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Keeping Jane Austen alive in the UAE

The Regency era never ceases to fascinate and the newly formed society of the Emirates is an attempt to retrace the writer’s legacy through conversations and costumes



Photo by Shihab
Photo by Shihab
by

Anamika Chatterjee

Published: Thu 3 Mar 2022, 8:18 PM

Last updated: Sat 5 Mar 2022, 7:02 PM

February 13, 4 pm: The Sidra Lounge at Habtoor Palace Hotel in Dubai time travels to nineteenth century England. Scores of women — and men — dressed in Regency-inspired attire, come together for afternoon tea. Among the guests are two gentlemen who are introduced by the hostess as Darcy and Bingley. They have driven up from Abu Dhabi. As they find comfort in conversations with other guests, a lady walks up to them. Pleasantries are exchanged, and before they know it, a question is popped to Bingley — “Are you single?” It’s only when she hears a ‘Yes’ that the lady takes out a picture of her daughter from her purse who could be a suitable match. “So, is that Jane Bennet?” the hostess jokes.

Jane Austen could not have been more alive.

This is a scene from the inaugural afternoon tea that marks the launch of the Jane Austen Society of the Emirates (JASE). The hostess is Laaleen Sukhera, a British-Pakistani author and communications professional who had earlier established the Jane Austen Society of Pakistan (JASP), which received international acclaim a few years ago for contemporising Austen in Pakistan, an initiative that also led to an anthology of short stories called Austenistan. JASE has been founded by Sukhera and Brazilian-American expat Cleia Peterson with the singular aim of bringing Jane-ites (a term used to describe avid followers of the literary cult of Jane Austen) together over tea and conversations that range from her robust legacy to why she continues to be relevant even today. While the template for JASE is similar to that of JASP, Sukhera points out that the latter is a women’s-only literary social circle and community that has presence on Facebook, while the former is also open to gentlemen and is more of a social group with more frequent cosplay and themed occasions. “Both are whimsical and welcoming,” says Sukhera.

Photo: Hammad Qureshi (Insta: @hgraphers)
Photo: Hammad Qureshi (Insta: @hgraphers)

Why Austen?

Twenty first century has nothing in common with nineteenth century, as described in Austen’s books. One only has to look around to see how different our world is. The sites of romance and courtship have shifted online. Families are increasingly shrinking. From making a home, women are now breaking glass ceilings — or are at least setting their gaze above. How do our realities then coincide with that of Austen’s fiction? This is when Sukhera offers a much-needed reminder that underneath the rose-tinted world a struggle for survival underlined the narratives of Austen’s novels. And those struggles still remain. “She talked about financial struggles and familial realities that are still relatable. So many women can relate to the Dashwood sisters (Sense and Sensibility) and their predicaments even two centuries later. Also, patriarchy isn’t quite dead yet,” she says.

Photo: Hammad Qureshi (Insta: @hgraphers)
Photo: Hammad Qureshi (Insta: @hgraphers)

The allure is also in the simplicity of life and relationships. Austen’s world isn’t without its own share of challenges, but choices appear more uncomplicated. A luxury that twenty-first century urban life, even with its privileges, doesn’t always afford us. Which is perhaps why modern audiences are increasingly finding themselves drawn to Regency-era drama, as the popularity of Julia Quinn’s Bridgerton series and its Netflix adaptation shows. “It’s very easy to get obsessed by Regency-era frivolity, decadence, restrictions, passions, double standards along with fabulous dialogues, fashion and decor,” says Sukhera, whose honors thesis at university was about Austen screen adaptations. “I grew up with Georgette Heyer and period drama and researching Beau Brummell for fun. And now it’s gone mainstream and ethnically inclusive with Bridgerton, et al.” The Regency era was also a time when the arts flourished, which also makes us want to look back in wonder. “The Regency period started during the Romantic movement, a time rich in literature, poetry and prose. It was the time of the Romantic poets like Wordsworth, Byron, Coleridge and Shelley, and the Romantic novelist Sir Walter Scott. Austen wrote all her works during that period and I believe we are all seeking a candid romance,” says co-founder Cleia.

Photo: Hammad Qureshi (Insta: @hgraphers)
Photo: Hammad Qureshi (Insta: @hgraphers)

Speaking of Austen...

Regency-style schmoozing in 21st century also happens over reels and selfies. The whole experience of being part of a society like this could be visual, but both founders are keen to have an essence to the conversations. It’s not always about how great Austen was but also the challenges she faced — something many of her avid readers tend to airbrush when talking about her. Cleia says it is important to talk about Austen’s personal struggles. “In my view, Austen was a feminist and ahead of her time. Her character and the way she describes the society of her time in her sarcastic and witty way show her genius. She mocks social norms and people in an amusing manner,” says Cleia.

That wit and sarcasm is at the heart of the interaction between the 30 members of the society when they draw parallels with their own lived experiences. “We tend to make social comparisons with wit and banter,” says Laaleen. But there is also plenty of laughter, shared opinions, games and quizzes. “It’s more organic than a traditional book club. We discuss fiction along with period drama, and juxtapose them with our own social experiences.”

Photo: Hammad Qureshi (Insta: @hgraphers)
Photo: Hammad Qureshi (Insta: @hgraphers)

Dressed to thrill

The cosplay, even though the organisers have not made it mandatory yet, remains an attraction. One of the attendees at the JASE’s inaugural event, Italian neurosurgeon Debora Garozzo, says that she saw the announcement of the event on the Facebook page and decided to come in order to meet “like-minded” people who love literature, but the cosplay meant it could be a “lot of fun”.

The attention paid to it certainly points towards the interest that costuming generates. Cleia, who has been a regular at the Jane Austen Festival in Bath and the Jane Austen Week in Alton, has been studying Regency costumes for years. “I have made and bought dresses over the years,” she says. “The same goes for my bonnets, corset, silk socks, etc. There are many different historical stores online. I also handmade one of my dresses with the help of my historical costume Facebook community. When I was making one of my dresses, I had a quick Facebook chat with the famous bespoke tailor Zack MacLeod Pinsent; he gave me so much information about how I could get as close as possible to a Regency period dress. I have to say, it paid off. I am working on making a new dress soon.” One can also get creative with existing wardrobe. “A high-wasted dress, a Pakistani wedding pouch that works as a reticule, regular ballet flats, a shawl and a replica of Empress Sisi’s fan, it’s all quite fun,” says Laaleen, adding that a lot of Regency fashion came from the Indo-Pak subcontinent, which makes it easy to accessorise.

Men celebrating Austen

Photo: Hammad Qureshi (Insta: @hgraphers)
Photo: Hammad Qureshi (Insta: @hgraphers)

For the longest time, Austen’s fiction was neatly stacked as ‘chick lit’ simply because her protagonists were women. But over the years, many male readers have come forward to profess their liking for Austen, which has also possibly led to a rebranding of her fiction. Cleia, for example, remembers how her husband became a fan. “I dragged him to Alton for the Jane Austen Society Week and he loved it.” Sensing that men could love Austen just as much, the society has decided to be gender inclusive and one third of its membership comprises men. The inaugural event saw many of them participating with equal fervour, something the founders hope will not change even as they plan the Regency picnic this weekend. Zuhaib Hassan, a Dubai-based engineer and bibliophile who attended the event, was among them. When asked what sort of space he sees the society offering male members in future, he says, “I am an avid reader and once this society is well-established here in the Emirates, I can play the role of guy-brarian and select books for our next meet-up.”

This playfulness is characteristic of the society and the founders are encouraging male members to embrace Austen in the same spirit as the female members. “Dubai gentlemen are pretty good sports, sociable and confident. However, not one of them has worn a ruffled white Pemberley shirt yet, so I am tempted to dress up as Darcy myself sometime,” laughs Laaleen, alluding to the iconic scene in the BBC’S 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice where Colin Firth emerges from the lake in his famous white linen shirt.

For now, though, brainstorming is on for activities that can help expand the footprint of JASE in the region. Laaleen says she is thinking of “dress-up themes” from other eras next, like a Fitzgerald/Wodehouse-inspired Roaring Twenties social evening and a glamorous Christie-inspired murder mystery dinner. Cleia, however, has a dream. “How about a Regency ball in the UAE?”

anamika@khaleejtimes.com


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