Huma Qureshi on Lessons in Love from Classic Romance
Full of warmth, wit and compassion, Huma Qureshi's memoir How We Met details a childhood spent trying to reconcile school life in Walsall with the expectations of her Pakistani parents, and how the events of later years - and her falling in love with a non-Muslim - were shaped by both these experiences. In this exclusive piece, Huma recounts how she saw her own romantic predicament reflected in the classic novels of Jane Austen, Georgette Heyer and Henry James.
I was a bookish teenager, partly out of necessity. Apart from reading books, there wasn’t an awful lot I could do. My Pakistani parents had certain rules: no sleepovers, no mixed parties, no short skirts and absolutely no boyfriends, ever. At my girls’ school, back in the early nineties, my classmates went to unsupervised house parties with boys from the boys’ school next door while I spent my weekends at dinner parties hosted by other south Asian families like mine, boys and girls sat in separate rooms.
It was at one of those dinner parties that I was introduced to Jane Austen in the first place, by a group of slightly older girls, daughters of my parents’ friends, who were studying Pride and Prejudice at school. They were obsessed with the book, adopting the Bennet sisters’ names for themselves; “You’re such a Lizzie,” they’d say to each other, as a compliment. As one of the youngest girls in this social circle, I desperately wanted to keep up and know what they were talking about, and so I got myself a copy too. I was nearly thirteen years old, already aware of the fact that other girls, English girls, were growing up differently to me. Suddenly, immersed in Jane Austen, I could see why the older girls who shared my background, the ones who talked about her novels all the time, liked her books so much. Finally, we’d found a world that made more sense to us than the illicit pages of Just Seventeen that didn’t feel as though they were meant for brown girls like us. I was hooked. Reading Jane Austen, and then later Georgette Heyer and Henry James, was the closest I ever got to finding novels containing stories of love and families which felt familiar to my upbringing, even though these books came from another time.
In every nineteenth-century gossipy matchmaking mother, I recognised the women I grew up calling aunties who were already wringing their hands over their children’s future marriage prospects; in the dilemma of marrying for love or duty, I saw a glimpse of my own future. Regency England in particular, with its emphasis on propriety and dinners and marriage expectations, even its dress fittings which reminded me of trips to the Pakistani tailor for bespoke silk shalwar kameez, felt exactly like my parents’ south Asian social circle which, for a very long time, filled my life as much as it did theirs.
I had been raised to understand that one day, my parents would find a husband for me and arrange my match. It was just the way things were, the way they had always been. It was what my cousins did and the daughters of our family friends did. I expected the same would happen for me and I didn’t always know how to reconcile this, because at some point, I began to long for more.
As a teenager, I was disappointed that Marianne married Brandon and didn’t get to be with Willoughby, and I found Elinor’s good sense annoying; though I disliked how Wickham treated Lydia, I still rather envied Lydia’s boldness, even though she made a mistake in running away with him. I preferred, for a while, these more intense versions of so-called love because I thought they were more romantic, more passionate. I thought that was what love was. I had grown up hearing that love came after marriage, that marriage was a duty of sorts to please one’s parents and fulfil one’s faith. Yet I desperately hoped that when my time came, I might marry for love and not merely obligation.
When I was in my early twenties, my parents raised the question of my marriage and suggested I might meet some so-called suitable boys. I’d stepped into my very own Austen plot. My mother procured details of suitors she wanted me to meet or else she invited their families to our home to introduce me over samosas and tea. But I had not yet graduated and I wanted to do so much - travel, live abroad, write. I fancied myself a little like Isabelle Archer in The Portrait of Lady: “I don’t want to begin life by marrying,” and, like a defiant daughter from a historical novel, I told my parents as much.
The problem was, even though I told my parents I didn’t want to get married, I did want to be with someone. I just wanted to find him myself, without my parents involved. I dreamed of romance and perhaps unfairly I didn’t think I’d find it with my parents involved. I wanted a love match; what every Elizabeth Bennet hopes for. I convinced myself that it was not impossible that I’d meet someone by chance, because I had filled my head with romantic stories of fate and soulmates, and I wanted all of that, badly, for myself. I couldn’t yet see the moral of pretty much every Austen story - that romance was not enough on its own. I was all sensibility, and very little sense, a little bit too much like Lydia and not enough like Elinor or Jane. Everyday, I daydreamed, wondering if the man I was destined to marry was sitting right opposite me on the tube or if he’d walk past me in the street, until eventually after much disappointment, I realised that love doesn’t just happen by magic but that sometimes you have to work at it, in order to find and keep it.
In the end, I did meet someone, and we did fall in love, but it didn’t at all happen the way I’d expected - like many of our generation we met online, ten years ago, on a dating site. He wasn’t exactly what my mother would have called a suitable match either, sharing neither my background nor initially my faith but eventually my mother and I found our way to understanding. I guess you could say I got the ending I wanted.
Looking back, it’s astonishing that the closest stories I found resembling my life or my romantic expectations came from another generation entirely and that’s partly why I wrote my own love story, the story of how I met my husband, because it matters to me that women like me, women of different cultural heritage and race and colour, see their love celebrated too. Still, there will always be a place in my heart for Jane and Georgette and historical romances because in the end, they taught me that true love is not just about being swept off your feet but also finding somewhere you belong; that it is both romance and reason.
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