Goodbye Longbourn, hello Lahore

by Guy Somerset / 28 February, 2013
Jane Austen passes the Book Club baton to Mohsin Hamid.
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that I am the only journalist in the history of writing about Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice not to attempt some lame-ass parody of its opening sentence. Hold on a minute ... oh, damn.

Now is the point in the month when Austen hands over the inestimable cachet of being the Listener's Book Club choice to Mohsin Hamid and his new novel, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (Hamish Hamilton, $37). I don't think Austen ever made it to Pakistan - it being rather more than a day's ride by horse and carriage from Chawton Cottage. Mind you, who's to say? She did, after all, make it to Bollywood:


And that Elizabeth Bennet was involved in some murky CIA business at their Pakistani station:


What exactly was Regency etiquette towards waterboarding?

Well spotted, by the way: Jennifer Ehle is indeed an American. And uses words like "awesome". Mr Collins had a lucky escape.

Back at the beginning of our Pride and Prejudice month, I optimistically outlined various aspects of the novels we'd be considering - and then, with all the trustworthiness of a Mr Wickham, failed to even mention some of them again (although many were covered in our panel discussion and "real-life" book club podcasts).

Not wanting a reputation as a rotter - although I would at least be spared the companionship of Lydia Bennet - I thought it best to make amends here.

As it happens, we did touch on the question of Austen's literary successors in our panel discussion, when bookseller Todd Atticus suggested JK Rowling in her first adult novel, The Casual Vacancy (not sure about that one), and Zadie Smith (totally with him there).

There are more knowing nods to Austen - my wife and many others swear by Barbara Pym (although the knowingness there is really only on the part of those marketing her), and Helen Fielding in her Bridget Jones novels has obviously played the references for all they are worth (and will be doing so again later this year). Not that Fielding could lay claim to an iota of Austen's finesse.

My wife also throws out there: New Zealand's own Barbara Anderson, and Elinor Lipman, arguing in the latter case surprising congruencies between the comedy of the American Jewish milieu and that of the Regency England depicted by Austen.

Always keen to promote her, whether appropriate or not, I'd like to put in a word for Elizabeth Taylor (a writer whose name is always, for obvious reasons, accompanied by the clarification "the other Elizabeth Taylor"). She"s a bit of a stretch perhaps, but she does have a tart tongue and a beady eye for Middle English mores.

A more wild card - a much more wild card - would have to be Agatha Christie, but stick with me here. The village or other closed-community settings, the steely observer - what is Miss Marple except an Austen heroine who never met her Mr Darcy (or if she did, had him arrested for murder)?

In truth, I am thinking more of the wonderful TR Bowen adaptations of Miss Marple for the BBC in the late 1980s and early 1990s, rather than the Christie originals. Like all great screenwriters, Bowen takes mediocre prose and elevates it into something better.

Austen and any other writer would have been proud of the following observation Miss Marple makes about a woman to the rake the woman has had a fling with but is now abandoning for a more valorous rival (and what an Austen set-up that is to start with): "She doesn't love him yet, of course. In some respects, she's more attracted to you. But she'll marry him, and make him what she wants, and then she'll fall in love with him. It'll probably be when she's expecting their third child."

How perfect - especially the bit about the third child (not, say, second).

Another, more contemporary successor to Austen is a film one - although a very literate film one: Whit Stillman.

His first film, Metropolitan (1990), was explicit in its debt to Austen and to Mansfield Park in particular:

But his masterpiece, The Last Days of Disco (1998), finds an equivalent to the Regency ballroom in nightclubs like Studio 54:

I'm sure if Lizzy and Jane and Darcy and Bingley were talking today, they, too, would be discussing the sexual politics of Lady and the Tramp:

The sexual politics of Pride and Prejudice itself are problematic, to say the least, from a modern perspective - but were for the time progressive and suggest a writer wrestling with proto-feminist ideas in the wake of Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). There are some very interesting comments on the subject by Vivien Jones in her introduction to my 1996 Penguin Classics edition of the novel.

It is perhaps a bit rich - and not in the Mr Darcy, 10,000-pounds-a-year sense - of me to commission Tim Upperton to be all nasty about Pride and Prejudice and then take issue with him, but I don't think he is quite right in his interpretation of Lizzy saying she must date her love of Darcy "from my first seeing his beautiful grounds at Pemberley". Upperton rightly acknowledges she says this archly - as a joke. And he sort of rightly says she means it, too. But what she sees at Pemberley is not a cash register going "kerching". This is not How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising England.

It was a large, handsome, stone building, standing well on rising ground, and backed by a ridge of high woody hills; - and in front, a stream of some natural importance was swelled into greater, but without artificial appearance. Its banks were neither formal, nor falsely adorned. Elizabeth was delighted. She had never seen a place for which nature had done more, or where natural beauty had been so little counteracted by awkward taste. They were all of them warm in their admiration; and at that moment she felt, that to be mistress of Pemberley might be something!"

It might be something not because of its value and the wealth it bespeaks, but because of its values - the lack of artificiality, adornment and "awkward taste"; the respect for nature. All evidence of solid character only added to by the ensuing tour of the house and the discovery of Darcy's honourable role in the social ecology of the estate.

Lizzy's head has been turned less by money than by aristocratic noblesse oblige. The novel's class politics (and assumptions) are no less problematic than its sexual ones, but she is not a girl on the make.

Even that question "what is the difference in matrimonial affairs, between the mercenary and the prudent motive?" and the paragraph that contains it are laced with ironic critique, surely.

We are a way off from The Female Eunuch, and Austen is too good a writer to overburden either her characters or her novel with complaint, but both she and the book clearly understand the injustice of women's situation in that period.

Just to take one example: that bloody entail - which would turn up again, like a bad artistocratic penny, a couple of hundred years later in Downton Abbey.

Some, of course, might claim Downton Abbey as a kind of successor to Austen, but for me it just shows how such depictions have coarsened down the centuries.

Austen is not only better than so much of what followed her, she is better than what preceded.

Her importance is acknowledged by Ian Watt in his classic 1957 study The Rise of the Novel, refining and moving on from the earlier advances of pioneering 18th-century novelists Daniel Defoe, Samuel Richardson and Henry Fielding.

And Pride and Prejudice wasn't even the best of it. In fact, American critic Edmund Wilson put it at the lower end of her literary and psychological sophistication (the satire still a bit broad - witness Mrs Bennet, Mr Collins and Lady Catherine). For him - quite rightly, I'd say -  she was at her best in the later Mansfield Park, Emma and Persuasion.

Nonetheless, Pride and Prejudice was a step forward - and what a step. In his recent What Matters in Jane Austen? Twenty Crucial Puzzles Solved (Bloomsbury, $39.99), John Mullan writes of Austen's "technical audacity":

There was something miraculous about the fact she wrote novels whose narrative sophistication and brilliance of dialogue were unprecedented in English fiction. She introduced free indirect style to English fiction, filtering her plots through the consciousnesses of her characters. She perfected fictional idiolect, fashioning habits of speaking for even minor characters that rendered them utterly singular. She managed all this with extraordinary self-confidence and apparently without the advice or expert engagement of any other accomplished writer. She had had access to books, of course, and the conversation of a bookish family, but no circle of fellow authors. It might be a wrench to think of Austen, the conservative literary genius in a revolutionary age, as an experimental writer, but such she was.

Mullan goes on to quote that wonderful Virginia Woolf line that "of all great writers [Austen] is the most difficult to catch in the act of greatness".

I hope you agree, though, that in the past four weeks it's been great fun trying.

Now, it's Mohsin Hamid's turn under the microscope. I don't doubt he can stand the scrutiny.

But before we start in on How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, and as a final word on Pride and Prejudice - cards. So important in Austen novels (Mullan is good on that, too, explaining how card-game participation and non-participation enable Austen to organise her characters and their conversations within a room).

Cards are not the social glue they once were, but I would like to put in a word for piquet (also a feature of CS Forester's sea-faring Hornblower novels).

A wonderfully ritualised game full of Frenchified scoring terminology, this two-hander and its many pleasures once entertained my wife and I during an eight-week campsite tour of New Zealand and is perfect to play over a pint in the pub.

Hubert Phillips's 1953 Pan Book of Card Games should see you right as to the rules.

We really must do that sometime as our Book Club choice.
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