Overview:

Sayantani Dasgupta’s Debating Darcy transports Jane Austen's classic "Pride and Prejudice" to the ultra-competitive world of 21st-century high school.

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Jane Austen’s novels have inspired a profusion of contemporary fiction, particularly her magnum opus Pride and Prejudice. This trend probably began with the BBC production of Pride and Prejudice, starring Colin Firth in 1995. It continued with the chick lit classic Bridget Jones’s Diary (1996). 

South Asian authors have also captured the trend. Soniah Kamal’s Unmarriageable, Uzma Jalaluddin’s Ayesha at Last and Sonali Dev’s Pride, Prejudice and Other Flavors are just a few. 

Sayantani Dasgupta’s Debating Darcy transports Pride and Prejudice to the world of high school forensics. It infuses the narrative with many contemporary hot-button issues like the sexism and class privilege entrenched in the American school system. Dasgupta manages to retain the freshness and charm of the original love-story, while modernizing many of its thematic concerns.

Dasgupta’s path into fiction marks an interesting journey. She was originally trained in pediatrics and public health but currently teaches in the Graduate Program in Narrative Medicine at the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society, and the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race, both at  Columbia University. She is a physician scholar working on the intersections of narrative medicine, social justice, race, and gender.

Dasgupta is also a New York Times bestselling children’s author of the Kiranmala and the Kingdom Beyond books, which are inspired by Bengali folk tales and string theory. This series, published by Scholastic Books has won multiple awards. Debating Darcy is Dasgupta’s YA debut, also published by Scholastic.

Dysfunctional Parents And Forensics

The Bennet family in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice consists of five sisters and a dysfunctional set of parents. But Dasgupta recreates Leela Bose, the character taking the place of Elizabeth Bennet, as an only child. The large family is revived in the substitute family of Leela’s forensics team at her public high school, Longbourn. Mr. and Mrs. Bennet are the slightly incompetent but well-meaning coaches of the Longbourn forensics team. Jane, Elizabeth’s sister, is re-imagined as Jay, Leela’s best friend, who happens to be gay. The Jane and Bingley romance is recreated by Dasgupta as a gay romance between Jay and Bingley, disrupting the norm of compulsory heterosexuality that still underpins the genre of romance.

The insecurity of the original Bennet family stemmed from the precarious position of their estate. In English law, it would pass to the nearest male relative, as landed property could not be inherited by any of the five daughters. This created a sense of desperation in the family in their quest for suitable husbands to ensure the financial security of the daughters.

Dasgupta provides a contemporary twist to this structure of class and patriarchal privilege. While twenty-first century United States seems to present equal opportunity for all students, irrespective of class and gender, those attending elite private schools have a clear advantage in social ascendancy. Bingley and Darcy, the male protagonist, attend Netherfield Academy, which offers many advantages in terms of individual attention, extracurricular coaching as well as the all-important preparation for college. Dasgupta successfully reproduces the frenzied hysteria of college admissions so prevalent among many high achieving teenagers. She recreates the drama of standardized tests, chasing the perfect GPA, touring colleges, and building resumes with extracurricular and leadership activities.

A Deeply Progressive Novel

The other area that Dasgupta uncovers is the insidious sexism that is woven into institutions like forensics associations. Leela faces overt sexual harassment when she competes in debating, a male stronghold where female participants are routinely belittled or bullied. But Dasgupta does not lose sight of the timeless theme of Pride and Prejudice:  misunderstandings that can color our first impressions.

Like Darcy and Elizabeth, Leela is quick to judge Darcy as a spoiled and arrogant son of a college president whose family has wronged her new forensics friend and fellow- Bengali Jishnu. As the story unfolds, Leela undergoes an education in distinguishing appearance from reality and correcting her first impressions. Jishnu, like his predecessor Wickham, who was a charming scoundrel, is revealed to be more of a sexual predator causing irreparable damage to underage girls. Unlike the original story, where Wickham escapes with a dowry, Jishnu is held accountable for his misdeeds.

The overall vision of Dasgupta’s novel is deeply progressive. She brings sexual predators to justice. She recreates Darcy’s mother as a widowed female College president. And she envisions the Darcy- Elizabeth romance as a coming together of two different South Asian cultural traditions. Darcy is of mixed British and Muslim heritage while Leela is Bengali and Hindu.

At a time when divisions between these two communities are more fractured than ever, this is a bold attempt to enshrine values of shared traditions and the common status of minorities of color in the U.S. to forge a new solidarity.

Lopamudra Basu

Lopamudra Basu is a professor of English and Philosophy and Co-Chair of the Literature Committee at the University of Wisconsin-Stout, Wisconsin's Polytechnic University.