Book Review: “American Dervish” by Ayad Akthar

Hayat Shah is a young American in love for the first time. His normal life of school, baseball, and video games had previously been distinguished only by his Pakistani heritage and by the frequent chill between his parents, who fight over things he is too young to understand. Then Mina arrives, and everything changes.

Mina is Hayat’s mother’s oldest friend from Pakistan. She is independent, beautiful and intelligent, and arrives on the Shah’s doorstep when her disastrous marriage in Pakistan disintegrates. Even Hayat’s skeptical father can’t deny the liveliness and happiness that accompanies Mina into their home. Her deep spirituality brings the family’s Muslim faith to life in a way that resonates with Hayat as nothing has before. Studying the Quran by Mina’s side and basking in the glow of her attention, he feels an entirely new purpose mingled with a growing infatuation for his teacher.

When Mina meets and begins dating a man, Hayat is confused by his feelings of betrayal. His growing passions, both spiritual and romantic, force him to question all that he has come to believe is true. Just as Mina finds happiness, Hayat is compelled to act — with devastating consequences for all those he loves most.

-Synopsis of the novel (Amazon)

As some of you know, I’m a V slow reader, BUT I managed to finish 75% of this novel (according to my Kindle)! I’ve been following this author for a few yrs now; in 2017, journo Bill Moyers said of Akthar: “We finally have a voice for our times.” One of my friends read American Dervish a few years ago; she didn’t recall ALL the details, BUT said that she’d never read something like this before. She passed it onto a friend, then that friend gave it to another. A newcomer to the book club said she also liked the book- subject matter and writing style. The moderator who read it 2 yrs ago said that this book goes into the issues faced by ABCDs (American Born Confused Desis), NOT only those particular to Muslims. 

WARNING: This post contains SPOILERS for the novel. 

NOTE: The following topics/questions (which my book club discussed) can be found here:

Do you think that one has to reject one identity in order to embrace another? What choice does Hayat make? What will the result be?

I think that children and adolescents (such as Hayat Shah, the protagnist/narrator) can often feel this way; my book club agreed w/ this comment. For Hayat, he identified as a Muslim, at least as a preteen boy. His goal was to be a hafiz (someone who knows the Quran by heart), though his father was dead set against this plan. Akthar said in several interviews that he was V interested in Islam as a child; he convinced his (secular) parents to take him to the local mosque and allow him to study the Quran. 

Hayat’s mother and father have a difficult relationship. In fact, all of the relationships between men and women in the book are complex, often troubled. What might the author be saying about such relationships within this culture?

Back in Pakistan, Mina’s first marriage turned sour b/c of her abusive mother-in-law. Her husband didn’t do anything to stop this, so Mina made the drastic decision to go to the US (w/ her son Imran). She couldn’t go back to her parents; they had urged her to stay w/ her husband’s family (she was rejected in her time of need).  

The newcomer to our group said that there were messed up power dynamics between Hayat’s parents; his mother (Muneer) didn’t have a job, so his father (Naveed) has all the money (thus the decision-making power). The ONLY relationship that was positive was between Hayat’s mom’s best friend, Mina, and his father’s friend/colleague, Nathan. They have an old-fashioned courtship, under the watchful eye of Muneer for about a year. This is a kind of fix-up, though based on mutual respect and admiration. Mina and Nathan talk re: books and ideas, share meals, and grow to love each other. When Hayat asks why they can’t be alone, his mother explains that Mina is a Pakistani woman, so “dating” is out of the question.

Hayat’s mother has grown angry and bitter b/c her husband drinks (secretly, he thinks) and cheats on her w/ white women. The women are possibly nurses at the hospital where Dr. Shah conducts research. Hayat’s mother, Muneer, refers to the other women as “mistresses” and “prostitutes.” Her view of white women is thus very negative, though she has a positive view of the Jewish people (incl. Nathan). In one scene, Muneer says that she’s raising Hayat “like a little Jew” (so that he’ll grow up to love and respect women).

Do you think it’s valid and/or authentic for male authors to write about feminist issues? What was your feeling about the portrayal of women in American Dervish?

Yes, someone can be “a male feminist,” my friend said quickly. Akthar said that he was inspired by the women in his life, incl. his own mother (a medical doc), his aunts, and various Pakistani immigrant women from the community of Milwaukee, WI (where he grew up). 

What are the different visions of Islam portrayed in the book?

Naveed (a man of science) has a contempt (perhaps even hatred) of Islam; this is echoed in Disgraced, where Amir even hides his origins. Naveed makes fun of Nathan when the younger man shows an interest in the religion. After Mina and Nathan’s break-up, he declares to his son that he “never wants to see you w/ that book [the Quran] ever again.” On the flip side, Mina wants to know more re: Islam; she studies and also teaches Hayat for a time. She is BOTH religious and spiritual, explaining to Hayat that it’s the “intention” of an action that counts. 

What did you think of the relationship between Islam and Judaism in the novel?

This is a tough one (IMO), b/c in this novel, these religions are put at odds w/ each other. Mina rejects Nathan (a cultural Jew) b/c he doesn’t want to convert to Islam. After all, he had a shocking/scary experience the one time he attended the masjid. Naveed warned him, BUT Nathan’s curiosity and love for Mina compelled him to give this religion a chance. Muneer, who had such high hopes for the pair, is disappointed when they don’t marry. She saw Nathan as a decent man and great choice for Mina, even though he was white and Jewish. I feel that Muneer wanted her friend to have a better life than herself. 


Thoughts on a few South Asian diaspora books

Books I’ve Recently Read:

An Unrestored Woman by Shobha Rao

Synopsis: 1947: the Indian subcontinent is partitioned into two separate countries, India and Pakistan. And with one decree, countless lives are changed forever. An Unrestored Woman explores the fault lines in this mass displacement of humanity… In paired stories that hail from India and Pakistan to the United States, Italy, and England, we witness the ramifications of the violent uprooting of families, the price they pay over generations, and the uncanny relevance these stories have in our world today.

Don’t start this book if you’re in a bad (or down) mood; it’s not going to cheer you up. I liked a few of the stories, but some of them seemed too far-fetched or pandering to the exotic image of India. I don’t think men will enjoy this book much; the males in this collection are either terrible or impotent (as in unable to improve the lives of the women and girls in their lives). There is also no mention of the religious (mainly Hindu/Muslim) strife before (or after) Partition; this seemed odd to some of my book club. 

Streets of Darkness by A.A. Dhand

Synopsis: The sky over Bradford is heavy with foreboding. It always is. But this morning it has reason to be – this morning a body has been found. And it’s not just any body. Detective Harry Virdee should be at home with his wife. Impending fatherhood should be all he can think about but he’s been suspended from work just as the biggest case of the year lands on what would have been his desk. He can’t keep himself away. 

This (page-turner) is written by a pharmacist (he kept his day job) who grew up in Bradford, England. If you’re looking for literary, descriptive book re: desis in the UK, this isn’t the book for you; look up Nadeem Aslam and Kamila Shamsie instead. This is mystery w/ some desi flavor and interlinked characters who inhabit a city in decline (joblessness, drugs, religious strife, and white power). One of the best threads is the loving marriage between Harry (who was raised Sikh) and his wife (a nurse of Pakistani Muslim heritage). This book may be tough to find (for those in the US, as I learned from those in my book club); it’s available from UK sellers on Amazon. Dhand has already sold the rights to this book (and its sequel), so it will eventually be made into a TV show. 

Books I’m Currently Reading:

Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America by Vivek Bald 

Synopsis: Nineteenth-century Muslim peddlers arrived at Ellis Island, bags heavy with silks from their villages in Bengal. Demand for “Oriental goods” took these migrants on a curious path, from New Jersey’s boardwalks to the segregated South. Bald’s history reveals cross-racial affinities below the surface of early twentieth-century America.

This book is full of statistics, so it’s not a fast read. I’m in the middle of it now, and will keep on reading. It’s very educational, so I highly recommend it to anyone in the desi diaspora. I wanted to read it a long time ago, but didn’t get around to it. One of my acquaintances, an actor-turned-teacher, Alauddin Ullah, is featured in the book; his father came to East Harlem about 50 yrs ago from Chittagong (now a mid-sized city in Bangladesh).  

The Underground Girls of Kabul by Jenny Nordberg

Synopsis: In Afghanistan, a culture ruled almost entirely by men, the birth of a son is cause for celebration and the arrival of a daughter is often mourned as misfortune. A bacha posh (literally translated from Dari as “dressed up like a boy”) is a third kind of child–a girl temporarily raised as a boy and presented as such to the outside world. Jenny Nordberg, the reporter who broke the story of this phenomenon for the New York Times, constructs a powerful and moving account of those secretly living on the other side of a deeply segregated society where women have almost no rights and little freedom. 

I’ve only read a few chapters of this (nonfiction) book, but the topic is very interesting, so I will keep on reading. At the start of the story, Nordberg gets to know Azita, a female parliamentarian in her mid-30s, who has turned her fourth daughter into a boy (Mehran). 

Sense and Sensibility: Analysis of Characters & Themes

Fanny (Harriet Walter) & John Dashwood (James Fleet) in the '95 feature film
Fanny (Harriet Walter) & John Dashwood (James Fleet) in the ’95 feature film adaptation


The Dashwood Family:

He [John Dashwood] was not an ill-disposed young man, unless to be rather cold hearted, and rather selfish, is to be ill-disposed: but he was, in general, well respected; for he conducted  himself with propriety in the discharge of his ordinary duties.  Had he married a more amiable woman, he might  have been made still more respectable than he was; he might even have been made amiable himself; for he was very young when he married, and very fond of his wife.  But Mrs. John Dashwood was a strong caricature of himself; more narrow-minded and selfish.

Right after the funeral of Mr. Dashwood, John arrives with his family to take possession of Norland.  This is his right, but shows lack on kindness for his step-mother and half-sisters.

Mrs. John Dashwood  had never been a favourite with any of her husband’s family: but she had had no opportunity, till  the present, of shewing them with how little attention  to the comfort of other people she could act when occasion  required it.  

So acutely did Mrs. Dashwood feel this ungracious  behaviour, and so earnestly did she despise her daughter-in-law  for it, that, on the arrival of the latter, she would have quitted the house forever, had not the entreaty of  her eldest girl induced her first to reflect on the propriety  of going, and her own tender love for all her three children  determined her afterwards to stay, and for their sakes  avoid a breach with their brother.

Description of Elinor:

Elinor, this eldest daughter whose advice was so  effectual, possessed a strength of understanding, and  coolness of judgment, which qualified her, though only  nineteen, to be the counsellor of her mother, and enabled  her frequently to counteract, to the advantage of them  all, that eagerness of mind in Mrs. Dashwood which must  generally have led to imprudence.  She had an excellent heart; her disposition was affectionate, and her feelings  were strong: but she knew how to govern them: it was a knowledge which her mother had yet to learn, and which  one of her sisters had resolved never to be taught.

Description of Marianne:

Marianne’s abilities were, in many respects, quite equal  to Elinor’s.  She was sensible and clever; but eager in  everything; her sorrows, her joys, could have no  moderation.  She was generous, amiable, interesting: she was everything but prudent.  The resemblance between her and her mother was strikingly great.

Edward (Dan Stevens) & Elinor (Hattie Morahan) in the '08 miniseries
Edward (Dan Stevens) & Elinor (Hattie Morahan) in the ’08 miniseries

Edward Ferrars:

Edward Ferrars was not recommended to their good opinion by any peculiar graces of person or address.  He was not handsome, and his manners required intimacy to make them pleasing.  He was too diffident to do justice to himself; but when his natural shyness was overcome, his behaviour gave every indication of an open affectionate heart.  His understanding was good, and his education had given it solid improvement.  But he was neither fitted by abilities nor disposition to answer the wishes of his mother and sister, who longed to see him distinguished — as– they hardly knew what.  …But Edward had no turn for great men or barouches.  All his wishes centered in domestic comfort and the quiet of private life.

Marianne’s early opinion of Edward:

Edward is very amiable, and I love him  tenderly.  But yet, he is not the kind of young man —  there is a something wanting, his figure is not striking —  it has none of that grace which I should expect in the  man who could seriously attach my sister.  His eyes want all that spirit, that fire, which at once announce virtue and intelligence. 

Elinor’s opinion of Edward:

…I venture to pronounce that his mind is well-informed, his enjoyment of books exceedingly great, his imagination lively, his observation just and correct, and his taste delicate and pure.  His abilities in every respect improve  as much upon acquaintance as his manners and person.  At first sight, his address is certainly not striking; and  his person can hardly be called handsome, till the expression of his eyes, which are uncommonly good, and the general sweetness of his countenance, is perceived.  At present, I know him so well, that I think him really handsome; or, at least, almost so.

The Middletons:

Description of Sir John:

Sir John Middleton was a good looking man about forty.  He had formerly visited at Stanhill, but it was too long ago for his young cousins to remember  him.  His countenance was thoroughly good-humoured; and his manners were as friendly as the style of his letter.  Their arrival seemed to afford him real satisfaction, and their comfort to be an object of real solicitude to him.  He said much of his earnest desire of their living in the most sociable terms with his family…

 …Sir John’s satisfaction in  society was much more real; he delighted in collecting about him more young people than his house would hold, and the noisier they were the better was he pleased.

Description of Mrs. Jennings (mother-in-law of Sir John):

Mrs. Jennings, Lady Middleton’s mother, was a good-humoured,  merry, fat, elderly woman, who talked a great deal, seemed very happy, and rather vulgar.  She was full of jokes and laughter, and before dinner was over  had said many witty things on the subject of lovers and  husbands; hoped they had not left their hearts behind  them in Sussex, and pretended to see them blush  whether they did or not. 

We learn that Mrs. Jennings’ late husband had been in trade (in a not so fashionable part of London).  He became quite wealthy, so his family advanced in status.  Lady Middleton and Mrs. Palmer (Charlotte) were educated in good schools (for girls of that time).

Col. Brandon (David Morrissey) sees Marianne for the first time in the '08 minseries
Col. Brandon (David Morrissey) sees Marianne for the first time in the ’08 minseries

Colonel Brandon:

The first reference to Col. Brandon comes from Sir John, who is one of his oldest/closest friends:

They would see, he said, only one gentleman there besides himself; a particular friend who was staying at the park, but who was neither very young nor very gay.

He was silent and grave.  His appearance, however, was not unpleasing, in spite of his being in the opinion of Marianne and Margaret an absolute old bachelor, for he was on the wrong side of five-and-thirty; but though his face  was not handsome his countenance was sensible, and  his address was particularly gentlemanlike.

John Willoughby:

Willoughby’s entrance into the story is heroic:

Elinor and her mother rose up in amazement at their entrance, and while the eyes of both were fixed on him with an evident wonder and a secret admiration which equally sprung from his appearance, he apologized for his intrusion by relating its cause, in a manner so frank and so graceful, that his person, which was uncommonly handsome, received additional charms from his voice and expression. 

Willoughby’s description of Elinor and Marianne:

Miss Dashwood had a delicate complexion, regular features, and a remarkably pretty figure.  Marianne was still handsomer.  Her form, though not so correct as her sister’s, in having the advantage of height, was  more striking; and her face was so lovely, that when, in the common cant of praise, she was called a beautiful girl, truth was less violently outraged than usually happens. 



The story opens with talk of the Norland Estate and its entailment.  Money, as you may know, is very important in Jane Austen’s world.  At first, John wants to give his sisters 3,000 pounds.  Fanny thinks this is too much, as they will eventually marry.  She tells him to think of their son.  John asks her if 500 for each would be a fair sum.

What brother on earth would do half so much for his sisters, even if really his sisters!  And as it is — only half blood! — But you have such a generous spirit!

Fanny, though cunning, selfish and vain, is also a humorous character.  Just note theses lines:

…people always live forever when there is any annuity to be paid them…

I am convinced within myself that your father had no idea of your giving them any money at all. 

Finally, John decides that he will give them 500 per year.  Fanny is very pleased to hear this. Then, she comments about the furniture and sets of china in the house.  It’ll be too fine for them to take when they move to a smaller place.

Family (particularly the bonds of brotherhood):

Throughout the novel, John acts in a manner that proves that he’s not a true brother to the Dashwood girls.  It’s not just his stinginess, it’s his tone, demeanor, and decision to go along with the wishes of Fanny.  John becomes interested in Elinor’s relationship with Col. Brandon when he learns of that gentleman’s wealth.  Later on, he’s eager for Marianne to become the colonel’s wife; it’d be a great advantage to him.

When Mrs. Dashwood sees the blossoming romance between Elinor and Edward, she is very happy.  She tells Marianne:

You will gain a brother — a real, affectionate brother.  I have the highest opinion in the world of Edward’s heart.

Another brother-figure in the book is Mrs. Dashwood’s cousin, Sir John Middleton.  He offers the ladies Barton Cottage (at a very reasonable price) without even meeting them!

He earnestly pressed her, after giving the particulars of the house and garden, to come with her daughters to Barton Park, the place of his own residence, from whence she might judge, herself, whether Barton Cottage, for the houses were in the same parish could by any alteration, be made comfortable to her.  He seemed really  anxious to accommodate them, and the whole of his letter was written in so friendly a style as could not fail of giving pleasure to his cousin; more especially at a moment when she was suffering under the cold and unfeeling behaviour of her nearer connections.

Once Edward’s fortune is transferred to his brother, Robert, Lucy transfers her affection to him as well.  Now, Robert didn’t have to pay his addresses to Lucy; Lucy is considered “unsuitable” by Mrs. Ferrars.  Also, Robert commented that she wasn’t “pretty,” as Elinor recalls to Edward.  I suspect that Robert wanted to one-up his brother by marrying Lucy.  Well, it was no loss to Edward, who had “long-regretted the attachment” (engagement to Lucy).

In the background, we have the cruelty of Col. Brandon’s older brother to his wife (Eliza’s mother).  Since he is a gentleman addressing a lady, Col. Brandon doesn’t go into detail with Elinor.

Esteem & Love (You can’t have one without the other!):

Marianne describes her perfect man:

I could not be happy with a man whose  taste did not in every point coincide with my own.  He  must enter into all my feelings; the same books, the same music must charm us both. 

A good relationship (friendship, partnership, marriage, etc.) must be based on mutual respect.  In Pride & Prejudice, it is obvious to Jane and Lizzie (the two eldest Bennett sisters) that their parents do not respect each other, therefore making their marriage unhappy.

“I do not attempt to deny,” said she, “that I think very highly of him — that I greatly esteem, that I like him.”  

 Marianne here burst forth with indignation —  

“Esteem him!  Like him!  Cold-hearted Elinor!  Oh!  Worse than cold-hearted!  Ashamed of being otherwise.  Use those words again and I will leave the room this moment.”  Elinor could not help laughing.  

“Excuse me,” said she, “and be assured that I meant no offence to you, by speaking, in so quiet a way, of my own feelings.  Believe them to be stronger than I have declared…”

Austen’s sly humor is to be seen in many of Marianne’s speeches.  Here is Marianne’s first impression of Willoughby- a man who fires her imagination:

His manly beauty and more than common gracefulness  were instantly the theme of general admiration, and the laugh which his gallantry raised against Marianne received particular spirit from his exterior attractions.  …His person and air were equal to what her fancy had ever drawn for the hero of a favourite story; and in his carrying her into the house with so little  previous formality, there was a rapidity of thought which particularly recommended the action to her.  Every circumstance belonging to him was interesting.  

…when she saw that to the perfect good-breeding of the gentleman, he united frankness and vivacity, and, above all,  when she heard him declare that of music and dancing he was passionately fond, she gave him such a look of approbation as secured the largest share of his discourse to herself for the rest of his stay.

Marianne has esteem (respect; regard) for Col. Brandon (because of his knowledge of music/good taste), though she doesn’t view him as a suitor from the get-go:

Colonel Brandon alone, of all the party, heard her without being in raptures.  He paid her only the compliment of attention; and she felt a respect for him on the occasion, which the others had reasonably forfeited by their shameless want of taste.  His pleasure in music, though it amounted not to that ecstatic delight which alone could sympathize with her own, was estimable when contrasted against the horrible insensibility of the others; and she was reasonable enough to allow that a man of five-and-thirty might well have outlived all acuteness of feeling and every exquisite power of enjoyment.  She was perfectly disposed to  make every allowance for the colonel’s advanced state of life which humanity required.

The first person to notice the colonel’s love for Marianne is (surprisingly) Mrs. Jennings!  She’s the one who jokes about “the mysterious Mr. F” and is eager to marry off every pretty girl in the area.  Col. Brandon is very eligible, and (especially in that society) people must wonder why he isn’t already married.

…soon after her arrival at Barton decisively to pronounce that Colonel Brandon was very much in love  with Marianne Dashwood.  She rather suspected it to be so, on the very first evening of their being together, from his listening so attentively while she sang to them; and when the visit was returned by the Middletons dining at the cottage, the fact was ascertained by his listening to her again.  It must be so.  She was perfectly convinced of it.  It would be an excellent match, for he was rich and she was handsome. 

Marianne exclaims to her mother and Elinor:

It is too ridiculous!  When is a man to be safe from such wit, if age and infirmity will not protect him?

But thirty-five has nothing to do with matrimony.

Several readers in my book club (composed of mostly single young ladies who are avid Austen fans) agreed that “when you’re young, you want the bad boy.”  Someone added that “most women have dated a Willoughby.”

“Edward is boring,” the organizer said.  Another member commented: “Edward is like the [modern-day] nerd character.  He’s quiet- the nice guy.”

I agreed with the reader who said “Col. Brandon was a real friend to Marianne.  Even though he thought she didn’t like him, he watched out for her.”  Did Marianne “settle” for Col. Brandon?  What do you think?

Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen: Book Summary

I’m re-reading this classic story for a book club that I’m in, and wanted to share some thoughts about it.  I first read it back in my undergraduate days.

  • Set-up of the story: Death of old Mr. Dashwood (a gentleman bachelor with a large estate, Norland, in Sussex) and the way his property was entailed
  • Death of his nephew, Mr. Henry Dashwood, and the inheritance of all his property to his eldest son by his first marriage, John
  • Introduction to the main characters: Mrs. Dashwood (Henry’s second wife, 40 y.o.), Elinor (the eldest daughter: 19 y.o.), Marianne (the middle daughter: 16 y.o.), and Margaret (12 y.o.)
  • John, his wife Fanny, and their 4 y.o. son move into Norland.  Fanny takes account of the estate and convinces John to give his step-mother and half-sisters a small allowance to live on.
Elinor (Emma Thompson) and Edward (Hugh Grant) stroll through Norland in director Ang Lee's 1995 film.
Elinor (Emma Thompson) and Edward (Hugh Grant) stroll through Norland in director Ang Lee’s 1995 film.
  • The friendship develops between Elinor & Edward Ferrars (a young man in his early 20s) who is also her brother-in-law.  However, Edward (the eldest son) is not independent, and does not yet have a career.  Fanny is against the match and makes no bones about it to Mrs. Dashwood.  Edward becomes a good friend to the Dashwood family, though he was reserved and awkward upon first meeting.  Edward says: “I have no desire to be distinguished,” but would like a quiet/private life as a clergyman.  Elinor tells Marianne: “I think very highly of him. I greatly esteem him.”
Elinor (Emma Thompson) and Marianne (Kate Winslet)
Elinor (Emma Thompson) and Marianne (Kate Winslet)
Col. Brandon (Alan Rickman) sees/hears Marianne for the first time.
Col. Brandon (Alan Rickman) sees Marianne for the first time.
  • The Dashwood ladies move to Barton Cottage in Devonshire, close to Mrs. Dashwood’s cousin, Sir John Middleton, who resides at Barton Park.  He is a good-natured gentleman who loves company of all ages. The ladies adapt to their new (humble) life with few servants and new neighbors/friends: the Middleton family, Mrs. Jennings (the matchmaking mother of Lady Middleton), and Colonel Brandon (a 35 y.o. gentleman who enjoys hunting and music).  He is still a bachelor and resides at his estate (Delaford) for most of the year.  He has a young ward (who some rumor to be his illegitimate daughter).  Col. Brandon has a partiality toward Marianne (often called “a beautiful girl”).  She is passionate, musical, and bears a resemblance physically to his first/only love.
  • On one of her usual long walks, Marianne sprains her ankle and is assisted by a young gentleman, Mr. John Willoughby, of Allenham.  He is in his mid-20s, very handsome/stylish, loves dancing and reading.  Also, he’ll inherit a fine estate (Combe Magna) in Somerset.  It seems like he was made for Marianne, who quickly falls in love.  They spend all their free time together, which leaves no doubt of their attachment to each other.  Elinor cautions Marianne, but she doesn’t listen.
Marianne receives flowers from Mr. Willoughby (Greg Wise)
Marianne receives flowers from Mr. Willoughby (Greg Wise)
  • Intro of Charlotte (the jovial second daughter of Mrs. Jennings) and Mr. Palmer (her droll husband who is going into politics).  They come for a visit and reveal that they are expecting a child.  Their estate (Cleveland) is not far from Combe Magna.
  • Willoughby quits the country unexpectedly, saying that his aunt (Lady Allen) requires him to be in London.  Marianne is very shocked/upset, but says nothing regarding their engagement.  Everyone assumes that the couple is engaged.
  • Edward comes for a (brief) visit to Barton Cottage, but he looks unhappy/distracted.  They notice that he is wearing a ring with a lock of hair set inside.  When asked, Edward says it’s Fanny’s hair.
  • Intro to the young/country cousins of Mrs. Jennings: The comical/talkative Miss Anne Steele (30 y.0.) and her pretty younger sister, Lucy (early 20s)
  • Though they have little in common, the Dashwood girls and the Miss Steeles are thrown together in company.  Suddenly, Lucy confides to Elinor that she and Edward have been (secretly) engaged for some time, shattering Elinor’s own hopes.  Lucy fears what could happen if Fanny and Mrs. Ferrars ever found out, and swears Elinor to secrecy.  “I know he looks on you quite as a sister,” Lucy comments.
  • Everyone is prepared for a picnic at Delaford, but Col. Brandon quickly rides off after receiving a letter.
  • Mrs. Jennings decides to take the young ladies to London; Mrs. Dashwood approves greatly.
  • Edward comes to call on Elinor, but finds that Lucy is also there.  It is a very awkard situation; Elinor is the only one who is composed enough to deal with the needed niceties.  When Marianne comes down, she is overjoyed to see Edward.
  • Marianne, after getting no replies from Willoughby, is ecstatic to meet him at a large public assembly.  He is cold and curt towards her, speaking more to Elinor regarding general matters.  He goes off to be with his companion, a tall and elegant lady.  Marianne nearly faints on the dance floor.
Elinor and Marianne see Willoughby with Miss Grey at a ball
Elinor and Marianne see Willoughby with Miss Grey at a ball
  • The next day, Marianne finally gets a letter from Willoughby- it breaks her heart.  Elinor is shocked, and tries to comfort her sister.  Mrs. Jennings gets more details-  Willoughby is engaged to a Miss Grey with 50,000 pounds.
  • The girls meet Mrs. Ferrars for the first time.  She and Fanny seem pleased with Lucy, not knowing the truth about her and Edward.  Marianne has an emotional outburst when she sees Elinor’s paintings being dismissed in favor of another lady’s work (“Who is Miss Morton to us?  It is of Elinor that we think and speak!”)
  • Col. Brandon reveals why he had to leave the picnic to Elinor.  He also tells her about his past and reveals Willoughby’s true character.  As a boy/young man, Col. Brandon loved his cousin. They hoped to elope, but were found out by his father.  Col. Brandon’s elder brother married her instead and got hold 0f her large fortune.  “She suffered much from him,” and eventually they divorced.  The lady became pregnant by her first lover, spent all her money, and lay dying in a poorhouse.  She gave her young daughter to his charge before the end.  As for Willoughby, he seduced a 15 y.o. schoolgirl he met the previous year in Bath.  This girl (Eliza Williams) became pregnant, with no assurance from her lover.  Col. Brandon says that he “challenged” Willoughby (to a duel), and both men came away unharmed.  This seems extreme to Elinor, but she says nothing.
  • Elinor tells Marianne what she has learned about Willoughby.  Marianne listens quietly and it seems like she still has some sympathy for the man.
  • At a shop, the Dashwood sisters see a fastidious young man ordering a toothpick case.  He turns out to be Edward’s younger brother, Robert.
  • Anne unmindfully lets slip that Lucy and Edward are engaged while the Steeles are staying at John and Fanny’s townhouse.  Fanny has a fit, throws the girls out, and takes to her bed.  Mrs. Ferrars is also furious.  She disowns Edward after he refuses to break off the engagement and marry Miss Morton.
  • When Marianne learns of this, she feels terrible for what she said earlier to Elinor regarding her reserve.  Elinor suffered a broken heart, too.
  • John thinks that Col. Brandon wants to marry Elinor, since they spend a lot of time talking.  He says that it’ll be a fine match, since the colonel has money, lands, etc.
Col. Brandon learns of Edward's troubles from Elinor
Col. Brandon learns of Edward’s troubles from Elinor
  • Col. Brandon (via Elinor) offers the parsonage at Delaford to Edward.  (Mrs. Jennings overhears some of their conversation and thinks that the colonel is proposing to Elinor.  Later, the two ladies have a laugh about this mistake.)  When he hears of the living from Elinor, Edward is speechless.  Elinor says that he still has friends, even though his family has cut him off.  They have an awkward parting; he’s off to Oxford to become ordained (as a minister).
  • The Dashwood sisters, Col. Brandon, and Mrs. Jennings travel to Cleveland (the home of the Palmers).  Everyone admires the newborn baby boy.  After a long walk in cold/rainy weather, Marianne falls ill.  It grows serious quickly- the doctor says it’s a “putrid infection.” Fearing for the baby, the Palmers leave the house, but Mrs. Jennings stays behind.  The doctor comes each day to check on the patient.  Col. Brandon hastens to fetch Mrs. Dashwood.
  • Elinor is surprised to see Willoughby, who demands an audience with her to explain himself.  He admits that he went to the countryside to amuse himself, but fell in love with Marianne.  When Lady Allen heard about another event (the birth of a baby to Col. Brandon’s ward), she called him back to her side.  She suggested that he marry the poor girl, but he couldn’t bring himself to do that.  He could only think of Marianne.  Since he was disowned by his aunt and had many debts, he hastily secured Miss Grey, who had recently come into her inheritance.  He hopes that she will hate him less now.  Seeing his misery, Elinor feels sorry for him, but doesn’t forgive his earlier behavior.  She feels that his wife at least deserves his respect.
  • Before Mrs. Dashwood arrives, Marianne is out of danger.  She invites Col. Brandon to see her to thank him.  The gentleman is greatly affected by this, Elinor notices.
  • Col. Brandon escorts the ladies home to Barton cottage.
  • As she recovers, Marianne speaks less, tries to be cheerful, and returns to playing her piano.  She’s determined to read more; there are books at Barton Park and Delaford that she can borrow.  Marianne reveals to Elinor how she now feels regarding Willoughby.  She feels pity, for the most part.  She regrets her selfish, ungrateful, and unfair behavior to her family, friends, and acquaintances.  But most of all, Marianne says she owes the biggest apology to Elinor.
  • Finally, Elinor tells Marianne about Willoughby’s visit during her illness.  She cries and tells her sister to tell their mother.  “I am now perfectly satisfied.  I wish for no change.  I could not have been happy with him…” (after learning what his real character was).  Willoughby was “selfish.”
  • One of their manservants, Thomas, explains that he saw Mrs. Ferrars (Lucy Steele) in a coach going through the town.  She said she was recently married.  Thomas said that Mr. Ferrars (Edward, he assumed) was also in the coach, but was leaning back and didn’t say anything.  They are all surprised and saddened to hear this, especially Elinor.  She wonders how Lucy and Edward’s life will be in the nearby parsonage.
  • They think Col. Brandon is coming for a visit, but the gentleman on horseback turns out to be Edward.  He’s nervous about being there, they all notice.  Elinor asks about “Mrs. Ferrars,” and Edward says: “My mother is in town.”  Then, she rephrases it to “Mrs. Edward Ferrars.”  Awkwardly, he explains that they must mean “Mrs. Robert Ferrars.”  His brother has married Lucy.  Elinor is overcome with (happy) emotion, bursts into tears, and leaves the room.  He leaves for the village.
  • The next afternoon, Edward comes back to propose to Elinor.  “He was one of the happiest of men,” as he was released from his previous engagement (“boyish attachment”) to Lucy.  Edward could now be more free with the Dashwoods.  He wished he’s had some sort of employment at 18, but there was nothing for him to do but “fancy myself in love” at 19.  He felt at home with Lucy’s family (unlike his own), and thought she was “a very pretty girl.”  He knew little of other women then.
  • Elinor is surprised by how happy she is, being engaged to Edward.  They spend a week together, talking openly.  She was confused by Robert and Lucy’s marriage.  He never thought her a beauty.  Perhaps “vanity” and “flattery” brought them together, Edward says.  Lucy wrote him a letter saying that “her affections had transferred” from him to his brother after he was disowned.
  • Edward wants to meet and apologize to Col. Brandon (who will be his future patron).  He no longer resents being offered the Delaford parsonage, and wishes to see it.
  • Col. Brandon visits Barton Cottage and learns all that recently passed.  He and Edward get to know (and like) each other.  The main concern in Col. Brandon’s mind is the difference in his and Marianne’s ages.
  • After Edward spends some time at the parsonage, he and Col. Brandon travel to London.  Edward makes things better with his mother, so is brought into the family again.  Apprehensively, he tells her of his engagement to Elinor.  Mrs. Ferrars eventually consents, and gives him an inheritance (equal to what was given to Fanny).
Edward and Elinor after their wedding
Edward and Elinor after their wedding
  • Edward and Elinor marry in Barton church.  They fix up the parsonage to their liking.
  • Mrs. Ferrars, John and Fanny visit them in their new home.  John hopes that Col. Brandon will soon marry Marianne.
  • Mrs. Ferrars is reconciled to Robert within a few months.  Lucy flattered her whenever possible, so Robert became her favorite son once more.  Robert and Lucy settled in London, with help from his mother.
  • Elinor, Edward, and Mrs. Dashwood continue to gently promote the courtship of Col. Brandon and Marianne.  She has “high esteem” and feels “friendship” for the gentleman, and decides to marry him at 19.  “Her whole heart became, in time, as much devoted to her husband as at had been to Willoughby.”

Next up: Analysis of Characters & Themes

200 Years of “Pride & Prejudice”


A portrait of Jane Austen

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife. 

Thus begins one of the most-loved/discussed novels of English literature.  It has been read in high schools, colleges, etc., by most of the women we know.  We keep coming back to this book, and don’t forget the numerous TV/film adaptations. 


Modern-day JA fan, Amanda (Jemima Rooper), gets Lost in Austen (2008) with Darcy (Elliot Cowan)


Darcy (Laurence Olivier) & Elizabeth (Greer Garson) in the 1940 film

It seems like Lizzie and Darcy are almost as iconic as Romeo and Juliet when it comes to famous couples.  Other relationships are also important: Lizzie and her beautiful/shy older sister Jane, Lizzie and her hands-off father, Mr. and Mrs. Bennett (an odd couple), Lizzie (romantic) and older friend Charlotte (practical), etc.  Let us focus on the main love story…


Jennifer Ehle (an American) as Elizabeth (A&E, 1995)


Keira Knightley as Elizabeth (2005)

She is tolerable; but not handsome enough to tempt me; and I am in no humour at present to give consequence to young ladies who are slighted by other men.


David Rintoul as Darcy (1980)

Ouch!  Suffice it to say, Darcy does not make a positive first impression on Lizzie, her family, and the community-at-large.  He doesn’t even dance once at the assembly ball in Meryton, which makes him look proud, vain, and disagreeable.  (He later explains that he’s not at ease talking to strangers.)


My favorite Darcy: Colin Firth (A&E, 1995)

A geological sample of Darcy’s core, as portrayed so beautifully by Firth, would show the following layers:  at the bottom, his breeding and wealth.  Undeniable.  On top of that, confusion, the push-pull of class–egad, 10,000 pounds a year and a house 10 times larger than Downton Abbey!  -Elinor Lippman, Huffington Post (January 28, 2013)

Mr. Darcy soon drew the attention of the room by his fine, tall person, handsome features, noble mien; and the report which was in general circulation within five minutes after his entrance, of his having ten thousand a year.

Mr. Darcy’s sly humor comes out when Lizzie and Caroline are walking about the room.  (Lizzie went to Netherfield, Bingley’s house, when Jane became ill.)

You either chuse this method of passing the evening because you are in each other’s confidence, and have secret affairs to discuss, or because you are conscious that your figures appear to the greatest advantage in walking; — if the first, I should be completely in your way; — and if the second, I can admire you much better as I sit by the fire.

Yes, vanity is a weakness indeed. But pride — where there is a real superiority of mind, pride will be always under good regulation.

Well, Darcy knows he’s an eligible bachelor, but he won’t be caught easily.  (He’s not easily impressed-  he’s still be a bachelor at the age of 28.) 


Matthew MacFadyen as Darcy (2005)

…But disguise of every sort is my abhorrence. Nor am I ashamed of the feelings I related. They were natural and just.

Darcy’s first proposal is is very surprising to Lizzie- she tells him off!  (After all, she thinks he’s treated Wickham very unfairly and ruined Jane’s chance at happiness with Bingley.)  I really like the lines above that Darcy says, about how he hates to hide his true feelings.


Elizabeth (Ehle) tells Darcy (Firth) about family troubles

When all hell breaks loose (because of Lydia’s running away with Wickham), Darcy becomes very concerned.  We see his sympathtic side (above), but we won’t discover until much later just how much he has helped the Bennett family.  (Actions speak louder than words.)  If Lydia and Wickham hadn’t been married off quickly, then the the other sisters would’ve been tainted for life.  Elizabeth felt guilty because she hadn’t revealed Wickham’s true character to others; Darcy had to protect Georgiana, his teenage sister, so he couldn’t expose Wickham either.

…Let me thank you again and again, in the name of all my family, for that generous compassion which induced you to take so much trouble, and bear so many mortifications, for the sake of discovering them.

If you will thank me,” he replied, let it be for yourself alone.  That the wish of giving happiness to you might add force to the other inducements which led me on, I shall not attempt to deny. But your family owe me nothing. Much as I respect them, I believe I thought only of you.

The crisis, and its aftermath, propels the love story forward, though the couple are not together.  Lady Catherine becomes a catalyst when she barges in on the Bennetts and insists that Lizzie never become engaged to her nephew.  Darcy hopes to have another chance with Lizzie.  (Bingley and Jane finally getting engaged brings happiness to them both, too.)

As a child I was taught what was right, but I was not taught to correct my temper.  I was given good principles, but left to follow them in pride and conceit.  Unfortunately an only son (for many years an only child), I was spoilt by my parents, who, though good themselves (my father, particularly, all that was benevolent and amiable), allowed, encouraged, almost taught me to be selfish and overbearing; to care for none beyond my own family circle; to think meanly of all the rest of the world; to wish at least to think meanly of their sense and worth compared with my own.  Such I was, from eight to eight and twenty; and such I might still have been but for you, dearest, loveliest Elizabeth!  What do I not owe you!  You taught me a lesson, hard indeed at first, but most advantageous.  By you, I was properly humbled.  I came to you without a doubt of my reception.  You shewed me how insufficient were all my pretensions to please a woman worthy of being pleased.

How can you not love such words, these characters, and such a terrific ending!?