In a letter to her sister Cassandra, Jane Austen wrote about Pride and Prejudice: "Upon the whole, however, I am ... well satisfied enough. The work is rather too light, and bright and sparkling; it wants shade; it wants to be stretched out here and there with a long chapter of sense, if it could be had..."
Two centuries later, Austen fans have seen several attempts by writers to provide that shade, to stretch the original story through retellings and by reimagining it through several mediums, including film and television. Now, a diverse array of authors are sinking their teeth into Austen's masterpiece, with several retellings of the fable coming out this year. Uzma Jalaluddin's Ayesha at Last is a Pride and Prejudice adaptation reimagined as an immigrant novel set in Toronto's Muslim minority community, while Soniah Kamal's Unmarriagable is a retelling set in Pakistan that packs almost the same wit and punch as Austen herself.
Sonali Dev's Pride, Prejudice and Other Flavours is a fun gender-swapped take on Pride and Prejudice set in an upper class, powerful Indian family in the United States.
Jalaluddin's Ayesha at Last and Dev's Pride, Prejudice and Other Flavours, while based loosely on the original Austen classic, also have subplots touching on immigrant experiences that the characters face in their new homes in the North American continent.
Contrastingly, Kamal's Unmarriagable follows the format of the original closely but is set in modern-day Pakistan, capturing the tone of society in the country that seems to align perfectly with that of 18th-century England. Kamal says she wanted to write a parallel retelling keeping the character and plot points of the original. "Austen wrote to reveal social hypocrisies that arise in keeping-up-appearances culture, which is why her work resonates with me so deeply and why I so dearly wanted to write a parallel retelling set in a Pakistan where Regency morals and mores remain so prevalent," she says. Jalaluddin says that the fun in writing her book was to imagine the original characters in new situations, and creating backstories for each of the characters.
In Ayesha at Last, the role of Lady Catherine goes to Darcy's mother while his sister, who is older, has a much larger story and plays a bigger role than Georgiana. The character of Darcy's sister again plays an important role in the meeting of the main players in Dev's Pride, Prejudice and Other Flavours, which again has many new characters with solid backstories. In Dev's book, the Elizabeth Bennet role goes to the hero DJ Caine while the privileged upper class character of Darcy is played by Trisha Raje, a doctor from a royal family in India. Dev says writing a female version of Mr Darcy was the seed for her novel.
“I’ve always been fascinated by how very eagerly we lap up an arrogant, unapologetically prickly hero who has to make no effort to be ‘likeable’ so long as he is noble, when likeability is a non-negotiable quality demanded of female heroes in fiction, no matter how noble.”
It is more than only coincidence that the three adaptations have come out close on the heels of each other. Jalaluddin says: "It is a way for writers of colour to reclaim the colonial literature we have grown up with, and make it truly our own."
Kamal wanted to meld together the English literature she'd grown up with and her culture, something for which the format of P&P seemed perfect, "not only because there is a mother frantic to get five daughters married off but also in exploring different facets of the marriage-industrial complex including keeping up appearances and other social hypocrisies". Each of the three authors have faithfully delivered enough humour in keeping with Austen's format to entertain readers even while delivering a commentary on the mores of society.
Jalaluddin puts her love for Shakespearean comedies to good use in her book, with quotes from the Bard's works spouted by Ayesha's English professor grandfather and also by introducing an identity-swapping comedy of errors that provides an unexpected twist. She says her novel is as much a Shakespearean comedy as it is an Austen-esque comedy of manners.
Austen's penchant for satire is put to brilliant use in Unmarriagable, not only in situations but also in the naming of her characters – the Bennets as Binats, Charlotte Lucas as Sherry Looclus, Farhat Kaleen for Mr Collins, the wicked Jeorgeullah Wikhaam with double "a" and, of course, Darsee, which is explained in the novel as a mutation of the ancestral name of Darzee, meaning "tailor" in Urdu. She explains: "Wickaam has a double 'a' because aam in Urdu means ordinary, and Jeorgeullah because often in the West I see Pakistanis anglicising their names. I wanted to do the opposite here."
In Dev's adaptation, the humour is understated but nevertheless present, providing reasons to smile amid the high drama in the story. If Jalaluddin has used the Bard's quotes to pepper her narrative, Kamal has dropped names of several books in Unmarriagable. In one of the many twists to the famous first line appearing in Pride and Prejudice, a line in Kamal's book reads: "It was a truth universally acknowledged ... that people enter our lives in order to recommend reads."
She says the books are there because she wanted to weave in a conversation about books, the postcolonial state of mind, feminism, class, status, hypocrisy, what it is to be a "good" parent, a "bad" one, the meaning of marriage, love and friendship. "The challenge, of course, was to include all these themes while also staying true to Jane Austen's tone for Pride and Prejudice, what she called 'light, bright and sparkling'."
In both of their books, Jalaluddin and Kamal’s characters talk about how Khadijah, the Prophet Mohammed’s first wife, proposed to him.
In keeping with the first proposal in P&P, it is the female Darcy in Dev's book who goes ahead and declares her love for the hero.
Austen fans know how this proposal works out and Dev captures the poignancy of the situation expertly.
Dev says the challenging part is writing a female protagonist who doesn't really care about or focus on pleasing others and owns her own brilliance and privilege without apology.
“I’d say writing Trisha was the most personally altering experience for me. I questioned all my own conditioned behaviours as a woman.”
Dev plans to use the cast of characters in her book to create a series with each book inspired by an Austen novel. The series will be about the Rajes, a politically ambitious Indian-American family descended from Indian royalty who have worked hard to establish themselves as Bay Area elite.
With characters named Emma and Jane in the P&P retelling, readers can look forward to more South Asia-centred Austen-inspired books from this author.
After all, Kamal says, Austen shows us proper social satire does not mean mocking someone because they sweat too much or can't pronounce words correctly but rather critiquing the institutions which give rise to such mockery.
Each of the adaptations do just that, whether it is Jalaluddin's take on immigrant Muslims in Canada or Kamal's tongue-in-cheek look at the high society in Pakistan or Dev's story about the Raje family in California who treat their privilege as a responsibility and want to use it to change the world for the better.