Deborah Yaffe

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Teaching teens to love Austen

By Deborah Yaffe, Sep 14 2015 01:00PM

Last week brought the news that yet another contemporary author has decided to mine Jane Austen’s works for inspiration:


“Chicken House will publish a teen novel about Lydia, the naughty younger sister in Jane Austen’s classic novel Pride and Prejudice, written by Natasha Farrant,” reports The Bookseller, a London-based magazine that covers the publishing industry. “Lydia: the Bad Bennet Girl, to be released next year, is described as the perfect way to introduce teenagers to the original novel, as Farrant has ‘brought a modern yet fiercely authentic voice to the original wild child of romantic fiction,’ said the publisher.”


I must confess that this news set my teeth on edge. But not because I object to young-adult Jane Austen fanfic. On the contrary: among my favorite Austen spinoffs are young-adult updates by Claire LaZebnik (Epic Fail and Wrong About the Guy) and Diana Peterfreund (For Darkness Shows the Stars). I haven’t read Farrant’s six previous books; her new one may well be a winner.


So, nothing personal. No, what irks me is the suggestion that “the perfect way to introduce teenagers” to Pride and Prejudice is via a retelling focused on a secondary character and written in a prose style tailored to contemporary tastes.


See, I think the perfect way to introduce teenagers to Pride and Prejudice is to introduce them to Pride and Prejudice. By, you know, having them read it.


We Janeites take it for granted, but it bears repeating that Austen’s novel is a story that appeals across lines of age, gender and class. It’s got indelible characters, recognizable family and romantic situations, and a snarky sense of humor -- all the ingredients teenagers like, except an oppressive, authoritarian power structure demanding that young people sacrifice their lives for the greater good. (Oh, wait – I forgot Lady Catherine. So, yeah: all the ingredients teenagers like.)


Admittedly, Austen’s language and the cultural background she assumes can take young readers – not to mention older ones – outside their comfort zone. First-time Austen readers may need a bit of historical background and some help with unfamiliar vocabulary and sentence structure. (Although plenty of Janeites-in-training, including this one, fell in love with P&P without all that.) But so what? Part of the fun of reading classic literature is training your mental palate to accommodate exotic flavors. Not every dish should be put through a food mill and reduced to a spoon-ready puree.


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