My wife has been a big fan of 18th century British women novelists since she was knee high to a grasshopper. As I’ve said here before, while I was lounging around my room reading comic books she was reading Jane Eyre by candlelight. Because there was a blackout in the old Dutch farmhouse they were living in at the time – not because she was some 11-year-old gothic freak. As I understand it she was at a particularly exciting and dark moment with the mad Mrs. Rochester wreaking havoc at Thornfield when the lights went out and her father took devious pleasure in handing her a candle.
She understands that it’s a bit much to expect a 9 and 11 year old to embrace Austen and the Brontes the way she has but she holds out hope. And it’s not as if the kids are unaware of her infatuation. Where some families might have a dashboard Jesus in the family car we have a dashboard Jane Austen holding out a copy of Pride and Prejudice. When people ask us if the kids know who she is we say, in our house it’s not who is she but which book is she holding?
After all this it may be a bit surprising that the kids haven’t been exposed to any of it sooner. They haven’t expressed any interest and have been absorbed in their own pursuits so we didn’t see the need to push it on them too early. But perhaps we needn’t have worried. The language isn’t too much of a barrier; they took well enough to antique children’s books like Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland. And our son did make a valiant effort at Moby Dick.
Of course, the themes of an adult novel like Pride and Prejudice add a layer of complexity that make it less accessible but there are ways around that.
For example, this afternoon Merran decided on a lark to watch the Keira Knightley version of Pride and Prejudice. The kids were already engaged elsewhere but we knew the minute the TV went on they would somehow find their way to it.
Not only did they stick with it they actually enjoyed it. The ridiculously obsequious Mr. Collins was entertaining for our son and our daughter was proud of the fact that she was able to guess the ending. Merran had to provide a running commentary to explain pretty much everything that was going on but it turned out to be an excellent introduction. The next step is to bring out the audiobook and see if we can get them into it. Both kids embraced Anne of Green Gables, why not Pride and Prejudice?
UPDATE: Success! Our daughter was so engaged by the movie that she gave the audiobook of Pride and Prejudice a spin and now she often puts it on to listen as she falls asleep at night. As far as other Austen adaptations go, Emma Thompson’s Sense and Sensibility was another winner but the Gwyneth Paltrow Emma was a dud – too much…talking. Perhaps some day we’ll try Clueless.
FURTHER UPDATE: Merran had an amusing discussion with our daughter the other day as our little angel listened to Pride and Prejudice as a bedtime story. She obviously had something on her mind and said thoughtfully, “So, Mamma, there are a lot of extra words in this book. It’s really long. What other stuff is happening in the story?”
“Well, what parts do you remember?”
“Lydia marries Mr. Wickham.” Oh God, why does she always mention Lydia and Wickham first? Maybe Pride and Prejudice was a bad idea. “There’s Mr. Collins, Jane and Bingley, and Lizzie and Mr. Darcy…” she goes on for a while but it’s obvious she has all the main threads of the plot. Merran points this out and explains how Jane Austen needed to use all those extra words to make the characters interesting and help you understand how they feel so you can feel it too.
But still the tiny brow is furrowed. “But the book is really long, it would take me, like, three months to read it. The movie was only an hour.”
“It was longer than an hour.”
“Ok, three hours.”
“More like two.”
Thinking and making more connections, “So is the movie like a summary?” As she says this she slowly holds up her hand and spreads her fingers – a reference to a technique they’ve been using in school to summarize books, the five finger summary.
“Yes, a summary is a very good way to think of a movie that was adapted from a book.” And she goes on to explain about script writers, the adaptation process, and how other versions of Pride and Prejudice are very different from this one even though all the same things happen.
This explanation seems to satisfy the munchkin and she lays her head back on the pillow. “It’s a pretty good movie.”
“Yes it is. Do you want to keep listening to the book?”