Why one should not encourage one’s teen-ager to be Jane Austen, or How I almost ruined my favorite author for my daughter.

1869 engraving showing an idealized, young Jan...

1869 engraving showing an idealized, young Jane Austen, based on a sketch by Cassandra Austen (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My daughter needed to select a historical figure to portray for this year’s Young Chautauqua festival. For those of you unfamiliar with modern Chautauqua, it’s a program where a scholar gives a first-person presentation of a historical character and then answers questions, both in character and as a scholar. Our city has a well-regarded organization, Nevada Humanities Chautauqua , now in its 22nd year. From this group sprang not one, but two Young Chautauqua organizations, for students between the ages of 8 to 18.

This is my daughter’s second season with Silver State Young Chautauqua. She came to the program later than most students, starting in her last year of middle school. Her first year, she chose Abigail Adams, mainly because she wanted to wear a long dress. Yes, she chose Abigail, not because of her life accomplishments, but because of a hooped skirt. But Molly did her research, read some biographies and letters, and prepared her monologue. She approached her performance as more improv than dramatic recitation. She was quite good, smooth and articulate on the stage, handling the Q & A with aplomb. So when she decided to become another woman of history, we gave our full support, thinking she would sail through her next performance.

Having just seen Spielberg’s Lincoln, she started with Mary Todd Lincoln, only to learn that another girl had called dibs on the character. So she moved on to Mary, Queen of Scots. I wasn’t thrilled with this, not only because things ended badly for Mary, but because I would have to sew an elaborate Elizabethan gown. Fortunately, my daughter soon realized that maintaining a Scots brogue through an entire performance would be difficult, and she wasn’t too sure about losing her head, literally. What to do? She desperately wanted to wear a gown. (It is  about the clothes, after all.) I suggested several possibilities, all quickly rejected. Queen Victoria? “Too old.” Florence Nightingale? “ Too dull”. What about Louisa May Alcott? “Don’t you remember? I did her for Great American Day in 5th grade.”

At this point, I should confess that one of my favorite authors is Jane Austen. I’ve read the canon several times, and return to my favorite novels about every five years. I own the various BBC and Hollywood versions of the major novels and watched them frequently over the 2 months I was confined to bed rest during my pregnancy with my daughter and her twin brother. Having been exposed to Austen for much of her life, Molly made the natural decision, or so I thought. She denies having made the choice—she says it was my idea. Well, I may have suggested Austen.  I don’t recall the exact sequence of events, but I’m sure it was somehow my fault—after all, I am her mother.

Molly announced her character at her next workshop, and the hard work began—for me. Being in an Honors English class, Molly is required to read a certain number of books for “accelerated reader” (AR) points during the semester. I thought that she should read an Austen novel, so she could combine her extracurricular research with her class work. Unfortunately, the English teacher wouldn’t allow her to read the obvious choice, Pride and Prejudice (something about reading it later in another class). Foolishly, I recommended my personal favorite, Persuasion. And thus began the long struggle.

Molly hated, no, she detested Persuasion. She procrastinated, she grumbled, she complained, and finally she threw the book across the room. Every time I suggested that she read the text, she ran from the room screaming about the injustice of life. Molly found the story tiresome and could not comprehend why Anne Eliot and Wentworth took so long to reunite. Alright, I can see that from a modern teen’s perspective, the long silences and sideways glances were pointless—why didn’t they just text each other and resolve their differences?
Eager to engage her in the story, I gave her the beautifully illustrated and annotated edition of Persuasion, edited by Robert Morrison. I read this edition two years ago and found the annotations gave me a better perspective of Austen’s world and the society surrounding her characters. I hoped for a similar revelation for Molly. Ha! It only made things worse. “This is even longer than the other copy of the book! How am I ever going to finish this? It’s soooo boring!”
Alright, time for Plan B (no, not that Plan B). We sat down to watch the latest BBC adaptation of the book. I was careful to point out where the film strayed from the original story, lest she try to rely on the film for her AR test preparation. At least she enjoyed the film, but she wasn’t ready to continue reading the book. It took another month of threats, cajoling, and finally bribery to get her to finish the novel. Never underestimate the power of frozen yogurt.
Ah, but we were still not done. Molly had to read a biography and some of Austen’s letters so she could prepare a 5 to 10 minute monologue and answer questions as Jane. I had just purchased a new biography for my own enjoyment, The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things by Paula Byrne.  I marked passages as I read, so Molly could use that in addition to her own reading. While I was thoroughly immersing myself in Austen, Molly was busy with Pinterest. I would gently ask how her research was coming, only to receive death-ray glares. With only two weeks to go, there was no indication that she was ready to perform. She assured me she was working on her monologue, but I am fairly certain that YouTube doesn’t have any relevant footage, unless you count the video for Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

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This past Saturday, Molly made her debut as Jane Austen, beautiful and confident. She was a natural.

I can’t wait for the Q & A.

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One Response to Why one should not encourage one’s teen-ager to be Jane Austen, or How I almost ruined my favorite author for my daughter.

  1. Beverly says:

    OH NOOOOOOO. Austen should be a treat, read stealthily when one is supposed to be doing chores.

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