I was on my way to bed when I noticed the older girls’ bedroom light was still on. As I stood outside the door I could hear Imogen’s voice. It sounded like she was reading out loud. Pushing open the door, I saw both girls sprawled on their beds. Charlotte was listening enthralled as Imogen read from the book Pride and Prejudice. Both sisters were obviously having a wonderful time so I crept away and left them to it.
This was Charlotte’s introduction to Jane Austen. When Pride and Prejudice was finished, Imogen moved onto Sense and Sensibility. Then Charlotte found the rest of the Jane Austen books on the bookshelf and read the others herself.
We went shopping for birthday presents for Charlotte last year. Imogen: “I think I’ll buy Charlotte her very own copy of Pride and Prejudice.” And when Charlotte received the gift, she was absolutely delighted.
Felicity, our eldest daughter also loved Jane Austen. We bought her the BBC mini-series for Christmas one year. She watched it a dozen times. Imogen and Charlotte were pleased to discover that the DVD collection had been left behind when Felicity left home. They have watched the series much more than a dozen times. Now Sophie is asking, “Am I old enough for Jane Austen?” Obviously there is something very good about Jane Austen otherwise why would her sisters spend so much time reading the books and watching the DVDs. She is well on her way to becoming a Jane Austen girl herself.
We often talk Jane Austen around the lunch table.
“I don’t think Charlotte Lucas should have married Mr Collins.”
“But she wasn’t very pretty. She didn’t have much choice. She wanted a secure position as a wife. That was very important in those days. Perhaps she didn’t think anyone else would marry her.”
“Do you think she was happy?”
“Perhaps she wasn’t looking for love and happiness.”
“I think she should have practiced the piano more. There were two things a man looked for in a wife: beauty and musical ability. A man wanted his wife to be able to entertain his guests. If Charlotte had been able to play the piano better, perhaps another man might have considered marrying her.”
“The funny thing is that once a woman had captured her husband, she usually gave up her music. She wouldn’t have been much good at entertaining the guests after all. And the men never worked this out!”
“Mary should have been able to attract a good husband as she was a good musician…. But she had an awful manner about her. Mary might have made a good wife for Mr Collins.”
We visited the library the other day, and amongst the towering pile of books the girls came home with was one called The Jane Austen Handbook: Proper Life Skills from Regency England by Margaret C. Sullivan. I didn’t see Imogen and Charlotte for a long time. Then…
“We’re learning the wrong language, Mum. All young ladies should learn French. Latin is a boy’s language.”
“In Jane Austen’s day, girls learnt to read and write and do basic mathematics (so they could keep the household accounts). A little bit of geography and history maybe. And lots of music and embroidery and dancing. They had to learn all the things that were thought necessary to attract a good husband.”
“We’re not doing very well on languages and we do too much maths, but we’re learning plenty of music. Yes, all that music’s good. Perhaps we need some more embroidery…”
“It depends whether you want to attract a husband…”
Charlotte grimaced. “No!” She’ll change her mind, one day. But I guess she won’t need a Jane Austen education for that.
My girls have read all the Jane Austen novels (unlike me, I’m ashamed to say) and know them inside out. They are always discussing the themes, looking for books about Jane Austen and her writings, watching DVD versions and comparing them… They really are Jane Austen girls. But they’ve never written even one essay on any of the books. Does it matter?
I think back to my own school days. I read Pride and Prejudice and failed to see its value. It was just a book assigned to be read and I read it. I probably wrote a typical essay: “Analyse how Jane Austen depicts Mr Bennet. Is he a positive or negative character?” I bet I was bored. I bet I didn’t write that essay out of interest.
What is the big fuss over essay writing? Isn’t it just a form of writing that follows a set procedure? Can’t anyone learn to write an essay by following the rules? And really, I think Imogen and Charlotte already know a lot about essays. They’ve been dipping into quite a few recently. They’ve come across essays in their quest to find out more about Jane Austen and her novels.
Yes, I’m sure essay writing isn’t going to be a problem. But will they be able to find opinions to fill an essay?
I ask the girls what they think about Mr Bennet while we are eating lunch, and opinions come flying back backed up with examples. And so I don’t think I’ll worry about analysing novels the school way. I think I will just let the girls enjoy the books.
Jane Austen resources:
Update: We no longer think Mary Bennet was a good musician!