The Cast of Sanditon is Announced
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 Unmarriageable here.
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.
This Spring 2018, Theatre6 is producing a touring production of Jane Austen’s Persuasion. Artistic Director Kate McGregor discusses why they’ve chosen to adapt the work for six actor musicians, and why Persuasion remains so captivating for today’s audiences.
Adapting a novel like Jane Austen’s Persuasion for the stage, from the earliest planning stages until the opening night, is a project that absorbs your days and nights for at least two years. In making the decision to dedicate such time to a piece, it has to be one which you’d like to explore visually, conceptually, emotionally and intellectually. Most importantly, it has to be a story that will excite, captivate and be relevant for your audiences. For Stephanie Dale (the novel’s adapter) and I, our biggest inspiration for working on the piece was the character of Anne. We envisioned how the themes in Persuasion could transcend time and space, and imagined how Jane’s ideas could breathe and thrive in our modern world.
A novel must show how the world truly is, how characters genuinely think, how events actually occur, a novel should somehow reveal the true source of our actions
– Jane in Becoming Jane.
Set against the backdrop of the Napoleonic wars, this is a story about heartbreak. It’s about making decisions you regret, about trusting the right people for the wrong reasons. It asks questions about the inner workings of why we love and who loves the longest. Most importantly it’s an expression of Anne inner thoughts and what pressures being parted from those you love can put on the mind. Out of all of Jane’s novels, Jane Austen’s Persuasion is the one that speaks with the most sincerity, frankness and digs deepest into the fragility of the human spirit. In the film, Becoming Jane, Jane expresses why she writes and what type of stories she’ll strive to create. In this, her last completed novel before her untimely death at 42, Jane was writing a book which dealt with some of the darker themes in her life, possibly a combination of her own experiences and definitely an example of her confidence and skill as a published writer.
In producing a faithful adaptation of the novel, we wanted to take her intention of truthfulness and honesty as far as we could, to explore Anne’s thoughts and feelings in a way that Jane would have applauded. No matter that 200 years exist between Jane and ourselves, we all have the same feelings. We all love and wish to be in love at some point in our lives. Most of us have felt the magic of being in love and many of us have felt the loss of it. As human beings we are accustomed to the agony of heartbreak and being vulnerable. Everyone can identify with what it feels like to struggle with loneliness and regret and concealing those feelings from those around us. Anne is a protagonist who speaks to us all, somehow free of the restrictions of time and history.
Our biggest challenge on identifying what was relevant about the novel for today, was how we could present the inner workings of Anne’s mind for a theatre-going audience. It was also important to us that people who had perhaps never been to the theatre before or had never read a Jane Austen novel, would be able to understand her ideas and relate to them.
There are several themes in Jane’s novels which are prevalent across all six of them. To name a few – matchmaking, marrying for love or for income, rural life, Bath and high society, responsibility and family, the threat of poverty, the navy and the military, a love of the sea, pride, class mobility and immobility, travelling and new beginnings, deceit, deception and unspoken feelings. In her novels we see long walks, card games, close female friendships and sisterhood, gossip, longing and dreams of the future. And, without a doubt, there is music: music as art; music as distraction; music that elevates and the music of love. Without a doubt we were determined to involve music in a way that would unravel and reveal the deepest feelings of Anne and use it to help our audience understand the world of the play – the time and context. In our production of Persuasion we play over 20 characters with only six actors. And each of those actors plays an instrument. True to the narrative of the novel, Anne plays the piano exceptionally well. We have extended this idea so that Anne uses her piano and the beats of the music to express her inner most feelings – her darkest thoughts and her wildest joys. The composer, Maria Haik Escudero has created an original score that is integral to Anne’s thought process and the adaptation.
In order to explore and open up the novel for audiences, we’ve given moments for Anne to speak to the audience. Jane Austen’s Persuasion was a groundbreaking piece of writing in the impression it offered of the female consciousness. Anne’s journey to escape her inner thoughts and use her voice, and it being heard by others is what is at the heart of the novel. The story explores in minute detail how Anne felt during her 8 years of separation from Wentworth and how those years of inner turmoil and taken hold of her. This is a section from the very beginning of Theatre6’s production –
Sometimes, all I can see is blue; the blue of the sea.
All I can hear is the falling
of the notes on a piano.
And for a time, it goes dark.
The seasons carry me;
I am at their mercy.
I have no desire to harm anyone or anything and yet,
because I could not bear to lose my family,
I devastated him
and for that I shall
be eternally tormented.
Our adaptation asks – can people retain their good character even when the ground under their feet is threatened? When they face big changes – losing family members, losing their homes, when their hearts are broken? Women in Jane’s novels were so frequently powerless. Men had choices and women frequently did not. Choices of: marriage; a choice of profession; of entertainments; of travel and of expression. Women could not earn their own money or inherit it. They are entirely at the mercy of the men they are in close proximately with. Love is a precious, perilous and sought after ornament to the necessities required to survive. In a time where the only way they could change their circumstances would be to become involved in a situation with a man who would look after their needs, we felt strongly that Anne must have her voice. She must be understood in 2018.
There’s a thought explored in the final third of the novel that underpins our thinking behind the character of Anne. Whilst men can leave their homes to have careers and find distractions elsewhere, women “live at home, quiet, confined, and our feelings prey upon us.” This idea was the central component which unlocked this adaptation. Whatever was going on in her day to day world, Anne had to cope with the inner turmoil of losing her young love and the duty she believed she owed to her family. Anne’s stoic nature, some believe to be close to that of Austen herself, becomes a shadow of her former self and like the opening of the book she retrenches from society.
Captain Harville in the novel questions whether women are as constant in their feelings as men. He tells Anne that it is impossible for her to understand what it feels like to leave your family behind to sail in the navy. She is quick to correct him, highlighting that women feel just as much if not more. They have no distraction other than what they feel and there is no distraction to take away from the depth of their feeling. Men cannot assume they are the only ones to love. Captain Harville remarks that the history books all talk about women’s fickleness. Anne states “but they are all written by men.” Jane Austen gave Anne the voice to disagree; to assert that the female mind is perhaps the most fraught and yet the most resilient. Whilst Wentworth learns about the sea and the harsh realities of men and war in their eight years apart, Anne learns about duty, responsibility for herself and the true power of her own mind.
A review in the March 1818 edition of the British Critic praised the realism of Jane Austen’s works, saying that they “display a degree of excellence that has not often been surpassed”. She writes on epic themes but portrays them beautifully in miniature; she creates characters in witty and often satirical manner – and so whatever time or place, we all feel that we know a Sir Walter, Mary or a brooding Captain Benwick.
Something we have focused on is Anne’s reasoning and how it is inextricably linked with how she feels – the two work together and eventually, the conclusions demonstrate a deep insight and understanding of her situation and what must be done in order for her to achieve happiness. The novel is ahead of its time in the sense that it shows the reader that happiness can be found if women are bold enough to find their voices and use them.
Persuasion is unique amongst Austen’s novels in that we have the original manuscript chapters – and the alternative happy ending she was striving to find. In Theatre6’s production of Persuasion we explore the biggest journey of our lives – to find love for ourselves, regardless of the love of others. Anne’s love for Wentworth and his unbreakable commitment to her is the conclusion of this timeless story. If we can find love and hold onto it and yet not break the commitment to ourselves – our own voice and our own worth, then love itself is worth having and worth waiting for. Even if the wait spans a lifetime. And just like Anne and Wentworth, we all deserve a second chance.
Theatre6’s Persuasion runs from 17 April – 20 May 2018 opening at London’s Playground Theatre and touring to Dorchester Arts (Dorset), Marine Theatre (Lyme Regis), The Hat (Brighton), Theatre Royal Windsor and the Mill Studio in Guildford. For more information and bookings on this production of Jane Austen’s Persuasion visit www.theatre6.co.uk/whatson.
This week we were surprised to learn that a new program in New York is severely restricting the books which will be available in prisons. This new program, amazingly, has effectively banned, among other classic authors, Jane Austen’s books.
Directive 4911A, as it is known, is currently being applied to three prisons in the state, but it could soon be expanded to every facility in New York. The plan limits packages that incarcerated people in New York state prisons can receive to items purchased from six vendors (with two more expected to be added). The idea is that this will “enhance the safety and security of correctional facilities through a more controlled inmate package program.”
This in itself isn’t a problem, but the range of books on offer is shockingly limited. The first five vendors combined offered just five romance novels, 14 religious texts, 24 drawing or coloring books, 21 puzzle books, 11 how-to books, one dictionary, and one thesaurus. (A sixth vendor has added some additional books to the list, but the full list will not be available to all prisoners.)
One group, the Books Through Bars collective, has been working to raise red flags about the directive’s unintended consequences (for more than 20 years, Books Through Bars has been sending books to people in prison in 40 states at no charge).
A spokesperson from Books Through Bars has stated the the new directive will mean “no Jane Austen, Ernest Hemingway, Maya Angelou, or other literature that helps people connect with what it means to be human. No texts that help provide skills essential to finding and maintaining work after release from prison. No books about health, about history, about almost anything inside or outside the prison walls. This draconian restriction closes off so much of the world to thousands of people.”
We agree. Surely allowing prisoners to read Jane Austen’s books can only result in good things?
That’s right, one week to go and Mrs Bennet isn’t the only one struggling with her ‘nerves’! The rest of the cast and I have been working VERY hard over the past few weeks to bring this Austen classic to life and now we are at the final stages. The set is up, the props are being gathered and scripts are being left behind.
Last week we focused on the epilogue; the letters. This scene has been specifically added to our adaptation by our directors after they were inspired by a performance at the Theatre Royal Bath.
By Harold Taw
“She had been forced into prudence in her youth, she learned romance as she grew older—the natural sequel of an unnatural beginning.”
—Persuasion, Chapter 4
I’ve encountered three reactions from those who learn we’ve adapted Jane Austen’s final complete novel Persuasion as a musical. The first is delight. This comes from people who hold certain Austen adaptations near and dear to their hearts … usually the 1995 BBC miniseries of Pride and Prejudice starring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth. The second is indifference. These souls were forced to read Austen in high school and tend to confuse her with Charlotte Brontë. The third is dread. These are Janeites who anticipate a chorus line of naval officers high-kicking atop a painted reproduction of The Cobb in Lyme Regis.
Let me reassure, and perhaps disappoint, everyone: our musical does not feature zombies to attract a teen audience, will not turn Captain Wentworth into an Iraq veteran to show social relevance, and will not relocate Act II from Bath to Havana as an excuse for a climactic mambo. We chose to musicalize Persuasion for a simple and perhaps naïve reason. We believe that if any art form can be true both to the novel’s wit and to its aching melancholy, it is musical theatre … not the musical theatre of spectacle but of emotional immediacy and intimacy.