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Unmarriageable by Soniah Kamal – A Review

Unmarriageable by Soniah Kamal

Book Review: Should You Read Unmarriageable by Soniah Kamal?…(Yes, Probably)

by Katharine Coldiron

Unmarriageable by Soniah KamalIt 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.

The negatives:

  • 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. 

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Jane Austen News – Issue 87

the Jane Austen News learns more about JASP

What’s the Jane Austen News this week?  

A Look At Lizzy Bennet’s Drawers

This week at the Jane Austen News we had great fun reading Bustle‘s piece on underwear in the time of Jane Austen. At the Jane Austen Centre our guides are often asked what the underwear of the era was like, so it was nice to see that we got a mention in Bustle‘s article too.

In brief (sorry, the pun was too good) Melissa Ragsdale explained why, although the screen adaptations may look terribly genteel and elegant, in real life Regency England it wasn’t all tea and cake and comfort.

If you like feel like a lot of women and long to get home at the end of the day and ditch your bra and relax in a nice pair of comfy PJs, well, it would have been much worse back in Jane’s time…

Unlike Victorian corsets which hooked in the front and laced up the back, older corsets only laced up the back in a zigzag fashion using one string—cross lacing would be invented later on—and stiffened in the front with a carved wooden or bone busk which created a straight posture and separated the bosoms for the “heaving” effect, so popular at the time.

Although if you like going commando, you’d have been in luck…

According to the Jane Austen Centre in Bath, ‘drawers’ (which were like loose shorts, and often crotchless) were invented in 1806, but it wasn’t common for adult women to wear them until after 1820. Drawers went on to merge into ‘knickers’ and ‘combinations’ during the Victorian era, and modern “panties” didn’t exist until the 1920s.

To see what else Melissa found out about Lizzy Bennet’s underwear drawer you can read the full article here.


Think Jane’s No Longer Relevant? Think Again

For anyone who thinks Jane Austen’s stories are no longer relevant to real life, The Jane Austen Society of Pakistan is out to explain why her words still ring true for them.

Laaleen Sukera, a journalist and the founder of JASP, has been speaking to The Economist in an article published this week, and explaining why Jane Austen is so popular in Pakistan, one of the main reasons being because the etiquette and customs of the Regency are still alive and well in society. A couple of examples:

  • Weddings are the equivalent of the Bath Assembly Rooms – it’s where people go to search for suitable partners.
  • There is still a ‘season’ – three months crammed with parties, weddings and balls where girls put on their best jewels and finery and check out the most eligible suitors on offer.
  • Inheritance laws still heavily favour male heirs.
  • Marrying your daughters to rich men, from good backgrounds, who can take good care of them, is still the main focus of many families.

Austen resonates with us because Regency England is so much like today’s Pakistan. I know her books are 200 years old and set in small English county towns and villages but, really, her themes, her characters, her situations, her plots, they could have been written for us now.

At the Jane Austen News we found it fascinating to read all about the parallels between Regency England and Pakistan, and on Austen’s popularity there. The full article (well worth a read!) can be found here.


 Online Role-Playing with Jane Austen – A Report

If shoot-em-up adventures or burning-rubber car chases aren’t your kind of thing, but at the same time you’re not completely averse to the whole idea of playing video games, then the latest reviews of a new virtual roleplaying game called Ever, Jane might well be of interest to you. Continue reading Jane Austen News – Issue 87

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Jane Austen News – Issue 50

What’s the Jane Austen News this week?   

Second Jane Austen Fiver Found 

The Jane Austen News is on the Hunt for Jane fiversThe second of four rare £5 notes which feature a micro-engraved portrait of Jane Austen has been discovered inside a Christmas card in the Scottish Borders.

Mr Huggins-Haig, the micro-engraver behind the images of Jane Austen, spent the note which was to be released in Scotland in Granny Jean’s bakery in Kelso on December the 5th to start the project. This caused a huge surge in custom for the bakery when he revealed the move days later. However, the new owner of the note received it not from the bakery, but in a Christmas card from a relative in the same area who thought it was an ordinary £5. This note is the second of the four Bank of England notes to be found after the first was found in south Wales early in December. Two more of the Austen £5 notes are still ‘on the loose’; one spent in England and one in Northern Ireland (if you’re checking your notes then their serial numbers are AM32 885552 and AM32 885554).

Mr Huggins-Haig said the latest finder wants to remain anonymous but has had the note verified. Both finders of the notes so far want to keep them as art rather than to sell them for the projected £50,000 they’re worth. Mr Huggins-Haig says “they’ve both been found by wonderful people who are very deserving”.


Jane Austen Costume Parade Top Video for 2016   

The Bath Chronicle, the daily newspaper for the city, has been looking back over its most popular videos from 2016, and we at the15436176-large Jane Austen News are very pleased to say that their video of this year’s Grand Regency Costumed Promenade has made their top videos list.

The video shows the promenade coming up Milsom Street and includes Redcoats, Regency ladies in ballgowns, young girls in walking dresses – people in all manor of Regency attire. The promenade set off at 11a.m. from the Assembly Rooms and saw hundreds of Austen fans from all over the world braving the rather miserable weather in their finery to put on a great display for the people of Bath.

The video, which came in at the 8th most watched video of the year for the Chronicle, can be found here.


A Drenched Gent to Rival Mr Darcy? 

The books and recent screen adaptation of Poldark have proved to be quite popular among Austen fans, and not just Austen fans

_93180008_635163ad-7d23-4854-9a02-bfd5a46f6160either; many people who are relatively unfamiliar with period dramas have fallen for the Cornwall-set drama which has the talented Aidan Turner in the title role. In testament to this, a steamy bath scene from the second series of Poldark has topped a poll of the biggest television moments of 2016.

Over 2,000 people took part in the RadioTimes.com online poll; thus giving Turner the award for the biggest television moment  for the second year in a row (in 2015 his topless scything scene won the poll).

Perhaps Mr Darcy has competition now when it comes to our favourite dripping-wet male?


Checking In With the Jane Austen Society of Pakistan   

At the Jane Austen News we love hearing about what Jane Austen societies around the world have been up to, so we really japs2enjoyed hearing about the latest event which the Jane Austen Society of Pakistan (JASP) held.

The society, or at least some of its members (its numbers are growing and now includes members from 45 different countries), meet up once a year for a special tea party in which each attendee picks a character to embody. They get dressed in appropriate attire and then enjoy talking all things Austen over a wonderful tea of scones, sandwiches and cake. This year it was ‘afternoon tea at Netherfield’ and characters included Lady Catharine de Bourgh, Caroline Bingley, and, of course, Lizzy Bennet.

Laaleen Sukhera, founder of the society, explained why she thinks Jane Austen is particularly relevant for women in Pakistan:

It’s always about marriage in our households – the pressure to be well-dressed and respectable, to appear eligible, and to have a male heir. These are familiar pressures, and it’s no wonder that women continue to read Austen with so much investment.


Before the Fall = Pride and Prejudice? Does it?  

before-the-fall-slideBefore the Fall is a film due to be released in 2017. Currently it’s touring film festivals and receiving accolades as it goes. Many of these are from LGBT groups and advocates as Before The Fall is Pride and Prejudice from a gay perspective. Elizabeth Bennet is now Ben Bennett, a wealthy lawyer, and Mr Darcy is Lee Darcy, a factory worker.

Set in modern day West Virginia, Ben Bennett is an affluent but seemingly arrogant attorney who unknowingly insults Lee Darcy, a detached factory worker wrongly charged with domestic abuse. Both men form an immediate dislike for each other which becomes a significant problem when Ben falls in love with Lee.

To say that Before The Fall takes a fairly liberal approach to the original plot is a bit of an understatement. The main aspects that remain seem to be the surnames and the main characters’ dislike of one another. Despite the fact that it’s barely recognisable as Pride and Prejudice, it looks like an interesting film in its own right.


Welcoming in the New Year with Jane  

There’s a saying that you should welcome in the New Year in the way in which you hope to continue for the rest of the year. Well Printwe certainly hope that’s what the South Coast Folk Society had in mind when they scheduled a celebratory afternoon tea dance for Saturday 31st December.

The dance was open to all and no experience or partner was needed to enjoy the dance. Costumes were welcome and a delightful time was had by all.

We thoroughly approve of this as a New Year’s celebration. Well done South Coast Folk Society!


Jane Austen Day with Charlotte

Jane Austen News is our weekly compilation of stories about or related to Jane Austen. Here we will feature a variety of items, including craft tutorials, reviews, news stories, articles and photos from around the world. If you’d like to include your story, please contact us with a press release or summary, along with a link. You can also submit unique articles for publication in our Jane Austen Online Magazine.

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