys bond over a book he recommends to her.
The book’s main asset is not its inspiration, but the mind of its author. Kamal is funny and intelligent and she gets it, the spark that brings us back to these narrow Regency problems again and again, sometimes in lieu of facing our own. Darsee’s first name in this adaptation is Valentine. Valentine! For that alone, pick up Unmarriageable by Soniah Kamal and dive in. It’s a truth universally acknowledged that Austenian problems are more enjoyable than the real world’s, whatever the year.
Interested in reading the book? You can find our limited signed editions of Unmarriageablehere.
Katharine Coldiron’s work has appeared in Ms., the Times Literary Supplement, the Guardian, LARB, Horoscope.com, and many other places. She lives in California and at kcoldiron.com. You can find her on twitter @ferrifrigida.
This review of Unmarriageable by Soniah Kamal originally appeared on Jane to Georgette. It is reprinted here with permission.
Author of Decorating a Room of One’s Own, Susan Harlan, tells us more about how the book came into being, and compares the merits of two of the most iconic depictions of the Dashwood’s new home in Sense and Sensibility – Barton Cottage.
I have always loved literary homes and Jane Austen. The Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice chapters in Decorating a Room of One’s Own were originally part of my column “Great House Therapy” for the wonderful feminist site The Toast. I had started with Thornfield Hall in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, but I knew that I wanted Austen to be a big part of the column: I would definitely write about Pemberley and Barton Cottage. And when I started to expand the column into the book, I wanted to squeeze in more Austen, if I could.
I remember watching the 1995 Pride and Prejudice miniseries with my friends Erika, Ania, and Kristina during our sophomore year in college at Columbia, all of us sprawled out on the two twin mattresses that I had set side-by-side on my dorm room floor (I don’t know how I managed to snag the extra one). We had rented the first DVD from the video store down the street, the magnificent and now-gone Movie Place on 105th Street, and the moment we finished it, we called and ordered the next one. Like everyone, we were obsessed with Colin Firth’s swimming Darcy, so I put a reference to this moment in Decorating a Room of One’s Own. And whenever I think about Elizabeth and the Gardiners approaching Pemberley, I think of this film and how the estate reveals itself like magic.
And I kept watching Austen adaptations over the years. They make me think about how the homes in her novels are re-imagined again and again. Film adaptations bring literary houses to life. A director has to decide what a place is going to look like – and which real home might approximate a fictional one. The two Barton Cottages in Ang Lee’s 1995 Sense and Sensibility and Andrew Davies’ 2008 BBC miniseries could not be more different. Both are serious downgrades from Norland Park, but while the former is an 18th-century stone cottage with an estuary, a treehouse, and a pastoral vibe – “comfortable and compact,” as we are told in the novel – the latter is Blackpool Mill, a smaller 15th-century cottage perched over the romantic and tempestuous Atlantic. When the Dashwoods arrive at their new home in Lee’s film, they stand in front of the property, surveying it with dismay. The expressions on their faces say everything about their lot in life. And in Davies’ production, Mrs. Dashwood (Janet McTeer) looks absolutely horrified. But the cottage in this adaptation has proven appealingly picturesque to audiences today, if not to Mrs. Dashwood: it is in high demand as a vacation rental.
Sometimes a house in a film is exactly as you see it in your mind’s eye, and sometimes it surprises you. Because Lee’s film was my first Sense and Sensibility adaptation, that Barton Cottage is the Barton Cottage for me, and it is closer to the description in the novel. But I have to say that I find the bleakness of Blackpool Mill appealing. It is always windy. (I might just have to rent it myself.) When I was working on the Austen columns, I re-watched both of these films a couple of times, often while flipping back through the novels to re-read the passages about Pemberley, Rosings, Netherfield Park, Longbourne House, Norland Park, and Barton Cottage. And I quote significant portions of these passages in the chapters: I wanted a lot of Austen’s language in the “House Tours,” mixed with the language of contemporary design culture. And then when I was developing the column into the book, I added a sidebar about Persuasion, which is my favorite Austen novel. I wanted Anne to be able to say something about her home, Kellynch Hall, and her silly father. I also added a sidebar from Mr. Knightley in Emma, talking about the décor at Donwell Abbey. It would have been fun to write about Northanger Abbey, too. Alas! So many options.
Susan Harlan is an associate professor of English literature at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and a writer whose work has appeared in the Guardian US, the Toast, Roads & Kingdoms, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Literary Hub, Jezebel, Curbed, the Hairpin, the Establishment, the Common, and the Awl.
We have a limited number of signed copies of Decorating a Room of One’s Own available to buy here in our online gift shop.