Approximately 800 scholars and ardent admirers of Jane Austen convened in Denver on November 3–5, for the Jane Austen Society of North America’s annual meeting. The theme of this year’s conference was “Pride and Prejudice: A Rocky Romance,” with a slate of keynotes and breakout sessions revealing new facets of the author’s “light and bright and sparkling” novel, plus opportunities to explore Regency culture, customs, and costumes. The program brought together notable academics and authors of Austen adaptations and retellings including Stephanie Barron, whose Being a Jane Austen Mystery series came to a close last month. Throughout the event, several speakers discussed approaches to making Austen relevant and relatable for younger generations—and the rewards of doing so.
Regency Meets Gen Z
During a Friday morning breakout session, “Teaching Austen in the Age of TikTok,” Carolyn J. Brown and Jason Solinger shared their experience introducing Austen to high school students. Brown is a former English teacher at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School in Jackson, Miss., and the author of A de Grummond Primer: Highlights of the Children’s Literature Collection and several biographies on prominent women in literature. In 2020, amid the pandemic pivot to remote learning, she decided to take her semester-long 12th-grade English course, “Timeless Jane Austen,” in a new direction to better meet students’ needs and interests. “Clearly, my students were more proficient in the ways of digital media than I,” she said. “Why not embrace it?”
After reading Carol Shields’s biography Jane Austen: A Life, followed by Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion, the class went beyond the traditional research paper and created their own multimedia projects relating to the novels. In 2021, retired from full-time teaching but still leading her virtual Austen class, Brown received an invitation from Solinger, an associate professor of English at the University of Mississippi, to participate in a one-day conference organized by his undergraduate students on “Reading Jane Austen for Fun.” Solinger proposed a collaboration between their students “to merge the worlds of academia, pop culture, and fan culture; and to generate original Austen-related content for the wider world, whether on social media, YouTube, the web, or even a regional JASNA event on Zoom or in person.” Brown’s response?
Several of the students’ final projects gravitated towards what Brown and Solinger described as “character-centered social media fanfictions.” Examples included “Jane Bennet, Unmasked,” a video monologue dramatizing the contrast between the eldest Bennet daughter’s serene exterior and her inner agony after the Netherfield ball; an advice blog titled “Mrs. Gardiner’s Guide to Mothering,” including a post on “How to Help Your Daughter Avoid Wicked Men”; an Instagram account, @mr.collins_the greatest, with posts by the pompous clergyman as he searches for a wife; “Keeping up with Caroline Bingley,” a video parody of the antagonist as a contemporary Kim Kardashian; and a text message exchange between Mrs. Bennet and her daughters, “full of gossip, matrimonial encouragement, and advice.” Brown said, “The feedback on the conference was incredibly positive. My students loved the experience of sharing and seeing and hearing other people’s work.”
In an interview with PW after the JASNA meeting, Brown reflected further on the challenges and joys of teaching Austen to this age group. The main obstacle, she finds, is overcoming limited attention spans and meeting teens where they are. “I feel like young people aren’t reading like they used to. They complain about longer reading assignments,” she said. “I think you have to entertain more, especially with younger readers.” That means “showing videos or film clips” and getting interactive. “Reading aloud is something that seems so simple, but it definitely brings a group together.” This approach allows her to slow things down and relish the language. “Jane Austen is funny, and I often stop [in our class discussion] because I don’t want my students to miss it.” For the love scenes, she said, “I even tease them, and I’ll say, ‘Come on, you can do better than that! Bring more to Captain Wentworth! This is the most romantic letter ever written!’ ”
Speaking of letters, Brown said that looking at the modes of communication in Austen’s novels—and the strict etiquette that governed social interaction in her era—from a modern perspective leads to fertile discussions with her students. “You have to really explain to our younger readers the importance of a single letter, and how it took a week or longer to get there, even though it was urgent. I love reading the letters and talking about how students are emailing and texting and using other forms of communication. They take it for granted, you know, how instantaneously they acquire information and get answers. It’s a nice contrast between the centuries.”
Brown believes it’s well worth the effort to teach Austen in a high school setting. “Jason and I were nervous about changing the way we taught for 20 years or more, doing these new things—but I think we’ve been successful. I do love teaching the class, and I think the students enjoy it.” She spoke of Austen’s novels as vital cultural touchstones. “The classics are classics for a reason,” she said. “They’re strong works of literature and I feel like they need to be read. I’m a great reader of contemporary fiction, but honestly, I always find myself going back. Classics always reveal themselves in new ways. They have lessons that we can all take away, and we can enjoy them on different levels.” Brown added that, just like her students, she’s continually discovering new insights and perspectives on the text. “We can go to a JASNA meeting, and we’ve read Pride and Prejudice 20 times and still learn something new, which totally astounds me.”
YA the Austen Way
Angela Carmela Fantone, a master’s candidate at Weber State University, presented a breakout session on Saturday morning titled “Finding ‘The Austen Formula’ in Pride and Prejudice and Modern Young Adult Adaptations.” Focusing on two of the many recent YA reimaginings, Pride and Premeditation by Tirzah Price (HarperTeen, 2021) and Being Mary Bennet by J.C. Peterson (HarperTeen, 2022), Fantone examined how contemporary authors are putting their own spin on the finely woven plot patterns and character tropes in Austen’s most iconic novel.
In Pride and Premeditation, the first in the Jane Austen Murder Mysteries trilogy, Price gives the classic romantic comedy of manners a genre makeover. Here, Lizzie Bennet is an up-and-coming lawyer attempting to solve a murder case while sparring with a rival solicitor—you guessed it—Fitzwilliam Darcy. By contrast, Fantone described Being Mary Bennet as an “Austen-adjacent retelling” that unfolds in a contemporary setting. Peterson gives voice to the middle Bennet daughter, a socially awkward high school student who “wants to be the heroine of her own story.” Although the two adaptations appear vastly different, Fantone suggested that they both illuminate central themes in Austen’s original work, such as “finding oneself and navigating romantic relationships while coming of age”—hallmarks of the modern YA novel.
During the q&a that followed her presentation, Fantone alluded to the rich diversity represented in recent YA Austen homages. Sayantani DasGupta’s Debating Darcy (Scholastic Press, 2022) and Rosewood: A Midsummer Meet Cute (Scholastic Press, 2023), which center Desi teenagers and interrogate the racism and colonialism embedded in the Western literary canon, are two examples of expansive and inclusive reworkings. DasGupta said of her novels in a recent interview with PW, “It’s a little meta because the characters themselves have this conversation.... what does it mean to be a Brown girl enamored with these sorts of stories? How do you include yourself? Are we making space for ourselves and letting history off the hook by doing so? Can both of those ideas exist simultaneously? I wanted to problematize it without having an answer, because I think the answer is really complicated.”
Several recent Austenian YA novels also bring aspects of gender and sexuality to the forefront by queering the canon, as in Margot Wood’s Fresh (Amulet, 2021) and L.C. Rosen’s Emmett (Little, Brown, 2023), which both reimagine Emma with an LGBTQ+ cast. And a trans retelling, Most Ardently: A Pride & Prejudice Remix by Gabe Cole Novoa, is forthcoming from Feiwel and Friends’ Remixed Classics series in January 2024.
So why read Austen adaptations? Fantone argued that retellings “open up important questions about Austen’s characters and why they are so recognizable.” Studying the “intersections between the canon and YA adaptations,” she said, adds “educational value by engaging young people while widening their knowledge of the source material and interest in the classics. It also shows the culture that has emerged from legions of Austen fans.” She suggested having students write their own fanfiction and adaptations, as another way of connecting with the text on a deeper level.
‘So Very Accomplished’
As part of its 2023 meeting, JASNA honored young writers and creators for their contributions to the realm of Austen scholarship and cultural appreciation. JASNA’s annual essay contest is open to students in high school, college/university, and graduate school. This year’s first-place winner in the high school division, responding to the theme of “Marriage and Proposals,” was Jessica T. Liu of Kittanning, Pa., for her essay “Like Aunt, Like Niece: Generational Patterns of Marriage in Pride and Prejudice.” Liu was awarded a $1,000 scholarship and free registration and lodging to attend the meeting. First-, second- and third-place winners in each of the contest divisions also received one year of JASNA membership, publication of their essays on the organization’s website, and a set of Norton Critical Editions of Austen’s novels.
The 2024 contest topic and rules will be announced later this month, and submissions will open in February 2024.
Transforming Austen’s stories from page to screen, the finalist entries in JASNA’s seventh annual Young Filmmakers Contest were presented on Friday evening. The contest is open to North American filmmakers under the age of 30, and aims “to encourage the study, interpretation, and appreciation of Jane Austen among new generations.” Participants were invited to create a short original film of five minutes or less inspired by one of the novels, or by Austen’s world and writing. First place went to Yours Affectionately, Jane, written and directed by Bernadette Santos Schwegel, a mysterious time-bending tale about a young woman in the modern day who becomes pen pals with Austen across the centuries. Other finalists included Mr. Collins and the Zombies of Gloucestershire, a meta-parody of our cultural obsession with Austen cinematic retellings; and Emma in Brazil, in which the heroine vlogs about her (mis)adventures while studying abroad.
In addition to cash awards for first, second, and third place, winners receive one year of JASNA membership. The winning films will be available for online viewing.
For educators who are interested in bringing Austen to their own students in grades K–12, perhaps leading up to the author’s 250th birthday in 2025, JASNA offers the Jane Austen Book Box program. Through the initiative, teachers and librarians can apply for a stipend to purchase books for their own classroom or community. Titles may include the original novels (or annotated editions and translations), modern retellings, graphic novels, young readers adaptations, and more. After the program, kids get to keep the books for their personal libraries. More information is available on the JASNA website.
Note: Emma Kantor has been a member of JASNA since 2022.