Is It Time to Kill Jane Austen?

All six of Austen’s novels, published between 1811 and 1818, are thematically and in their representation of stereotypes and caricatures, relevant to 21st century India.

Jane Austen

Jane Austen. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

A romantic predicament needn’t leave you groping for answers from unworthy friends and agony aunts mouldy with inexperience. There are Jane Austen quizzes for every tangle. Whether you are male or female, a ‘Which Jane Austen character are you’ quiz will reassure you that your predicament is neither unusual nor unique to your situation. Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy, Fanny Price, Edmund Bertram and Henry Crawford, Emma Woodhouse and George Knightley, Anne Elliot and Captain Frederick Wentworth – several of Austen’s protagonists have encountered upsets comparable to yours, from which they have emerged either wiser or married.

Austen has been dead for two centuries, but such inconveniences have failed to diminish the popularity of the author who described herself as “the most unlearned and uninformed female who ever dared to be an authoress.” Quizzes abound on the Internet, excerpts from her letters and conversations are widely referred to by journalists, academics, students (there is a Wikiquote page with a list of quotable quotes), she has even been resurrected recently by Andrea Leadsom, a leader of the British House of Commons, who declared that she was “one of our greatest living authors”. On July 18, the bicentenary of her death, a new ten pound note with an airbrushed image of the author was launched by the Bank of England at Winchester Cathedral, her resting place.

While the world pays homage to Austen by reimagining her on a banknote, by debating her politics, by lauding her heroines, by making authors who are alive and sensible pick their favourite Austen novel, and by convincing unsuspecting readers of opinion pieces that Austen is wasted on teenagers, that she must be read or reread when one’s adult life is beset with all the disappointments that her books chronicle – there is merit in pausing to ponder the author’s assessment of herself.  Could it be true, you might be tempted to ask, that Austen really is the “unlearned and uninformed female” she admits to being? Is it possible that her most astute observations have been about herself?

Yet another instance of the author’s gentle irony and deprecation turning inwards and questioning her own poetics, unearths a glimmer of self-knowledge that come close to brilliance. In an 1816 letter to her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh, who has lost draft chapters of his own, she assures him of having no need to steal his pages: “What should I do with your strong, manly spirited Sketches, full of Variety and Glow?  – How could I possibly  join them on to the little bit (two Inches wide) of Ivory on which I work with so fine a Brush, as produces little effect after much labour?”

That Austen’s characters produce ‘little effect’ is sometimes evident from the opening lines of her novels. Emma, published in 1815, begins with a brief description of Emma Woodhouse:

“Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.”

If Austen is laughing at her, then the mockery is so feeble, one can hardly expect a reader of Emma Woodhouse’s age to pay attention to it. It’s the reason why scholarly Jane-ites recommend rereading her novels in middle age, by which time one has presumably acquired a taste for subtle derision. “While her books are witty and her heroines young, Austen doesn’t write romantic comedies or young-adult-with-parasols. A worldly reader is all too aware of the harsh, judgemental and unequal society the characters operate in,” writes critic and author Bidisha, in The Guardian.

Austen’s novels however, are problematic in many other ways, apart from revealing themselves fully only to worldly-wise, middle-aged readers. Repressed heroines are rewarded with dishy but morally upright men. Fanny Price, the protagonist of Mansfield Park, is one of Austen’s most insipid creations. She is prone to agitations, alarms and excessive trembling, she prefers not to partake of the festivities of the season but chooses to make herself useful on every occasion, she is barely noticed by Sir Thomas Bertram and his family – the rich relatives who have taken her in – except when her spirited cousins have left the house.

“Fanny’s consequence increased on the departure of her cousins. Becoming, as she then did, the only young woman in the drawing-room, the only occupier of that interesting division of a family in which she had hitherto held so humble a third, it was impossible for her not to be more looked at, more thought of and attended to, than she had ever been before…”

Fanny Price, unexceptional in looks and accomplishments but endowed with kindness, finally marries Edmund, the cousin her loving heart has throbbed for over the length of this novel, published in 1814. Austen’s priggish pen has spoken – the poor relative with an unsullied conscience gets the guy with a house and an income, even though his clergyman’s heart has hammered madly for a vixen from London who plays the harp.

Spinsterhood is hardly ever out of choice, and is always a financially precarious option, in Austen’s fiction. Her last novel, Persuasion, published in late 1817, six months after she died, is about 27-year-old Anne Elliot, who, the narrative declares, is no longer pretty:

“A few years before, Anne Elliot had been a very pretty girl, but her bloom had vanished early, and as even in its height, her father had found little to admire in her, (so totally different were her delicate features and mild dark eyes from his own); there could be nothing in them now that she was faded and thin, to excite his esteem.”

There could be nothing in that sentence to excite any reader’s esteem – even those brought up within the rigid patriarchal framework of  middle-class India, may, if they are inclined to read Persuasion, find it regressive and provincial. Anne has spent eight-and-a-half years ruing a broken engagement and could easily have spent the rest of her unremarkable life getting bullied and feeling trapped and miserable. But Austen demolishes all prospects of a lonely spinsterhood by giving Anne and Persuasion a happy ending, with sub-plots neatly resolved. To remain unmarried would’ve been a calamity far greater than disease or premature death or the Napoleonic Wars, the distant rumble of which sometimes reverberates through her fiction.

What is alarming is that all six of Austen’s novels – Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, Emma, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion – published between 1811 and 1818, are thematically and in their representation of stereotypes and caricatures, relevant to 21st century India. The most popular of her books, Pride and Prejudice, out in 1813 and Emma, published two years later, have been claimed by filmmakers. Gurinder Chadha’s 2004 romantic drama Bride and Prejudice is a giddy song-and-dance rendering of Pride and Prejudice, with Aishwarya Rai as a feisty Elizabeth Bennet from Amritsar. Rajshree Ojha’s Aisha, released in 2010, is Bollywood’s mishmash repackaging of Emma, with hints of Amy Heckerling’s 1995 comedy, Clueless. Sonam Kapoor, who is Aisha, perhaps unwittingly delineates why Austen, as a historian of her immediate present, is dangerously open to misinterpretation in an Indian context. In an interview with the BBC, Kapoor states the reasons why India is the perfect backdrop for retelling Emma:

“Victorian society’s rules and regulations, and the class system is still prevalent in our country and I think is prevalent all over the world. It’s about having the right address, the right cars, wearing the right clothes, getting married to the right guy, having enough money… I think you can relate to it, because these are situations you can never get rid of.”

Austen’s Indian adaptations are selective vignettes of the author’s world of mellow manners, balls, profitable alliances, erotically-charged glances and beautiful gowns. The retelling of her stories in India, particularly through Bollywood’s glamourised worldview, is the reinforcement of class-consciousness and privilege, it is the reestablishment of a hierarchal order in which she who dresses well and marries well is better than she who does not.

To read Austen in one’s undergraduate years is to be constantly reminded of one’s inadequacies, for how can any gawky 18-year-old match up to Emma’s looks or Elizabeth’s wit? To watch her fiction as films is to turn away in disgust from scenes that are all too familiar – girls who sing, dance and shop and klutzes who woo them.

Radhika Oberoi is a freelance journalist based in New Delhi.