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Inquiring readers,

Unmarriageable new paperback edition cover

Unmarriageable, new paperback edition out on February 5

Soniah Kamal has written a fascinating version of Pride and Prejudice set in Pakistan, Unmarriageable. The book has become very popular in a wide variety of circles, and, almost a year after its appearance, the author is still busy meeting with book clubs and speaking at book festivals and conferences.

Soniah calls Unmarriageable a parallel retelling of Pride and Prejudice since it includes all the characters and plot points of the original book, albeit in a different setting. Elizabeth became Alysba Binat, an English literature teacher in a British School in Pakistan, and Darcy became Valentine Darsee, wealthy head of the British School Group.

I’ve read the book twice, and enjoyed it very much each time! I asked Soniah to tell us more about her book.

Brenda S. Cox: How have Jane Austen fans responded to Unmarriageable? I know you spoke about it to the Georgia chapter of the Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA).

Author Soniah Kamal, photo by Indus Kamal Wasti

Author Soniah Kamal, photo by Indus Kamal Wasti

Soniah Kamal: You know I’m a huge Jane Austen fan myself and I actually ran a special book club for all six novels during the 200th commemoration year, so I know Janeites and how revered Jane Austen is. Austen connoisseurs aren’t hesitant about expressing their opinion when they don’t like something, and so I really wondered how Unmarriageable would be received, considering what I’d set out to do. My first taste was at the Georgia JASNA meeting for which they’d decided to read Unmarriageable and I was going to be interviewed. I was so nervous when I saw the full room and then, when I stepped in, everyone stood up and clapped, and I realized I’d been holding my breath–that validation was really, really gratifying and the best endorsement. Some of the members told me that they’d been hesitant to read Unmarriageable because they weren’t very fond of takes on Austen’s novels, but that they loved Unmarriageable.

I think Unmarriageable has resonated so amazingly with Janeites because they’re reading it for Jane Austen, they know Pride and Prejudice, and so when I mention real characters like Harris Bigg-Wither and Thomas Fowle, they get it. When I discuss Jane Austen in Unmarriageable, it’s fun and extra. They see the little inside jokes. When I bring up that Darcy’s wet T-shirt scene is not in the novel, they appreciate that stuff–it’s like diving into a really rich cake for them, I think.

One of the loveliest things I’ve heard so far from Janeites is that in reading Unmarriageable, because it is a parallel retelling, it’s as if they are reading Pride and Prejudice for the first time and it’s bringing back all their joy in reading Austen for the first time. So that was lovely unexpected feedback. And then another one was that readers who have never read Pride and Prejudice or Austen have picked up Unmarriageable, and then they are going to read Pride and Prejudice through that. Never did I think that my book would be a gateway for readers to get to Pride and Prejudice; I always thought obviously it would be the other way around.

Soniah at the Jane Austen Summer Program in North Carolina

Soniah at the Jane Austen Summer Program in North Carolina

Since the Georgia JASNA meeting, I’ve been invited by the Northern California JASNA Chapter to deliver Jane Austen’s Birthday Toast, and I spoke at the Jane Austen Summer Program in North Carolina. I will be the 2020 Keynote Speaker at the Jane Austen Festival in Louisville, Kentucky, as well as a featured Plenary Panelist at the 2020 JASNA AGM in Cleveland.

If you are a Janeite you will get a lot of the “Easter eggs” and inside jokes in Unmarriageable, and if you’re not, it’s a stand-alone novel in its own right.

Brenda: What kind of “Easter eggs” will Janeites discover in Unmarriageable?

Soniah: In Unmarriageable I put Easter eggs in for all the novels. So the quote which opens Unmarriageable is itself a variation of Austen’s opening sentence in Pride and Prejudice as well a nod to the beginning of Mansfield Park. Mansfield Park opens with three sisters and the directions their lives take based on who they marry, and so Unmarriageable opens with: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a girl can go from pauper to princess or princess to pauper in the mere seconds it takes for her to accept a proposal.” In Unmarriageable, the discussion about books from the Western and Eastern traditions is a nod to Northanger Abbey which I see as Austen’s book about books. Emma comes up because Valentine Darsee asks Alys who her favorite hero is and she says Mr. Knightley, and you’ll have to read Unmarriageable to find out why that’s so. Mr. Knightley is my favorite character, too. Persuasion comes through in my making Jena (Jane) and Alys (Elizabeth) older than Valentine Darsee (Darcy) and Bungles (Bingley). Sense and Sensibility is the most obvious, when Alys thinks that Bungles carrying Jena is like Willoughby carrying Marianne when Marianne slips. But she realizes that didn’t go well, because they did not enjoy a happy ending. I would have done Lady Susan and the rest also, but I thought, this could go on forever!

Brenda: Why a parallel retelling?

Unmarriageable, hardback cover

Unmarriageable, hardback cover

Soniah: As I say in the essay included with the novel, I needed to give myself an identity inclusive of both my Pakistani culture as well as the English language I grew up in, which is a linguistic legacy of Empire, of colonialism, and comes with all the complications of that. If I had written an “inspired-by” rather than a parallel, I would have had Jane divorced and with a kid, Lydia would have ended up not married and pregnant, I would have gone my own different way and allowed my characters to be different. But it wasn’t an inspired-by; my intent was to literally write Pride and Prejudice in Pakistan through a postcolonial lens. So the basic characters of each character are all the same, I didn’t deviate from anything. In fact, the challenge was how not to deviate from Pride and Prejudice and still make it my own. Let me tell you, on the face of it, it might seem simpler to write a parallel retelling, but really to stick within the boundaries of what your source material has given you was tough.

For those who don’t know Austen, a lot of them think any story where the main characters bicker is Pride and Prejudice, in which case everything on earth is Pride and Prejudice! What book or movie doesn’t have a romance, and where do the protagonists not bicker? I actually don’t think of Austen as a romance writer. None of her novels start out with boy meets girl, or end with proposals and elaborate marriage scenes per se. In fact, Austen glosses over both. She seems least bothered with love stories. For me, she’s a social satirist interested in exposing the hypocrisies and pretensions of her time and exploring the choices women, and even men, had and the lives women were able to fashion for themselves at a time when marriage was a financial necessity.

Brenda: Several of your characters are similar to, but somewhat different from, the original characters. Why did you choose to make Kaleen (Mr. Collins) a physician, rather than a clergyman like Mr. Collins? Perhaps he could have been a Muslim cleric?

Soniah: Islam has no clergy like in Christianity and each Muslim’s relationship is directly with God. However, there are mullahs who are schooled in Islam and the Quran. In Pakistan, traditionally the mullah class comes from the poorer, lower rungs of society and would not have been readily welcomed by the likes of Beena dey Bagh (Lady Catherine de Bourgh) into her drawing room. Therefore, it was a social class decision to make Kaleen a doctor who would be treating Annie (Anne de Bourgh) and therefore get an in with the family.

Brenda: Sherry Looclus (Charlotte Lucas), who marries Kaleen, seems to do much better in Unmarriageable than she does in Pride and Prejudice. Why is that?

Soniah: I think Charlotte deserves just as much respect as Elizabeth does, even though one marries Mr. Collins and one marries Darcy. Charlotte’s my favorite character because she’s really independent. I think Austen sometimes gives short shrift to Charlotte’s intelligence. Charlotte is very much a modern heroine for me, since she literally decides what is best for her life and then makes it happen. There’s one sentence in Pride and Prejudice where Charlotte sees Mr. Collins coming down the lane and she orchestrates accidentally running into him, but we don’t see the proposal, next thing we know they’re getting married. Charlotte’s made a huge decision by marrying Mr. Collins: she’s going to inherit Longbourn, she’s not languishing at her dad’s house, she’s dining with Lady De Bourgh; for her time period, given that she had could not work for an income, she’s made a wise choice for her life/financial security. At the end of Pride and Prejudice, Charlotte is pregnant, and I think that also shows a life that is moving on and not static like her life as an aging spinster at her father’s house had been. The first time I read Pride and Prejudice I was a teenager, and like most teenagers, friends and their opinions could matter so much. But even though Elizabeth is horrified at Charlotte’s marrying Mr. Collins, Charlotte is not swayed. She does not succumb to peer pressure. She knows her mind, she knows what is best for her, and she is not influenced by her friend. I admired that. Charlotte is one strong, practical, independent, progressive modern woman and I wanted to show the full extent of that in Unmarriageable.

As for Elizabeth and her choices within the time period, for us modern readers she comes across as wonderful. But for Austen’s time period she’s rather unpractical because she does not secure Longbourn for her family, or immediately marry the wealthy suitor who would have again secured a roof over her head for herself and her mother and sisters. As modern readers, we respect that Elizabeth says no to Darcy because he’s really pompous and full of himself and we respect that she doesn’t marry someone just because it’s practical and he’s wealthy; we appreciate that she has more important values than wealth. But in her time, that was being foolish, and her father was being very foolish, too. We like Mr. Bennet because he comes across as a strong dad who says my daughter will not marry Mr. Collins. But in the realities of their time, he’s just set his family up for destitution since, in the event of his death, he can’t afford to take care of them. As modern readers we’re really happy that Elizabeth marries for love and that Darcy’s money plays no part in it. However, as much as we like to think that money shouldn’t and doesn’t matter, imagine that there are two Mr. Darcys exactly alike; however, one has a lot of money and the other has none. Now, which Darcy would you advise Elizabeth to marry? In Mansfield Park, Austen offers a window into the prospects of marrying into different financial classes through choices Lady Bertram, Mrs. Norris and Mrs. Price make.

Brenda: Yes, if Darcy had been poor, Elizabeth might have ended up like Fanny Price’s parents in Mansfield Park, marrying for love and ending in poverty. You said earlier that the opening of Unmarriageable was like Mansfield Park. In Unmarriageable, Alys and Jena’s father, Bark Binat, has married beneath him and fallen on hard times, while his brother married well and is wealthy. How is that like Mansfield Park?

Soniah: It’s the princess and pauper quote above, a direct nod to Mansfield Park since in the opening of Mansfield Park we see three sisters who marry Sir Thomas Bertram, Mr. Norris the clergyman, and Lieutenant Price. One marries wealth, one stability, one squalor. But Austen in those first paragraphs of Mansfield Park captures the traditional state of women across time, and even today for many from traditional cultures where a man is expected to fulfill his traditional role of paying the bills, etc. Who you marry is often going to determine whether you end up vacationing at all, and whether it will be in France or the beach in Destin (laughing). It’s that simple. Of course, now we have the modern complication of women being able to afford their own vacations, and thankfully that makes a big difference in our choices.

Mansfield Park also gets into religion, Edmund who’s going to be a clergyman, and Mary doesn’t think that’s good, and Edmund gives Fanny a cross to wear. It’s Austen’s most religious novel. And it really goes deeply into her values and ethics. Mansfield Park is my favorite novel just because she dives deeply into the meaning of family in that novel. She really skewers family values in Mansfield Park. It’s her grimmest and most realistic novel. But even within Mansfield Park there’s so much humor.

Brenda: In an essay at the end of your book, you tell us, “I first immersed myself in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice when I was sixteen years old. As interesting as its marriage plot was, I was spellbound, rather, by Austen’s social criticism and how it was conveyed through her pithy wit. Here was a centuries-old English writer who may as well have been writing about contemporary Pakistani society. . . . I wanted to write a novel that paid homage to Jane Austen and Pride and Prejudice, as well as combined my braided identification with English-language and Pakistani culture, so that the ‘literature of others’ became the literature of everyone. Therefore, Unmarriageable.”

Soniah: Thank you, Brenda. The paperback edition of Unmarriageable (out Feb 5th) includes an updated version of that essay, as well as essays on how the fictional setting of Dilipabad got its name, why I named the characters as I did, questions for book clubs and more.

Brenda: Thank you, Soniah, for sharing your world with us, in a way that any Jane Austen fan can enjoy!

____________________

Image of Brenda Cox

Brenda S. Cox

Brenda S. Cox also loves Jane Austen. She is a member of the Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA). She has written articles for its magazine, Persuasions On-Line, and presented at its national conference as well as regional meetings. She has done extensive research for her current work-in-progress, a nonfiction book entitled Fashionable Goodness: Christianity in Jane Austen’s England. Follow her on Facebook or on her blog, Faith, Science, Joy, and Jane Austen.

Follow Soniah Kamal on: Instagram Twitter FB www.soniahkamal.com

Unmarriageable: Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice in Pakistan, a novel–available everywhere. order

2020 Townsend Prize Finalist

A 2019 Book All Georgians Should Read

Financial Times: A 2019 Best Book Pick

NPR Code Switch 2019 Summer Read Pick

A New York Public Library Summer 2019 Reads Pick

BoobBub A 2019 Best Book

Library Reads Pick, January 2019

STARRED Review Publishers Weekly “must-read for devout Austenites.

STARRED Review Shelf Awareness “If Jane Austen lived in modern-day Pakistan, this is the version of Pride and Prejudice she might have written

STARRED Review Library Journal “enlightening and entertaining

An Isolated Incident, a novel–coming in the UK, July, 2020.

Townsend Award Finalist

KLF French Fiction Prize Finalist

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Inquiring readers, Brenda Cox has contributed yet another fascinating post. This one is about Jane Austen’s cross-stitched sampler. Is it hers or not? Find out as Ms. Cox explores the possibilities using an extensive amount of research and conversations with Jane Austen expert Deirdre Le Faye. Find her blog Faith, Science, Joy, … and Jane Austen at this link.

Picture 1 Austen Sampler

Did Jane Austen stitch this sampler? (Photos are of a reproduction. The white marks below the word “out” are damage to the print, not the sampler.)

Someone named Jane Austen stitched this lovely, well-worn sampler in 1797 or 1787. It is cross-stitched on linen, mostly in plum and green silk, with quotes from the Psalms. The text says 1797, but may have originally said 1787. Stitches below the 9 seem to have been picked out or frayed.  If it was done in 1787, Jane Austen would have been almost twelve years old. It appears the stitching could have been done by a girl around that age.

I have a reproduction of the sampler which I bought at the Jane Austen Centre in Bath some years ago. They no longer offer it. The original is in a private collection, though it was displayed at Oxford’s Bodleian Library in 2012. But was the sampler stitched by the novelist Jane Austen?

Samplers

In Northanger Abbey, Henry Tilney tells Catherine Morland he was at Oxford while she was “a good little girl working [her] sampler at home.” (“Not very good, I’m afraid,” Catherine responds.)  Girls often stitched samplers as a way of learning sewing and the alphabet.

The Jane Austen’s House Museum in Chawton displays a sampler worked by Jane’s sister Cassandra, or possibly by their niece of the same name. Many samplers of the time were much like Cassandra’s. They display different stitches, alphabets, and numbers. The young lady could refer to her sampler later when she did more complex projects or stitched initials on items of clothing.

Picture 2 Cassandra's Sampler

Cassandra Austen’s Sampler. Courtesy of Jane Austen’s House Museum, Chawton

Picture 3 Jane Austen sampler - alphabet

Alphabet at the top of the Jane Austen Sampler. Letters in between each pair are in a lighter, faded color. The P’s are backwards here, but correct in the verses below.

The two samplers are about the same size. Both are about 10” wide and 11 to 12” high. The capital letters on the Jane Austen sampler are very similar to the smaller cross-stitched capital letters on Cassandra’s sampler. (Cassandra’s larger capitals are sewn with a different stitch.) These were probably standard styles of stitching.

Much of the Jane Austen sampler is different from Cassandra’s, though, since it quotes from the Psalms. This helped the stitcher learn Bible verses along with the alphabet.

Why the Psalms? Austen’s Church of England used The Book of Common Prayerfor worship. It includes daily readings from the Psalms, taken from the 1535 Coverdale translation of the Bible. The whole book of Psalms is read every month, so it was very familiar to Austen and her family. The sampler quotes various verses, in no particular order. Each line starts with a capital letter, but most verses do not start a new line.

The Verses from the Psalms

Picture 4 Jane Austen sampler - Psalms

The verses from the Psalms are in a continuous stream.

The following verses are quoted. Some are not exact quotes from the Psalms in the prayer book.

Praise the Lord o my Soul and all that is within me Praise his holy Name (Ps. 103:1)

as long as I live will I praise The Lord I will give thanks unto God while I have My Being (paraphrased fromPs. 104:33, “I will sing unto the Lord as long as I live : I will praise my God while I have my being.”)

sing unto the Lord o ye Kingdoms of the Earth o sing praise unto the Lord (paraphrased from Ps. 68:32 “Sing unto God, O ye kingdoms of the earth : O sing praises unto the Lord”)

Give the Lord the Honour doe [?] unto his Name worship the Lord with holy Worship (Psalm 29:2, with “doe” substituted for “due”)

in the Time of trouble I will call upon the Lord and he will hear me (from Ps 86:7 “In the time of my trouble I will call upon thee : for thou hearest me.”)

Turn thy Face from my Sins and put out all my Misdeeds (Ps 51:9)

Picture 5 Jane Austen sampler - trees and name and more


A border of flowers (or possibly geometric shapes) surrounds the Psalms.  Below are flowering trees with a bird, and “Jane Austen, 1797.

Is this Jane Austen the novelist, or another Jane Austen?

Deirdre Le Faye, an expert on Jane Austen, believes that the stitcher was another Jane Austen, probably a second cousin of the author of Pride and Prejudice. These are her arguments, followed by my own, definitely non-expert, thoughts:

  1. The date is 1797, but appears to have originally been 1787. Sometimes a date on a sampler would be changed to make a woman appear to be younger than she was.  Le Faye asks, “Would the eminently honest and straightforward Austens have bothered with such a petty deception?”

I agree that this seems out of character for Jane Austen and her family. However, descriptions I have seen of the sampler say some of the stitching has “come away.” It may be that it was not purposely changed, but that the stitches came loose over time. The sampler has been folded and somewhat damaged. The “9” (or “8”) is at the center, possibly on a fold line. The “A” directly above the number is also not very clear.

Picture 6 Jane Austen sampler - name and date


Closeup of name and date

2. The verses seem to be chosen haphazardly and are all run together.  There is also a simple spelling error (“doe” for “due”), which Le Faye thinks our Jane Austen would not have made. Le Faye asks, “Would Jane—bright as we know she was in her childhood—have copied texts inaccurately from the psalms in her Prayerbook?”

Perhaps the young Jane Austen would not have made such a spelling error. However, there are misspellings and random capitalizations in her early Juvenilia. Also, the single stitch that makes the middle letter of “due” into an “o” is very tiny, like all the cross stitches on this small sampler. It is not very clear on my reproduction, and at first I thought it was a “u” but a bit blurred. It may be a stitching error rather than a spelling error.

The inaccuracy of the texts is a bigger issue, and it does seem odd that the verses are all run together. The changes within the verses are minor, as you can see above.  These verses would have been very familiar to the Austen family, who probably read from the Psalms daily. So we might have expected Jane to stitch them correctly. However, perhaps they were familiar enough that Jane was stitching them from memory. We know she was creative and imaginative. She may have been stitching verses as they came to mind, in ways that resonated with her. The meanings are expressed well.

On the other hand, even at a young age, it does seem more likely that “our” Jane Austen would have put the verses together in a more organized, accurate fashion. Deirdre Le Faye adds that, since Jane’s father was a rector, he probably would have corrected any mistakes that she made in quoting the Psalms. He might even have helped her choose verses to include.

 

3. The main issue is the provenance (the history of ownership) of the sampler. According to an earlier article that Le Faye refers to, in 1976 the sampler was “owned by a Mrs Molly Proctor, who was given it by Mrs I. Thompson of Rochester, whose grandfather, Mr Frederick Nicholls of Whitstable, was a grandson of a cousin of Jane Austen.” It was sold at auction in 1996 for 2,185 pounds.

This provenance was passed down orally and not in writing. There is no indication of who the cousin might be.  Austen had only a few first cousins: Eliza de Feuillide, Jane and Edward Cooper, James and Phylly Walter. Le Faye continues, “Only Edward Cooper and James Walter left descendants, all of whom lived in the Midlands” (central England).

Whitstable, mentioned in the provenance of the sampler, is quite some distance away, on the coast of northern Kent in southeastern England (north of Canterbury).  There is no record of any cousins of the Steventon Austen family living in that area. And the name “Frederick Nicholls” is not found among the Austen relations in R. A. Austen-Leigh’s Pedigree of Austen. So it seems unlikely that Nicholls was connected with the novelist Jane Austen in a different part of the country.

Le Faye therefore suggests that the sampler was probably done by a different woman named Jane Austen, of a similar age, in Kent. She gives two possibilities:

  • There was an Austen family in Ramsgate and Loose, near Maidstone in Kent. They were related to the Austens of Steventon through a sixteenth-century ancestor. It’s possible they had their own “Jane Austen.”
  • Jane Austen did have a second cousin named Jane Austen who lived in Kent. They had the same great-grandfather, John Austen IV of Broadford, who died in 1704. His son Francis Austen had a son named Francis-Motley Austen (1747-1815) who lived at Kippington near Sevenoaks in Kent. Francis-Motley had a daughter named Jane Austen. She lived from 1776 (the year after the novelist Jane was born) until 1857. This Jane Austen married William-John Campion in 1797 and had children. It’s possible that she stitched the sampler and left it to relatives who passed it down through the family.

The two Jane Austens probably met in 1788, when the George Austen family visited Jane’s great-uncle Francis Austen and his family at Sevenoaks. Our Jane was twelve, her second cousin Jane about a year younger.  We don’t know what they thought of each other.

At this point there is no definitive proof as to whether the sampler was sewn by “our” Jane Austen, by her second cousin in Kent, or by some other Jane Austen.

At the very least we can say that it was a sampler stitched at around the same time as our Jane Austen probably made her own, and most likely somewhere in southern England. It may have been in a similar style to whatever sampler she sewed. And she or one of her relatives may have stitched it. So we can enjoy it as another small window into Jane Austen’s world.

 (By the way, is there a genealogist out there who can track down a Mr Frederick Nicholls of Whitstable who was a grandson of a cousin of a Jane Austen? A Jane Austen who was a young girl in 1787 or 1797? Which Jane Austen was she?)

 

Brenda S. Cox writes on “Faith, Science, Joy . . . and Jane Austen!” She is working on a book entitled Fashionable Goodness: Christianity in Jane Austen’s England. Her previous contribution to this blog can be found at this link: George Austen’s Spiritual Advice to his Son Francis Austen. 

Sources

“Which Jane Austen Stitched this Sampler?” by Deirdre Le Faye.  Collected Reports of the Jane Austen Society, Vol. 5 (1996-2000), pp 233-35. Also personal correspondence with Deirdre Le Faye.

Jane Austen: Her Life and Letters, by William Austen-Leigh and Richard Arthur Austen-Leigh (1913), discusses the “Motley Austen” branch of the family in chapters 1 and 4.

Jane Austen: A Family Record by Deirdre Le Faye (Cambridge University Press, second edition, 2004) mentions the family of the other Jane Austen (the second cousin) on pages 2-3, 64, and 78.

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