Few books have been adapted as often, and in as many different ways, as Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. There have been prequels, sequels, complete reimaginings. TV shows, plays, movies. There’s even a video game. More than two hundred years after Austen’s original novel was published, the steady stream of adaptations has shown no sign of slowing down.
The latest of these is Ayesha At Last, by first-time author Uzma Jalaluddin. The book transposes the story to a Muslim community in modern day Toronto. Ayesha is a spirited supply teacher and aspiring poet, progressive in her Muslim faith. Khalid – who wears a skullcap and robe to his job at a marketing firm, and is happy to let his mother pick his wife – personifies the religious conservatism she so abhors. When they meet, it is hate at first sight. But you know what happens next…
Ayesha At Last is not the most rigid Pride And Prejudice adaptation. Jalaluddin does not incorporate every plotline of the original novel into her own; there’s not an obvious surrogate for the Bingleys, or Lady Catherine de Bourgh, or Mr Collins. Still, the main skeleton of the story is there, and it stands up well to the new setting. The world of traditional Muslim courtship that Jalaluddin paints so vividly – where personal feelings are considered less important than honour and family status – has a lot in common with Austen’s. The update feels natural, warranted. At no point does it seem that Jalaluddin is sacrificing her own plot just to get another element of Austen in there.
And that’s important. Although Ayesha At Last is an adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, what makes it so enjoyable is both the way Jalaluddin uses that classic structure to tell her own story, and the way she veers off the beaten path when it is fitting. The tale of Darcy’s lost sister becomes a moving portrayal of the sadness of the diasporic experience: always having a family split between two different countries, never feeling entirely at home in either. Other subplots – the exhaustion of having an Islamophobic boss, the tragic backstory of Ayesha’s father, Ayesha’s inner battle between the stability of supply teaching and her passion for poetry – are completely new. This combination of the classic and the modern, handled with such elegance and humour, is the real key to the book’s joyful readability.
Perhaps the most important aspect of Jalaluddin’s debut, however, is the way it explores the spectrum of Muslim faith. The mosque that all the main characters attend is a place that is striving to become modern and attract younger people, and that’s portrayed as a positive move. Yet Khalid’s more conservative views are treated with respect; he’s still in full religious dress at the end of the novel. Jalaluddin’s depiction of a ‘big tent’ Islam is refreshingly welcome in a cultural landscape where the treatment of Muslims is so often so reductive.
A wise and witty update on one of the world’s most beloved novels, Ayesha At Last is a terrific, timely read.
Ayesha At Last is published by Corvus on 4 April 2019