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Thursday, October 29, 2020

A Review of "Unmarriageable" by Soniah Kamal

While I don't usually read much fan fiction or spin-offs, I just had to get hold of Soniah Kamal's Unmarriageable, which is a South Asian take on Pride and Prejudice. Having lived in South Asia for 12 years and having got married there, I was sure that this rewrite would resonate with me, as I could relate to the characterisations and contexts - which I absolutely did. 

I feel that any of the Jane Austen novels would adapt well to South Asian literature and cinema, a topic which I will explore further in another post. There are so many similarities between Regency society and the social norms of contemporary South Asian culture. The marriage market, the stereotypical over-zealous, matchmaking mothers and aunties, the limited freedom of young women, marital gold diggers, societal taboos surrounding marriage and sex... it's all there in Pride and Prejudice - and in modern-day Pakistan (and elsewhere in South Asia). 

Many modern day South Asian girls battle with similar moral dilemmas to girls of Jane Austen's era, with pressure to marry a man of their parents' choice and to give up their careers after marriage. Premarital relationships would be unheard of and illegitimate children a definite no-no - which is why Mr Wickaam turns out to be a villain just like in the original story. 

This novel shows a modern, independent, free-thinking Elizabeth - young teacher, Alys Binat - who, like Elizabeth Bennet, isn't afraid to voice her opinions.  Alys, like her sisters, is under tremendous pressure from her mother, Mrs Binat, to marry and marry well. Soniah Kamal's Mrs Binat is very much like Mrs Bennet in P and P, hysterical, ridiculous, and in need of tranquillisers. Alys won't marry the rude, proud, snobbish Valentine Darcee - whose proposal she declines, as he is "unmarriageable". Neither will she marry the riciculous but wealthy, "suitable boy", Farhat Kaleen (Mr Collins). One of my favourite scenes in the novel is Mr Kaleen's proposal to Alys - very much like Mr Collins's - with his premeditated flowery phrases full of praise and pomp.

In Unmarriageable, Kamal really brings Jane Austen's spirit to life. The plot mirrors that of Pride and Prejudice and there are so many parallels between Alys' story and that of the original; the characters and their idiosyncrasies, the humour and wit, but there are also many South Asian references, which are very well explained to someone less familiar with the culture. In the first chapter, in her role as a teacher at an all-girls school, Alys discusses the role of women in Pakistani society -  a wonderful introduction to their world and the issues that girls and women deal with. After that, the story slows down a little and it did take me a while to get into the story, but it got much more interesting towards the end. 

There are several references to Pride and Prejudice in the book and, as Alys says (p.227), "we are... a society teeming with Austen's cruel Mrs Norrises, snobby looks-obsessed Sir Walters, and conniving John Thorpes and Lady Susans." I'm pretty sure you could find many a Mrs Bennet, a Lydia and a Mary Bennet in Pakistan as well! 

Saturday, September 19, 2020

Following Colin Firth's footsteps at Lacock Abbey!

I absolutely love Lacock, as visiting the village feels like visiting a film set and it really takes you back to Pride and Prejudice (1995). On our last visit, the Lacock Abbey cloisters were closed for filming a Netflix series, so we missed seeing those, and this time we were lucky enough to have a peek. 

Lacock Abbey (now a National Trust property) was founded in 1229, and its vaulted rooms were used as a nunnery of the Augustinian order.

The gardens are lovely to walk around and picnic in. 

We have previously visited the manor house, which was built over the old cloisters in the 16th century. The house later became the home of William Henry Fox Talbot, who created the earliest camera negative. 

The house is currently closed, but the gardens and cloister are really worth a visit... and I shall tell you why!

Of course, the medieval cloister (above) downstairs is more famously known as Hogwarts school in Harry Potter, but as that is not exactly my genre, the cloister is far more familiar to me from Pride and Prejudice. This is where the flashback scene of Mr Darcy at Cambridge University was filmed and where we learn more about Mr Wickham's character and Mr Darcy's relationship with Mr Wickham. 

Colin Firth is filmed walking down the corridor, until he enters a room where he finds Mr Wickham "misbehaving" with a girl!

Also, the Lacock Abbey stables (below) were used as the exterior of the coaching inn where Lydia and Kitty meet their sisters when they return from London. Lydia throws open a window and waves at her sisters, and later inside the inn (shot elsewhere) they gossip about men and hats. 

As always, I thoroughly enjoyed visiting another Jane Austen film location - do have a look at my previous blog from Lacock for a tour around Lacock village. 

Sunday, September 6, 2020

The Practicality of Pattens

Have you ever wondered how ladies of Jane Austen's time used to manage to keep the hems of their gowns clean? At a time, when country roads were mostly dirt lanes, likely to get muddy throughout winter, and city roads were covered in rubbish and dirt, one would think that their hems would always be "six inches deep in mud" like Elizabeth Bennet's in Pride and Prejudice. And how on earth did ladies protect those delicate shoes? 

The answer to Regency shoe issues lies in pattens. These were a type of overshoe, often consisting of a wooden sole raised on an iron ring, lifting the wearer several centimetres above the ground, which would have protected their shoes and hems. Pattens were like an early version of galoshes, a type of overshoe. My grandad, ever the gentleman, always used to wear galoshes to protect his finer polished shoes. 

I was excited to come across a pair of pattens on holiday at Chippenham Museum (near Bath) in their local history section. In this picture from the museum, you can see a child's pair on the left and an adult pair on the right. 

In Persuasion, Jane Austen writes about "the dash of other carriages, the heavy rumble of carts and drays, the bawling of newspapermen, muffin-men and milkmen, and the ceaseless clink of pattens...these were noises which belonged to the winter pleasures" (Chapter 14). Anne feels alien in Bath with all the noises surrounding her after years of quiet country life (perhaps like Jane Austen?). 

It was very common for ladies to wear these when out and about - more so amongst the working ladies. One could easily imagine Jane wearing pattens, as she comes across quite a practical person. Jane's niece, Anna Austen, wrote, "I recollect the frequent visits of my two Aunts, & how they walked in wintry weather through the sloppy lane between Steventon & Dean in pattens, usually worn at that time even by gentlewomen.”

I can't imagine pattens being comfortable to wear over long distances - what do you think? Would they be difficult to balance on? On the other hand, I couldn't imagine living without a pair either, what with all those white gowns, and no modern detergents! 

References and further reading: 

Tomalin, C. (1997) Jane Austen: A Life. Penguin Books.

Sunday, August 16, 2020

Picnicking with Emma on Leith Hill

If you've seen the new Emma film, you might remember the Box Hill scene, where the dull picnic ends in a fiasco with Emma insulting Miss Bates? Well, it turns out that the scene wasn't filmed on the actual Box Hill but rather on Leith Hill. The same scene in the 2009 Emma (with Romola Garai) was also filmed there. 

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Leith Hill is a hill situated not far from Box Hill, in the Surrey Hills, also known as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. In fact, at 294 meters above sea level, Leith Hill is the highest point in Surrey, and the views from its summit are no less spectacular than those from Box Hill. I enjoyed a picnic there with my family several weeks ago, and we enjoyed the sweat-inducing hike up the hill - the view from the top was definitely worth the hike. 

Like Box Hill, Leith Hill is maintained by the National Trust. At the summit, there is also Leith Hill Tower, an 18th Century tower built in the Gothic style. 

Under normal circumstances, you could climb up the tower and admire the views with a telescope, but the tower isn't open to visitors during Covid. 

Interestingly, Leith Hill was also the second home of composer Vaughan Williams, whose grandparents lived in Leith Hill Place, now a National Trust property. Some fascinating connections there, and I made it a point to visit the house when it reopens. 

Further reading: 

-For more about Leith Hill, you could read Tony Grant's detailed and informative blog on Leith Hill, the surrounding area and its literary connections. 

-Leith Hill is also mentioned in Quint, K. (2019) Jane Austen's England - A Travel Guide. ACC Art Books. (p. 165)

Friday, July 31, 2020

A Walk Around Chawton House Garden "was a sweet view — sweet to the eye and the mind. English verdure, English culture, English comfort, seen under a sun bright, without being oppressive."

I was delighted to find that the Chawton House Gardens had opened again after a long period of lockdown. It's so lovely to walk around the gardens in the footsteps of Jane Austen, as she must have spent many a happy summer's day strolling around her brother's garden, and there are so many mentions to gardens in her novels. In Edward Austen's estate, Jane found plenty of comfort, and she must have enjoyed the serenity and beauty of this landscape. 

I started my walk from the South Lawn, where I sat down to have my picnic, admiring the green, lush views towards Chawton House. In the early Georgian times, there were formal gardens here, but during the period 1763-1780, these were replaced by parkland in the style of Capability Brown, whose landscaping has become a trademark of 18th century gardens. His style, although carefully designed and executed, leaned towards a more natural style that looked almost untouched. 

From the South Lawn I walked through to the Upper Terrace, which wasn't there during Jane Austen's times. This terrace was built in ca 1901 by Edward Austen Knight's grandson, Montagu, who revolutionised much of the estate and took excellent care of it, and also built a 'Library Terrace' near the house. 

I walked down the path to Edward Austen Knight's walled garden. I love a walled garden, as it reminds me of Frances Hodgson Burnett's "Secret Garden", a story which I loved as a child. 

At the end of the 19th century, Montagu Knight divided this garden into two, and created a rose garden in the first half of the garden. 

The second half of the garden is a wonderful mismatch of colourful flowers, vegetables and herbs - just like Jane Austen would have known it. 

There is a lovely trail around the gardens, with quotes from Jane Austen's books, which reminded me of her wit and cheeky personality. In one of her letters from 1816, Jane Austen mentions that it was difficult for her to write, as she had her "head full of joints of mutton and doses of rhubarb". Obviously she needed to be free of mundane things, such as housework, to be able to concentrate on her work. 

Herb gardens were used extensively to treat various kinds of ailments and to create natural beauty products. This herb garden is inspired by Elizabeth Blackwell's book, "A Curious Herbal", from the Chawton House early women's literature collection. 

Each quadrant contains ten plants that are curative for a particular body part: head beds, chest beds, digestion beds and skin beds. Seems logical to me - if you had a complaint, you could just head over to that particular part of your garden and get a treatment.  

Apple orchards are always such a treat, and I'm pleased to know that Jane Austen was fond of the fruit. 

The Austen ladies had apple trees in their own garden, as well as berries. 

Jane was no stranger to strawberries either. In 1816, she wrote to Cassandra, "Yesterday I had the agreeable surprise of finding several scarlet strawberries quite ripe; had you been at home, this would have been a pleasure lost. There are more gooseberries and fewer currants than I thought at first." I am assuming that these berries grew in their own kitchen garden at Chawton Cottage. 

I also enjoyed the rose walk at the end of the walled garden. 

I then walked out of the walled garden towards the shrubbery. 

A shrubbery was a route where the ladies of the house could take their exercise, when the weather permitted. 

Shrubberies seem to occur often in Jane Austen's writings, as Kim Wilson discussed in her talk "Love in the Shrubbery" as part of the Chawton House Virtual Garden Festival. In fact, a shrubbery is mentioned in each of her novels. Jane Austen's characters often meet up in a shrubbery to get away from others, or to reflect in a safe space. 

Admiring the serene fields, I then walked towards what was known as a "wilderness". 

A common feature in an English Landscape garden in the 18th century, a wilderness was a wooded area that would appear natural but was actually carefully and deliberately designed. It was fashionable to have a wilderness in one's garden and there is a reference to a wilderness in Pride and Prejudice. Lady Catherine wants to find out if Elizabeth and Mr Darcy are engaged, and asks  Elizabeth, "Miss Bennet, there seemed to be a prettyish kind of a little wilderness at the side of your lawn. I should be glad to take a turn in it". 

An avenue of lime trees lead me back towards Chawton House. This didn't exist at the time of Jane Austen, as it was planted by Montagu Knight. Lime trees were common, though, and in Emma, Jane describes the Donwell Abbey grounds as follows: 
"It was hot; and after walking some time over the gardens in a scattered, dispersed way, scarcely any three together, they insensibly followed one another to the delicious shade of a broad short avenue of limes, which stretching beyond the garden at an equal distance from the river, seemed the finish of the pleasure grounds."

The last, but not the least important feature of the garden, was the Ha-Ha. A sunken fence, these were a typical feature of an 18th century garden, preventing the sheep or other livestock from entering the gardens and coming too close to the house. They also had some symbolic significance in Jane Austen's novels, symbolising hidden authority or the entrance into vice. In Mansfield Park, Fanny Price decides to stay back, while she watches Maria Bertram cross the ha-ha with Henry Crawford, leaving her behind. In the scene, Austen discusses the moral dilemma in a symbolic way, contrasting virtue and vice, stability and risk. 

Back to the South Lawn, I thought, as Emma did as she enjoyed the beautiful grounds of Donwell Abbey, "It was a sweet view — sweet to the eye and the mind. English verdure, English culture, English comfort, seen under a sun bright, without being oppressive."

I thought I would finish this scribble with a quote from Jane Austen's letter to Cassandra that never fails to amuse me. 

References and further reading 

Friday, July 17, 2020

Death Comes to Pemberley and A Fan Moment With Matthew Goode

I've never been much into fan fiction or sequels of Jane Austen, thinking that I didn't want to mess around with my idea of Jane Austen's writing. I was pleasantly surprised when, finding "Death Comes to Pemberley" on Amazon Prime, I actually really enjoyed this mini-series. 

Death Comes to Pemberley is based on a novel by crime novelist P. D. James. I haven't read the novel yet, so I am not in the position to assess whether it is a good adaptation of James' novel, but I enjoyed it as a sequel to Jane Austen's work. I was impressed by the acting and thought the storyline was very captivating and credible. I was intrigued until the very end to find out who the murderer was. The series had all the essential elements of Pride and Prejudice woven into the screenplay, and the characters were recognisable. It resonated Jane Austen's wit, and I think that she herself would have enjoyed the story, given the fact that her juvenilia was full of stories like this and she may well have been amused by the twists to her story. 

Image from Wikipedia:

I also loved seeing Matthew Goode cast as Wickham in this adaptation. I was smitten by Matthew Goode in Downton Abbey, a series which I really enjoyed, and I thought he made a great dashing villain in Death Comes to Pemberley as well. 

To my great surprise, I had the good luck of bumping into the said gentleman as I was visiting Oxford a couple of years ago. I was at the Bodleian Library with my family and I was quite shocked as I walked right up to him at a doorway to the library courtyard, and there he was, right in front of me, staring at me straight in the face. I immediately recognised him and thought that he was even more dashing in real life! He was incredibly handsome, in a Bond-like manner, dressed in a slim black suit - this reminded me of him as Henry Talbot in Downton Abbey. 

I was too embarrassed to ask for a photo, and I was mortified when my husband teasingly said that I'd love a photo with him, but Matthew was a perfect gentleman and happily obliged! He told me that he was shooting a Netflix series at the Bodleian (I later found out that they were shooting "A Discovery of Witches" - not my type of genre but perhaps some of you have seen it?). What a shy fangirl moment that was!

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Chawton House Lockdown Literary Festival and Interesting Literary Connections

This weekend I was pleased to discover the Chawton House Lockdown Literary Literary Festival. While my home life during lockdown keeps me very busy, I managed to squeeze in some time to watch a speech by Devoney Looser, Professor of English at Arizona State University and author of "The Making of Jane Austen". Professor Looser is an expert in early women's literature.

Her speech was very eye-opening and I would love to share some of the things I learnt from her today.
Did you know that

-During Jane Austen's lifetime, there was an almost equal number of male and female writers? This fact surprised me, as I had assumed the profession to be far more common amongst men, thinking that it was considered more acceptable for men to become authors. There were hundreds of other active women writers and, in fact, women were far more prolific fiction writers than men.

-Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility was likely to have been influenced by the writing of Jane West, a household name who was probably the most famous female writer at the time. Jane West wrote "A Gossip's Story", featuring two sisters, one of whom was more rational and the other more emotional, just like Elinor and Marianne - in fact, the more emotional of the two sisters was named Marianne. It would be fascinating to read "The Gossip's Story" and compare the two. Later on, Jane West rewrote Jane Austen's Emma in "Ringrove", which is another piece of writing that I would be keen to explore.

-A contemporary of Jane Austen and a well-known writer, Jane Porter, was born in the same year as Jane (1775). Jane Austen was approached by the Prince Regent's librarian, James Stanier Clarke, to write a historical romance dedicated to Prince Leopold. She never endeavoured to do this, famously saying that she preferred writing about things she knew well. However, Jane Porter took a similar offer eight years later, perhaps in the hope of royal pension, and wrote "Duke Christian of Luneburg".
Interesting literary connections and I can't wait to learn more!

Sunday, March 8, 2020

On Location in Lacock

Last Mother's Day (wow, it has taken me a year to write this post!) I was taken to Lacock in Wiltshire for a treat. I am a big fan of the National Trust, and I had wanted to visit Lacock for a long time, as it is one of the most famous film locations for several period dramas - most interestingly, the location for Meryton in Pride and Prejudice (1995) and Highbury in my favourite adaptation of Emma (1996 with Kate Beckinsale) - not to forget Downton Abbey. 

Stepping into Lacock is like stepping back in time. Lacock Abbey dates back to 1232, and the village houses are several centuries old. You can easily imagine why production companies might choose this as a location, as the village has changed very little over the centuries, there is not a satellite dish in sight (those are banned by the National Trust), and the only thing to remind us of our modern times is the cars parked on the side of the road. 

Lacock is, however, a working village with a school, village hall, church, quaint boutiques and several pubs, but walking the roads truly feels like walking through a film set. 

The High Street was used as a location for the Meryton high street. The exterior of the Red Lion pub on your left was used as a location for Meryton Assembly Rooms in P & P where Sir Lucas' country ball was held. Don't you love all those vintage cars parked outside? 

The High Street was also seen as shops in Pride and Prejudice, such as the haberdasher's shop where the Bennet sisters stopped to look at bonnets until they were interrupted by Mr Wickham (and a cold greeting from Mr Darcy). 

Another street, Church Street, served as the high street of Highbury in Emma. 

St Cyriac's Church was where the Westons'  wedding was shot at the beginning of Emma and perhaps some of the other wedding scenes as well (who recognises the church?)

I enjoyed reading "The Making of Jane Austen's Emma", which was a companion for the 1996 film. In the book, there are interesting stories about the production in Lacock. We learn that the company had just three days to film the Lacock scenes, as it was a busy time in the village and the National Trust didn't wish to have filming during the weekends, which are their busiest time with tourists flocking the village. 

It was fascinating to read about how the village was transformed from 1996 to 1813. Ground cover was laid, earth and grit spread around the roads, autumn leaves and manure scattered around the floor, straw for horses left in places... 

Some of the facades, for example Miss Bates' house, were changed entirely, and signs were changed to period ones, film lights added in front of windows and cars moved from the roads. Even the existing flowers were swapped with more period-appropriate ones. 

Some of you might recognise this house as being Harry Potter's first home. 

Harry Potter's Hogwart's school was shot in Lacock Abbey cloisters. This was also used as a location for Cambridge University, where Mr Darcy studied as a young man with Mr Wickham. We visited Lacock Abbey as well, which is an interesting building in itself, but the cloisters were closed at the time as there was a film crew working on a series. 

There are stalls and shops selling various Harry Potter related paraphernalia around the village, catering to the flocks of tourists that visit the village. I loved it how there were many stalls (as below) in front of people's houses, selling crafts and preserves with an honesty box and not a salesman in sight. Obviously, being a National Trust village, there is a feeling of trust that people will behave sensibly and be kind to the locals. 

All in all, Lacock is a wonderful place to visit and I would recommend a day trip there with a visit to the Abbey, one of the lovely ancient pubs, and the quaint gift shops that line the streets of Lacock, spotting familiar film locations on the way. 

You can get more information on Lacock and several other film locations in Karin Quint's guidebook and do have a look at the film companions for some interesting snippets. 

Further reading: 

Birtwistle, S. & Conklin, S. (1996) The Making of Jane Austen's Emma. Penguin Books. 
Birtwistle, S. & Conklin, S. (1995) The Making of Pride and Prejudice. Penguin Books. 
Quint, Karin. (2019 Jane Austen's England - A Travel Guide. ACC Art Books.