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. n
What Matters in Jane Austen: Twenty Crucial Puzzles Solved John Mullan Bloomsbury , 352pp, 9781408831694, £8.99
Pride and Prejudice retold by Gill Tavner, Real Reads, 46pp, 9781906230067, £4.99
Sense and Sensibility retold by Gill Tavner, Real Reads, 64pp, 9781906230111 £4.99
Mansfield Park retold by Gill Tavner, Real Reads, 64pp, 9781906230098 £4.99
Emma retold by Gill Tavner, Real Reads, 64pp, 9781906230104, £4.99
Love, Lies and Lizzie Rosie Rushton, Piccadilly Press, 208pp,
The Secrets of Love Rosie Rushton, Piccadilly Press, 176pp, 9781853407741, £7.99
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.
Books for Keeps No.198 January 2013 13
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