My introduction to Jane Austen didn’t occur until I was an adult. Even my husband had read Pride and Prejudice before I had. It was a different story for my two older girls. When JJ was about 12 years old, she was bemoaning the fact that there was nothing to read, even though we have wall to wall books, and Dad, upon hearing this, suggested she read Pride and Prejudice. She wasn’t keen at first because the title suggested to her some sort of morality tale about avoiding pride but my husband set her right and told her it was one of his favourite books.
Zana was fortunate in that the BBC production of Pride & Prejudice came out when she was at an age to enjoy it and that was her first introduction to Jane Austen.
I probably have good reason to dislike this movie. A number of years ago six of our seven children became sick with chicken pox. I was house bound for about six weeks by the time it went through everyone. The 13 and 15 year olds were absolutely miserable and one night Zana, the younger one, came out of her room crying because she felt so terrible. We were just about to go to bed and I didn’t know what to do with her, until Dad suggested that I watch P & P with her to help take her mind off her misery. Six hours later, I felt disgusting but Zana was a bit better so we both went to bed.
When she was about 14 years old I discovered Presenting Miss Jane Austen by May Lamberton Becker, which was originally written in 1952 and re-published by Bethlehem Books in 2006. By this time she’d read and re-read just about everything Jane Austen had written but this biography, written for ages 12 and up, was another link to Jane Austen’s world and she found it very interesting and enjoyable.
Miss Becker’s biography gives us a lively and intimate account of Jane’s childhood, her closely knit family and the literary atmosphere that enveloped them and which was such an influential part of her life.
Through poetry new and old Jane’s father guided her reading; better still, he read aloud to the family – history, travel books, lively essays…
The whole family read The Vicar of Wakefield…whose people were spoken of in the family as if they lived just around the corner – as Miss Jane Austen’s people are spoken of now.
Quotations from Jane Austen’s correspondence with her beloved sister Cassandra and other family members give us an insight into her personal life and the background that formed the fabric for her novels. Her immediate family were as familiar with the various characters in her writing as though they had been real people.
For the people in this blessed book did not come to life on the first page and dissolve on the last. They were alive before Chapter One, and they went on living after the book left them, and Jane knew very well what they were doing, before and after. She knew what Mr. Collins was like in his clumsy school days, long before he made his pompous, peerless proposal to Elizabeth, and where he had picked up, on the way towards the patronage of Lady Catherine de Bourgh, that, “mixture of pride and obsequiousness, self-importance and humility” that makes him so great a comic character. I am convinced that she knew what Lady Catherine de Bourgh looked like in her perambulation, though she spares us that grim sight.
No one outside of her family knew of her writing ability, let alone that she had already published a book, until her brother let the cat out of the bag and her secret was uncovered. Her nephew, James Edward who had read and enjoyed the earlier novels, unaware that his Aunt was the author, wrote to her when the secret was revealed:
No words can express, my dear Aunt, my surprise
Or make you conceive how I opened my eyes,
Like a pig Butcher Pile has just struck with his knife,
When I heard for the very first time in my life
That I had the honour to have a relation
Whose works were dispersed through the whole of the nation.
This book is a perfect introduction for anyone who is interested in Jane Austen’s background whether they’ve read her novels or not. The age 12 recommendation is certainly suitable content wise but some children might enjoy it more when they are around 14 years of age and have a bit more maturity to appreciate the minutiae the author includes.