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‘We are at a point in our work when we can no longer ignore empires and the imperial context in our studies.’

Edward W. Said

The themes of empire and imperial exploitation are scarcely touched upon in Pride and Prejudice; they are ignored to create an idyllic painting of rural in the Georgian era. These great paintings of a hearty and lush have been secured in the minds of many, not only through Jane Austen’s writing but also through film adaptations of Pride and Prejudice, giving life to the beautiful creation that is Pride and Prejudice through romantic cinematography and harmonious melodies. This, however, is not the entire truth; there is a darkness to these creations, an unpleasant truth that warps these pieces to create a vile picture. If we are to believe that ‘we are at a point in our work when we can no longer ignore empires and the imperial context in our studies,’ (Culture and Imperialism, p.6) we must no longer ignore the subtle implications of empire and imperialism within Pride and Prejudice.

Although it may seem unlikely, Austen and Gurinder Chadha share multiple characteristics; both their visions stemmed from a heterosexual narrative, and both used wit and comedy as a critique of society. It is, however, Chadha’s Bride and Prejudice that provides a refreshing contrast, creating a valuable post-colonial discussion on Austen’s writing, and criticizing the lack of colonial referencing within her work. An example of such is Chadha’s interpretation of Mr. Darcy, or simply Darcy as he is referred to as such. A similarity between both characters is their ignorance and judgemental nature, resulting in prejudices. A prime example of such within Pride and Prejudice is Mr. Darcy’s description of Elizabeth, believing her to be ‘tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me.’ It is important to note the use of the italicized personal pronoun ‘me’ (Pride and Prejudice, p.26) within the quote; its primary usage is to highlight his judgemental nature and distaste Mr. Darcy has for Elizabeth, mostly because of his upper-class status, while Elizabeth belongs to the middle-upper class. I believe the egotistical nature of the possessive pronoun ‘me’ used within this extract is symbolic of Mr. Darcy’s elitist attitude and judgemental complexion which he inflicts on those around him. Furthermore, I agree with the concept that ‘italicizing specific words in narratives increases readers’ attention to those words.’ We as readers are drawn to the italicized ‘me’ (Pride and Prejudice, p.26) which I believe is symbolic of Mr. Darcy’s intriguing nature; we are fascinated by him, much like Elizabeth is, yet note the immediate full stop after ‘me’ within the extract. I believe this to represent Mr. Darcy’s coldness and disconnect; as Elizabeth is abruptly torn away from his intriguing nature, we as readers are too forced to disconnect from him out of his own pride and highbrow attitude.

Much like Mr. Darcy, Darcy is also judgemental and ignorant, yet this form of ignorance was utilized by Chadha to highlight unconsciousness and neglect of imperialism and colonialism in India and across the world. Darcy’s ignorance is very apparent when he asks Lalita (Bride and Prejudice’s Elizabeth) to dance. His knowledge of Hindu and Indian culture is incredibly limited, stating that ‘I’m a hopeless dancer but this looks like you just screw in a lightbulb with one hand and pat the dog with the other.’Doctor Maalyada Anand K reflects on the importance of dance and various forms of theatre within Indian society:

‘Living traditions occupy a prominent place in the Indian social system. Any living tradition has a natural flow. There can be no doubt about the fact that traditional art forms reflect the ideals of the society, its determination to survive, its ethos, and its emotions.’

It is therefore uncomplicated to acknowledge the importance of dance in Indian culture, and for Darcy to compare it to effortless tasks, deconstructing them and breaking them down to the mundane, he is undermining their importance within Indian society. It is important to understand that ‘Western perceptions and characterizations of India have considerable influence on the self-perceptions of Indians themselves,’ so for a Westerner like Darcy to diminish the art of Indian dance may cause Indians to suppress the art form, erasing a part of their culture.

Chadha is rather critical of extreme consumerism and its connections to exploitation, which may be noted to be an ‘ideology of a new imperialism.’ This is first done through Mr. Kohli, who is portrayed as a man of excess, and enjoys a decadent lifestyle, whose great purpose is to make money and find a wife, for there is ‘No life without wife (Bride and Prejudice).’ The scene where this is most evident is when Mr. Bakshi tells a joke about having three swimming pools:

So when his father visited from India, he showed him around his mansion and three swimming pools.

His father asked, ‘But, son, why do you need three pools?’

So he said proudly, ‘Well, one is filled with cold water for when I feel hot.

The second is filled with hot water when I feel cold. ‘

The father nodded and said, ‘But why is the third pool empty?’

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He said, ‘Well, that’s when I don’t feel like swimming at all. ‘ (Bride and Prejudice)

Lalita uses this quip later as a method to insult Mr. Kohli, confronting his extreme consumerism and subtly criticizing his decadence, to which he corrects her, stating he only ‘has two pools.’ (Bride and Prejudice) This critical view of consumerism is a direct criticism of Pride and Prejudice, in which the majority of the characters are greatly concerned with wealth, and how to grow their finances, which ‘had been acquired by trade.’ (Pride and Prejudice, p. 38)

Despite Lalita’s skepticism of the West’s consumerism and ‘economic imperialism’ (Locating Transnational Ideals, p.257), she has been deeply impacted by it, and continues to deem it to be ideal; her vision of a traditional European wedding between her and Wickham is presented as dreamy and perfect as if a European wedding is a model for all weddings. Lalita is prejudiced against economic imperialism, yet deems it to be absolute if she is the beneficiary.

Another way in which Chadha criticizes the consumerist nature within Pride and Prejudice and society as a whole is through the use of color and clothes. Many of the characters’ clothes are bold, bright, and eye-catching, with Lalita being the prime example of this; we see her sari come in a range of colors, from heartthrob pink to passionate orange, each encrusted with fine jewels and gemstones. We are drawn to these clothes, which are symbolic of our consumerist society, constantly seeking the finest items in life. This is contrasted with the original Pride and Prejudice text, while agreeably, clothes were used to highlight one’s status, they played no other significant role in the text or other faithful adaptations. An interesting concept to ponder is the claim that the clothes and saris worn by characters were chosen intentionally as a way to highlight India’s objectification by the West as the ‘exotic other’ (Locating Transnational Ideals, p. 261). Characters (primarily Darcy) within Bride and Prejudice fail to see India as a country, instead of viewing it as a resort for tourists. Lalita accuses Darcy of exactly that, believing he wants to turn India into a ‘theme park’ where people can come to India ‘without having to deal with Indians.’

Bride and Prejudice is an interesting and modern take on ‘the world’s most influential novel ever. As a result, it is incredibly easy for modern readers to be critical of its content. However, we frequently forget the societal restraints many authors faced in previous centuries, and Austen was no different; being a female author, she experienced much patronizing and sexism from male critics. She even noted the advantages male authors have in her novel Persuasion:

‘Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs to so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove anything.’

With this knowledge, could it be fair to argue that Chadha’s (and other literary critics) critique of Pride and Prejudice’s lack of imperial themes is rather unfair?

Literary critics have argued that many of Austen’s works contain a ‘racist subtext, and her lack of referencing colonialism and empire within her novels is her being ‘white, privileged, insensitive, complicit.’ (Culture and Imperialism, p.96). I would disagree; Austen’s brother, Francis Austen had abolitionist views which he documented in his journal:

‘This is a wholesome regulation as far as it goes, but slavery however it may be modified is still slavery, and it is much to be regretted that any trace of it should be found to exist in countries dependent on, or colonized by her subjects.’

Austen herself wrote about her enjoyment of reading the letters of Thomas Clarkson, a prominent white abolitionist. Devoney Looser wrote:

‘We know from her letters that she refers to having loved the writings of a prominent white abolitionist, Thomas Clarkson. So we know that she read and cared about issues of race and racial injustice.’

To conclude that the lack of references to colonialism and imperialism within her work means she was complicit is a rather simple view, and ignores much of the historical context which states otherwise. As noted previously, the limitations of female authors were immense, with many using pseudonyms as a way to allow for their novels to be published, unlike male authors who used a pseudonym as a form of artistic expression. It leads one to wonder, could Austen have been so vocal about issues surrounding colonialism and imperialism? She was already in peril, simply for being a female author, so would it have been wise to fuel the animosity further by being critical of colonialism and imperialism which was normalized?

Chadha’s subtle critiques of the lack of colonial and imperial referencing within Pride and Prejudice are welcomed; Bride and Prejudice is refreshing, providing a unique retelling of a classic story. Chadha’s critiques of the source text are subtle, done primarily by highlighting a character’s ignorant knowledge of a country and consumerist society as a new form of imperialism. It is important to understand the conditions Austen was writing under, and the oppressive regime she had to endure, so to argue that she should have been more vocal about colonization and imperialism ignores the grueling reality many female authors faced. From her letters, it is clear that she is rather educated on issues such as slavery and abolitionism, so we should not assume that simply because she did not write about colonialism and imperialism, she did not care.

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