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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

Janeites from eight to eighty-eight

We Janeites like to say that Austen’s novels can be enjoyed at any age, albeit in different ways, and seldom has a week’s news brought such a graphic demonstration of the truth of this axiom:

* In Britain, an eight-year-old homeschooler named Arabella Duffy has been alleviating her pandemic anxiety by making short videos about historical figures and sharing the results on YouTube. Arabella, a winsome blonde with a cut-glass accent, has performed in costume as Queen Elizabeth I, Cleopatra, Florence Nightingale, Queen Victoria, and the suffragist leader Emmeline Pankhurst, among others

For her three-minute Jane Austen video, Arabella sits at a desk wearing a mob cap and writing with a purple quill -- a letter to her sister Cassandra, she explains. Prompted by questions from her off-camera mother, Jane/Arabella summarizes her philosophy (“I think you should marry for love. I think you should be honest and kind”), graciously accepts a compliment paid to Mansfield Park, and notes, “I’ve never got married in my lifetime, but I have been tempted.”

Arabella is not exactly a regular kid: at the age of six, she had a small role in the London production of the musical Waitress, and her Instagram boasts fourteen thousand followers, identifies her as a “child actor,” and lists a contact for her agent. Her history videos, which she allegedly researches herself, are also not exactly bulletproof, from the standpoint of, um, facts: she misidentifies Pankhurst as “Emily” and, if I heard correctly, refers to a little-known Austen work called “Northington Abbey.” But hey – she’s only eight.

* In Australia, an eighty-eight-year-old grandmother named Ruth Wilson recently completed her Ph.D., writing a dissertation on the teaching of Jane Austen. Wilson first encountered Our Author by way of the Greer Garson-Laurence Olivier movie of Pride and Prejudice, which she saw at a cinema in 1947.

In an interview with a Perth radio program, Wilson, a former elocution teacher, says she began her doctoral studies because she wanted to understand why she got so much pleasure from reading Jane Austen. (Wilson is one of those Janeites who rereads Austen annually, although she skips Northanger Abbey and is especially fond of Persuasion.) Her thesis, which Wilson calls “a reading memoir,” advocates tying the study of literature to students’ lived experiences – not only study of a novel as a text, but also study of “what this novel has done for me.”

Whatever you think of Wilson’s pedagogical approach, it’s hard to argue with her assessment of Austen. “She actually took away the glass pane between you and the page. Once you start reading her you dive into her books,” Wilson says. “You’re inside these amazing stories where people are just – they are being people. They’re navigating relationships, they’re negotiating how they will get on with each other, they’re making decisions.”


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