in the last decade, along with hundreds of Austen continuations and adaptations for adults, publishers have released dozens of adaptations aimed at teens—at least ten adaptations of Pride and Prejudice alone, along with books about Austen, generalized series, and even a dating guide. Even in a cultural context where Austen adaptations and related books are everywhere, adaptations aimed at teen readers raise unique questions. Teen readers seldom come to adaptations as established fans as most adult readers do. Rather, young adult adaptations of Austen simultaneously demonstrate Austen culture’s concern about its own survival and attempt to bridge the gap that separates contemporary teen interests from Austen’s worlds and characters.
Adult readers and the Austen phenomenon
Adult readers come to adaptations because they want to continue in the company of Austen’s characters, known and loved through Austen’s novels or through a movie adaptation. As Claudia Johnson notes in Jane Austen’s: Cults and Cultures, “today’s ‘Jane Austen’ is a bonanza of presence, to all appearances the answer to every Janeite’s dream for more and more” (180). Rachel Brownstein offers one explanation of the power Austen’s novels continue to exert over contemporary readers. “We see ourselves in Jane Austen’s novels,” she explains, “partly because we remain preoccupied with the interesting questions that interested her, partly because her take on them has trickled down and informed ours even if we have not read her, and partly because we admire (and need) her still-fresh critical take on the world and its inhabitants and their words, and her interest in characteristic ways of seeing” (13). Although authors and readers of adaptations and other Austen-inspired texts may not express their desires with this degree of clarity, these books speak to the preoccupations identified in Brownstein’s argument. Fan readers love Pride and Prejudice, for example, and want to experience it again, or they identify with Elizabeth Bennet (or obsess about Mr. Darcy) and would like to follow those characters beyond Austen’s pages. Alternatively, they may look to Austen’s novels as a source of advice—a narrative of self-help—either explicitly in books like Henderson’s Jane Austen’s Guide to Dating and Hannon’s Dear Jane Austen: A Heroine’s Guide to Life and Love or through novels from Patillo’s Jane Austen Ruined My Life to Brant’s According to Jane, which explore the benefits and pit-falls of trying to live by Austen’s word. Still others look for the answers to a variety of “What ifs?,” pleasantly relieved as Austen’s heroes and heroines find one another despite being sent to sea, transported to the future, or having basic events of their lives changed. Some imagine meeting Jane Austen herself and becoming her best friend or at least gaining her approval. In each case, though, as Johnson, Brownstein and others have shown, readers want more—more Austen, more of the characters, more of the novels.
Authors of Young Adult Austen: Perceptions of young readers
These explanations fit less comfortably with an imagined audience of teenagers. Authors of teen adaptations report that—despite titles like Pride, Prejudice and Curling Rocks—“many” readers are unaware of the Austen connection. These readers are not looking for more Austen. Rather, authors of teen adaptations demonstrate a desire to send their readers towards Austen’s novels. They seek to open their readers to the kind of experiences they discovered when first reading Austen’s work, often in their teenage years.1
When asked to describe their own first experiences with Austen, these novelists gush. They pepper their answers with exclamation points accenting their love of the heroes, their identification with the heroines, and their love of Austen’s wit and language. In this response, they are like the heroines of many Austen adaptations, whose path to fandom, scholarship or obsession begins in their mid-teens. Many recount stories of wonder, marking the moment as a turning point or a revelation. Cecilia Gray, author of the Jane Austen Academy series, exclaims,
Emma! I remember it completely. I was a teenager, and my parents sent me to summer with my best friend in Europe at her beach house. The guest room was done up entirely in yellow, with yellow paint, curtains, and bedspread. Even their cat was a yellow tomcat named Pumpkin. They had a pile of yellow books that they left on a chair by the radiator. The family turned in early for bed each night, so I read until I was able to fall asleep. Emma, an edition with a yellow cover (because of course all the books had to match the decor) was one of the books.
I LOVED Emma. She was funny and witty and not afraid to say what she thought and especially not modest about why she was so wonderful. I wanted to be her, quite frankly. (Interview)
Gray’s answer emphasizes the specificity of the memory—like many people’s accounts of “what I was doing when . . . ,” this description is laden with specific detail. It is, she insists, a “complete” memory in circumstance and detail. The yellow room with its yellow books. The cat’s name. The early evenings, which conveniently left time for marathon reading. All of this, as she makes clear in her second paragraph, is the setting for a love story.
Both real and fictional fans emphasize the serendipity of their early experiences of Austen. Whether the novels were happened across accidentally or were recommended by a mentor, friend, or family member, tellers focus on the rightness of the moment. Like first love, the first experience of Austen is enchanting because it captures an imagination that is both completely unsuspecting and unexpectedly prepared for enchantment. Heather Vogel Frederick remembers “finding” Austen only because she first “stumbled” over Georgette Heyer’s novels as a teen. She “somehow discovered” that Heyer was a fan of Austen, “moved on to Jane,” and “never looked back” (Interview). Each of Frederick’s verbs emphasizes the chanciness of this first encounter with Austen, as well as the importance of being prepared to like Austen’s novels on the implicit recommendation of an already appreciated author.
Authors of young-adult adaptations, then, walk a fine line. By adapting Austen’s most famous plot and characters, they are implicitly recommending Austen herself to their readers. At the same time, many worry that “classics” will be badly received by a youth audience primed by genre fiction aimed at specific reading levels and offering themes and characters geared to teen sensibilities. Elizabeth Eulberg remembers her own early reluctance as someone who “struggled with reading growing up” (Interview). Despite recommendations from her librarian mother, Eulberg felt incapable of enjoying or appreciating Austen’s novels until college.
These aspects of convincing young women to read Austen’s novels clearly concern authors. Will teenage readers be ready for the linguistic and cultural challenges that Austen’s novels present? Will teenagers see Austen’s novels as the province of “silver-haired women,” as Lizzie of Karey White’s adaptation My Own Mr. Darcy does in her teen years? Will they rebel against the novels as assigned reading? Or will they be more like Julie in Polly Shulman’s Enthusiasm or Emma in Heather Vogel Frederick’s Pies and Prejudice—admiring Elizabeth Bennet from a distance without really seeing a connection between her world and their own? When questioned about recommending Austen, Frederick noted that she waited until her Mother/Daughter book club characters were in their mid-teens before choosing Austen as their subject (Interview). Even then, the characters spend a year reading or listening to Pride and Prejudice and do so with the support of both friends and a variety of adult mentors (mothers, grandmothers, and friends). Likewise, Elizabeth Eulberg notes that she recommends Austen’s novels and movie adaptations based on her own reading of the girls who ask her for advice (Interview). Older or more precocious girls are recommended the books, while Eulberg directs younger girls toward movie adaptations.
One element that accounts of moments of Austen epiphany agree on is the significance of identification. Gray’s description, quoted above, lingers not on the experience of reading the novel Emma, but on the experience of meeting (and recognizing) the young woman Emma. Some readers, like Frederick, note their immediate love for Austen herself, a preference that encompasses the author’s opinions on both “the odious Mr. Collins” and the “swoon-worthy Mr. Darcy” (interview). Others focus on the lure of story. For example, Shulman remembers, “I was thirteen or so when I read my first Austen novel, Pride and Prejudice. I stayed up until dawn to finish it, my heart pounding. I identified so strongly with Elizabeth that I actually trembled when I read the scene where she reads Darcy’s letter” (Interview). Readers of contemporary adaptations will recognize the cadences here. Fictional heroines’ first encounters of Austen are strikingly similar in both their appreciation and in their desire to be Elizabeth Bennet. It is sympathy, whether with author or novel, that moves the reader from observer to fan.
Convincing young adult readers to buy into the classics
Adult authors’ reports of and anxieties about teen readers are remarkably intuitive, echoing the conclusions reached by experts on young adult reading habits and on teaching literature to students in this age group. These studies report that a few interrelated aspects of reading are most significant for luring and keeping a teenaged audience. Teen readers, even more than readers of other ages, value the ways that reading reflects aspects of themselves. That is, interest in reading seems to result from interest in shaping oneself as the reader.
At its most basic, this means that teenage readers seek to select their own reading material. Guthrie notes that students read more frequently and effectively when given control over their reading choices (7). This tendency is reflected in Eulberg’s growing ease with reading Austen as she left high school and entered college—as she gained skill as a reader. Guthrie and colleague Robert Gibb claim that students “want to discover how topics and texts are useful, amusing, and purposeful in their lives” (83). Many teachers fail, as Sarah Herz discovered, in meeting this goal, with the effect that eager middle-grade readers become reluctant high-school readers (3). Not surprisingly, many students resent being forced to read books that seem irrelevant. Or, as Gibb puts it, “Students need to be able to apply their prior knowledge and their previous experience to texts they encounter” (11). Young readers who don’t see why a novel matters are unlikely to make this leap themselves. As Eulberg’s reticence about recommending Austen’s novels to young readers demonstrates, the novels’ “imagery, style and structure” may keep young readers from finding relevance in Austen’s work and becoming lifelong fans and students of Austen’s work.
Scholars and authors recognize that identification and sympathy can provide a path towards helping students discern relevance in texts. Louise Rosenblatt notes, “The young reader’s personal involvement in a work will generate greater sensitivity to its imagery, style and structure; this in turn will enhance his understanding of its human implications” (52). Here identification, or “personal involvement,” is the key that allows for understanding of the work both as literature and as experience. Shirley Brice Heath and Jennifer Lynn Wolf agree, noting that identification with characters creates “ a sense of the joint attention of reader and character on the same situation. Thus as adolescents read, they benefit from the ‘double exposure’ of reading about what someone else does, thinks, or feels and seeing this as being ‘the same as me’” (146). They stress that identification is not a passive state of liking or sympathizing with a character. Rather, “[r]elating means participating. No one knows this better than Young Adult literature readers” (147).
Rosenblatt sums up both problem and solution. “No one,” she claims, “can read a poem for us. If there is to be a poem and not simply a literal statement, the reader must have the experience, must ‘live through’ what is being created during the reading” (33). Adapters of Austen for youth audiences engage this challenge in their novels. Their heroines must bridge the perceived gap between Elizabeth Bennet and contemporary teen readers immersed in a very different culture and language. As Herz points out (and Eulberg worries), “Many required titles in high school are a real turn-off for struggling readers: they need a bridge to required classics” (6). Herz recommends young adult literature as that bridge. Heath and Wolf agree, reporting that young readers frequently read “the same types of books repeatedly and they also read the same individual books again and again” in order to form relationships with those books (151). They then note, “These readers view fairy tales, as well as the best-known works of writers such as Jane Austen or Charlotte Bronte, in the same way as allowing different channels for rereading—even in parodic forms” (152). Young readers, they claim, look for surprise in repetition. Get these readers into the habit of an author or type of story, and they will look for similar experiences. If young adult authors can attract teen readers to something Austen-like, some of these readers will inevitably find Austen while searching for more of the same, just as Gray moved from Heyer to Austen. Like adult fan-readers, teens want more. They’re simply likely to follow the trajectory in the opposite direction.
Young Adult Austen
Although there are a plethora of book choices that could start young readers on an Austen-quest, the quality of these books, like the quality of many Austen-fan productions, is uneven. The quality of specific titles is not at issue in this argument, but the discrepancies are worth noting. Below, I’ll offer a brief overview of some young adult Austen titles, with emphasis on those linked specifically to the most popular plot and characters—Pride and Prejudice.
Like adult adaptations, these teen bridge-texts cover a variety of interests and genres in their attempts to bring young readers into relationship with Jane Austen and her novels. The offerings include Arthur’s Christian dating guide, Dating Mr. Darcy. Several titles show Austen as the subject of reading, including Shulman’s Enthusiasm, Frederick’s Pies and Prejudice, and Day’s Pride and Princesses. A few involve Austen only by extension, like Mandy Hubbard’s Prada and Prejudice, whose heroine is knocked back to the Regency by a blow to the head, but whose plot bears only the vaguest resemblance to its namesake. Most—Eulberg’s Prom and Prejudice, Brokaw’s Pride, Prejudice and Curling Rocks, Gray’s Fall For You, and James’s Pride and Popularity—echo Austen’s plot and characters while altering incidents to fit contemporary teenage life.
Despite the variety, these books share a common goal—to make Austen’s culture and novels accessible. By connecting Austen’s plots to teen life or by demonstrating the positive effects of reading Austen’s novels, these authors help teen readers identify with Austen’s characters and recognize her relevance to modern life. Perhaps above all, these authors attempt to create those auspicious circumstances through which a young adult reader encounters Austen’s work at precisely the right time and place to become a lifelong fan and student of her work.
Reading Jane Austen (Shulman and Frederick)
One subset of young adult Austen adaptations shows young women reading Austen’s work and attempting to incorporate that work into their lives. Shulman’s Enthusiasm! and Frederick’s Pies and Prejudice compare different readers’ reactions to Austen. Readers of these novels are asked to sympathize with a variety of reading characters but are also expected to evaluate the usefulness of the reading and interpretive strategies employed by these fictional readers. Each book contains a “bookish” heroine, an echo of the author, whose feeling and strategies are contrasted to the reactions of less eager readers.
Bookish heroines tend to be confident in their own value and abilities. They know that they are intelligent and thoughtful, for example. They also, however, tend to be somewhat timid in social situations, keeping a few close friends and treading carefully when new events and experiences are on offer. They have a careful and simultaneously romanticized view of love. Julie, of Enthusiasm!, harbors a crush on an unknown boy that grows to friendship and affection. She fights both emotions, however, for as long as she believes that the boy and her more outgoing friend are mutually attracted. Emma, of Pies and Prejudice, finds herself constantly explaining herself because her efforts to be polite and considerate are frequently misinterpreted. Both girls prize Austen’s novels as an escape—a point of entry into a world more elegant and thoughtful than their own. Neither attempts to be an Austen character. They admire without emulating.
These thoughtful girls don’t look much like Elizabeth Bennet (or Emma). They do, however, resemble the authors’ descriptions of the young selves who fell in love with Austen. Polly Shulman remarks, “I imagined girls like me as a teenager: bookish, anxious, passionate (Julie is a lot like the young me)” (Interview). These three adjectives cover what is most significant about these reader heroines. In being bookish, they set themselves apart from the majority of their peers. However, their anxiety—to please others, to fulfill expectations, to escape embarrassment—is familiar to many girls, real and fictional, of this age. The third, their passion, makes them interesting. These girls are likely the ones scholars most readily imagine when trying to create a picture of the next generation of Austen fans—intense young women who mix self-confidence and self-doubt, who appreciate nuance and language, who are both passion and cautious. Of course they have read Jane Austen. Of course they will become like us—fans and students of literature.
Their friends are less or differently excited by Austen. Shulman’s Ashleigh, Julie’s best friend, jumps on the trappings of Austen culture—long skirts, old-fashioned vocabulary, and etiquette. Julie watches this with frustration and possessiveness. This performance is, she makes it clear, only Ashleigh’s latest craze, following obsessions with bands, candy making, spying, and the Arthurian knights. When her friend shows up in a long skirt waving a copy of Pride and Prejudice, Julie worries. “My heart sank,” she explains,
How many weeks of antiquated grammar were we in for now? And it was my own fault too. While Ashleigh bounced around the room, knocking things over with her skirts and raving about Austen’s heroines and the gentlemen they loved, I considered my situation. Always before, Ashleigh had started a craze, and I had followed. Now, for the first time, I had taken the lead, introducing her to an interest of my own. But how long would it be before her passion overshadowed mine? I was convinced that I felt as strongly about Jane Austen’s books as Ashleigh had ever felt about any of her crazes, but my love was deep and silent—and therefore easily overshadowed. I would never, for example, speak Jane Austen’s language. That would be undignified and unworthy of the writer I adored. (4)
Although Julie disclaims Ashleigh’s take on Austen, she does find herself swept up in the fun. The two crash a dance at an all-male private school, and refer to the young men they meet as Mr. Darcys and Mr. Bingleys. Problematically, although they agree on which young man is Mr. Darcy (his real name is, cleverly, Charles Grandison Parr), each sees herself as his Elizabeth Bennet. In the end, though, Julie and Mr. Darcy understand one another’s feelings, Ashleigh and her Mr. Bingley settle down to write a musical, and all of the couples are happily matched for the summer break.
Despite her brief flirtation with using the names of Austen’s characters, then, the main component of Julie’s relationship with Austen is appreciation. Though Ashleigh’s original enthusiastic embrace of Austen culture brings Julie into contact with new people and activities, Julie finds her way in this wider world by sticking to her own more moderate responses. In the final chapters, she is even distracted from in-class readings of Pride and Prejudice by excitement about her own life, and, from her narrative distance, finds that distraction amusing. Julie gains confidence over the course of the book by taking Jane Austen’s novels as a pleasure but not an inspiration.
Like Enthusiasm!, Heather Vogel Frederick’s Pies and Prejudice, an entry in her Mother/Daughter Book Club series, plays out a number of responses to Austen and her novels. The most reading-driven of the daughters, Emma wants to be a writer and plans to read all of Austen in the course of the book club’s year with Pride and Prejudice. She keeps this goal secret because she knows that her friends won’t understand the impulse. Her friend Megan later justifies Emma’s worry when she wonders, “How does Emma know all this stuff?” in the course of one club meeting (204). Emma’s enjoyment of Austen’s work is shaped by her mother’s fandom (the mother who named Emma and her brother Darcy after Austen characters). The two celebrate Austen’s birthday but also provide the “fun facts” that historicize Austen’s novel and try to make both Austen and her characters sympathetic to the girls in the club. In all, Emma’s enjoyment of Austen is largely limited to reading pleasure and sympathy with the author. Although she compares a spoiled, popular girl to Caroline Bingley, she demonstrates her more usual mode of admiration when she explains, “I love the way no matter how many times I read the book, I’m always worried about how it’s going to turn out” (111). Emma also sympathizes with Austen as a writer, musing, “I totally understand why Jane was so private about her writing. I am too” (352). Emma enjoys the group’s trips to Austen sites, but she is most attracted to the real thing—the experience of reading.
Her friends offer a broader array of reactions to Austen. Cassidy, a dedicated hockey player, whose plot comes closest to mirroring Pride and Prejudice, moans internally, “[P]ersonally, I’d like a change from all these classics we’ve been reading over the past few years. Something with a little more action, maybe” (29). She struggles with the novel but enjoys the characters’ foibles with the support of the multi-generational book club. Her attitude both reflects cultural fears about attracting non-readers and highlights the importance of mentorship to teen reading. Jess, the scientist of the group, turns to Austen as a social observer. “Elizabeth kind of reminds me of Cassidy,” she notes. “[S]he’s really feisty. She says what’s on her mind” (81-82). Jess uses Austen’s characters and time as a benchmark against which to measure her own society. She notices, for example, that “[h]ere it is nearly two hundred years after Pride and Prejudice was written, and I’m stuck in the same mold. I’m still waiting for Darcy—my Darcy, not Elizabeth Bennet’s Darcy—to notice me” (86). Jess is the first of the girls to draw attention to the similarities between their experiences and those of the women in Pride and Prejudice. The patterns of response set by Jess and Cassidy in the novel’s early chapters are employed by all of the girls in the course of the novel. They struggle occasionally with the reading, but they lean on one another and on the adult club members for assistance with matters of fact and interpretation. They ask questions about how sympathy with Austen and her characters might help them negotiate their own worlds more effectively.
Both Pies and Prejudice and Enthusiasm! tap into the concerns of educators and authors. The novels show the challenges teenage readers face when reading classic novels, like Austen’s. They portray young readers who relate to literary challenges in a variety of ways—presenting their own readers with many possibilities for making their reading meaningful. These authors present readers a pathway to Austen’s work, a recommendation. They also offer techniques for approaching the novels—how to find mentors, how to attack difficult material, and how to connect that reading to readers’ own lives. All of these elements, Herz suggests, help students to feel confident about approaching classic novels.
Being like an Austen heroine (Eulberg and James)
If the characters created by Frederick and Shulman show readers how to read and identify with Austen’s novels, the heroines of adaptations occupy a space between Austen’s characters and today’s young adult readers. They both are and are not Elizabeth Bennet, even as they play out elements of her familiar story. Chloe of James’s Pride and Popularity and Lizzie of Eulberg’s Prom and Prejudice demonstrate how Austen’s plot and characters shift to fit teenagers’ expectations. These characters provide a sympathetic bridge to Austen’s story by asking readers to identify with an Elizabeth type as preparation for identifying with Elizabeth herself.
These characters are most like Elizabeth Bennet in their playfulness and capacity for error. Like the fictional readers of Austen, these heroines have a few close friends with whom they joke and laugh. They are generally not among the most popular students in the school, but they are influential within their chosen groups. James’s Chloe, for example, plans Halloween parties that students from across the school want to attend, while even at a boarding school that doesn’t welcome its scholarship students Eulberg’s Lizzie attracts a group of close friends who depend on her kindness and sense of humor. Also like Elizabeth, these young women sometimes use their wit to help them navigate uncomfortable situations. Chloe continually ridicules the popular Taylor Anderson (her basketball-playing Darcy) because she believes he is trying to make her look like a foolish fan girl. She is so busy with her assumptions that she misreads their encounters and his character. Likewise, Lizzie believes that Will Darcy will see her as a scholarship student who’s only interested the money and connections that she can gain by attending a prestigious school. As a result, she makes fun of him in order to keep him from believing that she’s trying to attract his attention as a wealthy young man.
Like their bookish counterparts, these teen Elizabeths display a mix of confidence and anxiety. Each is markedly talented in one area—Lizzie a classical pianist, Chloe a ballet dancer. Despite their talents and a few close friendships, these young women are also isolated. Lizzie of Prom and Prejudice uses her talent as a buffer against the campaign of cruelty practiced on her by the privileged students of Longbourn Academy. She is, she reminds herself, better than these rich people who haven’t actually earned their opportunities. Chloe feels left out of the high school world of Pride and Popularity because she refuses to be a fan girl for the athletic teams and because her quirky, conservative parents limit the amount and type of dating that she is allowed to do. While it’s not surprising to find teenage heroines eager to be accepted by a larger social group, these novels show that a mix of eagerness for acceptance and denial of that eagerness is normal. They also mimic the mix of assertiveness and timidity with which teen readers may approach new experiences—both literary and social.
These girls’ interest in boys is equally unsurprising. The near perfection of the Mr. Darcy stand-ins, however, forms a contrast to the heroines’ anxiety. These Darcy stand-ins are athletes who also write poetry. They get good grades but don’t let those grades overshadow their good looks. They do community service, look out for friends and ladies in distress, and would never approach a girl romantically without her permission. They fit in when they want to but break free of convention when required. And they’re usually rich. They’re missing onlyone thing—people who can “really know them.” As Chloe muses in Pride and Popularity,
I had often wondered lately how many girls who had gone out with him had ever actually seen Taylor. I mean, sure they saw the guy with the killer smile, the guy who had a nice sports car and a totally awesome house. And I’m positive they relished the status that followed him wherever he went. But did any of those girls really see the guy underneath all of that, the Taylor that loved his family and community and helped people all around him?” (ch. 25)
Though popular, Taylor’s real perfection is one only Chloe recognizes. Likewise, late in Prom and Prejudice, Lizzie discovers that though Will originally dismissed her complaints about her schoolmates’ treatment he had afterwards observed their behavior, even anonymously replacing her coat when it was stolen as part of a practical joke. Rather than take credit for his generosity, he chose to protect her pride by avoiding a situation in which she would have felt compelled to reject his gesture as charity (179). She also discovers that he’s quiet both because of how his sister was hurt by “Wick” and because he was once embarrassed publicly when his voice began changing during a solo at a very high profile concert. Again, Will is not perfect, but his imperfections match perfectly with Lizzie’s values.
In fact, these young men embody qualities that the heroines want for themselves. The Darcy figure is confident in ways his female counterpart is still trying to achieve. He knows who he is and doesn’t worry about others’ opinions. He appreciates what he has and gives generously when he sees a need. He embraces the hobbies he loves, regardless of their apparent popularity. The heroine sees in her Darcy someone only she can understand fully but also someone who will recognize her potential. This admiration and dependence are potentially problematic. Like Frederick’s Jess, though perhaps less aware of their situation, these young women are waiting to be noticed by the hero. This notice draws out their energy and talent, but it also encourages young female readers to believe that their confidence and social salvation are dependent on finding the right boy.
That said, these Darcys also provide opportunities for their Elizabeths to be and to stand up for themselves. Both Taylor and Will include their heroines in rescuing the books’ Lydias. Will even takes satisfaction in Lizzie’s skill when she lands her first-ever punch squarely on Wick’s jaw. Likewise, James’s Taylor helps Chloe find the courage to go away to school in order to pursue her passions for ballet and for teaching dance. Will and Lizzie together are able to buck the expectations of their private schools—instead of attending prom, they carve their own path and go on a relaxed date (such daring!).
Young readers, then, are given models who are flawed, whose example is achievable, but they are still allowed to idealize the perfect boyfriend. Their models can act courageously in a given moment, but they still struggle to claim a place in the adult world, perhaps a necessary evil of transporting Austen’s characters to a world where adolescence is prolonged. The implication, though, seems simple. Authors and editors—and to some extent teachers and parents—allow their young readers the comfort of a heroine who fits a certain spectrum of teenage behavior and traits. In order to prepare these readers for the experience of classic literature, and of Austen’s novels in particular, then, young readers are provided with an Austen who has been shaped to their world, sometimes in ways that break significantly with the characters and values of the original.
“My”Jane or “our” Jane? Dropping ownership to speak to teen readers
For many longtime fans of Austen, this reshaping provokes discomfort and even frustration. In order to make way for teen-accessible Austens, authors and critics must decide to let go of our own Austens. The problem is that, as Juliet McMaster points out, “We want everyone to admire Jane Austen, but we each suspect the others do it the wrong way. We want her to be our particular Jane, and to share her with a multitude too” (14). This feeling of exclusive ownership in Austen’s work and legacy is nothing new. As early as 1859, George Henry Lewes claimed that “her excellence must be of an unobtrusive kind, shunning the glare of popularity, not appealing to temporary tastes and vulgar sympathies, but demanding culture in its admirers” (100). Something about Austen encourages her readers to feel that each of us had has access to her, to her characters, and to her insights that other readers have missed or misunderstood.
As Claudia Johnson notes, however, “If one of the missions of Janeites, according to Kipling’s story at least, is to be fruitful and bring forth more Janeites, disseminating Jane’s words far and wide, then Austen’s ubiquity today must surely be a triumph for Janeism” (181). Even so, Johnson explains that, for many Janeites, this contemporary experience of Austenalia is not the “real thing” represented only in Austen’s novels. Everything else is an imitation. Deborah Yaffe adds,
This tension between the desire for community and the desire for exclusivity probably lies at the heart of any fandom, but because of Austen’s unique standing in both high culture and popular culture, that conflict has a sharper edge among Janeites. It’s not just the tension between privacy and community, self and other; it’s the tension between people who truly understand Jane Austen—people like me!—and those other, lesser fans who like her for all the wrong reasons, because of the movies, or the zombies. (xviii)
Certainly, the plethora of made-to-order Austens—for plus-sized women, for vampire lovers, for mystery buffs, for coffee drinkers, and for non-readers (among others)—has evoked both excitement and incomprehension within the Austen fan community.
What teen authors demonstrate and what educators explain is that adult fans must drop our in-fighting where young readers are concerned and instead be open to the wide variety of experiences that may bring young readers to Austen. Young readers need support systems for their reading. They need mentor recommenders and examples of how to translate reading into their own lives. This doesn’t mean nodding agreement with everything that teen readers say, but it may require putting our dismissiveness aside in favor of sharing our enthusiasm about characters and ideas in all of their forms—even the ones that seem silliest.
In spite of the furor of media attention and the ongoing flood of Austen-related publishing, the spate of teen-adaptations reveals an underlying fear not present in Lewes. Where he could be confident that Austen’s “indestructible excellence” would propel her popular reputation until it matched her critical success, contemporary readers seem less certain. Can Austen’s star continue to rise? Will her status as a household name raise expectations to the point that her novels can no longer meet them? Does Jane Austen have a future readership outside of the academy? Despite their shiny, pink covers and punning titles, teen adaptations raise precisely these questions and challenge readers to think carefully about Austen’s continuing place in our culture. At the same time, they demonstrate an ongoing attempt by adult Austen fans to break habits of exclusivity, to attend to the ever-changing needs of teen readers, and to welcome those readers to the Austen fold.
1. I contacted the authors of eight young adult novels that adapted or dealt with Pride and Prejudice. Of the eight authors contacted, five responded and four eventually completed the four part questionnaire I provided. Questions asked the novelists to describe their introduction to Austen, their decision to write an Austen-related novel, their perceptions about the connection between their work and Austen’s novels, and their interactions with their readers concerning reading (and particularly reading Austen). Most provided additional information about publishing in this genre that they hoped would be helpful. Two additional novels have appeared since the interviews were conducted; these novelists were not contacted.
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Eulberg, Elizabeth. Personal Interview. 10 Sept. 2013.
_____. Prom and Prejudice. New York: Scholastic, 2011.
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_____. Personal Interview. 30 Aug. 2013.
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