Why do we still love Jane Austen so much?
We’ll send you a myFT Daily Digest email rounding up the latest Life & Arts news every morning.
Jane Austen, celebrated, reclaimed and still read, with a happy position in the world of letters and in the hearts of fans from Sussex to Singapore, seems to inspire authors the world over with their imitations and homages.
“Her ability to score points while putting the most commonplace situations to paper far outstrips that of her male rivals. Take that on my authority,” the Japanese novelist Natsume Soseki wrote in 1907, when his country uncovered the spiky pleasures of Austen’s six novels.
This year, the Jane Austen Society of Japan will hold its 12th annual convention in Tokyo. In Pakistan, the Jane Austen Club founded by Laaleen Sukhera meets regularly, and has a costume party once a year, bringing together members from Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi. Singapore’s Jane Austen Circle hosts Regency dinner dances and tea parties.
The unflagging zeal of the Jane Austen industry worldwide is astonishing, producing everything from Bollywood and Tamil films (Aisha, Bride & Prejudice, Kandukondain Kandukondain), Austen with zombies, Austen erotica (it is a truth universally acknowledged that oppressed book columnists will heroically read Spank Me, Mr Darcy in the line of duty so that you don’t have to), plus the usual Pride & Prejudice kitchen towels and Captain Wentworth Bad Boy tattoos for all we know.
I remain uncertain about the value of anyone who is not Jane Austen trying to write like Jane Austen. For one, her novels are still bestsellers 243 years after her year of birth; and Jane Austen fans are steadfast, ferocious and formidably well up on the canon. But as Jane wrote, “None of us want to be in calm waters all our lives,” and it is only natural for writers from India, Pakistan and other parts of South Asia to join the horde of Austen adaptors.
Mahesh Rao’s Polite Society, a novel set in Delhi and loosely based on Emma, is just out, to rave reviews; a collection of short stories by Pakistani writers and fans, Austenistan, was published in 2017. The seven stories in Austenistan are set in Pakistan — the Bennets transform into Javed and Jameela Baig, possessed of an excess of daughters and in pursuit of eligible bankers; Emma becomes Emaan, editor of a lifestyle magazine, and so on. But, sadly, it is not enough to transport Emma, Anne, Elizabeth and Darcy to Lahore or Karachi — Austenistan, speckled with insider tales from Isloo life and stories of cheating fiancés and heart-dented heiresses, is fun chiefly as fan-fiction.
Polite Society sets a much higher bar — this is Rao’s third novel, and he’s quick to see the possibilities of Austen’s world, where fortunes, marriages and land, all coveted and often dubiously acquired, are transposed to Delhi, which has at least as much anxiety about marrying off daughters as Regency England.
Ania Khurana, wealthy, persistently helpful, given to matchmaking, is a fair stand-in for Emma: “The comforts of her own life meant that she was seldom called upon to discriminate or restrict: in the Khurana household, they usually ordered four of everything.” Following Austen’s storyline, Ania attempts to matchmake for everyone — her aunt, Renu, her friends, Dimple and Fahid — and Rao is way ahead of most Jane imitators in catching her tone, the blandly innocent phrasing allied to the beady eye.
“There was a time when no one knew who he [Fahim] was and then, all of a sudden, everyone knew him. He was seen at rooftop parties in Jor Bagh; he would wave from across the room at receptions in foreign embassies; some haughty dame at the next table was always pressing him to have the steamed ginger pudding at the India International Centre.”
In Polite Society, there are two novels that are at war — Austen’s, and Rao’s. About a hundred pages in, Polite Society swerves sharply away from the plot of Emma. Ania wants to be a writer; she spends four weeks in a 15th-century Italian villa, struggling with the blank page, making elaborate chapter plans and then scrapping them, enduring the inept passes of an established writer.
This is unlike anything in Austen; it’s pure Rao, and from this point, he takes over the reins of Polite Society, delving into the murk of Delhi’s society marriages, cut-throat class politics and scandals.
So many of Austen’s books end with a marriage, but also with an unhappy ending for one or another of her characters. Jane left the contours of that unhappiness invisible; Rao, abandoning the fancy-dress, fills them out. Perhaps this is the only way to write an Austentatious novel, especially if more writers from South Asia, or Antigua and other places, decide to pause at her shrine. Start like Jane, end in your own voice.
Get alerts on Life & Arts when a new story is published