‘I have often observed how little young ladies are interested by books of a serious stamp.’ Mr. Collins, Pride and Prejudice
Unlike Fanny Price’s uneducated sister, Susan in Mansfield Park, no-one could ever say of Jane Austen that ‘the early habit of reading was wanting’. A fluent reader from the age of eight, she was devouring adult novels by the time she reached her teens. Today we routinely agonise about which subjects constitute appropriate reading matter for teenagers, but despite being a man of the church, Jane Austen’s indulgent father had no such scruples. He allowed his daughter to read any volume that took her fancy in his extensive library, and consequently Jane’s early reading was extremely eclectic, encompassing history, poetry, books in French, and all the popular novels of the day, many of which contained extremely racy subject matter. Drunkenness, rapes, murders, elopements, adulterous liaisons and bigamous marriages are all legion in 18th century fiction. Writing in 1817, the year of Jane’s death, her favourite brother Henry recalled: ‘It is difficult to say at what age she was not intimately acquainted with the merits and defects of the best essays and novels in the English language’. She read Henry Fielding, Daniel Defoe, Jonathan Swift, Samuel Johnson, Oliver Goldsmith, Fanny Burney, Laurence Sterne, Ann Radcliffe and Samuel Richardson who was one of her preferred writers. His sprawling novel Sir Charles Grandison was allegedly her favourite: in Northanger Abbey, the ghastly flibbertigibbet Isabella Thorpe calls it ‘an amazing horrid book’. From the age of twelve, Jane was writing prolifically herself.
So how old do you have to be to read Jane Austen? I was about thirteen when I read Pride and Prejudice for the first time, in a rust-coloured hardback which my mum had received as a school prize in 1952. By the time I studied Emma for my English A-level, I was working my way through the other novels and forming a lifelong habit. I’ve always considered Jane Austen a great writer because you can find new things to take from her work at any time of life. I read her novels first as love stories, but when I read them these days, it is for the minutely-observed details and utterings which bring her characters into sharp relief; the often wicked jokes; the economy and precision of her language; and for the familiar joy of being in her extraordinarily gifted hands.
But at least one Jane Austen expert is wary of reading her too young. ‘While you can (and should!) re-read Austen at different stages of your life, I’m wary of giving her to younger readers’, says John Mullan, Professor of English at University College, London and author of the hugely engaging What Matters in Jane Austen?. ‘In her favour is a surface appearance of simplicity, but over and over again Austen admirers will tell you that they didn’t ‘get it’ when they first read her as teenagers. This was my own experience, I confess’.
But there’s a paradox here. In many ways, Austen’s novels are teenager’s books. Mullan does acknowledge this. ‘Her connection to younger readers should be that all her heroines (except in Persuasion) are pretty young themselves, and many of her novels are concerned with teen angst and teen passions’. Against popular perceptions of Austen as a middle-aged spinster novelist, it’s salutary to remind ourselves that Elinor Dashwood in Sense & Sensibility is nineteen; and her sister Marianne, seventeen. Fanny Price in Mansfield Park is eighteen; whilst the eponymous heroine of Emma is twenty. Austen’s youngest heroine of all – Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey – is just seventeen years old when she becomes engaged to Henry Tilney. And in Pride & Prejudice, a novel which Jane Austen wrote when she herself was in her early twenties, Elizabeth Bennet is just twenty when she meets Mr Darcy; scarcely older than most of the heroines of today’s YA romances. Pride and Prejudice mocks teen folly in the shape of Lydia, Kitty and Mary Bennet, but it also says ‘Beware! You don’t know your own heart’. It is definitely the novel to start on, but I have not encouraged my daughters to read it yet (the eldest is 15) because they tend to think it is ‘all talking’’, says John Mullan.
Writer Gill Tavner, who has adapted all six of Jane Austen’s novels into short stories for readers of 8 years and upwards for publisher Real Reads, didn’t read anything by Jane Austen until she too studied Emma for A-level. ‘I don’t think there can be an ideal age for first reading Pride & Prejudice or any other novel. I always thought Northanger Abbey was the most accessible for younger readers, but I’m less certain now. My own ten year old, having so far only encountered Jane Austen through Real Reads, talks most enthusiastically about Pride & Prejudice and Sense & Sensibility.
The Real Reads Austens are winningly illustrated and sensitively retold. But why not just wait a few years and start with the original novels as John Mullan advocates? ‘That’s a valid argument’, concedes Tavner, ‘But perhaps we can look at this in another way. What if a younger reader, having seen a TV adaptation of film, or simply having heard about Jane Austen, wants to read one of her books but would be daunted by the original? In such a case, to introduce an accessible, shortened version in which Jane Austen’s style is effectively imitated and in which her characters, plot, themes and social concerns are faithfully reflected is surely a sensible approach. Our aim with Real Reads is to whet young readers’ appetites for the originals and to give them the confidence to read them when they are ready. Feedback tells us that some have developed a very early love for the writer, and I’m very pleased by that’.
Rosie Rushton took a different approach to introducing younger readers to Jane Austen by writing jaunty modern day versions of the novels, including Love, Lies and Lizzie, based on Pride & Prejudice. ‘The idea for writing them came out of a conversation with my publisher – one of those ‘what would Emma Wodehouse be like if she went to a modern day comprehensive?’ thoughts. I started with Sense and Sensibility because the idea of a second marriage and its effect on young people is such a topical one. I wanted to do my best to keep Jane Austen’s sharpness of wit and keenness of observation, and I tried to keep the interplay of generations that she portrays so well’.
Rushton’s versions are unapologetically 21st century. ‘The influence of mass media, and instant communication on the stories was essential. My characters find out about the goings-on of their peers and boyfriends through text messages, Facebook, and Twitter. And a trip to Brighton or Bath would be no big deal today so that had to change too. But I tried never to lose sight of the motivations of the characters which were surprisingly similar to those of Jane Austen’s own’. Like Gill Tavner, Rushton hopes that her books will lead young people to Austen’s originals. ‘I have had emails from readers who tell me that they are doing that; although it seems that they read Pride and Prejudice, Emma and Sense and Sensibility more often than Northanger Abbey, Persuasion and Mansfield Park.
Is there any hope of getting young male readers into Jane Austen, I ask John Mullan? ‘I fear that getting most teenage boys to appreciate Austen is hard. But we should try. Appeal to their sense of intellectual superiority – you’ve got to be clever to get it’. The jury is out as to whether Jane Austen’s original novels are truly accessible for boys or girls. But given the potential rewards of discovering her work at some early point in adult life, having some smart ‘ways in’ for younger readers is surely no bad thing.
Professor John Mullan’s daughters, he says, ‘still think of the films rather than the books’. So it seems okay to admit that I am currently initiating my own 11 year old daughter into the pleasures of Jane Austen via the BBC’s 1995 Andrew Davies adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. Yes, that adaptation. With Lydia having just run off with Wickham, Julia is gratifyingly agog to know how it will all end, though she quickly worked out that there remains more than a frisson between Elizabeth and Darcy, despite his rejected marriage proposal. The moment I realised that Jane Austen was really getting under her skin though? When she came home one day, complaining about the silliness and vapid gossip of two girls at school. ‘Mum, they are just like Kitty and Lydia’, she said.
Caroline Sanderson is a freelance writer, editor and reviewer. Her books include A Rambling Fancy: In the Footsteps of Jane Austen (Cadogan). Caroline’s short biography of Jane Austen will be published later this year by The History Press.
What Matters in Jane Austen: Twenty Crucial Puzzles Solved by John Mullan 9781408831694 £8.99
Pride and Prejudice (Real Reads) retold by Gill Tavner 9781906230067 £4.99
Sense and Sensibility (Real Reads) retold by Gill Tavner 9781906230111 £4.99
Mansfield Park (Real Reads) retold by Gill Tavner 9781906230098 £4.99
Emma (Real Reads) retold by Gill Tavner 978-1906230104
Love, Lies and Lizzie Rosie Rushton 978-1853409790 £7.99
The Secrets of Love Rosie Rushton 978-1853407741 £7.99