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Summer reads inspired by 'Pride and Prejudice'

Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice has inspired numerous recent adaptations. (Photo by Eymery)

To paraphrase Jane Austen, it seems to be a truth universally acknowledged that a story worth telling once is worth telling again.

Austen’s Pride and Prejudice has garnered scores of dedicated readers since its publication in 1813. Some are drawn to the feisty heroine Elizabeth and her journey from headstrong young woman to mature judgement. Others are lured by the brooding Darcy and his own process of self-discovery and change. Still others enjoy the representation of characters’ interactions in the early 19th century, whether for Austen’s sly humor or her social commentary. With so many angles to explore, it is small wonder that numerous authors find new perspectives from which to tell the story.

Pride and Prejudice was first adapted in 1895, roughly 75 years after it was first published. The adaptations have kept coming; in the spring semester of 2016, I taught a whole class focused on adaptations of Austen’s novel. There has been a particularly bountiful crop recently, and an invitation to speak at the Jane Austen Summer Program at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, gave me an opportunity catch up on some of the latest retellings.

All of the works below meet the criteria for a good adaptation from scholars such as Linda Hutcheon (A Theory of Adaptation) or Julie Sanders (Adaptation and Appropriation)—balancing the comfort of a familiar story with the surprise of innovation. The updates can be instructive, giving the reader new insights into Austen’s novel or using Austen’s story as a lens to reveal current issues.

I am a life-long Austen fan, and I found all of the titles below fun reads, some meatier than others, but all enjoyable and worthy of bringing to the beach with you this summer.

Themes and Variations

Longbourn by Jo Baker (Vintage Books, 2013)

The oldest title on this list (and the only one I was able to include in the class I taught), Longbourn, is a riveting account of Pride and Prejudice from the perspective of the Bennet’s servants. The author, Jo Baker, limits herself to servants explicitly mentioned by Austen and has done scrupulous historical research about how houses were cleaned, clothes maintained, and personal hygiene carried out, making this a riveting historical account in addition to an engaging narrative. The reader gets not just a different perspective on Lizzie and the other Bennet girls when viewed from below stairs, but also a thought-provoking look at larger questions such as military discipline, indentured servitude, class privilege, and other social disparities lurking behind Austen’s polished prose.

Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld (Random House, 2016)

Sittenfeld’s affectionately zany update goes to the other extreme, remaking Austen’s story to include modern absurdities, including a reality show akin to The Bachelor (the title is an allusion to this show). Career women, artificial insemination, gender fluidity, eating disorders, and other modern problems face the heroine, but the central conflicts remain those of Austen’s novel: how to read someone correctly, without the distortion of your own prejudices. Lizzie is journalist, Darcy a neurosurgeon, and some of their verbal sparring takes place during taxing runs rather than on the dance floor, but the notes you’re looking for are all there, plus some modern surprises.

Pride by Ibi Zoboi (Balzar + Bray, 2018)

Zoboi’s young adult “remix” of Pride and Prejudice is set in Brooklyn, focused on the ways Zuri Benitez clashes with Darius Darcy, the wealthy young man whose family is gentrifying the neighborhood. Zuri has aspirations of getting out of her neighborhood—Howard University features prominently in these plans—and hopes her poetry will help get her there. I discussed this book with former student Madeline Michaud (a member of 2016’s adaptation class), and she was disappointed that Zoboi’s Darcy figure didn’t seem to have the same learning curve as Austen’s. That astute observation helped me see that the lesson Zuri/Lizzie is learning isn’t about her judgement of others, as much as about her willingness to learn to call other places “home” and to forge an identity not based on location. This emphasis retrospectively highlights how comfortable Austen’s Lizzie is in multiple different settings; her declaration to Lady Catherine that, as a gentleman’s daughter, she is Darcy’s equal is borne out by her ability to mingle in different social settings without discomfort.

Global Austen

After the success of Gurinder Chanda’s Bollywood-inflected Bride and Prejudice in 2004, it is perhaps no surprise other adaptations have explored non-Western settings or characters. In addition to an anthology of short adaptations/extensions titled Austenistan (2017), the novels below either set the action in South Asia or focus on characters of South Asian extraction. All three, therefore, broaden the questions of individual perception of others to consider questions of immigration, assimilation, and global citizenry. Fair warning: all three will, at the very least, make you crave chai, but more likely a full Southeast Asian feast.

Ayesha at Last by Uzma Jalaluddin (Harper Avenue, 2018)

Set in the desi community of Toronto, this adaptation complicates class differences by adding the question of religious orthodoxy. The Darcy character, Khalid, is a devout Muslim who finds himself at odds with his new female boss and even some of his fellow Muslims. Meanwhile, the Lizzie character, Ayesha, is struggling to find her way between orthodoxy and assimilation; pursuing a job in teaching, she wears Western clothes, but combines them with hijab. She is an aspiring poet and struggles with the idea of participating in an open mic at a bar. Khalid is an incredibly well-realized take on Darcy, and the central couple is surrounded by a cast of characters riffing on the Austen original but striking out in different directions as well. The Lydia character is particularly instructive in showing how many more options are available to women today than in Austen’s time. The questions of orthodoxy, tradition, and assimilation are handled with compassion for both the new arrivals and the white characters trying to learn to be more culturally inclusive.

Unmarriageable by Soniah Kamal (Ballantine Books, 2019)

Kamal refers to this book as a “parallel” story rather than an adaptation, and the narrative conscientiously hits the plot points that Austen initially mapped out. By setting the story in Pakistan, however, Kamal is able to bring up questions of partition, national identity, and cosmopolitanism/family tradition, as well as the class conflict built into Austen’s text. Alysba (Alys) Binat is an engaging character, aware of the tensions inherent in the pressure on Pakistani children to have British-sounding English and read British “classics,” and Darsee’s ability to meet her in conversation about such things helps set their courtship apart from Austen’s original. Kamal also updates the attitudes toward sex, which adds interesting wrinkles to the Charlotte/Collins and Lydia/Wickham plotlines; like Jalaluddin, Kamal’s Lady/Lydia has much more autonomy in her resolution.

Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors by Sonali Dev (William Morrow, 2019)

Dev’s take on Pride and Prejudice not only updates the story to contemporary San Francisco, it flips the genders. D.J., an Ethiopian and Indian chef born in England and trained in France, is actually the Lizzie character, anxiously trying to help his sister, Emma, an artist, face a brain tumor that will rob her of her sight, if she survives at all. Trisha Raje is the sometimes-frosty neurosurgeon who can help. She is caught in her own family drama, including her brother’s bid for public office and her sister’s nail-biting pregnancy. The Wickham character—the dashing officer who runs off with Lizzie’s youngest sister in Austen’s original—is also gender-swapped in this take, and Julia Wickham helps illuminate the ways in which the struggle for survival motivates both Wickhams. This adaptation focuses on what family, legacy, and loyalty mean, and introduces an examination of the connection between wealth and worth.

Learn more about the study of English: literature and writing at the University of Redlands. U of R alumni are cordially invited to join the English Department Facebook Group.