Jane Austen has a new cult following. And it is in Pakistan
You've probably heard of the Jane Austen cults in America and Australia. What you wouldn't have heard of is such a cult in Pakistan that meets to read Austen, sometimes in Regency-inspired attire. But such a cult exists, and this makes Pakistanis just as huge devotees of the English writer as the rest of the world.
The story began in Islamabad two years ago when Laaleen Khan, an ardent Austen fan since her childhood, decided to float the Jane Austen Society of Pakistan (JASP).
An eclectic bunch of Austen fans - all women - started to meet up in Islamabad to take an Austen quotes quiz or play the Jane Austen Matchmaker card game. Or, better still, dress up in Regency-inspired attire.
Two years down the line, there are nearly 800 members of the society, with chapters in Islamabad, Karachi and Lahore.
Khan tells Catch why.
"There are so many parallels between Austen's Regency-era society and South Asian society today. The obsession with the marriage market, for one thing, complete with concern for reputation, eligibility, decorum, propriety and ancestry juxtaposed with elements of snobbery, misogyny and hypocrisy. We have our share of disapproving Lady Catherine de Bourgh-esque society aunties, rakish Wickhams and Willoughbys, pretentious Mrs Eltons and holier-than-thou Mr Collins types!"
Austen in Pakistan
Jane Austen died in 1817 at the age of 41 with six novels to her name and with ironically little fame in her own lifetime. Yet the clubs of Janeites are bursting at the seams across the globe.
The world may find this fetish for Austen a little odd, especially in a country which is viewed as one of the most dangerous in the world, but Khan has an answer to that.
"Radicalisation, extremism and bigotry are tragic and terrifying phenomena happening all over the world, in both eastern and western hemispheres and among various socio-political groups and ethnicities. I honestly can't see its direct relevance with literary pursuits in Pakistan."
Khan says that Austen fans have universal similarities and shared interests despite any disparities in personal, professional, geographical or ethnic backgrounds.
"Those of us in the Commonwealth including South Asia often grow up with an affinity for British authors. I'd say Austen isn't mainstream but more of a niche, though in recent years she's also been part of trans-Atlantic popular culture. She remains a perennial favourite for those of us who were introduced to her, often through books passed along by family members or part of an O level curriculum, for instance."
For Khan, Austen's words contain societal truths and witty dialogue juxtaposed with brief descriptions - quite contemporary in style.
"She isn't a tedious read unlike, say, Henry James. She's constantly evolving thanks to recurring screen adaptations and fan fiction along with academic analyses, festivals, tours, merchandise and the efforts of Jane Austen societies all over the world. She's been translated into many languages, including Urdu and Hindi. In fact, Urdu television drama narratives often resemble Austen storylines. She's here to stay."
The Elite Club
Within two years the membership has grown to 800. And, apart from the Islamabad chapter, there's talk of chapters in Karachi and Lahore too.
"Our online community is 94% female, eclectic and very international. Many authors, bloggers and professionals from various fields including banking, international development, medicine and law are part of JASP, ranging primarily from 21 to 55 but mostly in our 30s," says Khan.
Members she has met up with in person are mostly journalists and media correspondents, but also health professionals and doctors, academics and barristers ranging from about 21 to 42 and 100% female. The criterion is basically enthusiasm along with a keen interest in all things Austen.
"Our online community members are approaching 800 in number, including 45 nationalities around the world and many expat Pakistanis. 250 of our community members reside in Pakistan. About 30 have met in person so far and a few more via Skype."
She describes JASP as a private literary group which is very welcoming.
"We meet every month or two at cafés and discuss pertinent topics, indulge in themed quizzes and games and discuss our plans. Our annual Regency-inspired tea party is whimsical and a little eccentric so a residence is best for that."
"So far, our Islamabad members have been meeting up for one year. Some of our Karachi members met up for the first time recently. Lahore's next on our agenda," she says.
Flirting with Firth
Khan tells Catch who came first in her life - Colin Firth or Jane Austen?
"Colin Firth is an incredible actor and a wonderful human being. I'm a Firthie for sure. In my case, the novels came first."
The love affair with Austen began when Khan received a box set of Austen titles on her twelfth birthday from her English aunt. She was immediately intrigued.
At the time, she adored Pride and Prejudice, found Mansfield Park a little dull and thought Persuasion was about 'older' people - one of the reasons she is so drawn to it now.
Of the other Austen novels she says she related to Northanger Abbey instantly as she has been obsessed with Agatha Christie mysteries since the age of 10, so she empathised with Catherine Morland's inherent curiosity. But she didn't appreciate Sense and Sensibility and Emma properly until she watched the films in 1995-96.
By the time she was enrolled at university she'd caught Darcy Fever thanks to the BBC's Pride and Prejudice series, and her thesis was an analysis of postmodernism in Austen screen adaptations.
"I'm enthralled by Austenian screen adaptations and fandom - the estates, the costumes, the accessories, the Regency world that's also been depicted so charmingly by Georgette Heyer. Last year, I visited Bath for the first time and I was in heaven!"
JASP is a literary group that connects based on shared interests that bear absolutely no relevance with social cliques. The group isn't supported or funded by any programme so there is limited outreach and resources.
"But between us, there's always positive energy. We exchange dynamic thoughts and ideas so our chats are inspiring as well as loads of fun," says Khan.
The group hopes to raise funds for literacy programmes in Pakistan through the Jane Austen Literacy Foundation, founded by Caroline Jane Knight, Austen's fifth great niece.
Khan has worn several hats in the past decade or so - from television production in New York, Lahore and the UK to marketing and PR consulting in Islamabad and Lahore to lifestyle journalism.
"I'm now committed to authoring Austen-inspired commercial fiction, starting with an exciting anthology by contributors from Pakistan. There's been an encouraging response from international publishers already."
She is happy that JASP received generous editorial coverage in Jane Austen's Regency World Magazine, the official magazine of the Jane Austen Centre in Bath, and that she won a short essay contest hosted by the Jane Austen Society of Europe.
Khan is now preparing to be a panellist at the Jane Austen Society of North America's 'Emma At 200' Annual General Meeting in Washington DC in October, representing Pakistan.
With fans like Khan in Pakistan, it's no wonder Jane Austen's legacy continues to live on across the world.