I first encountered Jane Austen as a teenager, which probably accounts for why I am fascinated with the way she manages to capture the teenage spirit.
We studied Pride and Prejudice at school. My teacher, Mrs A—, loved reading out the funny parts of the novel to the class, especially the ones that had Mrs Bennet in them. To me, she’ll always be the quintessential Mrs Bennet. As you would expect, many of the girls in the class started groaning the moment Mrs A—/Mrs Bennet started reading, which always conjured up for me the images of Lydia and Kitty. This combination of teacher enacting the mother, and students being who they were – teenagers – has probably skewed my vision of Pride and Prejudice forever.
Still, I think it’s one of the remarkable aspects of Jane Austen that doesn’t get discussed often enough. Her ability to represent teenagers accounts for why each successive generation seems to rediscover Austen in a way that the older folks find irritating. There’s that “been there, done that” feeling whenever the new generation re-discovers her. But then again, each successive group brings to the novel its own notions.
One only has to look at the difference between the 1995 depiction of Elizabeth Bennet by Jennifer Ehle (right) and the 2005 version with Keira Knightly (below). I love Ehle in the 1995 version.
But what the 2005 version shows you much more clearly is that this is a film about teens.
Jane Austen’s skill at capturing the teenage mind was especially remarkable because she did it a long, long time before teenagers were even invented. Apparently it was not until James Dean’s Rebel Without a Cause came out in 1955 that the concept of “the teenager” even came to exist. Before that, if you were a teenager, tough luck. You were either an overgrown child, or a very young adult. James Dean, by portraying a lot of the issues and problems of teenagers, put teenagers for the first time on the map.
To give you a sense of how good she was at portraying the teen mind, look at Lydia, Kitty, and Mary, who represent a range of teenage archetypes, from the “popular” girl (Lydia), to the follower who longs to be popular (Kitty), to the “nerd” outsider (Mary). Then compare these figures to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. Jane Eyre goes through childhood to adulthood without ever passing through the “teen” phase. We never see it, unless you consider her childhood rebellion as her first teen gesture. But she was only ten. Jane Eyre is a different type of novel, obviously, but it’s much more typical of the way adolescence was depicted generally.
In this, if in nothing else, Jane Austen emerges as a pioneer (though there are plenty of other things she pioneered, too). Of course, if you mentioned the word “teenager” to her, she wouldn’t know what you were talking about. Which makes it all the more amazing that she was able to capture something which was not even identified until a century and a half later.
By Monica Fairview, whose The Other Mr Darcy will be available in a matter of weeks, i.e. at the end of June 2009.