By Nile Green
December 2015 marked the two hundred year anniversary of the publication of Jane Austen’s Emma. As symbolized in Lord Byron’s introduction to Sir Walter Scott that year in the offices of Emma’s publisher, John Murray, 1815 was one of the most notable years in English literary history.
But there is another important work from the period that has lain forgotten for two centuries. It is the diary of a young Muslim from Iran who spent four years exploring the society from which Austen created Emma’s elegant little world. Written in England, the diary was composed in the Persian language, so while it is not part of ‘English literature,’ it should still be considered part of ‘England’s literature’. For that reason, the diary of Mirza Salih Shirazi needs setting beside Emma as its forgotten Muslim counterpart.
The thematic ties between the two pieces
As a rapidly written diary, Mirza Salih’s text cannot lay claim to the celebrated artistry of Austen writing at the peak of her powers in Emma’s innovative point-of-view prose. But in the spirit of the Persian literary tradition of the su’al va javab, or ‘call and response,’ we might consider the diary as the non-fictional reply to Emma’s, and Austen’s, world.
Along with his five Muslim companions, Mirza Salih had arrived in London in the fall of 1815, a few months before the novel was published. They lodged with their aptly named chaperone, Mr. D’Arcy (though not Darcy), in his splendid Regency bachelor pad overlooking Leicester Square. Jane Austen was also living in London’s West End that season, staying on Sloane Street with her brother, Henry. The Iranians were the first Muslims ever to study in western Europe and they had just wandered right into Jane Austen’s milieu. It was to shape their entire experience of English life.
Many of the themes of Emma find echoes in the Persian diary. Like Emma Woodhouse, Mirza Salih was much concerned with his social standing and recorded many of the slights he experienced. He was no less ambitious than Emma; like her, he was what we would now call a brilliant social networker. And like Austen’s novel, his diary ends with a wedding.
The echoes between the two texts are not only thematic, though. They are also in the more tangible realm of place. In the novel, Emma’s sister Isabella lives with her family on London’s Brunswick Square, whereas a few months after its publication Mirza Salih could be found living with his tutor two minutes’ walk away on neighboring Queen Square. Just as in the novel Mr Elton went to Bath to meet his beloved Augusta, Mirza Salih also journeyed there to take the waters and show off his fashionable pelisse. (An 1814 pelisse is on display at Jane Austen’s House Museum in Chawton that supposedly belonged to the author).
When Austen wrote of Augusta Elton that “her Bath habits made evening-parties perfectly natural to her, and Maple Grove had given her a taste for dinners,” she might have been writing of Mirza Salih, whose charms at Bath’s dinner parties were still remembered decades later. On one occasion, he dined as the guest of Mrs Hester Piozzi, the celebrated literary hostess and close friend of Dr Johnson. Although Austen had mocked Mrs Piozzi in a letter to her sister Cassandra in June 1799, ironically she never became famous enough in her lifetime to be invited to Piozzi’s salon.
As for Augusta’s background before her rise to respectability that the snobbish Emma disdained, she was “the youngest of the two daughters of a Bristol — merchant, of course, he must be called.” Though Mirza Salih shared some of Emma’s social anxieties, he was fascinated by the merchant industrialists who are usually hidden or slighted in Austen’s novels. And it was in Bristol that he made friends with several of them. He visited the home of the prosperous merchant John Harford, who showed him the glassworks and iron foundries that powered him (and Mrs Elton) to prosperity and (for Emma, false) respectability. Indeed, like Augusta through her marriage to the poor but well-born Mr Elton, Harford likewise secured his family’s admission to the gentry through marriage.
Like many characters in Austen’s novels, Mr Elton was a vicar. As with Mr Collins in Pride and Prejudice, Austen drew on a class of men she knew well when she created Mr Elton. Her father, brother and many of their friends were clergymen. Like Mr Elton, her father, George, was genteel but far from rich. As a result, George Austen had to open a small private school to make ends meet. It was at another such little ‘Academy for Gentlemen’ — this one run by a provincial vicar called John Bisset — that Mirza Salih learned English (and, like Jane from her father, French). Like George Austen, John Bisset was an Oxford graduate. He passed on the varsity’s lessons to Mirza Salih, who was forbidden to enter Oxford as a Muslim just as the similarly ‘vicarious’ student Jane was forbidden entry as a woman.
As I researched my book about Mirza Salih’s adventures in England, it often seemed as though he was miming scenes out of Emma, whether at study or at play.
He even recorded an amorous coach journey through the West Country that mirrored the travels of Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax en route to their tryst in Dorset.
While there is every reason to celebrate the bicentenary of Emma this month, it’s also an occasion to resurrect its lost Muslim counterpart. For that forgotten Persian diary is also a part of England’s, if not English, literature.
Nile Green is professor of history at UCLA. His many books include The Love of Strangers and Sufism: A Global History.
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