Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Trip to Austenland

This year I plan to take a virtual tour of Austenland. Back in the fall, I agreed to write a teachers' guide for Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice for Signet Classics, publishers of paperbacks for the classroom. There were other titles coming up, but I have always especially loved this Austen novel.

I'll admit that I came to Austen's best-known novel late, reading it first because it was on a summer reading list for the tenth grade the first year I taught. (That year, I was teaching sophomores, juniors, and seniors, and each grade level had a summer list of four or five books from which students could choose. I knew I needed to read them all if I planned to test my students. The experience was both time intensive and blessed: Pride and Prejuidice, Watership Down, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch, My Antonio, and more.) I had always imagined Austen to be gloomy and dark; maybe I was expecting something more like the Bronte's. How wrong I was!

Since I have four sisters myself, I particular enjoyed the Bennetts' family dynamics. The novel light and fun; in spite of myself, I genuinely cared how things would turn out. Since that time, I've watched the movie several times as well. I always nervously anticipate the eventual happy ending for Lizzie and Darcy. (Once my daughter Laura called me to pick her up at school after a ball game. I made her wait until the movie ended--pre-Tivo--to see how things turned out for the couple.)

A year or so ago, I picked up the novel The Jane Austen Book Club. I read one chapter then realized I needed to re-read the novels before finishing this book. Most were available on CD or cassette, so I enjoyed an anachronistic car trip with Lizzie, Emma, all the Austen heroines.

I've read some of the sequels, and I have Faye Weldon's Letters to Alice on First Reading Jane Austen waiting on my library shelf at home. My mom even gave me a Pride and Prejudice board game for Christmas this year. Recently I picked up the audiobook Austenland by Shannon Hale. The protagonist is a young single career woman with a secret: she is infatuated with Mr. Darcy--or at least with Mr. Darcy as played by Colin Firth. She keeps her DVD of Pride and Prejudice hidden in one of her houseplants. An elderly great aunt who discovers her movie and thereby her fetish bequeaths her a three-week trip to Austenland, a vacation site where people live vicariously in Regency England. Jane (oh yes, her name is Jane) plans to exorcise her Darcy obsession while playing this elaborate game of dress-up.

The novel is clever and at times surprisingly funny. The protagonist--and readers as well--sometimes have difficulty distinguishing between what is and is not real, hence the fun.

Now as I get ready for my own sojourn in Austenland, developing reading activities--before during and after--I look forward to becoming reacquainted with the Bennett clan, their neighbors and beaux.


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