Thursday, January 27, 2011

Once More Unto the Breach...

Dear friends... I now understand Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. The pre-Victorians, they walk among us, if only in high school, and they will not be thwarted.

First, let me plead from familiarity. My senior English paper in high school was a twenty-five pager on the role of women in Jane Austen, with a special emphasis on Pride and Prejudice. A tragedy, I'm sure, that it has been lost to the shifting sands of time. I was one of those girls who loved, loved, loved the book. I wanted to be a novelist, and I thought P&P was wonderful. Elizabeth stands her ground and wins her Fitzwilliam over those simpering, fawning, rich girls. Oh, hands clutched to bosom...

Before I go further, let me state the one thing I want from every English teacher in America. I want a sticker on the front of not only Jane Austen's books— right over the inevitable John Singer Sargent painting that's one hundred years too modern for the story it illustrates— I want this sticker on the front cover of every novel that is more than a century old:

Attention Students: If You Want to be a Novelist One Day, Ignore This Book.

Black letters on red should do. Capital letters at your own discretion.

Why do I not object to Shakespeare? One, because it is extraordinary language. Two, because I don't think there's any great risk of a teenager setting out to build a career writing like Shakespeare. Nobody imagines he is in the mainstream. Heck, for the most part nobody understands him. But Ms. Austen (and Mr. Dickens, Mr. Hardy, even Mr. Poe stylistically) are aboard a ship that has not only sailed but sunk, and nobody is telling their youngest admirers.

It took me years as a writer to undo the bad lessons from old writers. Beautiful description? No, meandering filler. Great dialogue? No, talking head scenes you can't kill with a pitchfork. Civilized pace? What, the rich folks are gone for the season? Let's pick this up next year. Get on with it!

Five or ten percent of your students genuinely love P&P. Here's what I know about them: they are the young women who come to class early, stay late, read everything you assign and read for pleasure besides. Good kids, hard working, going to college.

Here is why you mistakenly think most of your students love P&P: the entire text, every question you could ever ask about it, every synopsis, every essay you could ever dream of assigning, is on the internet. Same with Catcher in the Rye and Lord of the Flies. Those are more popular because they're shorter and more contemporary and at least one of them has a pig's head on a stick. If Google can't do their homework, they can ask on Yahoo Answers.

I have loads of other issues with P&P. A great book for women's rights? In 1812, you bet, astonishingly so. But now? You are teaching young women who will have jobs or careers and have to struggle to make it in the world on equal terms with men. Is this the best book for fostering those goals? What does it say about girls who are sexually active before marriage? Poor little Lydia, doomed forever. And what about the boys in your class? What are they getting out of this tome? Maybe teach a little Walter Scott after P&P? Rob Roy for equal air time? With every book that passes in a senior high school English class, the odds grow that it will be the last book a young man will ever read. What about P&P will turn a young man into a lifelong reader? Bueller? Bueller?

If nothing else, warn your would-be writers. You know who they are. Here there be crinolined dragons. Oh, wait, P&P pre-dates crinoline...

1 comment:

janeaustensworld said...

What about approaching Pride and Prejudice from an historic context in which the plight of women is explained in excruciating detail. Jane's female characters find ways to be happy in a life dominated by men. Her observations of Regency society are ironic and accurate.

It is no wonder that her books are as popular in India, South America, and Russia as they are in the U.S. and U.K. today. What about the universality of human emotions, actions, interactions, and reactions? Jane Austen's character types are universal and can be identified today in the people who surround us.

Truly, you are missing the point about Jane Austen's long lasting appeal, whether you have written an essay about her novel or not. Those who are ardent Jane Austen fans (count me as one of them) are drawn to her prickly intelligence and her stunningly accurate observations about the human condition, not the so-called romance of the plots that Hollywood likes to emphasize.

If anyone is at fault in making Jane Austen seem irrelevant, it is the teacher for presenting such an astonishingly gifted author to the young and uninitiated without the proper background knowledge or insight.